Writer and artist

Born: December 28, 1934;

Died: December 29, 2019

ALASDAIR Gray, who has died aged 85, was one of the few true polymaths of his time. He liked to describe himself as a “maker of imagined objects” and that was undoubtedly the case. But the scale of his achievement and the prodigiousness of his output made it hard to believe that his was the work of one individual.

He made his breakthrough comparatively late in his career, with the publication in 1981 of his debut novel Lanark. Nearly ten years in the writing, it combined naturalism with science fiction, baffling and beguiling readers in equal measure. Its hero, Duncan Thaw, was transparently based on Gray himself, as the city of Unthank was modelled on Glasgow.

In an oft-quoted passage, Thaw reflects that “if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively ... Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Anthony Burgess thought Lanark the best Scottish novel since Sir Walter Scott and William Boyd, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, found it reminiscent of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. “For all its unevenness,” Boyd added, “Lanark is a work of loving and vivid imagination, yielding copious riches...” It came with an erratum slip on which was printed: “THIS ERRATUM SLIP HAS BEEN INSERTED BY MISTAKE”.

READ MORE: Alasdair Gray: Legendary Scottish artist and author of Glasgow epic Lanark dies aged 85

Lanark’s effect on Scottish literature was immeasurable and it is possible to date the late 20th century resurgence in creative writing north of the border to its publication. Up until that point Gray was best known - if he was known at all - as an artist but the critical and popular success of the novel, which was beautifully produced by Canongate in close collaboration with Gray himself, made him concentrate for the immediate future on writing.

But he was never easily pigeonholed. In the years to come he would produce a torrent of words and pictures: novels, such as Something Leather, his own favourite book, short stories - collected in Every Short Story: 1951-2012 - poems, plays, essays, polemics and, in 2010, A Life in Pictures, in which at last could fully be appreciated the incredible extent of his artistic endeavour.

He was born in Riddrie in 1934. His father cut cardboard boxes in a factory in Bridgeton until World War Two intervened. Thereafter, Gray noted, he had various occupations, as the manager of a hostel for munition workers, a builder’s labourer, “a remover of damaged chocolate biscuits from a conveyor belt...and a lecturer for the Scottish Youth Hostels Association.” His mother, meanwhile, was “a good housewife who never grumbled.” Two years after giving birth to Gray, she had a daughter, Mora Jean.

Asthmatic and bedevilled by eczema, Gray preferred comics and films and books to any physical activity. His haunt was the local library where after he’d read all the “escapist crap” there was nothing for it but to tackle “the good stuff”. In an interview in 1982, he said: “I regarded a well-stocked public library as the pinnacle of democratic socialism. That a good dull place like Riddrie had one was proof that the world was essentially well organised.”

His parents hoped that he would go to university. This required him to pass exams in Latin and mathematics both of which he hated. He wrote poems from an early age and was persuaded to perform them at family gatherings. He also wrote stories and when he was eleven read a four-minute programme of his own compositions on BBC Scotland’s children’s hour. However, the idea that he wanted to be an artist alarmed his mother and father, who thought - “quite correctly” - that it would lead to dependency on the dole and attendant humiliations. Only after the publication of Lanark did Gray earn enough in a year to pay income tax for the first time.

He entered Glasgow School of Art in 1952 and within a couple of years had turned from painting on canvas to making murals. Later he embellished many public spaces with his distinctive, bold style, the first of which was ‘Horrors of War’ for the Scottish-USSR Friendship Society in Glasgow. Others to be found in the city include a painting of Adam and Eve in Greenhead Church, Bridgeton, decorations for the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant and the Oran Mor arts centre, and Hillhead subway station.

READ MORE: Alasdair Gray: Read the final interview with the renowned Scottish artist and author

The main themes of his painting, he insisted, were the Garden of Eden and the triumph of death, adding: “Any calm place where folk are enjoying each other’s company is heavenly. Any place where crowds struggle with each other in a state of dread is a hell, or on the doorstep of hell.” His approach to religion was complicated. Intellectually, he inclined to the “Olympian Greek faith”; morally speaking, he preferred Jesus - “but he sets a standard I’m too selfish to aim for. I’m more comfortable with his daddy, Jehovah, who is nastier but more human. The world is full of wee Jehovahs.”

As, indeed, is Gray’s oeuvre. Though often humorous he could rarely be accused of cheeriness, whimsy and bleakness cohabiting in unique harmony. He was part of the generation that included Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom McGrath, a few of whom met regularly at the behest of the academic Philip Hobsbaum. Typically, Gray and Hobsbaum first encountered each other in a pub, an occasion notable for their mutual antipathy. For his part, Gray hated Hobsbaum “instantly” and “sincerely wished him to be DEAD”.

Violence, however, was never part of Gray’s character. On the contrary, he was the sweetest and most generous of men whose immersion in his work often led him to miss appointments, including the launches of his own books and the awarding of prizes, of which he was the recipient of several. His circle of friends was wide, and he would call upon them to assist him in a crisis. One such case concerned The Book of Prefaces (2000). With the original delivery date of the manuscript long past Gray recruited a number of “helpers” to assist him to complete the task, each of whom he drew a portrait of by way of recompense. Typically, too, he wrote his own blurbs. In the one for The Book of Prefaces, for instance, he issued the following warning to parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers: “Do not let smart children handle this book. It will help them pass exams without reading anything else.”

Politically, Gray was of the Left, and a supporter of independence. In 1997, he produced Why Scots Should Rule Scotland and, in 2005, How We Should Rule Ourselves with Adam Tomkins, Professor of Public Law at Glasgow University. In 2012, he produced an essay titled ‘Settlers and Colonists’, in which he argued that some arts administrators who come from elsewhere to work in Scotland were careerists with little knowledge of Scottish culture and no long term stake in its future. This led to accusations that Gray was anglophobic which he most certainly was not.

He married Inge Sorensen, a Danish nurse, in 1961, when she was 18 and he was 26. They had a son named Andrew. The marriage proved not to be happy and the couple separated and were eventually divorced. In 1991, Gray married Morag McAlpine, a former bookseller and sometime crossword compiler with whom he lived in the West End of Glasgow. Morag predeceased him, in May 2014. He is survived by his son and a grandaughter.