Alasdair Gray | Magnificent Citizen

Alasdair Gray | Magnificent Citizen


Alasdair Gray: My work is Glaswegian
insofar as it records my life in Glasgow, or people I’ve known there. It’s as much documentary work,
I suppose, as Dickens documents London, and Dostoyevsky – Moscow and [Saint] Petersburg,
or any artist documents their surroundings. [Audio of someone whistling a tune] [Sounds of cars on the road, and birds chirping] Liz Lochhead (reading from Lanark by Alasdair
Gray): ‘‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we
hardly ever notice that?’ ‘Because nobody imagines living here’…
‘think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is
a stranger because he’s already visited them in [his] paintings, novels, history books,
and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live
there imaginatively.’ Well, by writing that passage, Alasdair changed
the truth that it contains, by it being a city that we are allowed to imagine living
in now. He has been the poet of this city – in prose and in painting. Alasdair Gray: My mother, I think it was when
I was about 11 or 12, she was a bit bothered by the fact that I didn’t get out playing
with other kids, and I immersed myself hugely in reading, in Glasgow – in Riddrie Public
Library, which was, I’d say, just about a university to me.
But I also drew a lot. My mother read about art classes that Miss Jean Irwin was holding for schoolchildren in the art galleries. Therefore on mornings, during the summer
months, I went into the art galleries at 10 o’clock in the morning, which was
before it was open to the general public. And I would prolong my journey up there by
going through the downstairs museums, starting with the natural history
sections with the prehistoric monsters, and then the displays of
the – of animals, and then go upstairs to the gallery in
which Jean Irwin was holding her class. And that was very great,
and a very useful experience. I did my own illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ poem, because the [John] Tenniel’s illustration
I found too upsetting and frightening. So I did my own illustration which was not quite
the same and didn’t frighten me at all. Liz Lochhead: Everybody knew Alasdair Gray
when I was at art school – a good decade, a bit more, after him. He was a known genius,
because he doesn’t fit in to any of the current fashions at any point. As a painter he’s quite literary,
and as a literary writer he’s very visual. In a way – not of this
world, and not of this time. Alasdair Gray: When I was at art school my
work, I think, could be honestly called – ugly – in most people’s views.
But interesting. When they looked at it there would be a silence
and then they would offer two comments: ‘very interesting’, and ‘you’ve
certainly put a lot of work into it’. The order in which they
did it, it implied the didn’t enjoy it very much. Liz Lochhead: Well Alasdair, from the very
time that I knew him, he did murals at art school many of the churches that he did
murals in, and I visited him in them when he was living there with a camp stove and
tins of soup, and sort of sleeping under his work. I don’t know if Michelangelo
did it like that. He’s a timeless artist, I think is the
thing that I would say about him, and he’s taken the right to live
in the here and now, and live in conversation with all
the art of the past. Alasdair Gray: These are notes actually for
– diary notes, but also notes for versions of poems I’ve been writing from time to
time. But as I say, I’m working on the cover of the ‘Purgatory’. It came about four years ago.
I’d read about nine modern versions, English versions, of Dante. I found all of them striking, but
these translations slightly annoyed me by not being in the kind of speech
that the authors used, and therefore I started
translating Dante myself. In these I started writing out
earlier versions in English, and then putting them into my own speech, who
do not know Italian – the original Italian. Liz Lochhead: He’s somebody who does keep
a dialogue going with his own work. Maybe he’s not always satisfied with
what he’s done, and achieved, and there are so many
wonderful paintings. There’s a Garnethill painting
which is done with a perspective that goes in very many different directions – quite
like Chinese painting, and it is just a magnificent painting of the times. When I saw the last
large retrospective of Alasdair’s, it’s all encompassing, and it’s so totally Glasgow,
and it’s so totally his personal vision of this city. [Sounds of Subway trains] Man: First time I’ve actually stood and
looked at it closely. Every other time I’ve seen it I’ve just been walking past – catching
a tube, so I was quite pleased to stop and look at it today. And it became quite memorable,
because I’ve lived in these places all my life: all the places you know, and all the
flats you’ve stayed in, and all the people you knew
stayed in these flats, and you think – it’s all there. Alasdair Gray: You must realise that for years
I was not what anybody would call a successful visual artist. My work was only occasionally
commissioned – not very often. It was a matter of painting or
drawing friends usually, and these were not often sold, and therefore
there was no rush for me to finish them. Since then some of my work
has turned up in auction sales. I’m getting more work from my visual
art than I ever had at the start of my life. I was quoting a conversation with a friend
who remarked that I added my artist central character work in order to give his city a
more imaginative life, to which the artist said, ‘no’ – he did it because he felt
cheap and useless when he didn’t. Which was my view. I’m very glad that it’s come to that
eventually. Very late in my life.

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