Meeting date: Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 28 January 2020
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Oversight Board, Holocaust Memorial Day, Point of Order, Business Motion, Decision Time, Alasdair Gray
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Oversight Board
- Holocaust Memorial Day
- Point of Order
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- Alasdair Gray
The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20306, in the name of Sandra White, on Alasdair Gray—a creative force. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament is deeply saddened at the passing of Glasgow born Alasdair Gray, who it considers was an incredible creative force; understands that Alasdair studied at the Glasgow School of Art, going on to create murals across Glasgow, including Arcadia Theme, the stairwell mural in the Ubiquitous Chip Restaurant, Ashton Lane, and his most recent, the 40ft mural for the entrance hall of Hillhead subway station in the West End of Glasgow, which includes local landmarks and, in Alasdair’s own words, a section devoted to “all kinds of folk”, “hard workers”, “head cases” and “queer fishes”; believes that Alasdair’s work as a writer, including the novels, Lanark and 1982, Janine, his plays, including The Fall of Kelvin Walker, and his poetry and short stories, were the catalyst for a hugely talented creative generation, and acknowledges Alasdair’s body of work, which it considers has influenced, engaged, inspired and entertained and, more importantly, is a lasting legacy to a cultural giant.17:10
We have come together today to pay tribute to the life and works of Alasdair Gray. I thank members for supporting my motion and take this opportunity to thank those representing Alasdair who are joining us in the public gallery for the debate: Francis Bickmore, Alasdair’s publisher; Jenny Brown, Alasdair’s agent; and Claire Forsyth from the Glasgow Print Studio, who worked with Alasdair for many years.
I have received messages of support from Alasdair’s sister, Mora Rolley, and his niece, Kat Rolley. Unfortunately, they were not able to attend this evening, but they were touched to know that this motion would be brought to the chamber for debate.
It is difficult to fit a whole life’s work into a speech of a few minutes, but I will do my best. I hope that we can share our thoughts on Alasdair and celebrate him and his incredible cultural achievements, as well as raising how we can safeguard that legacy for future generations.
Alasdair Gray was born in Riddrie, Glasgow, in 1934. He trained as a painter at the Glasgow School of Art and worked as a part-time art teacher, muralist and theatrical scene painter before becoming a full-time painter, playwright and author.
His highly acclaimed first novel, “Lanark”, was published in 1981, winning a Scottish Arts Council book award and the Saltire Society book of the year award. It was followed by more than 30 books, all of which he designed and illustrated, including novels, short story collections, plays, volumes of poetry, works of non-fiction and translations, as well as his visual art book, “A Life in Pictures”, which also won an award.
His most recent work was an interpretation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, and in November 2019, a month before he passed away, Alasdair won the inaugural Saltire Society lifetime achievement award for his contribution to Scottish literature.
Alasdair’s public murals are visible across Glasgow and his work is on display in galleries from the V&A to the Scottish national gallery of modern art and in universities and public libraries.
Glasgow is where Alasdair lived and worked for most of his life. In the later years, he was embedded in the west end and could often be seen going up and down Byres Road or in Partick—it was always a great pleasure to bump into him in the street.
It was in that area, in the studio in Alasdair’s house, that I had the incredible opportunity to sit for Alasdair, so that I could be immortalised—if that is the correct word—in his wonderful mural at Hillhead subway station. It was an honour to be included in one of his many artworks. I fondly remember the sittings at his house and the great chats that we had about Glasgow and, of course, politics.
On the subject of politics, I am reminded of two books that Alasdair wrote. “Why Scots Should Rule Scotland” was published in 1992, and the follow-up, which he co-authored with Adam Tomkins, “How We Should Rule Ourselves”, was published in 2005. The latter book’s parting note was that what we need is a Parliament without whips and a constitution without the Crown. Radical or rascal? Perhaps Alasdair was a bit of both. I am sure that Mr Tomkins will talk about that.
Another claim to fame for the Parliament is that, when Alasdair stood as a candidate to be rector at the University of Glasgow, very early on, the person who helped him and put him forward was Jamie Hepburn, who is now a minister in the Scottish Government—I do not know whether Jamie is here for the debate.
After a serious fall in 2015, Alasdair was unable to walk and was confined to a wheelchair. That did not deter him; he continued to create and produce right up to the very end, working with the Glasgow Print Studio, with which he had a relationship that spanned decades. He was delighted when the studio’s director, John MacKechnie, invited him to hold an exhibition this year. The exhibition will consist of the many prints that Alasdair made with GPS over the past 30 years, and it was to be the launch event for several new screenprints that GPS produced with Alasdair over the past 18 months. It is incredibly sad that Alasdair did not get to see his work displayed at an institution of which he had been such a huge part over many years. However, we can all go to the exhibition.
What can we do to safeguard this incredible legacy? What would be a fitting tribute to such a creative individual? Francis Bickmore, Alasdair’s publisher, has said that the strongest message of Alasdair Gray’s work is the understanding that culture—especially literature and art—offers essential building blocks with which to forge a nation.
Through his novels, from “Lanark” onwards, and his paintings, murals, poetry and plays, and through his support for many other artists and writers, Alasdair helped to create the modern Scottish imagination. He helped to foster community and he helped to unlock our sense of the possible. Now seems like the perfect time to commemorate him with a foundation or literary fund to support emerging or struggling artists to do the same. I am incredibly supportive of the establishment of such a fund, and I hope that the suggestion can be taken forward.
I also champion the proposal to have, here in the Scottish Parliament, the mural that Alasdair’s assistant Nichol Wheatley had been working on, which would sit really well with the words of Alasdair that are engraved on the Parliament building.
As well as making those suggestions, I take the opportunity to highlight the work of Sorcha Dallas, gallerist and Alasdair’s friend, who has the responsibility of taking forward the Alasdair Gray archive. Sorcha has her work cut out. Alasdair was a key Scottish figure and his archive is of national and international significance. Support should be provided to the archive.
I ask the cabinet secretary to meet me and discuss the support that the Scottish Government can offer to the projects that I have mentioned.
Alasdair will be mourned by everyone whose life he touched. Following his death, his family said:
“Alasdair was an extraordinary person; very talented and, even more importantly, very humane. He was unique and irreplaceable and we will miss him greatly.”
His niece said:
“The most important lesson I learned from Alasdair was humanity. He talked to everyone as an equal and he valued everyone’s contribution.”
Claire Forsyth from the GPS said:
“Alasdair lived his life looking, reflecting, reworking, not settling, challenging and innovating, protesting when it might be easier to remain silent. It is this spirit that lives on in the tenet of one of his final screenprints: ‘Work as if you were in the early days of a better nation’, the legacy of a man driven by creativity and political engagement.”
We are incredibly fortunate to have had such a formidable, creative force, who I had the pleasure to know, as did many others. I am sure that his legacy will live on.17:20
I thank and congratulate Sandra White for bringing the motion to the chamber. Scotland and the world have lost a cultural icon, and it is fitting that we recognise him in our national Parliament.
As Sandra said, how does one begin to capture the essence of Alasdair Gray in a short speech? When we are speaking about a literary and artistic giant, a polymath who influenced a generation of Scottish culture, compiling it into a short speech is a task that I am not worthy of. “A Life in Four Books” would be more appropriate, but members will be relieved that I am not starting my speech on page 3. Perhaps I will borrow one of Alasdair’s techniques and elaborate in my footnotes.
We simply need to look at the outpouring of tributes that followed his death to see the profound and lasting impact that Alasdair Gray had on contemporary Scotland. He lived in Glasgow for most his life—indeed, much of his work is based around the city—and his global credentials are testament to the common humanity of his works. His writing and his art capture something that is intrinsically appealing to people across the world. The wonderful Ian Rankin summarised that very nicely, because a big part of Alasdair Gray’s genius was making Scottish life interesting on the international stage:
“He could take something very personal to him—his background growing up in Glasgow—and make it that people around the world wanted to read it.”
He was at the forefront of the palpable revival of Scottish literature in the 1980s. “Lanark” was arguably Alasdair Gray’s most enduring masterpiece. I remember when it was published. I was 14 years old and my brothers and sisters, who were a bit older than me, decided that it would be a good present for my dad that Christmas. I was fascinated by it: the work was named after my home county and the graphic design on the cover was so iconic and unusual that it captured my imagination. It was a few more years before I was able to read “Lanark” and some of the works of James Kelman. I cannot say that I enjoyed them—not in the way I enjoyed the science fiction and fantasy novels that I had been reading up to that point—but they were serious, grown-up books: challenging, sometimes bleak, but I loved them nonetheless.
I will finish with my personal memories of Alasdair Gray. My former colleague Rob Gibson and I were founder members of the Cunninghame Graham Society in Scotland, supported by Alasdair, who I am sure gave a speech or reading at one of our dinners. I remember a dinner at Babbity Bowster, in Glasgow, when Alasdair was on the top table and Billy Kay was giving the address to the group. Alasdair—maybe feeling a bit tired and weary, or maybe just concentrating hard on what Billy Kay had to say—snuggled into the shoulder of Maria João Kay, Billy’s lovely wife. We think he just had a little sleep. He would hate to be called a national treasure, but only a national treasure would have got away with that on that evening. Billy reminded me of that in his tribute to Alasdair on Twitter.
Alasdair was much loved and he has contributed so much to our culture and our experiences. I will never forget my first visit to the Ubiquitous Chip and seeing his mural there, or the Òran Mór and the wonderful quotation—not coined by Alasdair, but used by him—about living as if we were
“in the early days of a better nation.”
What an inspiration, and what a loss to our country.17:24
I thank Sandra White for bringing to the chamber a motion for a debate to recognise the life of Alasdair Gray. He and I held different political beliefs. As we have heard, in his time he fostered interesting intellectual dialogue. However, I want to focus on celebrating the life of one of Glasgow’s and Scotland’s finest creatives of the recent past.
Anthony Burgess, the author of “A Clockwork Orange”, went so far as to say that Alasdair Gray was the most important Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott. Indeed, his work as an author was an inspiration to many Scottish authors who came after him—he blazed a trail that many followed. It is even more inspiring to know that his first novel was not published until he was 46 years old. We cannot all become world-famous authors at 46, but he certainly showed that age is no barrier. “Lanark” was obviously worth the wait, because it went on to become his most famous work.
Of course, Alasdair Gray was an artist first. As so many others have done, he launched his career at Glasgow School of Art. Across my region of Glasgow, his artwork lives on in various well-kent places, including in Ashton Lane and the mural at Hillhead subway station, which Sandra White described.
The motion references a number of Alasdair Gray’s works, but it is testament to his drive and sheer creativity that so many others could have been included. Everyone will have different reasons for celebrating his work, but mine is simple: what strikes me most is that his love of Glasgow and its people shines through it. It is probably the most overwhelming aspect of the body of work that he produced in his career. He wore his roots as a badge of pride, and he involved the ordinary working people of Glasgow and of Scotland in his work wherever possible.
There are few Scots who can claim to have contributed to our cultural life on the scale that Alasdair Gray contributed. He will be remembered as a pioneer. His reach went far beyond the east end of Glasgow—and beyond Scotland—and he will be sorely missed. We can only hope that his passing will highlight his work to another generation of Scottish creatives, who will in turn will be inspired by it as so many others before them have been.17:27
I welcome the debate and congratulate Sandra White on securing the time for it.
It is appropriate that we hold a debate to mark the achievements of Alasdair Gray and his significant contribution to Scottish culture. The extent of the commentary following his death demonstrates the high esteem in which his work is held, the inspiration that he provided for a generation of Scottish writers and the recognition of his talent, which is evident on public buildings throughout Scotland.
“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
Those words are among the inscriptions on the Canongate wall of the Parliament. The inclusion of Alasdair Gray’s work there is a significant expression of Scottish identity and aspiration. In true postmodernist fashion, he borrowed that phrase from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s “Civil Elegies”, in which Lee said:
“And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early days of a better civilization.”
Gray reshaped those words to describe a new circumstance in Scotland.
Alasdair Gray is rightly acknowledged as one of the most innovative figures in our contemporary literature and culture. The diversity of his creative talent means that he leaves a legacy of novels, poems, murals, portraits, scripts, illustrations, short stories and other work. Success might have come later in his life, with “Lanark” not being published until he was 46, but he undoubtedly finished his career as one of Scotland’s most-loved artists.
I first read Alasdair Gray’s work when I was a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Because I was studying the work of Sylvia Plath, I had always focused on American literature, so reading Alasdair Gray’s novel “Poor Things” when I was tutoring first-year students was a delight. I found it to be innovative, imaginative, witty and perceptive. Published in 1992, it was described by the London Review of Books as
“a magnificently brisk, funny, dirty, brainy book”.
Although it represented a departure from Gray’s focus on Glasgow, the novel still addressed the themes of social inequality, relationships, memory and identity. Its combination of text and illustration was immersive and demonstrated the quality of Gray’s writing and art.
The many tributes that have followed Alasdair Gray’s death have highlighted not only his creative influence but his humanity, compassion and vision. He was central to the renaissance in Scottish literature and has inspired and supported a generation of writers.
The motion rightly highlights some of Alasdair Gray’s most well-known murals in Glasgow, including those at Hillhead station and at the Ubiquitous Chip. Although his artwork has been widely exhibited and included in several collections, the presence of public work such as his murals is invaluable. There is generosity in his work. Many people will be familiar with his work and enjoy and respond to it. His work is very egalitarian.
The Alasdair Gray archive at the National Library of Scotland has a wonderful collection of his original artwork, as well as handwritten manuscripts, correspondence relating to his novels, notebooks that he used to record ideas and drafts, and diary entries. I support the proposals that Sandra White made being explored.
In 1995, Alasdair Gray was commissioned to create a ceiling mural for the upper gallery of Abbot House in Dunfermline. His “The Thistle of Dunfermline’s History” depicts the timeline of the town in the form of a tree of life, with branches dividing the centuries. Abbot House is due to reopen soon, following renovation, and I look forward to revisiting his work. In 2015, Alasdair Gray returned to Abbot House as part of the 20th anniversary celebrations to speak about his mural. He also gave talks to local art pupils from the four Dunfermline high schools, reflecting his generosity of spirit and his background in teaching.
Alasdair Gray did not die a wealthy man. At the height of his career, he said:
“I am a well-known writer who cannot make a living from his writing”.
Although he was critically acclaimed, in recent years, he had to apply for support from the Scottish Artists Benevolent Association special fund. However, his talent, imagination and creativity have bestowed riches upon the people of Scotland and the world. He will be sorely missed.17:31
I have been thinking about some of the words that we have already heard this evening: “formidable”, “inspirational”, “irreplaceable”, “unique”, “humane” and “loved”. I am not sure that there is a higher aspiration for a human life than to be remembered with such words, which have clearly all been said with sincerity. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I echo other members’ thanks to Sandra White for lodging the motion.
In an interview in his later years, Alasdair Gray described his art as
“documentary work, in as much as Dickens documented London, and Dostoevsky documented Moscow and St Petersburg”.
I do not think that we can be in any doubt but that future generations will look back on his extensive collection of novels, short stories, poems, paintings, murals and illustrations and see a treasure trove that documents Glasgow, in particular, and all its characters, stories, hopes and aspirations. One of the reasons why his art has been taken to the city’s heart is that public murals and paperback books are accessible and affordable—for the cost of a subway ticket or a pint in a pub, or even the free loan of a book from a public library.
Gray has given daily life in Glasgow not just a visual language but a whole mythology. The epic narrative of “Lanark” showed us that every aspect of life and death is being played out right there every day, and that the Glasgow version is every bit as valid as ancient Greek poetry or renaissance masterpieces. He gave us vivid characters, including Bella Baxter in “Poor Things”, which can be read as a reworking of the Frankenstein myth or as a contemporary allegory for a modern Scotland—beautiful but disjointed, and not in control of her bodily autonomy.
“Lanark” gave us a vision of municipalism that was both good and bad. Gray often spoke about that in his non-fiction works. He was a committed believer in local control and local decision making, and he often spoke passionately about the importance of the public library in Riddrie, and about Miss Jean Irwin’s art classes at Kelvingrove art gallery and museum, which he attended on Saturday mornings throughout his childhood.
Gray also spoke about the importance of his first regular paid work as an artist recorder at the people’s palace in the late 1970s, and the opportunities that that afforded him to refine his skills as a documentary artist. That was supported through the Government’s job creation scheme, at a time when society valued the role of local artists and was prepared to pay for it from the public purse. Alasdair Gray would not have been the artist that he was without the opportunities that were afforded him by Glasgow’s public institutions, and Glasgow would not be the city that it is without his unique, playful and ambitious contributions.
Gray’s people-focused approach made it so natural for his work to cross over into political contributions. He saw his role as an artist as being to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to help us to see the best and the worst of our personalities and our communities. As a supporter of independence, he was always keen to emphasise that political autonomy is meaningless if we do not use it to benefit the pursuit of equality and social justice.
I will refer to the two publications that Sandra White mentioned. The 2005 pamphlet, “How We Should Rule Ourselves”, warned politicians like us that
“sovereignty belongs to the citizens of a nation. There should be no political or legal authority superior to the people. Government is for the benefit of the people, not the other way around. We the people lend power to a government in order to help ourselves—power is not the government’s to keep.”
I suppose that we are all left guessing which of the great minds involved contributed most to that sentiment.
Gray’s earlier publication, “Why the Scots Should Rule Scotland”, summed up perfectly the role that art and culture have to play in building a healthy and participatory vision of a country. He said:
“A truly independent Scotland will only ever exist when people in every home, school, croft, farm, workshop, factory, island, glen, town and city feel that they too are at the centre of the world.”
That is what Alasdair Gray’s art did for us: he put people at the centre of his visual and literary world. We have much to learn from him. He will be sorely missed.17:36
I thank my colleague Sandra White for securing this evening’s members’ business debate.
Unlike Sandra White and Clare Adamson, I did not know Alasdair Gray personally, but I am fortunate to know two individuals who did and who worked closely with him. I am very grateful to Dr Rodge Glass and our mutual friend Mark Buckland for their help in preparing my remarks.
For seven decades, Alasdair Gray worked furiously across space and form, transforming the artistic landscape of the country. He documented his home city of Glasgow as it disappeared and reappeared, almost as one of his “imagined objects”, in all its vibrancy.
Alasdair Gray charted Glasgow’s changes with compassion, training his focus on the marginalised and the forgotten. So successful was he in his endeavour that the famed description from “Lanark” that
“not even the inhabitants of Glasgow live there imaginatively”
has been ironically but pleasingly rendered obsolete by his own reimagining of the city and his ability to project the interior life of its inhabitants.
Alasdair Gray’s achievements were born of a lifetime of perseverance. Having scribbled in teenage diaries an imaginary shelf of books that he wished to create, Gray steadfastly made that shelf a reality, producing work that changed Scotland, how it sees itself and the way that it looks to the future.
Though some people believe he belongs to Scotland, for me, Gray’s work knows no boundaries or borders. As Patrick Harvie acknowledged, Gray argued that he was merely doing the same as Dickens with London or Dostoyevsky with St Petersburg—using the local to approach the universal and asserting Scotland’s legitimacy in the process.
We have rightly heard much praise for Alasdair Gray’s work today. Praise of the dead must also be accompanied by reflection. By that I do not mean guesswork—pretending that we can know what he would have wanted or reducing him to a set of beliefs. In Gray’s case, that is too reductive. What drove Gray was doubt and the search for knowledge, not the dogmatic fortification of opinion. True reflection is considering what can be learned from the life and works of those who are no longer with us.
We learn not only from Gray’s works but from how he lived his life. Mr Gray stipulated that he should have no funeral. He wanted no fuss. Who knows what he might have made of this debate? That behaviour goes beyond the humble nature of a preternatural talent. It is telling that, in my conversations with his collaborators and supporters, I have found that the first line of each eulogy does not mention his artistic achievements. They remember him as a man whose kindness had few peers. He treated his collaborators with respect, often paying them more than he earned. His grace was not an impersonation. Gray wrote that, if a mask rarely slips in a lifetime, it is likely that it is not a mask at all.
Gray believed himself to be the equal of anyone and was unafraid to assert that. He also thought himself better than no one. Gray wrote many times that he was a product of his time and his community in Riddrie. He had been provided with encouragement and opportunity, and he believed that everyone has a right to aspire. Through his example, Gray elevated a new generation to follow his compassionate conduct, his artistic bravery to see the world anew and his internationalist approach that gleaned universal truths from the mundane.
Alasdair Gray’s work will live long, and Scotland is the richer for it. However, as well as reflecting on the artist, we should reflect on the democratiser who created that work. One could not have existed without the other, and, if we truly want to remember Alasdair Gray, we should seek to hold his principles in the highest regard. The triumph of his artistic vision can be understood only as a product of the man who made it and did so much to help others have a vision of their own.17:40
Thank you for squeezing me in, Presiding Officer. I might be the only person ever to have co-written a book with Alasdair Gray. The fact that that person became a Tory MSP shocked Alasdair even more than it shocked me. Our book, which Sandra White and Patrick Harvie have kindly mentioned, is called “How We Should Rule Ourselves”. If it worked, it did so because of the creative tension in that second word: “we”. For Alasdair, it was a book about Scotland; for his co-author, it was about the United Kingdom. If anyone here has read Rodge Glass’s brilliant biography of Alasdair Gray—Rodge worked for Alasdair at the time of our collaboration—they will know that a long passage on the making of “How We Should Rule Ourselves” makes it clear that Alasdair wanted to write with me precisely because he knew that I did not believe in Scottish independence.
The book is not about independence, nor about socialism, but about republicanism and its very particular strain of thought, which has nothing to do with the identity of the monarchy, the Crown or getting rid of the Queen or any members of her family—they do that by themselves—but with the insight, which Patrick Harvie correctly identified, that the Government is accountable to us and not the other way around. You do not have to be in favour of independence to believe that; you do have to favour localism and the idea that the Government is something that should happen with and for us—not to us.
The book tried to give voice to that insight. I do not know whether we were successful, but The New Statesman certainly thought that we were when we made number 48 on its list of the top 50 “red reads”—the best books ever written from the left in the English language. I did not tell them that when I asked whether I could be a candidate for the Conservative Party.
My abiding memory of working with Alasdair is his great, unbridled sense of fun and mischief—often fuelled by drink, particularly whisky, if I am honest. He was very proud of his books, although nowhere near as proud of them as he was of his paintings, thinking of himself as a painter first. He loved prefaces, and I remember sitting in his room when he wrote this dedication—he had been very kind to give me copies of his books:
“To Alasdair from Adam, or was it the other way around?”
I have a wonderful copy of one of his books with both of these dedications: “To Adam from Alasdair” and “To Alasdair from Adam”, as if which of us had written the book and which of us was the collaborator in receipt of it mattered.
Sandra White asked whether Alasdair Gray was a radical or a rascal; he was, of course, both. Even though he had a great sense of mischief and fun, he was not always loveable and did not always act as a national treasure. His essay on settlers and colonists, in particular, was a profound mistake. However, let us not fall out about whether we agreed or disagreed with aspects of his political writing. We can all agree that he was a genius—a mad genius, perhaps—and, above all, a great Glaswegian. It was a real privilege to know him and to work with him.17:44
I do not know where to start. I was delighted when I read Sandra White’s motion, not just because it celebrated the life of Alasdair Gray, but because of its important asks, which I hope we can all get behind.
I was not going to speak in the debate, as you know, Presiding Officer, but I managed to shift things around, as I felt very compelled to say something. It is so important. I was trying to work out why I felt that way, and I think it is because Alasdair Gray has been a part of most of my life from the first time that I read his work, which was in a compilation of his short stories and those of others. I think that James Kelman was one of the authors who had stories in that anthology, but another author in it was Agnes Owens. She is the one of the most underrated writers Scotland has ever produced.
Alasdair Gray just fascinated me, so I want to talk about him because of that and because of “Lanark”. I was a bit older than Clare when I purchased “Lanark” to read. My fascination with the author’s writing and intellect, coupled with the artwork in the book, was another reason for wanting to talk about him. I want to celebrate his art, including the public murals—for example, in Òran Mór and the Ubiquitous Chip—which are fascinating and wonderful. I have an Alasdair Gray print, and every time that I look at it, I see something different and I think different thoughts. The print is a bit weird; it is one of his later ones.
I omitted to say that I have a piece of work from Alasdair. I am a lifelong rugby fan, so it might surprise people to know that I have a copy of “The Celtic View” that he did a special edition of a few years ago. He promised to sign it for me. Unfortunately, he never had an occasion on which that could happen.
She has always got to go one better, eh? However, that was one of the reasons why I wanted to talk in the debate; it is just to celebrate the absolute brilliance of the man, whether it be in his writing, his intellect or the artwork and the imagination behind it. I have always found him a fascinating character.
Unlike Sandra and Clare, I did not have the privilege of knowing him, but I did meet him once and that gave me another thing to celebrate: his absolute eccentricity. Oh, my goodness! I remember it very well, because I got the fright of my life. I was at the art gallery—Kelvingrove, for those who are not from Glasgow—for the unveiling of a memorial bust of Surjit Singh Chhokar. I left the main part of the main hall for some reason and was walking away when Alasdair Gray jumped out from behind a pillar and gave me the fright of my life. I said, “Oh! Mr Gray, what did you do that for?” and he said, “Oh, you know me—how disappointing.” We then had a right good laugh and he told me that he was hiding from folk because he was fed up with people wanting to talk to him. We had a really nice chat and I have always cherished that memory.
We also saw that sense of fun in some of his work, but some of his work was very dark, too, as a couple of members have mentioned. For example, “Lanark” was a very dark book, but I think that that reflected the context of Glasgow. Glasgow is referred to in the book as a city that we hardly ever notice because nobody imagines living there. A character contrasts Glasgow to other European cities and says:
“Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films.”
Alasdair Gray has done some of that for Glasgow. He was part of that revival that gets talked about in terms of Glasgow being the city of culture and the garden city event, which was driven by our writers and artists. Alasdair Gray was very much at the forefront of that.
I see that I am well over time, so I should set a good example. I thank Sandra for the debate, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will take seriously that request for a memorial for Alasdair Gray. I hope that the Parliament will take seriously the request that a work of Alasdair Gray’s be celebrated here, in this building. We celebrate Alasdair Gray and the wonderful memories that he has left us, Glasgow and Scotland.
I am giving up on the issue of members using first names, as a Deputy Presiding Officer was using first names right, left and centre there—I knew that she would be surprised to hear that.
I call Fiona Hyslop to close for the Government.17:49
We have just heard a short speech about breaking rules and a rule breaker, which I suspect is fitting for this debate.
I, too, am grateful to Sandra White for lodging the motion and securing the debate. The debate has been a brilliant tribute, with outstanding, beautiful speeches from across the chamber. I particularly liked the personal insights from Clare Adamson, Linda Fabiani and Adam Tomkins. I also want to extend my condolences to Alasdair Gray’s family and friends.
The level of interest in the debate is testimony to the reach and depth of Alasdair Gray’s work. His creative output as an artist included poetry, plays, criticism, historical and political philosophy, painting, illustration and design, teaching and translation. It is also testimony to the widespread sadness that exists in the Parliament as well as in communities across Scotland following the death of the “maker of imagined objects”, as he described himself.
It is fitting for the Parliament to remember Alasdair Gray as one of the most influential Scots of the past 30 years and to recognise his significant achievements, which have influenced and shaped Scotland and beyond.
Many of those who spoke in the debate have reflected on words that are inscribed on the Canongate wall of the Parliament:
“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
Alasdair Gray lived by those words, often mentioning them in his own writing. He also acknowledged, as we have heard, that they were adapted from the words of a poem “Civil Elegies” by his fellow poet, Dennis Lee, although they have often been ascribed to Gray himself. The words on the Canongate wall are still relevant today—perhaps even more so now than when he first brought them to our attention.
As he made clear during his life, Alasdair Gray’s wish for Scotland was for it to be an independent country. Not everyone here shares that view, but our focus now is on how we remember the man and his considerable work across the full spectrum of his artistic endeavours—because artist he was—and our collective wish for that to be celebrated.
I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Alasdair Gray a number of times, as I am sure a number of members did. The title of today’s debate “Alasdair Gray—A Creative Force” is apt for that most stellar artist. He was a force of nature who carried with him an intensity of purpose in all that he did. His idiosyncrasy was part of his genius. I note that in one tribute, he was described as
“an eccentric, mischievous, occasionally prickly figure”,
which I think is very apt. His individuality and creativity shone through in all his activities. He also expressed his opinions, which occasionally led to controversy. That reminds us that artists help us all to see the world from new perspectives and in different ways.
Alasdair Gray’s achievements also highlight the incredible strength of modern Scottish culture. Nobody has done more to enhance the international reputation of Scottish culture in the past few decades than he did—he was one of the towering figures of contemporary Scottish literature and art. To mention just one example, the stunning mural in Òran Mór demonstrates his outstanding skills as a painter. As a writer, novels such as “Lanark”, “Poor Things” and “The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties” are genuine landmarks of world fiction in the past 30 years—they are startling, challenging, otherworldly, but also thiswordly.
The legacy of all artists is their work, as that will live on and shine brightly well into the future. As others have said, Alasdair Gray’s work is characterised by an experimentation of form and shape that led to work that was at once instantly familiar but unexpected. He combined the written word and the visual image to form memorable epic narratives. He brought Glasgow—the place that he loved so much—into stark focus in his work. He received the inaugural Saltire Society lifetime achievement award as recently as November 2019, which was a fitting confirmation of his legacy. The award recognised his rich and experimental Scottish writing, as well as an impressive body of illustration, visual art and design.
In the coming months, it is right that we collectively take time to reflect, to remember and to celebrate the work of Alasdair Gray, in consultation with his family. Commemorations are important times for us to consider and reflect on people and events that have a profound impact on shaping our lives, our history and our country, and to consider their legacy. The Scottish Government supports all efforts to commemorate Alasdair Gray and will look to our national and other cultural organisations to consider marking his work in their future work programmes. That could take many different forms and I encourage organisations to think creatively about a suitably broad and diverse response to his life. It will also be important for the wishes of the family to be considered in shaping those opportunities.
It is still early days, but I know that plans are already under consideration in many organisations. So far, Creative Scotland has published an article on its website, entitled “Remembering Alasdair Gray”, which assesses his contributions to visual art and literature. I am delighted to see that the National Library of Scotland, working with Glasgow Life, is sponsoring an event at this year’s Aye Write festival in March at which a number of Alasdair Gray’s contemporaries will discuss his legacy.
I also understand that the National Galleries of Scotland, along with a range of other organisations, is considering how to mark Alasdair Gray’s huge contribution to the art world. As we heard, Glasgow Print Studio will stage a new exhibition of his work. The exhibition, which will run from February to April 2020, is entitled, very appropriately, “Alasdair Gray: Omnium Gatherum” and will include new and never-before-seen works, which will sit alongside existing prints made at the studio. I am also aware that Historic Environment Scotland has been asked to consider for listing Alasdair Gray’s mural on plaster at the Palacerigg visitor centre door in Cumbernauld.
On securing the future of Alasdair Gray’s work, I note that the National Library of Scotland already holds part of his archive, and that discussions about future plans will be going on with a number of organisations. I look forward to hearing more about those plans once they are agreed and announced—we all share an interest in how they unfold.
Alasdair Gray has left us a remarkable legacy. Of course I will meet Sandra White and interested parties to discuss suggested tributes to him. I congratulate everyone who took part in the debate. We can look forward to a rich and varied programme to remember the extraordinary legacy that Alasdair Gray has left us to preserve and to continue to enjoy. The world, and Scotland, are so much richer for the contribution of such a remarkable man.Meeting closed at 17:56.