The big Gray man

 

© Canongate

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away at the end of 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer anything new, but he was a huge influence on me and I’m going to write about him anyway.

 

To a youth like me in 1980s Scotland, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use in connection with him as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s science-fiction B movie and he once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom up out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Ian Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) describing to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and done my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as very reminiscent of Kafka.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism – fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister – a reign during which Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Ian Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

© Canongate

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off – Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark, was less enthusiastic about Janine – but it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows an engrossing mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads for Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as witless fantasy and portrays herself not as a Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke to the attitudes of men – particularly insecure Scottish ones – towards women, partly possessive, partly madly over-romanticised.

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious.  Also, they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then his way down in London – but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is actually a series of connected short stories and again features copious sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990 – something he regarded as a huge missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve perfect, peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (2003) and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find his short fiction variable in quality, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was an artist as well meant he also designed his books’ covers and provided the illustrations inside them.  Indeed, I suspect a few non-readers bought his works for their glorious visual qualities alone, for they enlivened the look of any bookshelf they sat on.  The Gray illustration I like best by the way is probably this one he did for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised – with their back-cover blurbs and review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I was there with my brother a few years ago I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer and forgot to look up.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking animatedly to a group of friends and admirers.  Being shy, alas, I couldn’t muster the courage to go over and introduce myself.

 

One Scottish writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, maybe it was the favourable comparison to Alasdair Gray that prompted Banks to take me drinking that day.

 

From austinkleon.com  

 

Deathlog 2019: Part 2

 

© BBC

 

Continuing my tribute to folk who inspired me who passed away in 2019…

 

July 2019 was a harsh month as it witnessed the deaths of two of my favourite actors.  The English character actor Freddie Jones, a man who over six decades managed to be a member of David Lynch’s repertory company, a Hammer horror regular, a collaborator with Federico Fellini and Clint Eastwood, a star of bucolic TV soap operas and much more, died on July 9th.  Ten days later saw the passing of the great Dutch star Rutger Hauer, who always managed to have a discomforting, Nietzschean-superman glint in his eyes whether he was appearing in a stone cold classic like Blade Runner (1982) or The Hitcher (1986), or in some hoary old exploitation rubbish, or in his advertisements for Guinness stout.

 

Other notable actors who died in July included, on the 9th, the American performer Rip Torn, whom I’ll always remember as demented coach Patches O’Houlihan in 2004’s Dodgeball, training Vince Vaughan and his team in the titular sport by hurling monkey-wrenches at their crotches; on the 18th, the American actor David Hedison, whose CV included the original The Fly (1958), the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and the James Bond movies Live and Let Die (1974) and Licence to Kill (1989), in which he became the first-ever actor to play Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter twice; and English actor Jeremy Kemp, who appeared in everything from the early seasons of the seminal BBC TV police series Z Cars (1962-78) to war movies like Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) and to the exuberant Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker comedy Top Secret! (1984).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

August 5th saw the passing of American novelist Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (1987) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  August 16th brought a triple whammy – the deaths of American actor Peter Fonda who, through his work with director Roger Corman and his appearance in Easy Rider (1969) became a 1960s countercultural icon, before he settled down to become a more conventional action-movie hero in the likes of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) and Race with the Devil (1975); of British-Canadian animator Richard Williams, whose work included Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and the legendary but never-finished epic The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), as well as animated sequences for The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the Pink Panther movies; and of English actress Anna Quayle, memorably rotten as Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

 

American bass guitarist Larry Taylor, who played with the blues-rock band Canned Heat, died on August 19th; English TV scriptwriter and immensely influential (though unsung) children’s-books author Terrance Dicks died on the 29th; and American TV actress Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore’s co-star in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and star of its spin-off Rhoda (1974-78), died on the 30th.

 

English playwright Peter Nichols, whose most famous works were probably A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) and Privates on Parade (1977) – both of which got capable film versions, Joe Egg directed by Peter Medak in 1972 and Privates directed by Michael Blakemore in 1982 – died on September 7th.  The next day saw the death of English starlet Valerie Van Ost, whose presence enlivened several Carry On movies and who provided Christopher Lee’s aristocratic vampire with his first victim in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  She was also considered as a replacement for Diana Rigg in the stylish TV show The Avengers (1961-69) before Linda Thorsen got the gig.  Rik Ocasek, singer, songwriter and guitarist with new-wave American rock band the Cars, died on September 15th while Larry Wallis, an early member of thunderous heavy metal band Mötorhead, died four days later.

 

© Goodrights / Lionsgate Films

 

Finally, checking out on September 21st was American actor Sid Haig, whose early career involved many collaborations with director Jack Hill in such cherish-able exploitation fare as Spider Baby (1968), Coffey (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) and also more mainstream items like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever (1971).  Tired of being typecast as a heavy, Haig was ready to give up acting in the 1990s and considered becoming a hypnotherapist.  Cinema’s loss and hypnotherapy’s gain were thwarted by Quentin Tarantino, who lured Haig back to the screen for a role in 1997’s Jackie Brown. Thereafter, Haig kept acting, most notably as the droll, clown-faced Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie-directed trilogy of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and 3 From Hell (2019).

 

The first week of October saw two notable departures in the musical world – Kim Shattuck, singer, guitarist and songwriter with American punk band the Muffs, died on the 2nd; and English drummer Ginger Baker, who most famously thumped the skins for the late-1960s power trio Cream but also played with Blind Faith, Fela Kuti, Hawkwind and Public Image Ltd, died four days later.  For a fascinating and at times disturbing profile of Ginger Baker, I’d recommend the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr Baker, which among other things features filmmaker Jay Bulger getting assaulted and having his nose broken by his mega-truculent subject matter.  Between those two deaths, on October 4th, English actor Stephen Moore passed away.  Moore’s voice is surely better known than his face, for he supplied the lugubrious, self-pitying tones of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Northern Irish poet and novelist Ciaran Carson died on October 6th, while Russian cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, the first human being to carry out a spacewalk, departed this world for good on October 11th.  Leonov was an artist as well as a cosmonaut and he once cheekily pointed out to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke that a painting he’d done in 1967, showing the sun, earth and moon, bore an uncanny resemblance to an iconic scene in the following year’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke had co-written with Stanley Kubrick.  On the day that Leonov died, so too did American actor Robert Forster.  Like Sid Haig, Forster had been a prolific actor during in the 1970s and 1980s but his career had somewhat entered the doldrums until Quentin Tarantino gave him a role in Jackie Brown.  More recently, Forster appeared in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), meaning he’s yet another member of the Twin Peaks alumni whom we’ve had to say goodbye to in the past few years.  Finally, Scottish journalist Deborah Orr died on October 19th and American film producer Robert Evans, who enjoyed a roll in the late 1960s and early 1970s with such classics as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), died on October 26th.

 

Aged a venerable 103, the formidable French resistance fighter Yvette Lundy passed away on November 3rd.  The next day saw the death of Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne who, whether you loved him or hated him – I seem to remember describing him on this blog as a ‘twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer’ – was surely the most influential figure in Irish TV history and, through that, a major influence on the Irish psyche generally since the 1960s.  The frontman with a favourite 1980s folk-rock band of mine, John Mann of the Canadian outfit Spirit of the West, died on November 20th.   Check out Spirit of the West’s Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door for a more damning account of the Maggie Thatcher era than any British folk band managed to offer at the time.  And the American illustrator Gahan Wilson, creator of countless delightfully ghoulish cartoons, died a day later.

 

The brainy Australian (but British-based) polymath Clive James – a broadcaster, critic, novelist, poet and memoirist – died on the 24th.  James’s death wasn’t announced until three days later, which coincided with the death of Jonathan Miller, a brainy English polymath – a medical doctor, humourist, writer, TV presenter and director of film, stage and opera.  The simultaneous news of James’s and Miller’s deaths prompted many British people to quip on social media that the country’s collective IQ level had just dropped by a few dozen points.  And guess what?  Three weeks later, Boris Johnson got re-elected as British prime minister.

 

© United Artists

 

This blog-entry has already mentioned Peter Fonda, Rutger Hauer and Sid Haig.  On November 20th died an American actor who’d performed memorably with all three of them.  Michael J. Pollard appeared with Fonda in the Roger Corman-directed Hell’s Angels epic The Wild Angels (1966), with Hauer in Tony Maylam’s barking-mad monster movie Split Second (1992) and with Haig in the bloody but funny prologue to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses.   However, Pollard will be most remembered for playing C.W. Moss, the spaced-out gas-stand attendant who ends up joining the gang of the titular bank robbers in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  I prefer him, though, in a movie he made two years later, Hannibal Brooks.  In that, Pollard and Oliver Reed play a pair of escaped prisoners of war in Nazi Germany / Austria who intend to do very different things with their freedom – the psychotic Pollard wants to kill as many Germans as possible, while the peace-loving Reed just wants to lead an elephant he’s befriended in the bombed Munich Zoo to safety.  With Pollard looking baby-faced and innocent and Reed being, well, Reed, it’s a surprise their roles weren’t reversed.

 

The final month of 2019 was another bad one for the acting profession.  The American character actors René Auberjonois – who among many notable performances played Father Mulcahy in the original, Robert Altman-directed M*A*S*H* (1970) – and Daniel Aiello died on the 8th and 12th respectively.  The Danish-French actress Anna Karina, frequently considered a ‘muse’ for Jean-Luc Goddard, died on the 14th.  English actor Nicky Henson died on the 15th.  Though the self-deprecating Henson liked to joke that the only information on his tombstone would be that he once appeared in an episode of John Cleese’s sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-1979), I liked him for his performances in two British folk-horror movies, the gruelling Witchfinder General (1968) and the lovably laughable Psychomania (1971).  Claudia Augur, who played Domino in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball and was one of at least three Bond girls to pass away in 2019, died on the 18th.  And Sue Lyon, who played the pubescent moppet Dolores Haze, subject of the pervy lusts of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick-directed adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, died on the 26th.

 

© Fontana

 

In other fields, Barrie Keeffe, scriptwriter of Britain’s best-ever gangster movie The Long Good Friday (1980), departed on December 10th; Roy Loney, co-founder of Californian garage-rock band the Flamin’ Groovies – the Groovies’ Slow Death is a particularly epic song to shake a leg to – died on the 13th; and American-born Anglo-Scots artist and illustrator Tom Adams died on the 17th.  The covers that Adams created during the 1960s and 1970s for a string of Agatha Christie novels, published in paperback by Fontana, are now considered iconic.  And December 29th saw the demise of Neil Innes, the doyen of British comic singer-songwriters, the deviser with Eric Idle of spoof-Beatles band the Rutles, and the unofficial ‘seventh’ member of the Monty Python team.  “I’ve suffered for my music,” Innes once told an audience.  “Now it’s your turn.”

 

Finally, the beginning and end of December brought sad news for the literary scenes of two countries I’ve had long associations with, Sri Lanka and Scotland.  On December 2nd, Sri Lankan novelist, poet and journalist Carl Muller passed away.  Muller’s engrossing and bawdy novel The Jam Fruit Tree was joint winner of Sri Lanka’s first-ever Gratiaen Literary Prize (founded by Michael Ondaatje) in 1993 and he was the first of his countrymen and countrywomen to have books published overseas.  And December 29th saw the death of Glaswegian author – and artist, playwright, poet, polemicist and academic – Alasdair Gray.  He was an important influence on me and I’ll be writing more about him on this blog soon.

 

From pinterest.com