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  

 

A dark Swiss secret

 

From www.gemeinschaftshof.ch

 

For two months in the late spring and early summer of 1983 I worked on a farm in the Swiss municipality of Niederweningen, which is a 35-minute train ride out of Zurich.  I can safely say that in terms of sheer, hard, physical work, I’ve done no job like this before or since.

 

At the time, I was in the middle of taking a year out between the end of high school and the start of college.  As far as I remember, nobody else in my school-year did this.  Those who intended to go to college did so in the autumn of 1982, a few months after they’d left school.  Everybody around me, including my parents, seemed to think I was insane for delaying my entry to college by 16 months and spending the intervening period doing loopy things like working on a farm in rural Switzerland.  Nowadays of course, three decades later, you’re considered insane (and lacking in initiative and employability) if you enter college and you haven’t taken a year out, or a gap-year as it’s known in fashionable, modern parlance.  I was simply three decades ahead of my time and didn’t know it.

 

In 1982 I’d discovered an agency called Vacation Work International, which for a small fee arranged paid working holidays in Switzerland.  Switzerland wasn’t top of my list of places to visit but Vacation Work accepted people from the age of 17 upwards.  I was 17 at the time and other foreign-job agencies I’d tried had turned me down because, due to visa regulations, they could only take on people who were 18 or older.  In October 1982, Vacation Work fitted me up with a month-long job as a grape-picker in a vineyard near Lausanne in French-speaking western Switzerland.  This was a tough (and wet – those Swiss wine-producers had a very rainy grape harvest to deal with that year) but tolerable job.  So, after spending some time travelling in central Europe and working with the Community Service Volunteers in the English Midlands, I thought I’d contact Vacation Work again and give something else on their Swiss brochure a go.  This time I plumped for a two-month package where I’d work as a farmhand.

 

One thing this job did immediately was rid me of the assumption that everyone in Switzerland wore a smart suit and earned pots of money working in a bank.  The farming family whom Vacation Work attached me to were not wealthy; certainly not by the standards of any farmer I knew back in the UK (and my Dad is one).

 

Their house was plain but serviceable, but certain things I’d assumed would be a feature of any household in Western Europe, however rich or poor, such as a television set, were absent.  One basic commodity that seemed to be lacking was a decent strip of flypaper because, although the house was reasonably clean, its dining table was always plagued by swarms of big impudent flies.

 

Their farmstead possessed a tractor, a trailer and one or two other bits of machinery, but nothing like what even a modest British farm would be equipped with.  When the farmer, Hugo, wanted to bale some hay, he had to arrange for the use of a baler that seemed to be shared among a number of farms in the valley.  And there were no machines for spraying or weeding crops.  Those chores had to be done by someone with a heavy tank of weed-killer strapped onto their back or by someone wielding a hoe, monotonously, all day long, up and down the furrows of a field.  Similarly, such devices as front-end or back-end loaders were considered an unaffordable luxury – for shifting things like dung or loose hay, the shovel and the pitchfork were the order of the day.  During my two months there, such basic tools were rarely out of my hands.

 

My abiding memory from those two months is of the daily schedule.  Hugo would usually come knocking at my door at 5.30 in the morning and after a hurried breakfast both of us would be outside, ready for action, at 6.00.  We’d have an hour’s break at lunchtime.  We’d spend the first half of that lunch-hour eating and then Hugo would give me a pitying look and suggest, “Jan…”  – neither Hugo nor his family could ever get their tongues around the correct /ǝın/ pronunciation of my name – “…eine halbe Stunde.”  During this free half-hour, I’d usually doze off in my room and wake up 20 or 25 minutes later with a headache and a putrid taste in my mouth that suggested I’d just been sucking a dead frog.

 

At some point in the early evening there’d be another meal, but the work usually continued until 8.00 or 9.00 PM.  During a busy period, like when we were hay-making, we didn’t clock off until after 10.00.  This was the routine six days a week.  Only Sundays were free.  I calculated I must be doing 70 to 80 hours of physical labour each week.  I’d grown up on a farm, and indeed the previous year I’d spent a busy summer working on my uncle’s farm in Ireland.  But I hadn’t done anything on the scale of this.

 

That said, I did quite enjoy myself.  I got on well with Hugo and his family were civil to me, although because I was equipped only with the basic German I’d learnt at school and as they spoke the robust – some would say unruly – dialect of German known as Schweizerdeutsch, communication was often difficult.  At the end of 1983, I received a nice Christmas card and letter from Hugo and his family, which had been written in English by one of their children who was learning the language as school.  It wasn’t very comprehensible and I wondered if I’d sounded as strange to them when I’d spoken German.

 

The family were also kind enough at the end of my two-month service to present me with a going-away gift: a bottle of illicitly-homemade kirsche.  This bottle of kirsche lasted for the next two years, into 1985.  It was so strong that it could be supped only in minute quantities.  A couple of times I sneakily gave glasses of it to college acquaintances who liked to boast about their drinking prowess and, soon after, enjoyed the spectacle of them falling unconscious.

 

Pleasant too was the scenery at Niederweningen.  It wasn’t mountainous but, half-farmed, half forested, it was gorgeous in a sedate, pastoral way.  And I formed a friendship with another Vacation Work person who’d been assigned to a neighbouring farm, Rebecca Macnaughton – thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we’ve kept in touch to this very day.  Actually, no matter how long and how hard I worked, it never seemed to stop me from accompanying my Vacation Work colleague down the road to the local pub for a beer after I’d finally finished for the day.  One evening, we tried exploring a different road and happened across a small restaurant that was run, somewhat unexpectedly, by a well-travelled and very interesting Sri Lankan guy.  He described how, previously, he’d worked in Zurich with some young Swiss heroin addicts.  And suddenly another of my assumptions about Switzerland, about how it was a bastion of order, decency and law-abidingness, had been turned on its head.

 

One other positive thing about the experience was how physically fit I felt afterwards.  Nowadays, with my body wracked by arthritic aches and pains and my waistline fighting a losing battle against a beer-belly, I look at photographs taken of me after I’d arrived home and can hardly believe how athletic I looked then.  Indeed, one of the things I did after that was to spend a fortnight tramping around the Lake District and I seem to remember bounding about those Cumbrian fells like a mountain gazelle.

 

For my Swiss farm-work I was paid a modest wage, but I was never sure if that wage came out of Hugo’s pocket or if it was provided under some Swiss farming subsidy scheme.  From what I could gather, the people provided by Vacation Work International were just one input in a system that saw lots of foreign people working cheaply on those modest-sized, modest-resourced farms.  Hugo told me how one farmhand who’d worked for him previously was an African bloke.  He’d also employed someone, at some point, from the Faroes Islands – Hugo and the Faroese guy had got along so well that the latter still phoned him for a chat from time to time, from his home in the North Atlantic.  Mind you, the annual presence of foreign farmhands didn’t seem to improve Hugo or his neighbours’ knowledge of the outside world.  I recall one lunchtime having an argument with him and one of his neighbours about where Albania was – I was the only one who maintained that it was in Europe.  Eventually, one of Hugo’s kids’ school atlases was dug out and consulted and, yes, it transpired that I was correct.

 

I’ve written nostalgically about my days on a Swiss farm, but I have to admit that what rekindled my memories of them and inspired me to write this blog-entry was something altogether darker.  Whilst browsing through the online back-pages of the BBC News website magazine, I happened across the following article about a phenomenon that the Swiss authorities have until recently kept quiet about.  The article is called SWITZERLAND’S SHAME – THE CHILDREN USED AS CHEAP FARM LABOUR and is written by Kavita Puri.

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29765623

 

This describes the old Swiss practice of taking orphaned children, or the children of unmarried parents, or children from poor backgrounds, and using them as ‘contract children’; as ultra-cheap labour, often on farms, where they were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.  Part of the reason for this was simple economics – prior to World War II Switzerland wasn’t a wealthy country and a low-costing workforce for its agricultural sector had to be found somewhere.  However, it was driven too by an unforgiving attitude towards poverty.  As one historian explains: “It was like a kind of punishment.  Being poor was not recognised as a social problem, it was individual failure.”

 

The phenomenon of contract children – which over the decades is believed to have involved hundreds of thousands of Swiss youngsters – began in the 1850s and continued for the next century.  It didn’t peter out until the 1960s and 1970s, when “farming became mechanised” and “the need for child labour vanished.”  Also, “(w)omen got the vote in 1971 and attitudes towards the poor and single mothers moved on.”  Even so, Puri’s article mentions one case of agricultural child labour that occurred as late as 1979 – just four years before I arrived there for my weekly 70-to-80 hours of toil.  What a sobering thought.