Scotland’s New Mythology: Alasdair Gray and a new kind of nationalism
Glasgow would not be the same without Alasdair Gray. His work is inescapable in the city, from his murals in the West End Hillhead Subway Station and Oran Mor, to last year’s fascinating retrospective, ‘Spheres of Influence’ at GoMA.
But, as inseparable as his work is from the city, Glasgow is even more intrinsically tied to his work, from the split-personality twin cities of Glasgow and the fantastical Unthank in Lanark, to the Victoriana-steeped backdrop of ‘Poor Things’, in which Glasgow is elevated to the romantic, almost mythical status so far reserved in English-Language literature for only Paris, London and New York.
Gray is keenly aware of that the mythology of a city, or a country, can almost overtake it’s physical, brick-and-mortar Geography, at least in cultural memory, and in Lanark he says so explicitly:
‘”Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?” “Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw… “Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”
“Gray’s nationalism strives for a socialist, inclusive Scotland, one in which art and life are interwoven and synonymous.”
That is, until now; Gray’s novel puts Glasgow firmly on the literary map. The prior artistic vision of Scotland, the one centred on Enlightenment-leading, Athens-of-the-North, hyper-Gothic Edinburgh and surrounded by Walter Scott’s vision of the bleak, romantically untamed Highlands had for a long time seemed to contain a black hole somewhere on the West Coast where a city should be.
This was due in no small part to the overwhelmingly upper-class nature of pre-20th century arts; Edinburgh was the Scottish second home of royalty, the Highlands a playground for the upper class (and never mind the crofting communities that had been forcibly scattered to make room for the majestic stags so loved by postcard manufacturers). Industrial Glasgow, vital city port, hub of shipbuilding and largely working-class may have been economically significant, but from a literary perspective it received little recognition.
As another great contemporary Scottish writer, Janice Galloway, says: ‘As though whispering aloud what I had always assumed a local secret, Gray spoke using the words, syntax and places of home, yet he did it without the tang of apology or rude-mechanical humour, the Brigadoon tartanry or long-dead warrior chieftain stuff I had grown used to thinking were the options for how my nation appeared in print’.
Gray’s Glasgow is not the static, romantically frozen world of Scottish castles, shortbread and Tartan clad highlanders; though it is steeped in Victoriana and more than a hint of high-fantasy, it is dynamic, living, breathing, in a perpetual state of energetic life. It takes the real, working city of Glasgow and elevates it to high art, gives the city an imaginative life not only for Glaswegians, but for all Scots and for readers the world over.
“As though whispering aloud what I had always assumed a local secret, Gray spoke using the words, syntax and places of home, yet he did it without the tang of apology or rude-mechanical humour, the Brigadoon tartanry or long-dead warrior chieftain stuff?”
Gray’s high-minded, high-fantasy vision of Scottish identity is not confined to his novels, however: in the form of his publicly-displayed illustrations and paintings, it bleeds through into real Glaswegian life. His mural in Hillhead subway station is a delicate and detailed backdrop to thousands of West-End commutes, his socialist principals proudly declared in his celebration of ‘all kinds of folk’, surrounding a short-and-sweet pair of rhyming couplets to help us through the daily grind without losing our childhood sense of wonder; ‘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’.
His work in the auditorium of Oran Mor, a former church turned bar and gig venue, speak of the same kind of hopeful, fantastical thinking. Like a kind of Weegie Sistine Chapel, the vaulted church ceilings are painted in midnight blue and covered with celestial illustrations of the constellations of the Zodiac. Across one of the dark-wood beams runs the quotation that threads its way through all of Gray’s creations; ‘WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION.’
Gray’s nationalism strives for a socialist, inclusive Scotland, one in which art and life are interwoven and synonymous, and in which all of Scotland – living, breathing, working Scotland, not only the fantastical Highlands vision – gets the recognition it deserves.