What is the International Alasdair Gray Research Network?
This is a newly launched, international database of folk interested in Alasdair Gray Studies from all over the world. In the coming months, I will be seeking to draw together those who have expressed an interest in a number of ongoing, related projects, with the aim of helping Gray scholars from all over find each other more easily, share work and ideas more easily too. I’d also like to reach as many new people as possible – all those with an interest in Alasdair Gray’s various works across space and form. I hope the Research Network will include artists, writers, academics, critics, curators, theatre makers, teachers, as well as people associated with various cultural events, festivals and organizations, across borders, cultures and languages.
If you want to be on the database, just contact me either through this site or via my Edge Hill email address (email@example.com) with the following:
The nature of your interest in Gray
Any relevant specialisms (e.g. portraiture, murals, Scottish Literature, fiction, non-fiction)
Affiliation (e.g. if you are employed by an academic institution, or are associated with a gallery, library, school, museum etc.)
A confirmation that you are happy for these details to appear on a future website for the Research Network
Once I have a record of all the above, I’ll be happy to add you to my magic list.
The Research Network has the long-term ambition of becoming a critical hub for all things Gray, though at the moment the focus is on several interlinked projects These are:
Making Imagined Things: The 2nd International Alasdair Gray Conference, Glasgow, 10-11th June, 2021
Making Imagined Things: a planned book of critical, creative and personal responses to Alasdair Gray’s visual artworks (murals, portraits, landscapes, sketches, illustrations, posters, etc.)
Making Imagined Things: a planned series of events, workshops and discussions in a variety of contexts over the next few years
There will soon be a dedicated website for the Research Network, also for Making Imagined Things in all its forms. But until then, I’ll be using my own site to post updates and information. If you’re interested, reach out. The more diverse we are, the stronger we’ll be.
I was recently invited to write an introduction to a publication celebrating the new Alasdair Gray exhibition at the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities in London, which will be running from June 2018 until January 2019. The fully illustrated catalog is available here and is well worth a look, being made up of portraits borrowed from Alasdair’s home. As well as images from pieces in the exhibition, there are essays on Gray’s work by Allan Massie and Stuart Kelly, both widely respected writers and critics who have long associations with the artist. I’m grateful for being able to reproduce my introduction here. The museum on 11 Mare Street, E8, London. And as I explain below, it’s no ordinary museum.
Introduction: ‘Paintings, Drawings & Notebooks’ – Alasdair Gray at the Viktor Wynd Museum, 2018-19
by Rodge Glass
When I heard that a selection of Alasdair Gray’s art was going to be exhibited in the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, I remember thinking, Ah yes, that makes sense. As regular visitors may know, this started out as a basement curiosity shop, expanding into an attempt to fill that vast space between ‘what the establishment elite believes is worth of worship and what exists in the world.’ In my opinion, that makes Gray a perfect fit. Unnoticed by that elite for decades, Gray has always been rooted firmly in his world, primarily being concerned with recording people and physical spaces who would otherwise disappear if he didn’t render them. For decades, he himself was considered to be a curiosity by the few who were aware of his practice. Even within the Scottish art world, he was a footnote. That has since changed, and radically. But before stepping into this space, it’s worth knowing about where he started out. With Gray, the past is often the present, the present very much in the past.
Alasdair Gray is, was, has always been both visual artist and writer. From his earliest childhood sketches, which blended picture into word into picture, he has spent a lifetime resisting expectation that the two should remain separate. As an ambitious teenager writing in notebooks now housed in the National Library of Scotland, he imagined a future shelf of books he would write, all of which he would illustrate himself: a novel, a book of collected short stories, a book of collected non-fiction, a book of collected plays, a book of collected poems. Each of those, he expected, would include portraits of people and places in his home city of Glasgow, some dense and intricate, some spare line drawings. Astonishingly, he did eventually publish all the books on that imagined shelf, though it took him until his seventies to realize the ambition, and there were many digressions along the way.
With Gray, you have to be patient with digressions. Long gestation periods are usual for an artist who took thirty years to write his first novel, Lanark (1981), a book that transformed the Scottish literary landscape and made the artist an overnight success at fifty-one. A success, that is, as a writer. Lanark is every bit as much a work of visual art as it is a novel, and is now widely regarded as a classic of the form. But somewhere in the ensuing noise around publication, the fact that Gray had always considered his visual practice of equal value to his literary art seemed to be lost. Over the following decades, he complained that one form had overtaken the other. Writing, he described as draining. Painting, an invigorating physical activity that gave him energy.
All Gray’s literary output contained examples of his distinctive visual practice intruding on the text – those clean, sensitive pen drawings among them – as well as featuring book covers which were birthed as paintings. Despite producing over twenty books in this manner across the literary spectrum – from the fantastical collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983) to the playful, prize-winning novel Poor Things (1992) to his vast non-fiction work The Book of Prefaces (2000) – this visual element was often dismissed by critics as somehow a minor adornment to the main work, the words. Gray disagreed, and continued working. Sometimes on his biblical-themed murals, some of which have since been destroyed, or painted over, or dismantled since. Also, on his growing archive of portraits and landscapes which built up an evolving picture of his disappearing city, his Glasgow. Elements of each of these were sometimes co-opted for other works; Gray is nothing if not a serial recycler, often re-using lost images, or trying to improve on past works with new versions. All this time Gray painted for pleasure, considering himself ‘deeply unfashionable’. Having never left his home city, and been neither organized nor well connected, he never expected to be.
And so it proved for many more years, something perhaps accentuated by the fact that Gray was disorganised, often living in penury, painting in pubs for the price of his meals and sketching portraits for fans of his literary work in the title pages of his books. But there’s no doubt, fast-forwarding to the present day, that the value of this work is being reappraised now. That’s not just about younger artists namechecking an elder, though that’s part of the picture, and the two-part ‘Spheres of Influence’ exhibition at GoMa and Glasgow School of Art to celebrate Gray’s 80th birthday was revealing in terms of understanding both where his work came from and how it has been passed on to others. But the most notable change in Gray’s artistic fortune is one that is hidden from visitors.
Sorcha Dallas became Gray’s art agent a decade ago. Since then she has dedicated a huge amount of time and energy to finding and cataloguing Gray’s huge disparate output stretching back over six decades and more, then presenting it in new and innovative ways. One of those ways is, as described above, putting Gray under new light. Another is allowing the work to be seen in its own right, rather than simply as an addendum or footnote to the books the artist has also produced.
The exhibition at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in 2014/15, ‘From the Personal to the Universal’, was an example of how this could work. It took place in the temporary basement gallery space, but saw more visitors witnessing Gray’s art in the few months it was on display than had done so for most of his life up to that point. It wasn’t until I visited this exhibition myself – moving through Gray’s Glasgow Art School work from the 1950s, on to reproductions of his ambitious, lost murals, on to the portraits created as part of his work as Artist Recorder at the People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow in the 1970s – that I felt I could appreciate Gray’s visual output without feeling the unspoken pressure of literary context. The only words here were arced around the figures being portrayed.
Even these helped me see Gray in new ways. One of his pieces, of his son Andrew aged 7 in his then-home in Kersland Street, seemed familiar and unfamiliar all at once. Hadn’t I come across it before? Then I noticed the words, ‘Drawn 1972. Painted 2009.’ For Gray, nothing is ever finished. Every rendered image is always in a state of flux, of incompleteness, waiting to be altered to take in new perspectives or lifted and placed in another context. This can be seen writ large in his ‘Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties’ (1964), also the much more recent Glasgow Hillhead Underground mural, which is a kind of who’s who of Gray vignettes and emblems recognisable to fans. It also exists in Gray’s largest and most-viewed mural at the Oran Mor Arts Centre in Glasgow, which features his glorious night sky which blends Adam and Eve, entwined below the stars, with contemporary real-life figures from the city’s West End. As ever, recording the disappearing. Juxtaposing the real and the unreal. And open to new, complementing perspectives.
All of which brings me to the selection featured here in Viktor Wynd’s Museum, featuring a series of Gray portraits, some of which are new to me – those of Tony Bliss (husband of Mary, who Gray once proposed to, way back in 1959), also Helen Mitchel, Alan Singleton. I’m pleased to see, in particular, that several of Gray’s portraits of May Hooper are featured, being an example of just the sort of multiple-view approach discussed above. May, distractedly looking away from the artist, chair barely visible. May in white bodice, framed by a much larger chair, which dominates the frame. May, naked, the chair she’s sitting on now invisible, looking directly at the artist. Each of these are valuable pieces from the Gray visual archive, some of which lay partly finished in the artist’s studio room in his home for many years before being completed. (Not that they ever are.)
It’s interesting, I think, both before and after Gray’s literary breakthroughs, that he was producing visual art which few noticed at the time, but which is now coming to prominence, and being re-examined in a new context. The longer that passes, the less marginal these appear. Indeed, old Gray murals are still literally being uncovered, with one from 1965 just going on display for the first time in 2018 in Glasgow. (Of course, he’s added a poem to the new version, fifty years on.) Considering the prominence of the Oran Mor mural, plus the Hillhead Underground mural, and the growing interest in Gray’s art internationally, it seems the visual practice is finally getting a bit of the attention it deserves. But in my opinion, that only makes it more special to be able to witness Gray’s work in its natural home – a Museum of Curiosities.
Over the next month, Edge Hill University’s Festival of Ideas is busy transforming the campus into a buzzing hub of events activity, from film screenings to book launches to debates, plays, performances and round tables right across the arts and sciences. This year’s theme is ‘Equalities’: the first words that came into my mind when I was asked for recommendations for this year’s bill under that heading were ‘404 Ink’ and ‘Nasty Women’.
I love a good DIY, ground-up, fizzing-with-energy, radical publishing house, and was fascinated by the Nasty Women phenomenon which seemed to mushroom so fast last year. In the wake of D***ld Tr**p’s labelling of Hillary Clinton as a ‘nasty woman’ during his election campaign, two young independent publishers in Glasgow, Heather McDaid and Laura Jones (aka 404 Ink, whose tagline is ‘Publishing Loud’), set about crowdfunding a book which would all at once reclaim that phrase and act as a temperature-take. Here was a creative non-fiction book that brought many new young female writers to the fore, covering a huge range of topics examining what it is to be a woman in the 21st Century. There are interviews, essays and accounts covering everything from punk to politics, to being the child of immigrants, to sexual assault, working class identity, family and much, much more. It’s hugely ambitious, and saw a major breakthrough for the new publisher, being the best-selling book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one of the biggest in the world. Since then the publishers have moved on to other great things, with Chris McQueer’s recent short story collection Hings being one of the most notable. But Nasty Women is a special and rare book, and it’s still making waves. We’re chuffed that Heather and Laura, also contributors Joelle A. Owusu and Laura Waddell, both huge talents in their own right, will be coming to discuss Nasty Women at the Festival of Ideas. The weekend also sees a vegan food festival and, appropriately enough, talks on the suffragettes as well as a performance of Mrs Pankhurst Presents Votes for Women, at 7.30om the same night.
The Nasty Women is FREE and is chaired by our brand new Lecturer in Creative Writing, Claire Dean. Hope to see you there. You can book your place HERE.
Joelle A. Owusu
“…an essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now”
Rodge will be reading new work from novel-in-progress Once a Great Leader alongside the Glaswegian writer Anne Donovan (author of the novels Buddha Da, Gone are the Leaves and Being Emily) at 3pm this coming Thursday 12th April, in the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. Tickets are FREE but can be booked in advance here.
This reading is part of the Crossways, a new festival run by Editor of the Irish Pages, Chris Agee, aimed at forging new cultural and literary links between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and their various diasporas. The festival takes place from Monday 9th – 15th April 2018 and features a stellar cast of prose writers, poets and filmmakers from both sides of the Irish Sea – look out especially for David Kinloch, Robert Crawford, Bernie McGill, Beatrice Colin, Alan Gillis and Bernard MacLaverty. You can find the full programme here.
The particular aim of Crossways is to foster and expand the rather weak literary links between Ireland and Scotland across the North Channel. It brings together notable Irish writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural figures – from both North and South – together with their Scottish peers, in a well-planned and well-balanced Festival focussing on the longstanding contribution of Irish people, history, language, culture and writing to both Glasgow and the Scottish nation. The overall balance is about one-third Irish, one-third Diaspora Irish-Scottish, and one-third Scottish.
All events are free across the four venues. Advance booking is not available for Monday and Tuesday at City Halls. But it is recommended that advance booking be made for those Wednesday through Saturday at the Tron Theatre (Box office: 0141 353 8000 /via “Search” function at www.tron.co.uk). Admission will otherwise be on a first come, first served basis for all events. The Recital Room at City Halls holds no more 120. Babbity Bowster, the Vic Bar at the Tron, and Blackfriars Basement have a seating capacity of around 50. Early arrival is therefore advised. Brochures will be distributed widely through the Merchant City and Glasgow, and can be requested at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Christmas, I’ve written a story for Ormskirk’s Festival of Tales, which has included newly commissioned artworks, a site-specific play in the town centre, and three short stories, all creative responses to myths of Ormskirk, a Lancashire market town with a thousand years of history.
I take Orme the Viking as a departure point for my tale, but this is a contemporary re-imagining of the figure for an adult reader. My Orme has lived for over a thousand years and has retired to Ormskirk. He’s now a regular drinker at The Golden Lion pub, in the town centre, and it’s during one boozy session at the pub that he narrates the story of his time in Ormskirk, recounting the ways in which the town has changed across the centuries.
And here’s what I said in a news article about being involved in the project:
“It’s been a pleasure to be able to delve into the past of Ormskirk and try to bring some of those stories to life again for this year’s Festival of Tales.” All myths and legends are stories that have been told and retold over time; evolving as the place they record evolves. So what we’ve tried to do is give these particular stories new life. It’s been great to work with two other writers, Claire Dean and James Rice, who both have meaningful connections to Ormskirk, as I think this makes a real difference to whether you can get a sense of the place you’re writing about.’
‘Orme & The Golden Lion’ by Rodge Glass (opening)
It’s a good spot, this. Look, you can see right through to the clock tower. All the life around it. You get the noise and the movement of market day, the sounds and the smells. You’re in amongst it, especially now, with the place all lit up like fireworks. You can tell the time from this table too, so I always know how long I’ve got left. These days I have a curfew – safest all round. If I have more than a few, well lad. Let’s just say it’s not pretty…
You can read a PDF of the full ‘Orme & the Golden Lion’ story here.
Limited edition booklets featuring the story, alongside ‘The Two Sisters’ by Claire Dean and ‘A Bit of Folklore’ by James Rice are available to buy at the Chapel Gallery, Ormskirk (only 100 copies).
Information on the two other stories in the project is below this message, along with the start of the stories themselves.
Claire Dean has produced a short story inspired by Ormskirk Parish Church and, in particular, the church’s most peculiar features: its Tower and a Steeple, both at one end, which makes it unique in the UK. Local folklore describes two sisters squabbling over the addition of a Tower or a Steeple to the Church. In an attempt to appease them, their father built both. This witty short story is unique for a family audience. Through Viking magic, the sisters’ experience fantastical adventures, weaving through the blanket of time, but always returning to Ormskirk, their home. A series of free workshops are planned to run in parallel with the festival, facilitated by Claire.
‘The Two Sisters’ by Claire Dean (opening)
Have you heard the story of the two sisters who argued so much they chased the sun out of the sky? When Signy said it was dawn, Runa said it was dusk, and when Signy said it was dusk, Runa said it was dawn. This went on and on and on until the sun hid from them to get some peace and the long dark came to their lands.
The two sisters were daughters of Orme. They came here on a great ship packed with their father’s men, all the wives and children, their mother and grandmother, and just enough food for everyone to survive. Orme made the two sisters lookouts and they quarrelled all the way across tides and time. When Signy said all was calm, Runa said there was a storm coming, and when Signy said there was a storm coming, Runa said all was calm. This went on and on and on until the sea hid from them to get some peace and the boat came to rest on dry land…
James Rice’s debut novel Alice and the Fly has been well received internationally. James has strong connections to Ormskirk, particularly having worked in the local Waterstones, and he grew up in nearby Maghull. James’ story is for a young adult audience and has a modern day setting. It revolves around Lucy Morris, a teenager at Ormskirk High School who has been set a research task involving the infamous Ormesher murders for her school History project. The Ormesher sisters were gentle souls who were brutally murdered in 1956 in an incident that shook the quiet town of Ormskirk, a crime this violent had ever happened before. This is a coming of age story, as Lucy – who takes her research project far more seriously than the rest of her class – gets her first glimpse at the horrors of the world.
‘A Bit of Folklore’ by James Rice (opening)
She’s stood in Ormskirk town centre on a cold Friday morning, spring 1956. It’s raining. The pavements are crowded with people, all in their finest clothes. It’s as busy as market day, except on market day there are stalls and the crowds are buzzing, whereas today everyone’s still. Some people have umbrellas, others stand with their heads bowed, hats in hands, allowing their hair to wet.
Nan’s hungry. She’s not actually Nan, not yet, but is still a six-year-old girl, and – even though she must know they will do nothing to satisfy her hunger – what she wants most of all are Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. Her mother sometimes walks her to the sweet shop on the corner but hasn’t done so for a week now because the shop has been closed. Something has happened to the two old ladies that run it. Somehow this has led to her and her mother being stood out in the rain…