MOST stuff these days is pre-digested platitudinous pap designed to diminish the intellect, dull the mind and regulate responsiveness. But the second international conference on Alasdair Gray is coming up this week. Alan Riach advises: Take a big bite!

TOWARDS the end of his great play The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus depicts himself, “The Grumbler” or “Kraus the Grouse” at his desk, reading this: “The desire to determine the exact amount of time it takes to convert a tree in the forest into a newspaper prompted the owner of a paper mill to conduct an interesting experiment.

“At 7.35am he had three trees felled in a nearby forest and, after the bark was removed, had them shipped to his pulp mill. The trunks were converted into pulp so quickly that the first roll of newsprint left the machine at 9.39am. The roll was taken by truck to the printing press of a daily paper, four kilometres away, and at 11am the newspaper was sold in the streets. Thus it had required only three hours and 25 minutes before the public could read the latest news on material made from trees in which the birds had sung that very morning.”

Kraus’s work is a condemnation of the debasement of language, the corruption of information and the deliberate spread of contagious misapprehension at unstoppable velocity in the modern world, through newspapers. Fake news. One hundred years later, the cost and purpose of the production of newspapers is an even more urgent question: Is it for this the trees grow tall?

READ MORE: Alasdair Gray: Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation

And in the 2020s, you can form your own judgment about almost all the newspapers produced in the United Kingdom. Not all; almost all. But the production of bad news is much more quickly made and transmitted through other media. Its rates of infection are far higher and more widespread. Kraus was talking about consequences like the First World War. His play was first published in 1922 but he’d started writing it in 1915. We have even more serious consequences to anticipate in the 2020s. Some are already upon us, developing incrementally with almost no opposition to speak of.

The arts of Alasdair Gray are a resistance, an antidote, a permanent prescription for what good can be made of languages and paper, paint, pencils, pens, ink and a sense of social justice, public engagement. They stay with us since his death to be conveyed as best we can. He’s one of those people whose legacy fosters good things to follow in his wake.

I’ve been thinking about Alasdair’s hands, how he would handle things such as pens, brushes, books and easels, how the touch of his fingertips and the hold of his fingers enabled the contact between pages and eyes and minds, between what ink is made of and the phenomena of words, how language works in writing and in speech.

How his eyes would move from object to object, or look at you with curiosity and penetration, defensive yet open, curious yet respectful. How his voice worked, how sometimes something would trigger a wild guffaw and paragraph after paragraph of unpredicted verbal extrapolation, exhilaration, exaggeration, arms moving in all sorts of directions.

Then also how intense and concentrated he might be, and at the same time, self-reflective, thinking about his own experiences and the words he was using to describe them as he was saying them, as he was talking to you. How brush and paint, the sweep and precision of nib and line and point, full stop, the division between chapters, the spaces between sections, the indent signifying new paragraphs, how all these are deployed.

And the way separateness and connection are both represented, and consequently the way inter-connection and independence are related. I’ve been thinking about how his voice worked, how and what he valued, and how these things are made evident, both in his writing and his painting and drawing and in his understanding of the archive, the phenomenon of the good labyrinth.

Some labyrinths are always good to be lost in. Some of you might never wish to come out. But you must, for the world is the greatest of them all. Then you can go back in.

There is a lasting firmness in his vision, his drawing a line, his sense of how perspective changes, depending on where you stand. His work and life hold a lasting clarity.

Above all, he helps you to see. Which is also why he wanted independence for Scotland. Not only for social justice, which is true, but also to keep the lines clear, between what’s valued and what’s hostile to such value.

The first international conference on his work, convened by Professor Camille Manfredi, was held in Brest in 2012 and from it came the critical book Alasdair Gray: Ink for Worlds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), which Gray himself contributed to. It was a wonderful gathering of incisive intellectual readers and good people talking constructively and creatively.

READ MORE: Alasdair Gray conference in Glasgow: Celebrating the maker of imagined objects

Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo 1860-1913), once said that “Life is Mind out for a lark” and intrinsically opposed to “the strait-waistcoats of dull platitudes”. That’s what we were up to, what Alasdair was up to and what the participants in this second conference on Alasdair will undoubtedly be getting up to, too.

They include keynote contributions from novelist Ali Smith, and Jenny Brownrigg, exhibitions curator of the Glasgow School of Art, talking about the Alasdair Gray Archive, Gray’s icons and images, his understanding of disability, creative adaptations, and the launch of a new book of poems from Juana Adcock commissioned by the Gray Archive and Strathclyde University, as well as a paper from John Purser about the origins of the poem at the end of Lanark.

You remember it? It begins:


It’s a poem that stays in my own essential eternal anthology. But Lanark itself is a landmark that remains, a co-ordinate point in times of bad blizzard. The conference is entitled “Making Imagined Objects”. Conference convener Rodge Glass writes: “This two-day interdisciplinary conference will examine the nature, value and legacy of Alasdair Gray’s artistic output, considering his literary work and his visual practice, and the relationship between the two in Gray’s oeuvre.”

Many of the organisers of the first conference have been involved, aiming for a continuation of the discussion, picking up the threads of understanding after the last 10 years.

The first of the three objectives is to bring together and consider in the balance Gray’s work across visual art and literature in its almost innumerable forms. Much fine critical appraisal has focused on his literary works, and that continues.

BUT Gray’s vision as an artist is intrinsic to his literary work as well, and this needs further understanding, not least because our own culture is so saturated with bad images. Bad architecture, atrocious paintings, artists who can’t paint, art schools that don’t teach drawing, TV conventions designed to kill enquiry and dull the senses, the strafing heartlessness of advertising, that ghastly spectacle for the delusional mobs in London, gasping at the golden cow or calf, idolised by the Israelites.

Alasdair Gray’s art is an antidote to such bad practice and populist mob rule. Murals, portraits, stories, landscapes, non-fiction, illustrations, novels, poems: nothing is cut off and isolated. All good things speak to and listen to, and learn from each other, carefully. So perhaps as an example to our worsening world, the literary and the visual as he presents them are intrinsic to bringing together intellectual apprehension and enquiry, and sensual pleasure and exhilaration. That’s a lesson for us all.

The conference is also truly international, bringing folk from around the world with an interest in Gray together in his home city. With murals across the city, portraits and landscapes portraying its people and places, and with many of his literary works centred in Glasgow itself, Gray has become an integral part of Glaswegian culture and the political landscape.

Not only a writer, playwright and poet, he was also an artist, painter and illustrator. He made the cover art for all his books and designed how they feel, when you hold them. In later years he devoted himself to the brilliantly, intensely colourful ceiling and walls upstairs at the

Oran Mor cultural centre in Glasgow’s West End, and with the artist Nichol Wheatley, created the mural in Glasgow’s Hillhead underground station.

Such art is a living presence for thousands of people in Glasgow every day. Gray was centred here since the late 1940s. The conference is an Aonach in Gaelic, a high summit, a meeting place for different people from different countries, working in different disciplines.

And further: it should be a charge of useful energy, something artists, writers, thinkers, readers, any careful, creative person, might learn from, contribute to, and take with them into their own future time.

Gray was a great recycler of his own works and those of others. His creations were often made in response to existing works by others. He wasn’t reluctant to acknowledge such practice. You must always learn from the past if you want to get anywhere new.

The idea is to bring the substance of the conference into shape as a book, combining both creative and scholarly aspects and emphases and balancing their different but overlapping forms of enquiry. Showing respect with irreverence is part of the plan.

It’s hard to think of an artist more closely connected to their cultural landscape than Alasdair Gray is to Glasgow. So much of his work drew from, transformed and preserved Glasgow’s disappearing past, as a way forward to imagining Scotland’s possible futures. For Alasdair, Scotland was a place with the unfinished business of national self-determination. For us, it still is.

His art in all its forms and imagined objects is part of a vision that might, if we engage with it honestly, help bring about a society opposed to private profit crookery, villainy and criminality, a society fully invested in social wellbeing, and a nation uncoupled from the imperial yoke, that properly values her own independence.

Hopefully, all attendees will be participants in conversations and the talks given will prompt further conversations. And there may be no end to these ontological heroics.

The Gray Research Network has been established to co-ordinate communications and devise future events. If you’re interested, contact Rodge Glass: