AT the General Election, Alasdair Gray voted Labour.

“In the past, I wrote a number of pamphlets supporting the Scottish National Party, and if I were to write a pamphlet now, which I thought of doing, it would be highly critical of the Scottish National Party. I am a big supporter of independence but I rather regret the fact that the party in Holyrood is not taking what strikes me as a properly independent line.”

Later that day, his predictions of a “continuation of a Tory Prime Minister in Westminster” – described as a “depressing thought” – turned out to be very much true.

Gray has seen a few elections in his lifetime. And at 84 (he turned 85 only last week), he was just awarded a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to Scottish literature by the Saltire Society.

“I feel very pleased about the award,” Alasdair says, “because I am not likely to be writing another novel, or work of fiction, or even play. My next book will be a translation of Dante’s Paradise, out next year.

“All I’ve to do is to design the cover of it. I was surprised that Canongate were interested in publishing the first translation. My wife thought it was a waste of time.”

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Born in Riddrie, east Glasgow, Gray studied at the Glasgow School of Art. Between 1972 and 1974, he belonged to a writing group organised by Philip Hobsbaum alongside James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard among others.

“When Elspeth King was the curator of the People’s Palace of Glasgow, the Labour government brought in a job creation scheme and Elspeth had the idea of employing me to do paintings for the local history museum,” he says.

“This was a steady wage, although not big. I had to give it up when I had a chance to get a job as writer in residence at the university.

“By that time my son ... needed speech therapy. I sent him to a private school. We were getting behind with the fees for it, otherwise I would have kept on doing it.”

He was the University of Glasgow’s writer in residence from 1977 to 1979, alongside Tom Leonard and James Kelman.

According to the Livelihoods of Visual Artists data report, published this year, artists earn an annual salary average of £16,150 of which £6020 comes from their art practice. Two thirds earn less than £5000 from their art and seven in 10 artists take on additional jobs to make ends meet. I ask what he thinks about the fact that only already wealthy people could work as artists, based on those salaries. “That’s largely always been the case,” he says. “Most notable artists came from families that could support them initially.”

Gray was not from a wealthy family. “Most of my portraits were from sittings. It was good to preserve the things that we lost,” he says, pointing at things in pictures that are no longer around.

“I wanted to create an even picture that was equal to everyone, so I painted a figure from all the political parties,” turning a page to a picture of Jimmy Reid surrounded by his daughters. “He was very nice. His family were also.”

In this year, Gray captured many angles of an old Glasgow; typists on their break, buskers, his son Andrew lazing in a park – alongside bigger figures, like prominent politicians, clergymen and celebrities.

“I couldn’t bring myself to paint my old school and I had to get a friend of mine to do it.” Gray points to a red brick building. “I don’t know why I couldn’t paint it. I liked a lot of that school.”

Gray’s murals are dotted around Glasgow still. His work in the Oran Mor on Byres Road is one of the largest works of art in Scotland.

Rather than winding down, Gray appeared in his last weeks to be doing the complete opposite. As we spoke, a pile of hand designed Christmas cards – his “literary squirrels” – were waiting to be signed.

“If I were working more, I’d be painting more. I have such a lot of works to finish” he says.

“I’m afraid I spend such a long time over things. In the past, it was easy not to rush since not many people bought pictures from me.

“I wasn’t popular or well known.”

It is a statement that could be disputed. Gray started writing Lanark, his most famous book, in 1954 whilst a student. Eventually published in 1981 by Canongate, Lanark was an immediate hit, skyrocketing him to a literary stratosphere. It is now regarded as both Glasgow’s epic, and a literary classic.

“Oh yes, it took a long time to write,” he tells me. “I wrote the two sections of Lanark simultaneously because I intended them to be different, separate books.

“I concluded that they are in very different ways inclined to be part of the same book, and I joined them together.”

Lanark’s complexity, size and metropolitan setting earned him regular comparisons to James Joyce, the Irish giant of literary modernism.

“I’m interested in stories and legends, and I’ve always been interested in making epics, because in a sense I intended Lanark to be a Scottish epic,” he says. “I like Joyce very much. I think the comparison is flattering, but I don’t see it.”

I TELL him that I believe him to be one of the first people to render Glasgow and its inhabitants in romantic art. “I am glad that you think so” he said. “I certainly wanted to.” We both agree that it is a working city, but a beautiful place. If he lived in somewhere like Manchester, would that artistic relationship stay the same?

“I’m sure it would, yes,” he said. “The fact I’ve lived here most of my life has made it special, like London was for Dickens.”

Gray has spent the last years amidst translations of Dante, but it is not his first foray into the translator’s remit. Illustrations of his version of TS Eliot’s, The Hippopotamus adorned his bedroom walls. After a lengthy battle with the copyright from the Eliot estate, he translated the poem into Scots. “No one would think to look,” he laughs.

I asked why he was no longer writing original prose. Was he suffering writer’s block?

“A writer’s block is one in which, like constipation, a writer feels there is something in them that they can’t get out. I don’t feel that at all. I have nothing in me that I can get out.”

My final question was to ask him, after all his decades creating, what he has learned. He is a little stumped.

“It’s a funny question to answer.”

In an American accent he laughed, “to thine own self be true – and never wrestle with heavy machinery”.

“I hope, after everything, that I’ve learned how to be an artist. Honestly, that’s all.”