WHEN I met Alasdair Gray first in the late 1970s, at a party given by friends, Italian translators, in a Glasgow flat, we were standing next to the drinks table, saying hello in a hesitant way as you do when you’re in a company you don’t know very well. For some reason our conversation quickly arrived at the prospect of China and we both somehow lit up, speculating on what that country was once long ago, was now and might yet be, what its ethos might mean, what we knew of it, how we could imagine it.

READ MORE: 'A true original': Scots pay tribute to Alasdair Gray
READ MORE: I was the last journalist to interview literary legend Alasdair Gray
READ MORE: Alasdair Gray's final interview: 'I hope I’ve learned how to be an artist'
READ MORE: Alasdair Gray's front page which galvanised the Yes movement

Neither of us had been there. We talked of translations, their extent and possibility, their necessity and limitation. Of all writing as translation of some sort. Of Ezra Pound and Hugh MacDiarmid, cabbages and kings. We paused after three hours. Almost everyone else had left. It seemed no time had passed.

And hearing the news of his death yesterday, as if no time has passed, the avalanche of memories floods in. The character rises through them, with all its flaws and features, but overall there stays a sense of his generosity. With love, trust, friendship, respect, for some; with the testing one, money; and most deeply, with time, as in that first conversation: a moral commitment to giving. The pleasure of it.

READ MORE: Alasdair Gray: The closest Scotland had to our own Leonardo da Vinci

The next time was in the old Third Eye Centre, at the launch of Lanark. I still have the fold-out one-sheet programme, with Lanark on one side, the Seven Poets exhibition on the other, and my autographed copy of the novel, dated 25 Feb 1981. It was a kaleidoscope night.

Soon after I’d returned from New Zealand and started work at Glasgow University, Alasdair along with James Kelman and Tom Leonard took on the Professorship of Creative Writing.

In one late conversation he told me that in fact, a little to his surprise, he was actually enjoying the work of teaching, of talking to students, of reading their work and making what he hoped was helpful comment.

It was that generosity again, a gentleness, a giving. The patience required of the artist was his, a commitment both to the work of the visual, and the work of the writing. As a teacher, too, all this in the knowledge of how it might help.

There were conversations, some correspondence, about literary things, the West Indian novelist Wilson Harris, and MacDiarmid.

Alasdair was a champion when less wise folk were not, and saw the virtues there beyond the liabilities. Scottish literature, the subject I profess, was his as well, the remit not to be guarded but kept open, in our own land and the world.

Alasdair’s little Canongate book on the subject can be read in an hour but has some insight fresh on every page. Not least and unexpectedly, on the wild combination of solid language and fantastic flamboyance in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (the Tailor Restitched).

As well as all the novels, the plays and poems, the paintings and drawings, there are the small books, pamphlets and essays which steel-bowelled scholars can catalogue and sift, at last with a sense of completeness.

What seemed an unquenchable appetite, an unstoppable plenitude of work, has its shape to be described now, in entirety, but never completely defined. As our needs change so will his provision for them.

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 lastingly a 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.

And yet, at the same time, you never knew what next, with Alasdair. It was an unpredicted delight when, after asking my permission, he turned me into a fictional character in his last novel, Old Men in Love.

And who’d have thought Dante would appear in the last years of his life, that sense he gives in his Inferno (Canto VIII, lines 20-28), of the poet being led onto the boat to cross the river, with Virgil:

My leader stepped aboard the ancient craft

then beckoned me. Unused to heavy freight

it settled lower with my weight, was rowed

much, much more slowly to the other shore

then, from the stagnant fen beside the boat

a muddy figure rose and said to me,

“Who are you, coming here before your time?”

“I am not here to stay, but who are you?”

said I, “One who must weep,” was his reply.

And yet that’s not enough. Let’s go back to Lanark, remember how it draws to a close:






No need to quote any more here. There’s always more to be said.

But we’ll never underestimate the gift of how he taught us still to be glad to see the light in the sky.