FOLLOWING on from the Alasdair Gray conference last week, Alan Riach asks a few questions of the conference convener, the novelist and Alasdair Gray’s biographer, Rodge Glass.

Alan Riach: How has it been, organising and co-ordinating this conference, with such a various range of participants of different professions and vocations and from various parts of Europe – artists and poets and filmmakers as well as academic scholars and curators?

Rodge Glass: Anyone who’s been trying to arrange a big cultural event across borders over the Covid years may say the same thing: it’s been a challenge! But even through the uncertainties of 2020 and 2021, it’s been not just enjoyable to put this event together with others, it’s been an essential part of how I’ve coped.

I believe in the value of Alasdair’s work and this process has been all about finding others in places around the world who feel the same, who bring their own perspectives and specialisms to the discussion, making Gray Studies more diverse, more worthwhile. I’m peace, love and understanding at the best of times! – but that really gives me joy.

The National:

There’s a perception sometimes within Scotland that Scottish writers or artists couldn’t possibly be interesting to those outside the country, or folk from other places who choose to make Scotland their home, that there’s something parochial or reductive about choosing to interrogate the work of cultural figures from this part of the world.

I’m an outsider to Glasgow, but I’ve spent 25 years of my life here, and the opposite seems self-evident to me. There’s so much in this work that speaks to those from such a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures, languages, identities, generations. Putting together a conference like this – which brings visual artists, writers, architects, academic scholars, and those who specialise in other figures related to Gray and Glasgow together – just makes this clearer to me.

AR: Did you always intend the repositioning of the visual arts as a priority alongside Alasdair’s literary work, seeing them together as a coherent vision in The Gray World, so to speak?

RG: It was part of the idea from very early on. When you attempt an event like this you have to ask yourself, not just why do it, but why do it now? The answer was obvious: we do it now in order to push things forward – to reflect the change in the way Alasdair Gray’s work has been perceived in the 10 years since Camille Manfredi ran the first international Gray conference, with Alasdair’s support, back in 2012.

The main change over those 10 years is in the way Gray’s visual art is seen. Alasdair always said he was an artist who fell into writing, and he created a vast body of work over 65 years of practice - murals, portraits, landscapes, prints, sketches.

But until Alasdair was quite elderly, you could not find any of his work even in minor Scottish galleries. He was ignored – a footnote to a footnote. Clearly, his major mural works within Glasgow made towards the end of his life – at Oran Mor, with his vast Garden of Eden mixed with modern Glasgow, also his Hillhead Subway mural – they’re a part of the growth in interest recently.

Now, so many ordinary Glaswegians see his work, for free, just going about their daily lives.

His visual art is now present to all sorts of people who have no idea that primarily, for 40 years and more, Gray was discussed mainly as a writer who changed Scottish literature.

The National:

Also, his work was organised and promoted for the first time in a coherent way over the last decade, meaning his work is now in Tate London, has been exhibited in Europe and North America, and there have been major exhibitions of his work around Scotland.

THIS seemed the time to focus on these changing perceptions and to ask how this alters our understanding of both Gray’s books (which always contain his distinctive art) and his visual art (which almost always contains words too).

By opening the conference up in this way, many more new folk are included, welcomed into Gray Studies. When the very first book of criticism of Gray’s work was published in 1991, every chapter except one was about his writing. His art was a small room in the house of his reputation. No longer.

AR: I imagine that nobody would choose to be a “disciple” of Alasdair or try to follow in his footsteps, emulating his work, but as a novelist and writer yourself, would you say you had learned from him things in the art and the craft of writing, or from his example as a thinker and artist?

RG: Working with Alasdair was life-changing for me and though elements of our writing styles are very different, I’m not shy about saying I have followed in his footsteps in certain key ways.

What attracted me to Alasdair so much rather than any other major writer whose work I loved – and there have been many! – was Alasdair’s generosity and compassion in his work. Compassion, and how it manifests itself in creative work, has become my lifelong pre-occupation, and this is rooted in what I witnessed working for Alasdair, and observing him for many years.

I was young when I got to know him. I was in my early 20s, and in a new country, far from my family and my community. I was desperate to be a writer but had no idea how to go about it. Simply seeing Alasdair at work every day taught me what a thoughtful, moral way to go about treating others might look like.

He taught me a great deal about the craft of writing when I witnessed him editing his own sentences. He spent enormous amounts of time trying to make his language invisible. He always wanted shorter, clearer ways of expressing himself. He once spent three hours trying to get a single sentence right.

The National:

But I’d say that the main thing he showed me was how he stayed true to his artistic ideas while not feeling or acting superior to others.

AT every turn, Alasdair chose to foreground others, to present others, while hiding himself. Whether in the portraits of the cleaners on the mirrors at Oran Mor, or including fellow Glaswegian writers in his Index of Plagiarisms in Lanark, or insisting on paying his secretaries more than he was earning himself, he acted with compassion and generosity and genuine humility.

That’s a big part of the reason why I think there’s so much affection and warmth out there for Alasdair. It’s in every line of his writing, in every line of his art.

AR: As Alasdair’s biographer, sometime secretary and friend, how do you think of him now, more than two years since his death?

And how do you think of his work? How does it stand in the world of contemporary fiction? How does it show signs of lasting value?

RG: I can’t speak for anyone else – though I do know that Alasdair had many assistants, secretaries, collaborators and friends who had lots of different types of relationships with him over many years, and often those happened at the same time. I was his student at the same time as being his secretary.

When my biography of him first came out, in typical style, Alasdair reviewed it himself – in The Guardian! He played the part of the critic, while also saying he believed we would remain friends, despite his critique of my book of his life. And we did remain friends, though I was far less important to him than he was to me.

It’s impossible for me to parse all those different elements of our relationship, far less make an objective judgement about the work’s value. I know it speaks to me and continues to give back to me, even after all these years. Someone gets in contact with me every week, even now, to share something they know, or own, or remember – they say, I didn’t know who to send this to, but I thought his biographer might like to know about it.

My bias is pretty clear. My biography was interrogative and independent, but it was also an unashamedly loving series of personal portraits.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve sought to grow “Gray Studies” by supporting others to give their view of his work. Often those people never knew Alasdair personally. Perhaps they grew up in The Netherlands, or the US, or France, and they see different things in the work that I couldn’t possibly see. Purely as an observer of the contributions of others, I see all the time that many others value Gray’s work, and their number is growing.

In Scotland as in other small nations, we tend to appreciate our artists more after they’re no longer with us. Alasdair left behind an extraordinary legacy, and the level of interest in it is hugely heartwarming for someone like me, who would never be objective. It’s also deeply connected to the history of Glasgow. Alasdair made Glasgow his life’s work. He recorded its disappearing people and places, and asserted, over and over: this deserves to be seen.

AR: And when you come to Alasdair himself …

RG: Most people need a role model: Alasdair was mine. He showed me what a writer is, and – let’s be honest – he stood in as a kind of grandfather to me as I spent so many long hours with him watching him work or doing secretarial work for him. Soon, I felt I wanted to record this experience, and I got this idea for a creative biography that was partly a walk through the life and work, partly this series of immediate portraits, across time.

AR: So if this was a way out, it was also a way in? And a way to reconnect, to relate past to present?

RG: Yes, absolutely. That connection was essential. You can’t just run away from something – you have to find something you want to run towards. Michel Faber once said: “One of the most absurd tragedies about us as a species is that each of us is convinced we’re misunderstood, alone, a misfit. There doesn’t seem to be anybody in the world who feels they’re what a standard-issue human being ought to be. Literature reminds us of this paradox – our specialness and our commonality.”

AR: And that was essentially what the international conference on Gray was all about.