Gray-ed Expectations: When genius meets book festivals

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to relate a story about Alasdair Gray. Kind of. Maybe ‘a story that’s emblematic of Alasdair Gray’ would be more accurate.

A couple of years ago, Gray’s one-time secretarial assistant and subsequent biographer Rodge Glass was launching his second novel, Hope For Newborns, in Glasgow. It was a public reading followed by a Q&A, so in amongst Glass’s own invited guests were people who had just come along for a night out, including three bolshy-seeming middle-aged women sitting, arms folded, unimpressed, two rows from the front. As far as I could tell, they had never heard of Glass; my best guess was that they came along to most author events the bookshop held just to hear what the writers had to say for themselves.

During the reading, Gray arrived and seated himself in the back of the room, an intrusion that would have gone unnoticed by, say, the first five or so rows. The reading finished, Glass asked ‘any questions?’ and immediately the hand of one of the women shot up. ‘You were talking about your work with Alasdair Gray,’ she said, in a tone that suggested ‘aye, I’ve caught him out now!’

‘What kind of influence do you think he’s had on your own work?’ she asked. Immediately, that inimitable, air-piercing, ear-piercing shriek that Gray takes on when he gets excited rang out from behind her: ‘NEGLIGIBLE, I HOPE!’ She was appropriately mortified.

It’s a throwaway tale, but one that captures the thrill of seeing Gray in a public setting: a man who is, simultaneously, arguably the greatest writer to emerge from Scotland in the late twentieth-century and an agent of chaos, with little regard for propriety and decorum, far less what people might expect from him. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Gray read – or, at least, of seeing event organisers try to cajole Gray into reading – several times, and the above story is just the tip of his uniquely mad iceberg.

That constant vitality is why the Edinburgh International Book Festival was entirely justified in making Gray a focal point of this year’s proceedings, closing last night with an all-star tribute to the man: the first public reading of Fleck – his take on Faust – as performed by Gray, Glass, Will Self, Ian Rankin and many more; this following a more standard event last week where Gray talked about his A Life In Pictures.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Gray’s seminal Lanark, a book that opened up new possibilities for literature in Scotland. Without him, the current crop of Scottish authors whose work populates the rest of the festival might not exist. Yes, book festivals should encourage, nurture and publicise new authors; but not without a sense of lineage. When all’s said and done, Gray will stand as one of the giants of Scottish culture, the kind of writer readers come to feel privileged to have lived alongside. No opportunity to see him in the flesh should be taken lightly.

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