Gray and Glasgow – Living Imaginatively

I was deeply saddened this morning to hear of the death of the author and artist Alasdair Gray, undoubtedly one of the most significant English-language authors of the last century. I have a strong personal connection to Gray’s writing as in some obscure way it’s bound up with my decision to come to study and live in Glasgow.

I first came across Gray’s writing in one of Penguin’s Firebird anthologies in the early 1980s, when I was about 14, then the following year my partner’s brother, who was studying Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University, came home with a copy of Lanark and gave it to me to read it. I was completely captivated by everything about the book and pestered my friends to read it, most of them did and were equally enthralled. (Dragonhide was a condition we recognised well.) After Lanark, I went on to Unlikely Stories Mostly and 1982 Janine. I know 1982 Janine is a divisive book, and I certainly read it at an impressionable age, but I still think it’s an incredibly powerful work, and one that comes frighteningly close to capturing the disorienting reality of mental breakdown in words and typography.

When I left school, I had hoped to go to Edinburgh to the School of Scottish Studies, but although I was successful in securing a place, the university didn’t offer me a place in halls, and, as I couldn’t afford to travel to Edinburgh to find a flat, I had to turn the place down. Instead I went to Glasgow, which offered me accommodation and a place to study Scottish Literature and Archaeology. I wasn’t exactly keen on going to Glasgow at first, but in an odd way it was through the writing of Alasdair Gray and Edwin Morgan, and an anthology of Glasgow poetry called Noise and Smoky Breath, that features Gray’s artwork of Cowcaddens on the cover, that I warmed to the idea of moving to the city. I say odd, because Gray’s vision of Glasgow in Lanark is very much a dystopian one, but it’s a very human dystopia.  

When I first read Lanark in Stornoway as a teen, I had no real experience of Glasgow, it was a city I’d visited only once as a child, so re-reading the book at university while I was living in the city was a real eye-opener for me.   I saw Gray reading several times while I was a student, most notably at Felt Tipped Hosannas, a Mayfest event in 1990 to commemorate Edwin Morgan’s 70th birthday. He read an excerpt of McGrotty and Ludmilla and he was hilarious.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Lanark since then, at least a dozen probably. It’s a book I go back to time and time again and every time I read it, it becomes more relevant.

It goes without saying that I love Gray’s art as much as his writing, as it’s really impossible to separate the two. For a short time, while I worked at Strathclyde University in the early 2000’s, we were privileged to share our Cetis office with some original prints of the Lanark illustrations from the University’s art collection.

I’ve lived in Glasgow for over 30 years now and somehow my experience of the city is still inextricably bound up with Gray’s work, whether it’s his artwork in Hillhead, Oran Mor, or The Chip, or his words that are woven into the fabric of the city.

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

Lanark ~ Alasdair Gray

As an eighteen year old teenager from the Outer Hebrides, I was able to imagine living in Glasgow because I had already visited it through Gray’s art, and never once have I felt like a stranger here.

She is done with doing

I was deeply saddened today to hear of the death of Ursula K Le Guin.  Despite being an avid reader as a kid, for some strange reason I never came across any of Le Guin’s books.  I have no idea why but it’s something I still regret.  It was actually my current partner who introduced me to LeGuin in my mid thirties. During a very wet holiday in Sleat on the Isle of Skye he read The Wizard of Earth Sea to me.  I was entranced, and read all six books of the series back to back.  Having grown up in the Western Isles, the archipelago of Earthsea, and the rocky island of Gont in particular, was instantly familiar. The Outer Hebrides with dragons!  What’s not to like?

It’s hard to pick a favourite from the series, but if I had to, it would be Tehanu, because it is so rare to find a work of transformative fiction told from the perspective of a middle aged woman.  And it’s not just the perspective of one single woman, women’s experience of the world, of child hood, adulthood, birth and death is absolutely central to the whole mythos of Earthsea.

It was only after reading the Earthsea series two or three times that I moved on to Le Guin’s science fiction.  I never got much further than The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, because they raised so many questions and gave me so much to think about and to process.

When I read the news of Le Guin’s death on twitter this morning, it was The Dispossessed I picked up to read in remembrance, but it’s this quote from the end of The Farthest Shore that’s been with me all day.

The Doorkeeper, smiling, said, “He is done with doing. He goes home.”

Return of the Six Best Conference Questions

Way back in 2013 Joanne Begiato, Steven Gray, Isaac Land and I wrote a blog post called The six best conference questions: Or, how not to paper-bomb at a conference. The piece was intended to be an encouraging response to a rather entertaining article written by Allan Johnson in Time Higher Education about the six questions every academic dreads to hear at conferences. That post turned out to be by far and away the most popular post ever to appear on this blog and it’s now found a new lease of life in The Guardian.  Earlier today The Guardian Higher Education Network re-published our piece under the title Don’t be a conference troll: a guide to asking good questions. We’ve had an overwhelming response to the article on twitter so it seems like this piece is still striking a chord with colleagues across the sector.

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I’m also delighted to report that by the end of the day we were more popular than Jo Jonson’s University reforms 😉

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Many thanks to Steven for suggesting we submit this to The Guardian!