Gray Day 2024

Happy Gray Day, one and all. To cocky chaps, wise old owls, urban foxes, queer fishes, merry devils, and back green puddocks.

Today’s the day chosen by Sorcha Dallas, his representative on Earth, to honour and remember the writer and artist Alasdair Gray.

Alasdair’s been gone five years now and I still miss him. I didn’t know him personally because I was too starstruck to introduce myself on any one of the countless times we passed on West End streets, but his physical presence was important to me. When I pass his old Hillhead flat, which I do all the time, I feel a sense of bereavement. I want to see his paint brushes on the windowsill, to know the wizard is in residence.

At 85 he was probably an old enough man to go: he’d had his fill of earthly pleasure despite being famously shy and he’d done more than his share of great work. But he gave to Glasgow an imaginary carapace, a glamour that lives on but, I fear, is dimming in his absence.

With Alasdair around, Glasgow didn’t look like a poorly-financed motorway city. It looked like this:

When his third-finest novel Poor Things was adapted for cinema by Yorgos Lanthimos and released early this year I was surprised to find myself frustrated that the London scenes in the film were not set in Glasgow as per the novel. I hadn’t expected to be troubled by this. Sorcha Dallas had written a generous statement about the film being something other than the book, that it could put forward its own vision of a world. I agreed. But as I sat in the Glasgow Film Theatre, supping from my plastic pint pot of Alloa ale, I changed my mind. Those scenes should have been set in Glasgow. For all intents and purposes, most of those scenes could have been Glasgow–Willem Dafoe had studied Gray’s accent and mannerisms after all and his housekeeper appeared to be Scottish too–but when Bella returns from her travels the word LONDON appears on the screen to make it good and clear. But why not elevate something (as Alasdair would have done, routinely positioning Glasgow as every bit as good as other European cities and his literary friends Agnes Owen and Edwin Morgan as equal to Jane Austen and Jonathan Swift) in your so-called art film instead of showing the usual images of a well-known capital now all but lost to oligarchs and Pret a Manger? Imagine how much more beautiful and intriguing those steampunkish rooftop vistas would have been had they consisted of the glotted spires, Grecian pillars, and Victorian mausolea of Glasgow instead of the usual metropolitan landmarks everyone’s seen a thousand times before. I think Alasdair would have preferred Poor Things to be set in Glasgow. But as I say, I never got to know him. I regret this.

Ah, never mind the film adaptations. His legacy is everywhere, in words and in pictures and in the deeds of the people he moved.

Here’s a reading I recorded for Sorcha a few years ago, on the first Gray Day. For my reading I chose a chapter of his undisputed best novel, Lanark.

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