Alasdair Gray, perhaps best known for his seminal debut Lanark, was both an award-winning author and painter of some of Glasgow’s best-known artworks.
As I found myself sitting beneath the swirling galaxy of the Oran Mor’s enormous mural, I took a moment to think about the man who had spent his time painstakingly designing everything around me, and had, for the last few months, taken over my life.
Three months previously, as I procrastinated starting my search for a placement opportunity for the new semester, I came across the Alasdair Gray Archive while scrolling aimlessly through my Instagram feed: I asked about the possibility of an internship there and then. After discussing the invaluable work done by the Archive with its fulltime curator Sorcha Dallas, I was ready to jump right in. Soon I was being tasked with creating a comprehensive bibliography of Gray’s work; being perhaps a little naïve I guessed this would require no more than a couple hours of hard work. Before I knew it, I found myself combing through National Library archives, choosing between competing ISBN numbers, and trying to find a poem originally published in a now long out of print journal. For a while all my focus was on Alasdair Gray.
I had first encountered his work while in my 2nd year of undergraduate studies through his masterpiece Poor Things. Gray mania quickly took hold: his adopted motto, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” was scrawled in marker across a friend’s fridge, his artwork was pored over, while my usually book-shy brother devoured his short story collections and political pamphlets one after the other. Having opened up our imaginative landscapes it seemed as if he had always been there, until he wasn’t.
When his death was announced in 2019, I was still living in Glasgow, surrounded by his murals and stories. During the months of lockdown which followed soon after I spent my time reading his first two translations of Dante: Hell and Purgatory. Taking my daily walk through his beloved West End, I was struck by how often the Gray’s description of the biblical world collided with the city around me. Gray had written himself into Glasgow’s voice, much as Dante had with Italy.
Applying to take on an internship with the Archive was therefore more than working through a checklist or picking up a class credit. Gray had come to define what I understood as contemporary(ish) Scottish fiction and the placement was therefore an opportunity I was eager to grab with both hands.
It was however quite a different thing to approach Gray’s work from the perspective of publisher. Instead of living within the world of his writing I found myself engaging with his work at a distance: both through the need to view him as a subject of the past, and due to the literal distance found myself travelling on the train to visit the archive. My days in Glasgow were now behind me.
Instead, I now found myself in Edinburgh, studying on Napier’s Publishing masters course. Engaging with literature through the lens of the publishing industry added a new dimension to my understanding of an individual who was themselves deeply involved with the practicalities of producing a text. I found a new appreciation for Gray’s independent press Dog and Bone and his obsession over the typesetting and illustrations in his work. Alasdair Gray was now not only an inspiration for Scottish fiction but and example for how the publishing industry can approach and produce a text.
So, as I sat in the crowded hall ready for the event to begin, I had become as interested in the practicalities of the publishing and production of Alasdair Gray as his writing. Alasdair was famous for the editorial control he held over his works, yet what struck me time and again while reading through his essays and biographies was the invaluable work of typists, editors, and proof-readers in order to execute his vision (as well as to hold him to any kind of schedule). Publishing, though it often infuriated Gray, provided him with a framework to share his art with the world in its clearest and most complete form. As I listened to Holly McNish, Val MacDiarmid and Liz Lochhead (all award-winning writers in their own right) give readings from the Gray’s Dante translations, newly released as a complete trilogy in paperback by Canongate, I also understood the cultural role all truly worthwhile publishers must have.
The many attendees of the event had been brought together by their shared love of Alasdair Gray and the ongoing work of the Archive to preserve his creations. However, the role of the publisher in sharing these works with the world cannot be understated. At its best publishing can transform the work of the individual to the story for the community. Gray’s ideas have always existed as much in the paratext as the text itself, and this is something I believe the entire industry can learn from. When we approach a work, our craft should rise up to meet it, whether that be a work of fiction, journalism, or scientific study. True publishing can share, amplify and transform a writer’s voice in the most beautiful of ways.
Alasdair Gray represents an idea of Scottish culture which is at once epic in scope and utterly relatable. This was apparent to me from the moment I first started reading his work. Less immediately obvious however, was the way in which Gray highlights the art of publishing. Production issues such as font, binding, and proofreading, which would not have concerned me previously, were now, thanks to my Publishing Masters at the forefront of my mind. Sorcha Dallas and the Alasdair Gray Archive allowed me the time, responsibility, and access to explore these ideas in an incredibly enriching environment. More than anything, the placement demonstrated to me the joy of a text’s physicality and history, and the connections and communities we can build through the work of only one person.