Let Us Give (Un)Thanks
February 20, 2021 2:55 PM   Subscribe

25th February 2021 is the first Gray Day, a celebration of the writer and artist Alasdair Gray, on the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece Lanark.

A new edition of Lanark and a (free, hour long) Gray Day Broadcast on the night of the 25th will feature Ali Smith, Yann Martel, Alan Cumming, Denise Mina, Irvine Welsh, Gemma Cairney, Chitra Ramaswamy, Alex Kapranos, Ewen Bremner, Louise Welsh, Salena Godden, Gavin Mitchell, Bernard MacLaverty, Rodge Glass, The Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly and more.
posted by deeker (15 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
As an aside I thought better for a comment than in the main post, there is a village in Scotland called Freuchie. One of the small roads out of the village, to a minor road towards Auchtermuchty and Ladybank, is called Unthank. Not Unthank Road or Unthank Drive or anything, just Unthank! I walked along it by chance a few years ago and was suitably amazed.
posted by deeker at 3:00 PM on February 20 [5 favorites]

When I, an American, first read this novel, I did not know that either Unthank or Lanark was a real place. I thought they were totally made up. (Admittedly, I also thought Elon Musk was made up at first.)

Alasdair Gray is such a terrific writer. I assume he's so little known in the US because he doesn't fit well into our various genre classifications - too lit'ry for science fiction and fantasy, too fantastic for literary fiction and not from a nation known here for anything but Irvine Welshishness.
posted by Frowner at 3:37 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]

Alasdair Gray introduces then reads the bit where Lanark meets the author (slyt audio)
He's also almost unknown in England as well. Rough contemporary Martin Amis is a living god and Gray is unheard of. Silly place.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:56 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Just an aside: The quote attributed to Gray on the Canonsgate Wall was adapted, as he pointed out, from Canadian poet Dennis Lee. The fact that this is misspelled "Leigh" in news reports is a sad footnote.
from Civil Elegies:
And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early years of a better civilization.
posted by CCBC at 4:00 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]

I'm a fan, though it has been ages since I've read Lanark: A Life in 4 Books, Ten Tales Tall & True, Poor Things, and The Book of Prefaces.

I'm also a fan of the band The Unthanks., named for the the family of two members, Rachel and Becky. They also mention there's an Unthank Road in Norwich, and an Unthank Hall in Northumberland, and an Unthank village in Cumbria, and an Unthank Park in Portland, Oregon. [ and they do a fantastic cover of King Crimson's song Starless, which is not to be confused with the album Starless and Bible Black, and even though that album title is a lyric in the song, and even though that song was originally written to be the title track of that album. Starless and Bible Black comes from Dylan Thomas' poem Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, which begins:


FIRST VOICE (Very softly)
To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,
courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the
sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night
in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat
there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock,
the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds.
And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are
sleeping now.

Oh dear. I've gone off the rails again.

“But I do enjoy words—some words for their own sake! Words like river, and dawn, and daylight, and time. These words seem much richer than our experiences of the things they represent—”
― Alasdair Gray, Lanark
posted by grimjeer at 4:02 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting this! A few extremely short stories available online might also be of interest here: "The Spread of Ian Nicol," "Pillow Talk" (read by Alasdair Gray himself), and "Moral Philosophy Exam" (via The Common Breath, a publishing imprint based in Glasgow). There's also the longer but brilliant fiction about fiction / creative literary criticism, "The Story of a Recluse" (and its source material).
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:14 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]

I need to get around to reading Lanark. One of my best random book discoveries at age 18 was looking through the remainder bin at my University's book store, and finding Unlikely Stories, Mostly. I'd never heard of Gray, but the illustrations were compelling enough that I bought it. Made such a huge impression on teenaged me. I think I reread it dozens of times. Was just wonderfully gorgeous.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 4:22 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]

On review: I cannot believe I forgot to mention Unlikely Stores, Mostly. Thanks, Teegeeack.
posted by grimjeer at 4:30 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Yup, I miss Gray badly. Poor Things was more my jam than Lanark.

He was a kindly, if difficult type. He got Jeff Torrington's long-delayed masterpiece Swing Hammer, Swing! published by pretending to borrow a chapter from Jeff at their writing group to read himself at home, but secretly photocopying it and getting James Kelman to give it to his agent.
posted by scruss at 6:28 PM on February 20 [6 favorites]

I once got to spend an evening with Alasdair and Morag. I remember them both as lovely fascinating people and I have a small drawing by Alasdair which is one of my prized possessions. On the way home I took the elevator down with A&M and he sang Scots songs all the way down.
posted by a Rrose by any other name at 6:49 PM on February 20 [9 favorites]

Thank you for posting this. I also have fond memories of Alasdair and his work. I would also recommend A Life in Pictures.
posted by fregoli at 1:58 AM on February 21

There's a lovely 2014 documentary, A Life In Progress (available on YouTube).

The score is by Scott Twynholm (YouTube playlist) and it, too, is a thing of beauty featuring synths, cellos, violins, banjos and percussion - as well as copious excerpts of Gray discussing his life from said documentary.

Another personal anecdote: I used to buy weed off a guy who lived near Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh (close enough that he had to shut up shop when the Queen was in town, due to the increased police presence). As selling weed was very much a side-hussle for him, albeit one he had done for decades, he'd ploughed much of what he earned into buying art - which included four, five-foot-tall, original-run, signed Gray prints he had picked up around 20+ years previously. He couldn't hang all of them in his relatively small flat (or, at least, not without turning it into a small Alasdair Gray gallery) so, when I moved into a new flat, he lent me one for a couple of years. It wasn't until, on a whim, I looked them up, saw how much they were worth and asked whether he had them insured that he took them back. Having paid what he thought was a handsome sum when he bought them (a good couple of hundred pounds each), he was amazed to discover they are now worth several thousand pounds each and more as a set.

This was maybe 10 years ago or so and I cannot now remember what the series was. (I want to say it featured semi-naked ladies but fear this does little to narrow things down.)
posted by deeker at 5:22 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]

I've loved Gray ever since finding a copy of Unlikely Stories, Mostly in my university library and marvelling at both the stories and the illustrations: the combination of the two was liberating.
posted by mikelynch at 3:27 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]

Loved Lanark, was surprised I hadn't heard of it before.

Found out a couple of years ago he was still alive and was surprised.

Was just as surprised to find out he died a year or so ago, too unmourned.

Thanks for the suggestions above, everyone.
posted by kozad at 1:17 PM on February 22

Oh, for crying out loud. I just realized I left out, A History Maker, too.
posted by grimjeer at 1:44 PM on February 22

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