PART OF THE Icons ISSUE
‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’
Extract taken from Lanark
By Alasdair Gray
Published by Canongate
One morning Thaw and McAlpin went into the Cowcaddens, a poor district behind the ridge where the art school stood.They sketched in an asphalt playpark till small persistent boys (‘Whit are ye writing, mister? Are ye writing a photo of that building, mister? Will ye write my photo, mister?’) drove them up a cobbled street to the canal. They crossed the shallow arch of a wooden bridge and climbed past some warehouses to the top of a threadbare green hill. They stood under an electric pylon and looked across the city centre. The wind which stirred the skirts of their coats was shifting mounds of grey cloud eastward along the valley. Travelling patches of sunlight went from ridge to ridge, making a hump of tenements gleam against the dark towers of the city chambers, silhouetting the cupolas of the Royal infirmary against the tombglittering spine of the Necropolis. ‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’ ‘Because nobody imagines living here,’ said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, ‘If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.’
‘Then 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. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a musichall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.’
‘I thought we had exported other things—ships and machinery, for instance.’
‘Oh, yes, we were once the world’s foremost makers of several useful things. When this century began we had the best organized labour force in the United States of Britain. And we had John McLean, the only Scottish schoolteacher to tell his students what was being done to them. He organized the housewives’ rent strike, here, on Clydeside, which made the government stop the landlords getting extra money for the duration of World War One. That’s more than most prime ministers have managed to do. Lenin thought the British revolution would start in Glasgow. It didn’t. During the general strike a red flag flew on the city chambers over there, a crowd derailed a tramcar, the army sent tanks into George Square; but nobody was hurt much. Nobody was killed, except by bad pay, bad housing, bad feeding. McLean was killed by bad housing and feeding, in Barlinnie Jail. So in the thirties, with a quarter of the male workforce unemployed here, the only violent men were Protestant and Catholic gangs who slashed each other with razors. Well, it is easier to fight your neighbours than fight a bad government. And it gave excitement to hopeless lives, before World War Two started. So Glasgow never got into the history books, except as a statistic, and if it vanished tomorrow our output of ships and carpets and lavatory pans would be replaced in months by grateful men working overtime in England, Germany and Japan. Of course our industries still keep nearly half of Scotland living round here. They let us exist. But who, nowadays, is glad just to exist?’
‘I am. At the moment,’ said McAlpin, watching the sunlight move among rooftops.
‘So am I,’ said Thaw, wondering what had happened to his argument. After a moment McAlpin said, ‘So you paint to give Glasgow a more imaginative life.’
‘No. That’s my excuse. I paint because I feel cheap and purposeless when I don’t.’
‘I envy your purpose.’
‘I envy your self-confidence.’
‘It makes you welcome at parties. It lets you kiss the host’s daughter behind the sofa when you’re drunk.’
‘That means nothing, Duncan.’
‘Only if you can do it.’
Lanark by Alasdair Gray is published by Canongate, priced £20.00.
To find out more about Gray Day, please visit the Gray Day website.
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