The upper and lower boards of Something Leather.
Anyone who cares about books – for their content, but also as beautiful objects – will have been saddened to hear of Alasdair Gray’s death last December. Described by Anthony Burgess as ‘the first major Scottish novelist since Walter Scott’ and by Ali Smith as ‘a latter-day William Blake’, Gray, like Blake, was unpindownable, challenging boundaries – whether of medium, genre, or ideas of good taste. Prolific as a both writer and artist, his death allows us to take stock of a body of work at once hugely varied and all of a piece.
Although Gray was already known as an artist and occasional playwright in his native Glasgow (with James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and others he attended Philip Hobsbaum’s now legendary writing group during the 1970s, [see The Comedy of the White Dog, 1979]), it was Lanark (1981) that brought him to the attention of a much wider public. Hugely ambitious (and huge), joyfully flouting generic convention, Lanark combines a recognisable (and autobiographical) account of the author’s Glasgow with an equally vivid science-fictional city named Unthank.
Lanark, title page and frontispiece.
1982, Janine (1984), his second (and the author’s own favourite) novel, was recently described by an admirer (the critic, Sarah Ditum) as ‘unambiguous filth, chronicling the compulsive, unruly fantasies of a middle-aged man called Jock’; in the same article she refers to Something Leather (1990), the fifth novel, as ‘straight-up lechery’. Those books are clearly much else besides, but as Ditum is quick to point out, ‘Gray’s writing is not the tyrannical kind that can only be enjoyed if you agree with him. He makes easy company with disagreement’. A lifelong socialist and Scottish nationalist, the salient quality of the work, however dark and angry (and, of course, funny), is that of generosity.
Janine, jacket and binding.
One of the many things that set Lanark apart from anything else being done at the time was the author’s control of every aspect of the book’s design and production. A feat (a feast) of graphic and typographic invention, everything from the elaborately illustrated jacket to the choice of font-type(s), expresses a singular vision.
When, in 1888, William Morris set up his Kelmscott Press, it was a response to the poor quality of mass-produced books, and of their drab, ugly appearance. Morris aimed to produce books at once beautiful, functional and affordable. It was a laudable ideal, and the books that emerged were indeed beautiful and finely crafted but – perhaps inevitably – turned out to be expensive and limited. A century later, with mass-produced, disposable publishing as pervasive as ever, an equally idealistic Alasdair Gray was able to carve an unexpected niche within the publishing world. Working closely with Canongate in Edinburgh and (through Liz Calder) Jonathan Cape and Bloomsbury (his books were published more or less alternately in Edinburgh and London) Gray was given relatively free rein, not only over content, but also the look, feel and weight of the books: their presence as objects/artefacts. It was an idealism redolent of Blake and Morris, but the books were affordable. This was partly owing to the publishers passing some of the cost of such idealism to the author himself. Gray was never financially secure, describing himself as ‘a well-known writer who cannot make a living from his writing’.
For his second Canongate volume, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Gray ‘wanted the cloth boards of the book as richly decorated as the paper jacket, as many boards had been before publishers started using paper jackets in the early 20th century’. When he asked Stephanie Wolfe-Murray at Canongate to look into this, she unexpectedly discovered that the cost of ‘metalling the whole front and back’ of the book’s boards was, in fact, ‘very little’. So, as Gray explains, ‘my hardback first edition had golden thistles on the dark blue boards with words by the Canadian poet, Dennis Lee’ and the legend ‘SCOTLAND 1983’ (see A Life in Pictures (2010), p. 219). Nearly all of Gray’s subsequent books have strikingly decorated boards.
Unlikely Stories, Mostly, jacket and binding.
As with all the paratextual elements of Gray’s books, the text printed to boards and dustwrappers is treated with the same care as words on the page. The jacket copy of 1982, Janine, tells us that ‘This already dated novel is set inside the head of an ageing, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations […] Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books is to be found here in concentrated form’; the magisterial Book of Prefaces (2000) prints blurbs ‘by’, among others, Samuel Johnson – ‘never has penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment been so happily disguised’ – and Mark Twain; while the front flap of A Life in Pictures cites one Sidney Workman of the Times Literary Implement , who informs us that ‘in Glasgow pubs it is now common gossip that bibliophiles will esteem it as highly as Hypnoerotomachia Poliphili and similar incunabula’.
Gray’s concern with the technology (the medium) of the book is of a piece with his work as a visual artist, whether on paper, canvas, or in the magnificent series of murals scattered around Glasgow. He saw little distinction between his work across these various media (describing each as a holiday from the other): a platform at Hillhead underground station or the ceiling of the auditorium at the Oran Moor centre are treated with the same imaginative energy as the books.
Motifs, verbal and visual, reappear across the books, murals, paintings: whether of particular faces (James Kelman makes regular cameo appearances), decorative patterns, the figure of Prometheus, self-portraits, or phrases like the one from Dennis Lee (which was carved into the front of the Scottish Parliament building in 2004), not forgetting the myriad roundels, manicules, thistles and gremlins that pop up everywhere. It is a generous and labyrinthine universe of emblems that clearly calls for a scholarly concordance of some kind.
Collecting first editions published over the last few decades is a mixed blessing. A first printing of a Hilary Mantel or J. K. Rowling novel may be the relic of a moment, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that most hardback fiction these days is printed, bound and designed with little more care (or concern for durability) than the paperback edition that follows a few months later, and at half the price. Gray’s first editions, however, were always (and remain) desirable and special: the paperback editions really do entail a diminishment of the many pleasures that these works offer the reader – the holder – when in their original, their intended, form.
Lucius Books has recently acquired a once-in-a-lifetime collection of Gray’s work; everything from exhibition catalogues, pamphlets, poetry, drama, and, of course, the novels and stories. Mostly immaculate, nearly everything is signed/inscribed in Gray’s inimitable hand.