Alasdair Gray Interview
Claire Sawers meets Alasdair Gray at his Glasgow home and finds that he has created yet another iconic, naïve and semi-tragic anti-hero
After a ten-year gap since his last novel, Scotland’s literary genius Alasdair Gray returns with a new book, a new anti-hero and a fresh batch of his striking black-and-white illustrations. Time travelling between Renaissance Italy, Periclean Greece, Victorian England and modern-day Hillhead, Old Men in Love sees Gray back on gloriously eccentric form.
Sipping orange juice in his West End living room, Gray’s conversation is very like his writing. Rambling, erudite and encyclopaedically detailed, he flips between the highbrow and parochial, peppering his speech with different voices. He morphs between singsong Kelvinside brogues or excitable Weegie wifies, then detours into mock-pompous academic rants. ‘I’ve never dealt with three such dissimilar characters before,’ he says. ‘Socrates is a philosopher, Filippo Lippi an artist, and Henry James Prince a Church of England clergyman.’
Subtitled ‘John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers’, it’s the make-believe diary of a retired Glasgow headmaster who writes historical novels in his spare time, though his unpublished writing is only discovered after he’s murdered by a junkie girlfriend. Unlike Gray’s landmark Lanark, where the main character struggles with existential questions before committing suicide, Tunnock is a happy-go-lucky boffin whose cloistered life veers dramatically off the rails after the death of the aunts who brought him up.
‘Tunnock is given to picking up “young things”,’ says Gray. ‘Despite being a headmaster, he’s never bothered to find out the legal age of consent. Since the girls he picks up are sexually available, he assumes they know their own business best.’ Offsetting the politically charged, occasionally turgid narratives woven between Tunnock’s diaries, the slightly deviant sex life of a man in his 60s adds a comic element. ‘I quite like the reader to think, “This bloke isn’t very intelligent!” I like the bit where one of his lovers steals all his things. He’s not angry because he never liked them anyway, and just picks himself up quite cheerfully.’
Like Lanark, Tunnock is a dedicated autodidact who regards women as a tempting but inconvenient distraction. ‘They irritate him but he frantically needs them. He hates that unless a woman loves him, he feels useless.’ The book’s historical research was carried out 30 years ago, when Gray was commissioned to write BBC television plays on religious trials and Victorian scandals. ‘I took parts from books and plays I’ve written, and a pamphlet I wrote for the 1997 general election called “Why Scots Should Rule Scotland”.’
For Tunnock’s character, Gray put aside the library research and delved into his famously rich imagination. ‘You needn’t believe this, but I don’t go around picking up poor girls, and accommodating them in my house while sleeping and quarrelling with them. My wife would think it bad manners.’ And why name his protagonist after a teacake? ‘I wanted something that sounded Scottish, that didn’t have a Mac in it. I wanted something ordinary, but somehow well known. I quite liked the sound of it. It’s quite like Lanark actually.’
Old Men in Love is published by Bloomsbury on Mon 1 Oct. Alasdair Gray is at Wigtown Book Festival on Sat 29 Sep.