Greg Michaelson



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On first dipping into Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark”

Greg Michaelson

My sense of Scottishness has been and still is somewhat hazy; disconnected fragments of difference rather than integrated defining characteristics. I spent my first nine years in an atheist household in West London, shared with West Africans and West Indians. In the street I played with Protestants, Catholics and Jews but I never met anyone remotely Scottish. While my parents’ non-belief excluded me from the Anglican Cub pack on the corner, the local Scots Presbyterians were most welcoming. I spent my Thursday evenings in a red and black tartan neckerchief; my fellow cubs all English to a boy.


In 1963 my dad got a job in Edinburgh. I’d little idea what to expect. The large format picture book from the Chiswick library talked about the windy Waverly Steps and showed scrawny men in green jackets and kilts. I was unprepared for tenement life and the strange accents of the back greens. At primary school, they made me recite Burns, amused as I stumbled over a tongue they themselves had little link with. At secondary school I had to learn “Kinmont Willie” by heart. I still have no idea who the fause Sakelde or the keen Lord Scroop were. Scottish history seemed to involve a succession of petty squabbles instead of triumphant kings called Edward or Henry. Scottish food was grey like the weather. After a Cub hike in the Pentlands we were given peculiar hard pies that dripped molten fat between the fingers when you bit into them. At primary school, we’d changed classes to the strains of Jimmy Shand over the Tannoy. At secondary school, I’d gone to Murrayfield to be sociable but I found rugby tedious and still couldn’t eat the pies. Five years on, I felt no sense of connection with the people waving the Saltire.
Latterly, I went to the Edinburgh Folk Club in the Triangle and to the University Folk Club on Potterrow. As well as tiresome couples in Arran sweaters, I heard Hamish Henderson singing of Sicily and Mandela. This was a much more attractive Scottishness, which linked back to the internationalism I’d been raised in. I wrote down the words for the Freedom Come All Ye and found out where the Broomielaw was. Excited and frightened, I stood with Scots and South Africans on the picket line against the Springboks at Murrayfield. I also found out that the Scottish country dance classes in the YWCA were a good way to meet girls if you went to a single sex school. In curling I finally met a sport where it didn’t matter if you were short sighted and over weight. Going south to study, I soon discovered that I was one of just four students from Scotland in the whole University. I was appalled at how ignorant English people were, and found endless jokes about meanness and pantless kilts tiresome. For the first time I felt an honorary Scot.
Growing up in Edinburgh, Glasgow was a strange, uncouth place somewhere over to the west. No one I knew came from Glasgow. Glaswegians spoke the incomprehensible patois of Francie and Josie You could even buy a book to learn it: “Parliamo Glasgow”. Glasgow had gangs, real gangs, not like Edinburgh’s ersatz Bar Ox and Young Mental Drylaw. You heard about the Tongs on the news on Glasgow’s own TV station, STV. No one I knew ever went to Glasgow. Why would they want to?
The first time I braved the Forth/Clyde watershed must have been in the early 1970’s when I went to a demonstration at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilder’s yard. I still had no ear for the megaphone dialect but I did notice that the people I marched alongside were, for the most part, much shorter than their awkward, middle class, East Coast sympathisers. We ambled from Blythswood Square to Glasgow Green, a sad, fly blown expanse of balding grass most unlike the Meadows or Princes Street Gardens. On the train back, someone remarked that Glasgow was much more Scottish than Edinburgh. At the time, I didn’t really understand this.
In the late 1970’s, once again living in Edinburgh, I got a job lecturing at Glasgow University. Every day, I took the train from Haymarket to Queen Street, and caught the bus to Hillhead. One day, I sat enviously behind two wee black boys, parliamoing Glasgow for all they were worth. When the underground finally reopened, I had to stoop under the curve of the carriage roof. My colleagues were predominantly Glaswegian but indistinguishable from any other academics. Many were baffled that I didn’t want to move house but my internationalism still didn’t stretch to Glasgow, a bubble of academia at the end of a long tube. I sometimes shopped in the grocers behind Buchanan Street station on the way home. This was the heart of Scotland’s largest city but the food was much cheaper and the people much poorer than in the Reykjavik of the South.
I once went through to invigilate an exam on a Saturday afternoon. Scotland were playing England at Hamden. England won. On the train home, gangs of young men roamed the corridors, smashing light bulbs in a curiously cheery manner. I kept my mouth shut. I still resent taxi drivers asking me how long I’m visiting for.
The train was a great opportunity to read, as well as to mark assignments. I’d a definite preference for “literature” but had long since consumed the Penguin Classics, Ancient and Modern. I tired of feminist detective stories, and worthy translations of obscure struggles made me feel guilty. I tried to read the Glasgow novels but the self-loathing hard men of “The Dear Green Place” and “No Mean City” were alien and repugnant. A colleague told me that I should read Alan Spence’s “Its Colours they are Fine” if I really wanted to understand what it meant to grow up in Glasgow, but it further confirmed my convictions that this was a city to escape from rather than to live in. Finally, new editions of Borges led me to Stevenson and thence Hogg. At last, I’d found a Scottish magic realism I could connect with, albeit still rooted firmly in Edinburgh.
Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark” was published in 1981, to critical acclaim. With much of my income subsidising British Rail, I waited a year for the Granada paperback: public libraries wanted their books back and charged you for forgetting. I really regret my stinginess: reading “Lanark” was a revelation. One afternoon I left work early and walked past the School of Art and the Cathedral to the Necropolis. Standing beneath John Knox’s pillar, I thought I could really see Glasgow for the first time; not just gallus Victorian facades hiding deviousness and squalor.
Gray says that a story’s sense of place should be conveyed by events rather than by “provincial” authorly asides1. “Lanark” is above all a spare novel, whose sheer Strathclydishness shines through the myriad confusions of the life and afterlife of its hero Duncan Thaw/Lanark. Thaw is utterly lost in time and space, steeped in a Calvinist helplessness that breeds obdurate acceptance in the face of inexorable doom. Beset by a chronic fatigue, spiritual as well as carnal, Thaw is self-knowing but passive, fearful of making things worse than they are already. Occasionally given to a certain stubborness of diffuse purpose, Thaw is rather more Oblomov than Breck.

“Lanark” offers three views of Glasgow. Thaw mostly lives in a realist 40’s and 50’s city of tenements, shops and workplaces, where the aspiring middle class shades into the respectable working class. This Glasgow feels no so unlike Edinburgh’s South Side where I grew up in the 1960’s.


After Thaw’s life falls utterly to pieces he metempsychoses as Lanark in Unthank, a decaying Glasgow of lost souls barely buoyed by arbitrary state handouts: “The city did not seem a thriving place. Groups of adolescents or old men stood in occasional close mouths, but many closes were empty and unlit. The only shops not boarded up were small stores selling newspapers, sweets, cigarettes and contraceptives.” This is how I remember Glasgow Cross in the early 1980’s, before it became the tawdry Merchant City.
The despairing of Unthank are steadily consumed by skin afflictions that reflect their melancholias. Ultimately they descend to The Institute, a sanctuary for the rehabilitation of the damned. Here they may be cured and aspire to Provan, the vision of the recent future promised by the post-war Labour Party. This is an efficient, modern Glasgow: “…a broad basin of land filled by a city with the river gleaming towards a centre of spires, towers and high white blocks.” When the sun shines, this is a Glasgow one sees heading north over the Kingston Bridge.
In the Institute, and in Provan, everything is resolved by rational if self-serving bureaucrats. The bodies of those that the Institute cannot cure provide food and energy for everybody else. Man is indeed the pie that bakes and eats itself.
Gray shares with Stevenson a keen sense of Scotland’s geophysical connected-ness. Thaw, and Lanark, move seamlessly through the city in its various guises, to the hills and lochs of the west and north: “From grey rooftops on the left rose the mock Gothic spire of the university, then the Kilpatrick hills, patched with woodlands and with the clear distant top of Ben Lomond behind the eastward slope.” The young Thaw finds release from asthma climbing Ben Rua: “The lower slopes were mostly widths of granite tilted at the angle of the mountainside, level with the heather and cracked like the pavements of a ruined city.” Towards the end, snug in the belly of a bird-like plane, Lanark looks down on an apparently transcendent Provan: “`All my life, yes all my life I’ve wanted this, yet I seem to know it well. Not the names, no, the names have gone, but I recognise the places. And if I really lived here once, and was happy, how did I lose it?’”
If “Lanark”’s strength is its sense of place, its weakness lies in its characters. No one else has Thaw’s depth of personality. The women are all shallow and stereotyped. Echoing the sentimentality of the Glasgow “hard man” novel, Thaw’s mother tell him that “Men can always run away from work. Women never can.” She dies halfway through the first book. Thaw’s comfortingly ordinary younger sister Ruth is aware beyond her years: a role model for Lisa Simpson. We quickly lose sight of her. In the tired old virgin/whore dichotomy, Thaw yearns chastely for his colourless school mate Kate Caldwell and masturbates to fantasies of dominating June Haig, who reputedly “has a back like an all in wrestler”. At Art College, Thaw pursues the equally colourless Marjory Laidlaw, but in scaring himself off is destroyed by the despair that leads to Unthank.
In the Institute, Lanark meets the book’s most interesting and most unsatisfactory woman, Rima. Lanark rescues her from terminal dragonhide, the self-consuming affliction of those who, like Lanark himself, dread intimacy. Thereafter, she alternates between loving dependence on him and despising his passivity. In Unthank, having borne their son, she abandons Lanark for Sluden, a man he fears and envies.

Thus, Thaw/Lanark seems incapable of rounded happiness with any female individual. Towards the end of the novel, he finally loses himself in anonymous, uncomplicated, sex with four young women. On first meeting them: “Lanark was not conscious of them as distinct people but was soothed by being the only man amongst them.” During the curiously cosy group session, one of the young women urges him to tell them how he would like to show his hidden strength. In an uncomfortable premonition of Gray’s unpleasant “1982 Janine”(1984), Lanark tells her: “I want you to hate and fear me too, but be unable to escape. I want you captured and bound, and waiting helplessly in perfect dread for the slash of my whip, the touch of my branding iron.” There is no progression from the sado-masochistic fantasies of Thaw’s adolescence. Nor is there any progression from honest Scots retribution; Lanark is arrested and charged with “being a pisser”, probably the worst crime a Scotsman can commit.


The men in “Lanark” are indeed Scotsmen. While somewhat more deeply drawn than the women, they are still restricted to a small range of familiar types, albeit somewhat different from the Glasgow hard man repertoire. Thaw’s father has the stoical optimism of the generation that were adults during the Depression and Second World War. Believing in redemption through hard work and good intentions, he finds his son’s torments incomprehensible. Thaw’s school friend Coulter is similarly resigned to a life constrained by work and home. At Art College, Thaw meets Aitken Drummond; suave, assertive, attractive to and experienced with women. This is the mode of being Thaw most despises and aspires to. Similarly, Sludden is a strong, directed man, surrounded by fawning women, who ultimately becomes Provost of Unthank.
“Lanark” is peppered with Church of Scotland ministers, driven by a joyless faith and desperate sense of duty. These are complemented by Monboddo, the aloof lord president director of the Council which oversees the monopoly capitalist afterworld. All are vehicles for cod-Socratic dialogues in which Thaw elaborates his vision of a secular, socialist society.
However, in the Epilogue, Lanark encounters the author himself. Between columns identifying the book’s plagiarisms, further larded with footnotes, the author propounds his theory of heroic failure (Illiad, Aeneid, Bible, Inferno, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Faust, Moby Dick, War and Peace). He explains that “Lanark” cannot be the “Aeneid” for the Scottish Wholesale Cooperative Republic and tells Lanark that he can’t have the ending he wants. Lanark says that the author is “A damned conjuror”. The author is indeed the Wizard of Oz, and Thaw/Lanark is Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion all rolled into one.
The Index of Plagiarisms is, of course, pleasingly incomplete. For example, the multi-taste White Rainbow Lanark drinks in Provan is filched from Huysman’s “Against Nature”. Boris Vian used the same source in “Froth on the Daydream”. Unthank is a one-horse cross-roads off the old A6 in Cumbria. Last time I was there, the horse had an enormous erection. Curiously, Unthank is quite close to Greystoke, home of Tarzan. Lanark first encounters Sludden in the Elite Café on arriving in Unthank: there used to be an Elite Cafe at the north end of Jedburgh.
Gray has recently called “Lanark” a “grossly over-rated novel”2. Be that as it may, most of Gray’s other full length fiction compares poorly. “The Fall of Kelvin Walker”(1985) and “McGrotty and Ludmilla”(1989) are both thin, pot boiler reworkings of plays. “A History Maker”(1994) and “Mavis Belfrage”(1996) are over-long short stories. “Something Leather”(1990) has the feel of a contrived apologia for “Janine 82” but is still redolent of dated male gaze. In contrast, “Poor Things”(1992) is a splendid fusion of “Frankenstein” and “The Island of Dr Moreau”. Set in late Victorian Glasgow, with plausible, engaging characters, it certainly repays re-reading.
“Lanark” is beautifully augmented with front pieces for its four component Books. These far surpass any of Gray’s subsequent illustrations. That for Book 4 is based on the classic cover for Hobbes’ “Leviathan”. The Monarch, composed of myriad tiny people, holds sway over a lovingly detailed, Glasgow-centric vision of Scotland. The author himself sits at the bottom, cheerily looking out at the reader. Despite his protestations, I suspect that “Lanark” will be Gray’s elegy.

1 CSW: Alasdair Gray, A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing, Canongate, 2001, p124.

2 CSW, p xiii.


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