When I bought Alasdair Gray’s new novel, Old Men in Love, the cover seemed to be upside down. If you know Gray’s writing, illustrations and paintings, you will be familiar with his unusual approach to the assumed order of things and will forgive me for thinking this was intentional. Gray, a genial septuagenarian with a soft Scottish burr, is the author of, among many other books, Lanark (1980), the remarkable, multi-layered novel that took him 20 years to write. With boundless friendliness, he inscribed my copy with the words ‘To Jennifer, Says Alasdair’. When I mentioned to him that while my friends and I were reading Lanark we became so absorbed in its strange world that it became our main topic of conversation, he replied, in all laughing sincerity, ‘I am really terribly sorry about that’.
In braces, corduroy trousers and spectacles Gray looked like a cross between a geography teacher, an apple and a very wise elf. He perched alongside Hans Ulrich Obrist on the window-seat of the charmingly dilapidated and candle-lit 18th-century Riflemaker gallery, where he had collaborated with the painter Francesca Lowe on the exhibition ‘Terminus’. Every inch of the walls was covered with Lowe’s paintings of mythological fairgrounds, while Gray had plastered the ceiling with excerpts of the text he had written for the show. Outside the rain wreaked havoc on umbrellas, and the windows fogged up. Time travel, in such an environment, did not seem entirely out of the question.
Obrist introduced Gray with an anecdote: he had once spent a day visiting artists’ studios in Glasgow and realized that every one had a copy of Lanark on their desks. Obrist then proceeded to ask Gray questions about the relationship between art and literature, about science fiction, his influences and what he is doing now. Gray replied at length and, although it was often difficult to remember the question, it didn’t matter. His voice swoops and soars in the ringing tones of a Shakespearean actor and with the comic timing of a 19th-century music-hall Master of Ceremonies. He is also formidably learned. In just over an hour he mentioned: T.S. Eliot, Walt Disney, escapism, Hans Christian Andersen, the boredom of science fiction, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy (‘there’s so much that is exotic about their reality!’), H.G. Wells, anti-imperialism, Martians, Patagonia, illustration, the paintings he did when he was 14 (‘the best I ever made!’), the problems of being cautious, Bic pens, the English Department of Glasgow University, money, Dandy comics, Alice in Wonderland, Rudyard Kipling, Doctor Dolittle, the ziggurats of Assyria, his new book (which he held up for scrutiny), the patterns of thistles, clergymen, Fra Filippo Lippi, Socrates and not getting the jokes in Aristophanes. He also sang a snippet from ‘The Internationale’, laughing.
At the end of the talk I discovered that the cover of my copy of Old Men in Love wasn’t meant to be upside down after all, so Gray’s inscription to me is now and for ever more hidden and upside down on the book’s last page. To say I really don’t mind is an understatement.