James Kelman
James Kelman; drawing by David Levine


In the first years of the present century, the Glasgow comedian Will Fyffe wrote a song that conquered the music halls immediately and has been a staple at Scottish convivial gatherings ever since. The refrain went:

I belong to Glesca, Dear auld Glesca toun.
And there’s nothing the matter wi’ Glesca,
But it’s turning roun and roun.
I’m only a common wee working chap,
As ony one here can see,
But when I have a couple o’ drinks on a Saturday,
Glesca belongs to me!

As is generally true with Scottish humor, this was heavily laced with irony. It was only in the euphoria induced by strong drink that a member of the Glasgow working class could convince himself that he was in any sense the proprietor of his native city. Ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution, Glasgow had belonged to its great merchants and industrial magnates, who achieved wealth and power by their own shrewdness and Calvinist energy and their skill in exploiting the plentiful supply of cheap labor that resulted from the Highland clearances in the early nineteenth century and the avalanche of Irish immigrants after the potato famine of the 1840s. These were the men who dominated Victorian Glasgow, and another song—

They played in the beautiful garden,
The children of high degree—

recognized that domination, not without bitterness.

Even so, Glaswegians, regardless of class, have always had deep pride in the city that had, in the words of Maurice Lindsay, molded itself “from a convenient ford over the Clyde into a medieval center of piety and learning: then to develop successively into an expanding center of international trade, a place of rapidly growing manufacturing importance, a powerhouse for international heavy engineering projects and a cradle for the construction of a major proportion of the ships that sailed the seven seas throughout most of the nineteenth century and into the earlier years of the twentieth.” 1 By 1914, the city’s population had reached one million, and for over two decades it had been the second city, not only of Britain, but of the Empire. All of this gave its inhabitants an exuberance that sometimes bordered on the arrogance expressed in the toast, “Here’s tae us! Wha’s like us? Damn few, and they’re a’deid!”

Pride goes before a fall, and the twentieth century saw a swift decline of Glasgow’s fortunes. In the period between the two world wars, all of the industries centered in or in the vicinity of Glasgow went into decline. Textiles, which had been the mainstay of Glasgow’s first industrial revolution but had never recovered from the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War, gave up the ghost completely in the mid-Twenties as a result of foreign and Lancashire competition. Between 1914 and 1932, the work force in the Lanarkshire coal fields shrank by 50 percent, and in the same years there was a drastic falling off in the demand for Scottish pig iron, which necessitated the closing of the Glengarnoch works. Shipbuilding, which had seemed a Glaswegian specialty, was hurt worst of all, as a result of the drying up of trade and the loss of cargoes during the Great Depression and the fact that former foreign customers began to build their own yards.

In the late Thirties military building gave the Upper Clyde some semblance of its old activity, and during the war itself Glasgow became the chief port in the United Kingdom, and the Clyde yards built three hundred merchant ships, as well as numerous military craft, including the aircraft carriers Indefatigable and Implacable and the battleship Vanguard, and did 25,000 repair jobs.2 But after 1945, the remorseless decline set in again and was not stayed by intermittent “Right to Work” demonstrations and sit-ins by militant workers.

As the great industries failed, other enterprises put themselves up for sale to English firms, which then reduced or terminated their operations, while Scottish investors tended increasingly to put their money into businesses in former colonial nations where they didn’t have to worry about trade unions. As a result of all of this, Glasgow in the years following the Second World War was in a deep decline, with the highest population density in Europe and some of the worst slums. Neighborhoods close to the city center were filled with tenements 120 years old that were breeding places for drunkenness, disease, and crime.

The city fathers recognized that, if there was to be any recovery, Glasgow had to be made attractive enough to interest new investors, and that for that purpose the first prerequisite was the removal of the slums. In the Fifties and Sixties, in accordance with guidelines set out in the Clyde Valley Regional Plan, vast areas of tenements in the vicinity of the city center were bulldozed to the ground, including the greater part of the historic communities of Gallowgate, Gorbals, and Bridgeton, and their inhabitants shifted to modern tenement-style high-rises on the periphery of the city, an experiment that was not universally to the liking of those affected.


In the course of the work of demolition, long-neglected beauties in the city center were discovered, treasures of Victorian architecture that had been hidden by grime for more than a hundred years. In the Seventies a vigorous conservation effort got under way, and by the Eighties it had been so successful that the Glasgow District Council became decidedly bullish and began to entertain any number of grandiose schemes, including luring private investors by putting attractive public properties on the market and competing with Edinburgh for the lion’s share of the northern tourist trade. From there it was an easy step to the decision to have Glasgow compete for the title of European Culture Capital of 1990, since—as Alasdair Gray has written—“commercially speaking, cultcha and tourism are the same thing.”

In Gray’s book Something Leather, an English woman explains how Glasgow won this distinction, which had been invented by Melina Mercouri, the Greek minister of arts, and awarded successively to Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris. She says engagingly,

Being Cultcha Capital is expensive. You must advatise yawself. Put on extra shows and consats. Invite foreign guests. Stage boring receptions. Margaret Thatcha isn’t keen on all that crap; anyway London has enough of it. Like a successful monetarist she put the job up of grabs and offad it to the lowest bidda. Bath and Edinburgh put in fa it, Cardiff, Birmingham and Glasgow: but only Glasgow gave a quiet little promise that if it got the job it would not ask the central govament of cash. So Glasgow, which the Lay-ba Party has ruled of ova half a century, was given the job by the Tory arts minista who announced that Glasgow had set an example of independent action which should be followed by every local authority in the United Kingdom. Wia funding the entaprise out of the rates and public propaty sales and sponsaship from banks, oil companies, building societies and whateva we can screw out of Europe.

It can be fairly said that Glasgow’s year as Cultural Capital of Europe was neither a financial nor a cultural success, and sterner critics have been heard to use the word fiasco. There were positive achievements: the building of a new Royal Concert Hall, which during the Culture Year presented splendid concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic and l’Orchestre National de Lille, and a stunning show at the Kelvingrove Museum called “Glasgow Girls.” But there was also a Pavarotti concert that offended people by the extravagance that attended it and a Sinatra show that was a disaster. Notable throughout the year, as a writer for the journal ArtWork has written, was the absence of “any effort to seek out excellence in any field of Scottish artistic activity and build around it…. What we got instead were the usual run of traveling exhibitions that would probably have arrived in any year.”3 The city’s boutiques were, to be sure, filled with imitations of furniture designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which may be considered a kind of tribute to a local artist, but in the unimaginative and pedestrian “British Art Show 1990,” which began the year in the McClellan Galleries, the work of Ken Currie and other young Glasgow painters was not included because the organizers thought that it was not “good enough.”

Throughout the year the question implicit in Will Fyffe’s song—to whom does Glasgow belong—was posed in somewhat altered form, namely, Whose culture was being represented? Glasgow possesses one of the finest social history museums in the United Kingdom, the People’s Palace on Glasgow Green, to which Philip A. Crowl in his informative and discerning The Intelligent Traveller’s Guide to Historic Scotland has awarded three stars, his designation for “outstanding and not to be missed, if possible.”4 Founded in 1898, but long neglected, this fine repository of artifacts produced by centuries of urban life has during the past sixteen years won an international reputation, thanks to the acquisitions policy of its director Elspeth King and her associate Michael Donnelly and their exhibitions on such subjects as tobacco, woman’s suffrage, temperance, 5 trades union history, and Glasgow stained glass. The permanent collection, which includes Ken Currie’s historical paintings celebrating the radical tradition of the Glasgow working-class movement that were commissioned by Elspeth King in 1986,6 as well as fascinating materials illustrating tenement life among the poor in the nineteenth century and how the people coped with the bombing during World War II, is badly cramped, and many of the museum’s holdings, some 250,000 artifacts, are stored in an unused carpet factory. The sensible policy might have been to build the long-promised extension wings to the People’s Palace and to make this superb collection, decently housed, a central part of the Year of Culture.


This was not done because the Glasgow District Council had other designs on Glasgow Green, for hundreds of years the people’s commons and still haunted by ghosts of its past, like the Calton weavers and the martyrs of 1820. Throughout 1989 and 1990 there were persistent rumors of plans to sell off parts of the Green to private speculators, and Culture Year planners, after visits to Copenhagen’s Tivoli and other pleasure parks, actually tabled a proposal for “a waterpark, incorporating state of the art technology, which will create a dynamic water experience.”7 Meanwhile, the People’s Palace was effectively frozen out of the Culture Year, the centerpiece of which became an extravaganza in the arches beneath Glasgow’s Central Station.

Originally called “The Words and the Stones,” and then, when someone pointed out that the acronym would be unfortunate, hastily retitled “Glasgow’s Glasgow,” this was advertised as “presenting the lives and concerns of Glasgow through multi-screens, sound cones, computers, works of art, live theatre, seminars and workshops,” for which the customers were asked to fork out an admissions fee of £3.60. Since most of the works of art were borrowed from other Glasgow museums, they were in fact being asked to pay to see things given in trust to the people of Glasgow. Nor, aside from the noise and the glitter, did they get much for their money.

As a historical survey of Glasgow life, the show was sadly lacking, saying nothing about the Scottish Reformation or the workers movement during World War I and concentrating largely upon the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the years of industrial dominance—in fact, upon the lives of the children of high degree. It is not surprising that attendance was disappointing, that the price of admission had to be cut, and that at the end of the year the deficit for the exhibition was said to be in the neighborhood of £4.6 million.

Not unnaturally, the District Council and the Culture Year’s planning staff came under heavy criticism when it began to be realized how much in the way of public funds had been sunk in the enterprise, and as might have been expected they lashed back at their critics. Both Elspeth King and Michael Donnelly suffered for their opposition to the privatization of Glasgow Green and their informed but scathing analysis of the plans for what became “Glasgow’s Glasgow.” Donnelly was dismissed by Julian Spalding, the director of Glasgow’s museums and galleries, and King was humiliated by being forced to compete for a newly created post of director of social history museums, for which she had long campaigned and for which she was fully qualified, and then being passed over, although she was the only candidate of international reputation. Invulnerable to this kind of treatment was the group called Workers City, composed of writers, teachers, trade unionists, Scottish nationalists, and left-wing activists of various political persuasions, which holds its meetings in a pub called the Scotia Bar at the foot of Stockwell Street near the river. This group’s incisive criticism of the spirit and substance of the Culture Year, its spirited opposition to any incursion on the people’s common by developers, and its success in bringing the injustice of the treatment accorded to Elspeth King to the attention of the public inspired an injudicious retort from the city’s deputy director of festivals in which he complained of the “pathetic, factless, plank-walking anti-1990-ism” of the group, adding that it was “an embarrassment to this city and all its cultural workforce.”8

There was something deeply ironical about this “letter from the bunker,” as it came to be called. No one could fault Workers City for lack of dedication to culture. The number of teachers among its members proved the opposite, as did the fact that their meeting place, the Scotia Bar, had sponsored a writer’s prize and published a volume of the best entries.9 Moreover, the group included two of Scotland’s most distinguished writers, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, and it could be argued that there was more to be found about Glasgow culture in their books than was disclosed in the whole of the Cultural Year.


The Glasgow that James Kelman writes about is the Glasgow of the unemployed and the ill-employed, and the people on the rim, the drifters and layabouts and punters, the petty con artists, the old lady in Lean Tales who sits under the bridge over the River Kelvin smoking Capstan full-strength cigarettes and blowing “Maxwelton braes are bonny” on a mouth organ to passers-by, and the many who feel betrayed but are not sure how or by whom. Their frustrations and dilemmas and tragedies he describes with a sympathy that is not devoid of a grim humor, and he captures their speech, the tough, subtly nuanced language of the Glasgow working class, in which the vocable that an older generation called the word that won the war is an indispensable ingredient, with a mastery unequaled by any contemporary Scottish writer.

Kelman has been compared with Beckett and Pinter, and rightly so, because his best novel and many of his stories are, like Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, monomaniacal interior monologues in which despair and black humor complement each other, and because, like Pinter, he is fascinated by the many layers of meaning in speech and the difficulty of communication. In A Disaffection the central character describes to himself the fatuity of working-class conversation:

Was that particular close near to the such-and-such pub or was it along a bit farther? Naw, it was nearer to that wee post office. Aw aye, and what was the name of that wee post office again. It was the so-and-so. Aw the so-and-so! God sake, I had a mate used to work there. O did ye! That’s fucking really interesting. His wife’s feyther was a pal of my greatgrandpa’s auld man. Was he! Aye christ, they used to play football the gether whenever they werent drawing their fucking supplementary benefit or dying of hypothermia.

These banal questions, he muses, are substitutes for the real ones that are on the minds of both parties to the conversation:

How much of a fucking wage do ye earn? Are you getting exploited badly or just ordinarily so? Is your rate for the job fixed by person or persons unknown? Is your union as corrupt as mine? Did your leaders sell ye out the last time as usual? If so at what fucking point in the manoeuvre, before or after being bribed and were they offered promotion and a permanent seat in the front stalls at Scottish fucking Opera with the managing director of the regional planning department for financial dealings, prior to being offered the possibility of a fulltime paid-up job as labor consultant for the rulers of this wonderful land of the free.

In Lean Tales and Greyhound for Breakfast, the influence of Kafka is intermittently felt, particularly in stories like “A Nightboilerman’s notes,” in which, underlying the precise and matter-of-fact description of the protagonist’s functions, there is an urgent sense of menace. But the best of these stories, particularly in the latter collection, deal with the loneliness of life in a city that has few diversions for the poor except pubs, flicks, and fish-and-chip shops (“Renee,” “Home for a couple of days”), with the social forces that make adults out of children too quickly (“The wee boy that got killed,” “Sunday papers”), and with the irrational behavior induced by family tragedy.

In the title story of the collection Greyhound for Breakfast, a father, distracted by the fact that his son has run away to London and by fears for his safety, buys a greyhound for reasons that he cannot explain to himself ten minutes later. He spends the rest of the day wandering around the city with the dog and in and out of pubs because he knows he will not be able to explain his action to his wife and that she will not listen in any case because she is grieving the loss of her child.

The novels The Busconductor Hines and A Disaffection both deal with people trapped in situations from which there is no escape. In the former, Hines has a job that is onerous, unpleasant, and without a future, since it will be eliminated by the inevitable change to one-man buses, which will probably mean that he will lose his wife, whose parents think their daughter has come down in the world by marrying him, and the son for whom he has had such high hopes.

In A Disaffection, Patrick Doyle is a teacher in a school in a poor section of town, a profession in which he is unhappy because he believes it requires him to mislead his students concerning the real nature of the society in which they live, and for which he is himself ill-equipped because he can get on with neither his colleagues nor the school administration. Hopelessly in love with another man’s wife, conscious of talents that he cannot adequately express, he broods constantly about the parallels between his own life and that of Hölderlin and thinks of madness and, sometimes, suicide, while recognizing that the root of his trouble is that he never wanted to go to the university and that he is happiest when he is with his brother, who is unemployed and without higher education, and his wife, whom he might himself have married.

In this brilliant study of love, loneliness, and social oppression, which is relieved by some marvelously comic passages, Doyle concludes philosophically that he, and all the busconductor Hineses of Glasgow, have a common dream which, in all probability, won’t be realized.

The Glaswegian male doesnt ask much in this man’s army, just an umbrella and the occasional fish supper, a nice looking woman and a big win on the fucking football pools. Then one could fuck off to a cosy wee hotel in the Inner Hebrides, there to partake of singlemalt goldies in the company of one’s partner, thence off upstairs to a large double bed with views of the boisterous Atlantic, waves thrashing the shore but inside your room no, no noise at all apart from the ticking of an antique clock above the peat fireside and then that very slight rustle while she is carelessly undressing sitting on the edge of the eiderdown quilt, one leg drawn up so that the heel of her foot is on the bed near to her curved bottom, as she proceeds to unpeel a tight—unpeel a tight.

In his new collection of stories, The Burn, Kelman returns to the themes elaborated in Greyhound for Breakfast, but the tone is darker here, the frailty of human relations and the sense of guilt are more strongly emphasized, and the belief that life is a constant proposition in which the odds are six to five against is more insistently argued. Among the rich gallery of portraits presented here, the only happy face is that of a drunken cleric, who will doubtless suffer for his delinquency (“Fr Fitzmichael”).

We see most of Kelman’s other creations in moments of defeat or humiliation or when experiencing epiphanies that only awaken memories of loss or give them sudden revelations of the worthlessness of their existence. In “By the Burn,” an elderly man, going to town in search of a job, is forced to go out of his way because of the rain-swollen state of a stream he must cross and consequently passes a sand pit where his daughter and two friends were killed by a cave-in when they were children. In “A Situation,” a splendidly comic study of Angst, the involuntary killing of an insect releases floods of guilt in a young man who is suffering from job insecurity and a complicated sex life. While he broods over the possibility of divine punishment for his failings, he is summoned to the side of an aged invalid who lives upstairs, who informs him that he wants to make a confession to him. What the nature of this is we never learn, for the old man possesses an almost Dostoevskian garrulity, while his guest, intent on his own sins, wonders whether he should not take this opportunity to bare his soul. The dialogue des sourds is terminated by the arrival of the young man’s fiancée, who is the one to whom a confession is really due.

One of the best stories in this splendid collection, “events in yer life,” deals—as did the story “Home for a couple of days” in Greyhound for Breakfast—with the surprises that await the person who returns to his roots and the difficulties of resuming old friendships. A painter named Derek who has been absent from Glasgow for years, living in England and traveling on the Continent, returns home for the funeral of his mother. During his stay, he spends an evening with a former friend and contemporary at the Glasgow Art School named Finlayson in a pub near the Mitchell Library. In the course of their disjointed and often awkward conversation, he learns that the event that was the cause of his expulsion from art school and his leaving Glasgow, an impetuous and unmotivated theft of some video equipment, was regarded by Finlayson and other students of working-class background not as a disgrace but as a valuable political lesson. Constantly told by their teachers that they were members of an elite but also, as artists, expected to be rebels, they now learned that they could be both, as long as they didn’t interfere with property:

Whenever [they] started on with all that crap about how any real artist will aye beat the system, there you were, with the swag bag, getting the boot, artist or no it doesni fucking matter. First it’s the economics, then after that it’s the economics again.

Finlayson also informs him that he has been away from Glasgow too long and has taken to using the word Britain too frequently. When Derek protests, “I didni know I was saying Britain all the time,” his friend, sounding like both a Scottish nationalist and a supporter of Workers City, answers:

Aye, I mean like it was one country. See naybody does that here. Naybody. No unless there’s some sort of qualification involved. I mean that includes the fucking Tories, if they say it, they’re being ironic—or sarcastic, just trying for affect. Ye’ve got to remember when ye’re talking establishment here ye know ye’re talking Labour Party; they’re the reactionaries, that’s who we want rid of, no the fucking Tories; they dont count.


Alasdair Gray was born in Riddrie, to the east of the Glasgow Necropolis, in 1934, the son of a journeyman blacksmith who was a Fabian socialist. He once told the English journalist Frank Delaney that, when he was too ill to go to school, he would lie in bed listening to the horn that announced that the factory gates were opening. “I had this vision of thousands and thousands of men in dirty work clothes and streaming into a hard, grinding, rather painful and frequently boring job, and I thought, ‘This is what keeps the world going, although don’t let it be me.’ “10 Instead he trained at Glasgow Art School and, after graduating, worked at illustrations, murals (often in restaurants for meals), portraits, and landscapes, eking out a living by teaching on the side. In 1977, Elspeth King of the People’s Palace invited him to become Glasgow’s first artist-recorder, and he spent the balance of the year making portraits of prominent citizens and painting cityscapes of buildings and streets soon to be destroyed or transformed.11 He then became resident writer at Glasgow University and devoted himself to the completion of a work already six years in progress, the novel Lanark, which was published in 1981. Since then he has written five other works of fiction, and he is currently engaged in editing a three-volume anthology of prefaces.

In becoming a writer, Gray did not cease to be an artist. He designs and illustrates his own books, and the drawings for Lanark in particular show the influence of his work as artist-recorder, depicting recognizable Glasgow buildings and topography in apocalyptic settings and carefully executed portraits of contemporary Glaswegians comingling with strange beasts, sinister babies crouching inside human skulls, and symbolic plates of the Life Force trampling Death and Oblivion and a crowned Leviathan surmounted by the warning “By Arts is formed that great Mechanical Man called a State, foremost of the Beasts of the Earth for Pride.”

It is perhaps owing to his training as an artist, too, that Gray feels no reverence for the traditions of the printed book. In the British edition of Something Leather, he greets his readers with a boisterous HELLO on the front cover and parts company with them with a GOODBYE stamped on the reverse, and in the same book he prints what pretends to be a final chapter on the back flap of the dust jacket. He is fond of having pages set in a way that corresponds to the emotions being felt by his characters, which in 1982 Janine leads to curious patterns in varying typefaces, with different texts running side by side, some of them upside down. In Lanark, the “Prologue” is on page 107, and there is an “Epilogue” four chapters before the book’s end, and there is an “index of Plagiarisms,” in which the author confesses to block, imbedded, and diffuse borrowings (which he calls Blockplag, Implag, and Difplag) from works as various as Das Kapital, Peer Gynt, and No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Nor is he averse to including derisory descriptions and reviews of his work, all written by himself, and in Something Leather there is an epilogue entitled “Critic-Fuel.”

If unconditional realism is the mark of Kelman’s work, Gray, while certainly not bereft of that quality, is a born fabulist, with an imagination unfettered by the laws of logic and probability. This is well illustrated in the best of his occasional pieces in Lean Tales, in which he undertakes to finish a fragment of Robert Louis Stevenson’s called “The Story of a Recluse.” Stevenson tells of a twenty-two-year-old medical student, the son of a minister who gives him too little pocket money to live according to his station, who in desperation gets drunk and finds himself some time later awakening in a bedroom in a house that is not his own but identical to it. Here he is found by a young woman in evening dress who has come upstairs from a roulette party presided over by her guardian, a man named Manton Jamieson. Here the story broke off, and Gray had to decide what happened thereafter and why Stevenson had given the story the title it had.

In his ending, the young woman helps the student escape, and he falls in love with her and resolves to free her from her guardian, who is well-known in town as a gambler. For this, he needs money, and since gambling is the quickest way of getting it, he locks himself up at home for weeks with a friend, studying the strategies of baccarat. His father is so impressed by the apparent settling down of his footloose son that he suffers a change of heart and raises his allowance significantly. With this, the two friends rush off to Jamieson’s tables, where, finding that their acquired skill is unavailing, they resort to cheating, and are exposed by the girl, who is Jamieson’s “accomplice and supporter in every possible way.” “We have no reason to think,” Gray writes in a conclusion that does not sound very Stevensonian, “that she ever found Jamie interesting. He was not, perhaps, an attractive young man.”

Gray’s storytelling powers take a more fanciful turn in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, which include an eerie story of a white dog that is the benefactor of frigid or sterile women, who become capable of normal married life if they have intercourse with it on the eve of their weddings and yearly thereafter, a documentary drama called “The Great Bear Cult,” a supposed diary of Sir Thomas Urquhart, the translator of Rabelais, and an elaborate tale about an empire that tries to turn itself into a gigantic axletree between earth and sky. Even McGrotty and Ludmilla, one of two stories of young upwardly-mobile Scots in London (the other being The Fall of Kelvin Walker, a satire on British television) is described by its author as the Aladdin story set in modern Whitehall “with the hero a junior civil servant, wicked uncle Abanizir a senior one, and the magic lamp a secret government paper which gave whoever held it unlimited powers of blackmail.”

Gray’s most impressive book is clearly Lanark, which Anthony Burgess called the best Scottish novel since the Waverley novels. Gray himself has described the book as a “Diflag” of The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley’s fantasy of two interpenetrating worlds, but, while there are close similarities in structure and theme, his powerful imagination and skill in the strategies of storytelling invalidate the comparison. The story begins with the arrival of a young man in a rainy, sunless city called Unthank. He has no memory of his past and has taken the name of Lanark from a picture of a town that he saw in the train on which he arrived. He makes friends with a raffish group of people led by a man named Sludden who gather at the Elite Café, and he falls in love with a woman named Rima. But he cannot tolerate the city, in which people fall ill of a disease called dragonhide and gradually turn, into crustaceans or suddenly disappear.

He manages to escape down a kind of tunnel and finds himself in a mysterious Institute, where he is employed in the energy department under a sinister Dr. Ozenfant. The Institute lives off cities like Unthank on the earth’s surface, turning those who, unlike Lanark, have failed to escape from them into energy or food. Lanark is a singularly uncooperative member of this elite and, after finding Rima and saving her from the death assigned her, and otherwise disrupting the Institute’s routine, he is given permission to return with his lover to Unthank and promised that, since that city is going to be destroyed because it has become unprofitable, they will soon be able to proceed to the prosperous town of Provan where there are twelve hours of sun a day. Before they leave, Lanark consults an oracle about his pre-Unthank life and learns that he is the reincarnation of Duncan Thaw, who grew up in the city of Glasgow, became a painter, fell in love with an upper-class girl who made him aware of his social inadequacies, and, depressed by that and the failure of his project for painting a mural in a church, committed suicide.

The journey from the Institute goes through the Intercalendrical Zone, in which light travels at different speeds, all sizes and distances and time are incalculable, and a month is as meaningless as a minute or a century. Because of this, when the pair, after many adventures, finally reach Unthank, Lanark finds it almost unrecognizable. “He remembered a stone-built city of dark tenements and ornate public buildings, a city with a square street-plan and electric tram cars.” Now, it was a metropolis of looping highways and glass and concrete skyscrapers, “though the old streets between towers and motor-lanes had a half-erased look, and blank gables stood behind spaces cleared for carparks.”

Lanark soon learns that most people live in the ruins of the old tenements, in mobile homes, or—as he and Rima are forced to do—in the medieval cathedral, since the shining towers are reserved for the ministries that control the masses and the corporations that exploit them. His old friend, the disreputable Sludden, who has become Lord Provost, begs him to act as the city’s delegate to a world council meeting at Provan, where his influence as a former Institute member may stave off the threatened destruction of the city. This is a ruse to get rid of a possible opponent of Sludden’s own collusion with the ruling elite, but Lanark goes and is humiliated, and returns to watch the destruction of the city from the heights of the Necropolis.

It is difficult to decide which to admire more in this novel, the outward or the inner story. Lanark’s adventure in Unthank, the organization and activities of the Institute, and the explosions of energy that occur when, in the terminal phase of the dragonhide disease, the patients self-destruct, the teeming life in the cathedral in Unthank’s last days, and the meeting of the world council where Lanark challenges his old enemy Ozenfant, now president—all are described with imagination, verve, and wry humor. But the masterful evocation in the Thaw chapters of an adolescence and young manhood in post-1945 Glasgow, of early friendships and first love, of the stirring of artistic genius and its frustration, and of the subtle social prejudices that had to be learned as one grew up is no less impressive. In a larger sense, the novel is an attempt to expose the ills that threaten modern society, an elaboration on a text in one of Gray’s plates: “Let Glasgow flourish”—any and all Glasgows—“by telling the truth.”

If Lanark is a pessimistic book, 1982 Janine is even more so. The novel is set in the head of an aging, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations who is tippling in the bedroom of a small Scottish hotel. To escape the memories of a first love which he stupidly destroyed but has yearned for ever since, and of an unwanted marriage that soon dissolved, he has come to rely on liquor and erotic fantasies. It is the latter, which are pretty steamy, that will probably convince many readers that the book is pornographic. But the elaborate stories that he tells himself are something more than that, a defense mechanism to check his dawning realization that his life might have been different if he had only had more sympathy with the hopes of other people and been more willing to gamble on their dreams rather than to judge them by his own standards of efficiency and rationality. They are an attempt to block out the remark of a colleague, after these weaknesses had destroyed a promising theatrical experiment:

“Wee hard men!… The curse of Scotland is these wee hard men. I used to blame the English for our mediocrity. I thought they had colonised us by sheer cunning. They aren’t very cunning. They’ve got more confidence and money than we have, so they can afford to lean back and smile while our own wee hard men hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves.”

As he gave up the romance of the theater and went where the big money was to be earned, corporate business and the military, his fantasizing continued:

I had started telling myself stories about a very free attractive greedy woman who, confident in her powers, begins an exciting adventure and finds she is not free at all but completely at the disposal of others. As I aged that story became very elaborate. The woman is corrupted into enjoying her bondage and trapping others into it. I did not notice that this was the story of my own life. I avoided doing so by insisting on the femaleness of the main character.

Now, in 1982, the year in which the Reagan arms buildup began and the resumption of the cold war put an end to the high hopes of the détente years, he realized that he had been a tool of others all along. “The militarization and depression of Scotland,” he tells himself, “has been good for the security business. Apart from the breweries, my firm has been the only one to expand in recent years.” As for his native city, “Glasgow now means nothing to the rest of Britain but unemployment, drunkenness and out-of-date radical militancy. Her nuclear destruction will logically conclude a steady peacetime process…. Scotland has been fucked, and I am one of the fuckers who fucked her….”

Compared with this powerful novel, Something Leather is an altogether slighter effort. Once again we have much erotic fantasy, although without the rationale provided by the previous book. Set in the Year of Culture, it is the story of a young divorcée who is seduced by two women who run a mysterious and ambulatory leather shop and is in the end united with an aristocratic woman sculptor who is having a show at the exhibition. Between the seduction and the new liaison, there are a number of flashbacks illuminating the lives of the four women. Some of these are based upon radio plays. This makes for a rather disjointed novel, and on the back flap of the English edition Gray writes,

Despite the plot’s elaborate Keltic knotwork, despite some crafty baits for the prurient, I doubt if this book will be taken seriously south of the Tweed—or north of it either.

But the flashbacks are interesting in themselves. In one of them, set during the slum-clearing of the 1960s, a university student learns the difference between the working class, which has been relocated, and the class of drifters that has been left behind; in another a young boy, hoping to find some means of defending himself from bullies at school asks his father, his grandfather, and a policeman who is his grandfather’s friend about their experiences at war, and is disappointed to find that, while they thoroughly enjoyed their military service, none of them had any combat experience or committed any acts of violence, except his father who accidentally broke an old woman’s china teapot in Cyprus. The chapters on the Culture Year are amusing, as is Gray’s reversal of Sir Walter Scott’s practice, by having his Scots all speak English, while the speech of visitors from the south are couched in a dialect that he has invented for them. See the comments on the “cultcha Capital” above.


Hugh MacDiarmid didn’t like Glasgow because of its addiction to football and gambling, its lack of good poets, and its failure to appreciate the music of his friend George Francis Scott. Still, he continued to write about it, as if by doing so he might reform it. In one of his poems he said:

…above all we need artists who live
Somewhere near the human centre and know
Innumerable truths that cannot be taught,
And thus can be good-natured without being sentimental,
Ridiculous without being fatuous,
And with whom, as with any first- rate artist, we feel
We are in good hands…artists
We can trust with our hearts and our wits.
Scotland has scarcely had a hair of one since Burns.12

If he were still here, it is possible that he would agree that, with the work of James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, things are looking up on the Clyde.

This Issue

April 25, 1991