Last week I was in London, and as is my wont when I am there, I spent a lot of time in the book basement of Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road (or as the poet Jeremy Reed once described it to me, ‘the Pit’). I have found many things in this bibliophilic undercroft in the past and this time I turned up a proof copy of Alasdair Gray’s controversial second novel 1982, Janine. Although Gray’s first novel Lanark is undoubtedly his masterpiece (we are just talking about the writing, not his art here), I think the people who rave about it so much can have it. For me his best work is the mightily pungent 1982, Janine – it’s such a symptomatic text of the diseased, greedy Thatcherite 1980s. I’m not going to go into a plot summary here, but I’m with Gray himself in thinking it’s his most troubling and strongest work.
Anyway, the proof copy that I found had a letter tucked into it from an editor at Jonathan Cape to an editor at Time Out saying that ‘Mr. Gray would be happy to give interviews’ to anyone wishing to venture up to Glasgow to chivvy him out. Whether or not an interview was ever arranged, I can’t say, but on the back of the letter the editor had clearly started to draft some questions for Alasdair Gray. These were:
1). Glasgow, how long have you lived there?
3). Scottish literary community?
4). Resentment against the English?
If this interview never took place, then I am relieved, because the questions are a poor reflection of the English tendency to minimise the achievements of the Scottish and to relegate their work to some sort of prejudicial, critical hinterland where the only topics available are Anglophobia and nationalism. I like how the interviewer assumes that Gray must have moved to Glasgow, and not been born there. I also can’t imagine an interviewer asking Martin Amis what he does for a living, but here Alasdair Gray seems to need a fall-back option, in case the writing doesn’t work out for him. And is there such a thing as a literary community in Scotland, or is it just all a bunch of bickering hacks? Why should all Scottish writers in all their diversity simply club together because of their Scottishness? Would such a question be asked of the English literary community? Is there even such a thing?
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive and umbrageous – looking for offense where none is intended. But these punchy little ideas for questions for me seem to show in a nutshell how writing north of the border is viewed far down south, on Grub Street. As I said, if this interview never took place, that’s perhaps for the better. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, because Alasdair Gray is so keen to please others interested in his work that it is perhaps to his detriment, having to deal politely with journos out for a sensationalist scoop.
I remember once hearing the Scottish literary journalist Alan Taylor facetiously propose a cull on lesser poets, because he felt the whole scene was overrun with them. It got a laugh, as intended, but it overlooked the fact that we have no more poets now than we did 100 years ago, it is only that they are more visible because of social media and the internet. Anyhow, my feeling is that every new writer recruited to the cause is a triumph against what Brendan Behan termed ‘the begrudgers’ but we need less people writing half-hearted, narrow things about writers, and carving out a career on the back of that.