Alasdair Gray

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Who knew, when I decided that the recent publication of Alasdair Gray’s collected short stories (the prosaically titled Every Short story) was an excellent excuse to tackle them all (one at a time) over the next few months, that Gray himself would be making headline news? ‘Alasdair Gray attacks English for ‘colonising’ arts!’ screamed one hysterical headline. (That’s about as screamy as it gets in the Scotsman, and I added the exclamation mark).

The cause of this furore was an article that Gray had written for an anthology of Scottish writers’ thoughts on independence, Unstated. (You can read the whole article here). In it he divides invaders (those we now tend to call immigrants) into settlers and colonists. This is partly a distinction of longevity – settlers stay, colonists don’t – but also represents a state of mind. Where settlers accept and absorb the culture of the country they settle in, colonists seek to impose their own values on it. Gray’s particular complaint was that too many important jobs in the arts go to those from outside Scotland; and by ‘outside Scotland’ I don’t mean that the country is home to an international cast of thousands, I mean England.

These comments immediately made Gray a racist in the eyes of some (raising the interesting question of whether the English are actually another race), many of whom had, as is the way with these things, not read the article. Really though, it’s a mathematical problem. At no point does Gray suggest that no-one from outside Scotland should be allowed a job in the arts; but he does suggest that it is unhealthy that so many of these jobs go to English candidates. What percentage of similar jobs in England would have to go to Americans before eyebrows were raised, I wonder? Of course, you would have thought that one enterprising journalist might have bothered to find out how many people in important positions in the arts in Scotland are English. Isn’t that what journalists used to do? If it’s only one or two then clearly Gray doesn’t have much of a point. The fact that nobody seems keen to publicise the number makes me think it may be more…

Before this, however, Gray was best known as a writer and artist. Though perhaps not Scotland’s greatest writer of the twentieth century, he certainly has a claim to have written Scotland’s greatest novel of that time in Lanark. Recently he seems determined to collate all his work with his collected stories following recent collections of his plays and poems and his autobiographical A Life in Pictures. Whether Every Short Story is the final piece in this jigsaw remains to be seen.

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