Posts Tagged ‘mcgrotty and ludmilla’

McGrotty and Ludmilla

February 25, 2022

Last February I read Alasdair Gray’s The Fall of Kelvin Walker, the novella which followed his first two novels. Five years later he published another novella based on a radio play, McGrotty and Ludmilla, partly, one suspects, as a favour to new Glasgow publishers, Dog and Bone Press – Gray also provided the cover art for another release (there was perhaps only two), Archie Roy’s A Sense of Something Strange. As with The Fall of Kelvin Walker, McGrotty and Ludmilla is a satire concerning a Scotsman’s encounter with establishment London and featuring a love story of a kind where the hapless and naïve hero falls for a stronger and more cynical woman. It is similarly both dated (in parts) and as accurate as ever (in others).

Its satirical intent is clear from the opening sentence which describes the Ministry of Social Stability (where, we will discover, McGrotty works) as having been created to “counteract the damage done by the spread of literacy and the granting of the vote to all male householders.” If we feel we recognise something of out current leaders in this attitude we will find the opening remarks of Arthur Shots even more prescient:

“Every organisation needs a great deal of corruption, of course, to stop it becoming rigid, callous and inefficient.”

Shots, one of the civil servants who actually runs things (Gray explicitly points out that the story predates Yes, Minister), is worried about the publication of the Harbinger Report, Harbinger having been tasked with investigating corruption at all levels of government. Harbinger himself is reluctant to complete the report:

“I’m distressed by my report. It incriminates many decent, public-spirited necessary people. Famous people. Some of the highest and best loved names in Britain.”

Shots is wondering what to do when he encounters McGrotty – or rather when McGrotty tramples on Shots’ foot in the corridor. Shots soon hatches a plan which involves getting McGrotty to steal the report for him. He first of all befriends McGrotty after concocting a story that McGrotty’s father saved his life during the war – a war his father never returned from thus making the Shots’ declared debt impossible to disprove. Shots makes sure McGrotty is promoted (on the premise he is a ‘rough diamond’) and is portrayed by Gray, both visually and in prose, as a spider, aided by his secretary to “weave a fine web which only they perceived…”

“It was invisible to the human flies trapped therein.”

As with Kelvin Walker, Gray demonstrates that social mobility occurs only when it is useful to the established order. As Gray says:

“My novella is certainly a caricature, though it caricatures nothing but the ability of the British rich to enlist awkward or threatening outsiders.”

Shots’ plans are accidently upset by Ludmilla, however. The daughter of a Minister, her first impression of McGrotty, like Shots’, is that he is entirely out of place: “Why do your wear that terrible tie?” McGrotty, on the other hand, is immediately smitten:

“He wished to grovel before her but did not know how to start.”

When McGrotty attempts to enact Shots’ plan to retrieve the report from the Minister’s safe, Ludmillla reappears and McGrotty is so thrown by his inability to interact calmly with her (like virtually all of Gray’s male protagonists) he runs away, throwing Shots into a panic:

“What could a fool like McGrotty be trusted not to do when he stopped doing what he was told?”

Unfortunately for Shots, McGrotty has now developed the ‘low animal cunning’ he thought he lacked, and, now demands Ludmilla as the price for telling Shots where the report is – or at least Shots’ help in turning him into the “kind of man she’s keen on – suave, popular, the life and soul of Royal Garden Parties.” McGrotty now schemes for power and influence in the same way as Shots and Ludmilla: only by accepting the rules of the establishment can one becomes part of it.

McGrotty and Ludmilla was originally submitted as a play for television – part of a series based on fairy tales. Gray took Aladdin as his inspiration, with McGrotty as Aladdin, Shots as the sorcerer (pretending to be his father’s friend rather than his brother) and the Harbinger Report as the lamp. This creates a slightly more playful story than The Fall of Kelvin Walker, but one which nevertheless identifies the institutionalised inequalities which exist to this day. It is another entertaining miniature in the midst of Gray’s longer works.