Monthly Archives: October 2015

Joyce, Orwell and Charles Rennie Mackintosh


30 years after everyone else and prompted by the publicity associated by the recent Citizens Theatre production,  I got around to reading  Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

For some reason, I found myself treating it not as a 2015 reader but as if transported back to the 1980s period of its original publication. Therefore, liking it in the way that I might have done when I was closer in age to the art student Duncan Thaw and was gaining an empathy and experience of Glasgow akin to his. Perhaps this is because of the prose’s similarities to George Orwell whom I was reading quite a lot at that time in the run up to the year of 1984. Perhaps because I was reading from the 1982 paperback edition recently bought second-hand.

James Joyce  is more often quoted as an influence in Lanark, but it was definitely the influence of Orwell’s 1984 which I detected in Gray’s depiction of the dystopian Unthank in the first section, Book Three.  For example, the post-war youth social scene evoked by the Elite Café and arthouse films, the trams and horse-drawn milk carts in foggy streets, the references to 18 and 22 o’clock. Later in Book Four, we have references to the political structures of “council” and “assembly” and the Government posters with advice and photos of leaders .

Gray’s predictions of how society might develop after 1981 are intriguing. He anticipates libraries which prefer music and films to books, stronger health warnings on cigarettes, the increase in both the popularity and the social respectability of gambling, financial credit considered as valuable as cash, the use of human-like robots, a serious housing shortage leading to primitive public hygiene, political tensions between different levels of government.

Gray was long credited with the political rallying cry, “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” (although he later clarified it was borrowed from Canadian poet Dennis Lee).  Lanark contains several other statements of similar challenging tone. Duncan Thaw’s father says, “ It isn’t the loud men on platforms but the obscure toilers who change things”.  The young Lanark himself hopes for a job where “(he) kept useful services working properly” and, later, older with some public experience, he is certain that “the world is only improved by people who do ordinary jobs and refuse to be bullied”.

Gray’s illustrations are a deservedly famous part of the book, and the text includes some informative references to art. Duncan Thaw’s unfinished mural in the Cowlairs church is said to be influenced by the “Trinity Altarpiece” by Hugo Van Der Groes and the work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.




Alasdair Gray’s cover illustration for the original paperback edition of “Lanark”.



Another Alasdair Gray illustration from “Lanark”.




Duncan Thaw in “Lanark” is a student at Glasgow School of Art which “was on a quiet street along the spine of (Garnethill). The main part was an elegant building designed by Mackintosh in the eighteen-eighties.”



The Necropolis, Glasgow’s imposing Victorian cemetery, a location in “Lanark”.



Glasgow Cathedral is a place of accommodation for some of the people of Unthank in “Lanark”. These two photographs were taken on an unusually snowy day in 2010.




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Blog Action Day – raise your voice




My first acquaintance with the human rights organisation Amnesty International was actually through the arts. A benefit show, “Pleasure at Her Majesty’s”, was screened on BBC at Christmas 1976, with two of my favourite comedy ensembles, from Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python. “Any organisation supported by such cool folk must have some value,” I reasoned. By the time the organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, 1977, I knew enough about its work to feel a real personal interest. I became a member in 1980, also prompted by an arts event: an exhibition at that year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Two things particularly attracted me to Amnesty International. First, that it explicitly supported and worked equally for political and religious prisoners who were jailed by both right-wing and left-wing governments. People like opposition politicians, trade unionists, journalists, priests and other religious leaders, community activists. Second, that you could do your campaigning work at home and on your own, by writing letters to governments on behalf of these prisoners of conscience: other political organisations tended to require you to be part of a local group and to attend meetings. As actress Emma Thompson said once in an Amnesty video, “All you need is a pen”.

Later, I did find a local Amnesty group to be part of, and I spent 15 years in meeting, organising, publicising, street-collecting and public speaking as well as in letter writing.

Now over 50 years old, Amnesty International has broadened its campaigning work to cover specific issues like torture and women’s rights and specific countries like Russia and Zimbabwe. Where it used to be the main source of information about human rights issues for the media and politicians, that role has become shared with other organisations like Human Rights Watch.

However, a central part of its work is still to speak up for those individuals who are persecuted in their own countries for doing so themselves. For example, Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, Eritrean politician Aster Fissehatsion and Uzbekestani journalist Muhammed Bekzhanov.


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