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”.
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.