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Gray, Alasdair (James)

GRAY, Alasdair (James)

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 28 December 1934. Education: Whitehill Senior Secondary School, 1946-52; Glasgow Art School (Bellahouston traveling scholarship, 1957), 1952-57, diploma in mural painting and design 1957. Family: Married 1) Inge Sorensen in 1962 (divorced 1970); one son; 2) Morag McAlpine in 1991. Career: Art teacher, Lanarkshire and Glasgow, 1958-61; scene painter, Pavilion and Citizens' theaters, Glasgow, 1961-63; freelance painter and writer, Glasgow, 1963-76; artist recorder, People's Palace Local History Museum, Glasgow, 1976-77; writer-in-residence, Glasgow University, 1977-79. Since 1979 freelance writer and painter. Address: Dog and Bone Books, 175 Queen Victoria Drive, Glasgow G14 9BP, Scotland.



Lanark: A Life in Four Books. Edinburgh, Canongate, and New York, Harper, 1981.

1982, Janine. London, Cape, and New York, Viking, 1984.

The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1985; New York, Braziller, 1986.

Something Leather. London, Cape, 1990; New York, Random House, 1991.

McGrotty and Ludmilla; or, The Harbinger Report. Glasgow, Dog and Bone, 1990.

Poor Things. London, Bloomsbury, 1992; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1993.

A History Maker. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1994; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1995.

Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale, with Five Shorter Tales. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Short Stories

The Comedy of the White Dog. Glasgow, Print Studio Press, 1979.

Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1983; New York, Penguin, 1984.

Lean Tales, with Agnes Owens and James Kelman. London, Cape, 1985.

Ten Tales Tall and True. London, Bloomsbury, 1993; New York, Harcourt Brace, 1994.


Jonah (puppet play; produced Glasgow, 1956).

The Fall of Kelvin Walker (televised 1968; produced on tour, 1972).

Dialogue (produced on tour, 1971).

The Loss of the Golden Silence (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Homeward Bound (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Tickly Mince (revue), with Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead (produced Glasgow, 1982).

The Pie of Damocles (revue), with others (produced Glasgow, 1983).

Radio Plays:

Quiet People, 1968; The Night Off, 1969; Thomas Muir of Huntershill (documentary), 1970; The Loss of the Golden Silence, 1974; The Harbinger Report, 1975; McGrotty and Ludmilla, 1976; The Vital Witness (on Joan Ure), 1979.

Television Plays and Documentaries:

Under the Helmet, 1965; The Fall of Kelvin Walker, 1968; Triangles, 1972; The Man Who Knew about Electricity, 1973; Honesty (for children), 1974; Today and Yesterday (3 plays; for children), 1975; Beloved, 1976; The Gadfly, 1977; The Story of a Recluse, 1986.


Old Negatives: Four Verse Sequences. London, Cape, 1989.

The Artist in His World: Prints, 1986-1997 (descriptive poems), byIam McCulloch. Glendaruel, Argyll, Scotland, Argyll Publishing, 1998.


Self-Portrait (autobiography). Edinburgh, Saltire Society, 1988.

Why Scots Should Rule Scotland. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1992.

Editor, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1994.


Manuscript Collections:

Scottish National Library, Edinburgh; Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University.

Critical Studies:

The Arts of Alasdair Gray edited by Crawford and Naion, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1991; Alasdair Gray by Stephen Bernstein. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Theatrical Activities : Actor: Television The Story of a Recluse, 1986.

Alasdair Gray comments:

Lanark was planned as a whale, 1982, Janine as an electric eel, The Fall of Kelvin Walker as a tasty sprat. Of the short stories I think "A Report to the Trustees" has the most honestly sober prose, "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire" the most inventive fancy, "Prometheus" the greatest scope.

(1995) My stories try to seduce the reader by disguising themselves as sensational entertainment, but are propaganda for democratic welfarestate Socialism and an independent Scottish parliament. My jacket designs and illustrationsespecially the erotic onesare designed with the same high purpose.

* * *

Alasdair Gray came late to the novel and was in middle life when Lanark his first and most successful novel was published. Prior to that he had been a painter and a scriptwriter and visual influences bear heavily on all his work: even his book jackets are designed by him. His eye for detail and his taste for color combine especially well in his short stories which were published together under the title Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Some stories in this collection are long, such as "Logopandocy" a pastiche in the writings of Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie whom Gray much admires; others short, and two, "A Likely Story in a Non-Marital Setting" and "A Like Story in a Domestic Setting," only five lines long. Some are set in modern everyday life, others in a fantastic other world; above all, they are rich in imaginative background detail. His story "Five Letters from the Eastern Empire" is set in the time of Marco Polo and the letters are supposedly written by Bohum the Chinese emperor's tragic poet, to his parents and they describe the court"the evergreen garden"in all its magnificence and all its cruelty. On the other hand it is an evocative description of the lives led by the divinely justified and the sharp, cinematic cuts and finely observed detail make it seem an exercise in scriptwriting. On another level it is a parable of power that oppresses, of a backsliding emperor whom Bohu discovers to be an "evil little puppet, and all the cunning, straightfaced, pompous men who use him."

Although Gray makes considerable use of myth and parable in his fiction and delights in creating imaginative worlds and societies, the matter of Scotland is never far away from the heart of his fiction. In 1982, Janine, the hero, an aging, divorced alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations tells his story while sitting in the dingy bedroom of a small Scottish hotel: to him, his native country and his fellow countrymen are subjects of disgust. "The truth is that we are a nation of arselickers, though we disguise it with surfaces: a surface of generous, openhanded manliness, a surface of dour practical integrity, a surface of futile, maudlin defiance like when we break goalposts and windows after football matches on foreign soil and commit suicide on Hogmanay by leaping from fountains in Trafalgar." Although this novel is only loosely connected to the reality of present-day Scotland, and more concerned with the general human condition as experienced in the narrator's drunken reverie, 1982, Janine is rich in Scottish literary allusions. In one section the narrator meets a pantheon of Scottish poets in an Edinburgh pub; in another Gray's richly lyrical exploration of time, space, and inebriation is reminiscent of Hugh MacDiarmid's long poem, "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle." That Gray should be so concerned with Scotland and yet repelled by ita classic theme in Scottish cultural lifeshould come as little surprise to readers of Lanark. In this phantasmagoric exploration of modern city life Gray has an index of plagiarisms, a recurring literary device in his fiction, and this includes an entry on the Scottish novelist George Douglas Brown (1869-1902): "Books 1 and 2 owe much to the novel The House with the Green Shutters in which heavy paternalism forces a weak-minded youth into dread of existence, hallucination and crime." In Brown's novel, Gourlay, a wealthy self-made man is ruined by his monstrous self-willed nature and his son is castrated both by his malignancy and by the squalid ethics of Barbie, the mean town in which the Gourlays live. Although Duncan Thaw, the narrator of Lanark is not subjected to similar pressures he has to cope with a loveless family and the dreary drudgery of growing to maturity in a far-from-idealized version of the city of Glasgow. To escape from the numbing mindlessness of his life Thaw finds himself in a world which might yet be; this is the afterlife to which he is condemned after a death which is half accidental and half suicidal. Called Unthank it contains echoes of his life on earth in Scotland but is peopled by creatures which have the power of transmogrification.

For all the brilliance of his imaginative inventiveness, Gray showed himself to be on less secure ground in these fantasy sections and was at his best in dealing with the realities of modern life; indeed his descriptions of life in post-war Scotland have a sure and naturalistic touch. This virtue resurfaces in Something Leather, a quirky meandering novel which examines the nature of female sexuality as experienced by three different women, Senga, Donalda and June. As has become de rigueur in Gray's novels there is also a full cast of supporting characters, including the self-deluding and destructive Tom who bears a close resemblance to Duncan Thaw. Gray has spiced the narrative with a number of erotic cameosthe effect is of reading a number of short storiesbut the end result is curiously asexual.

Most of Gray's writing leaves an impression of linguistic inventiveness and artistic energy but his later fiction, including the bizarre McGrotty and Ludmilla, has revealed a growing impatience with the confines of the novel's form. In "Critic-Fuel," an epilogue to Something Leather he made the surprising admission that he had run out of interest in his writing, hence the change to female central characters. "Having discovered how my talent worked it was almost certainly defunct. Imagination will not employ whom it cannot surprise." His Mavis, central figure in the title piece of Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale, with Five Shorter Tales, is an undeniably strong figure who manipulates the men around her. Much the same is true of the other women in the volumesuggesting that they are pushing their creator forward to explore new frontiers in his own literary consciousness.

Trevor Royle

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Kelman, James


Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 9 June 1946. Education: Greenfield School, Stonedyke School, and Hyndland School, all Glasgow, 1951-61. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1975-78, 1981-82. Family: Married Marie Connors in 1969; two daughters. Career: Has worked at a variety of semi-skilled and labouring jobs. Scottish Arts Council Writing fellowship, 1978-80, 1982-85. Awards: Scottish Arts Council bursary, 1973, 1980, and book award, 1983, 1987, 1989; Cheltenham prize, 1987; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1990; Booker McConnell Prize, 1994. Agent: Cathie Thomson, 23 Hillhead Street, Glasgow G12. Address: 244 West Princess Street, Glasgow G4 9DP, Scotland.



The Busconductor Hines. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1984.

A Chancer. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1985.

A Disaffection. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, FarrarStraus, 1989.

How Late It Was, How Late. London, Secker and Warburg, 1994.

Short Stories

An Old Pub Near the Angel. Orono, Maine, Puckerbrush Press, 1973.

Three Glasgow Writers, with Tom Leonard and Alex Hamilton. Glasgow, Molendinar Press, 1976.

Short Tales from the Nightshift. Glasgow, Print Studio Press, 1978.

Not Not While the Giro and Other Stories. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1983.

Lean Tales, with Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens. London, Cape, 1985.

Greyhound for Breakfast. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1987.

The Burn. London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Busted Scotch: Selected Stories. New York, Norton, 1997.

The Good Times. London, Secker & Warburg, 1998; New York, Anchor Books, 1999.


The Busker (produced Edinburgh, 1985).

Le Rodeur, adaptation of the play by Enzo Cormann (produced Edinburgh, 1987).

In the Night (produced Stirling, 1988).

Hardie and Baird: The Last Days (produced Edinburgh, 1990). London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Radio Plays:

Hardie and Baird: The Last Days, 1978.


The Return, 1990.


Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political. Stirling, Scotland, AK Press, 1992.

Editor, An East End Anthology. Glasgow, Clydeside Press, 1988.


Manuscript Collections:

Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

Critical Studies:

"Patter Merchants and Chancers: Recent Glasgow Writing" in Planet (Aberystwyth), no. 60, 1986-87, and article in New Welsh Review, (Aberystwyth), no. 10, 1990, both by Ian A. Bell.

James Kelman comments:

Glasgow is a post-industrial city; its culture comprises many different cultural traditions: I work within this.

* * *

James Kelman has established himself as one of the most compelling new voices in British fiction. Combining intense local affiliation with the west of Scotland and great stylistic inventiveness, he represents commitment and integrity, frankness and exuberance, and has been compared with Kafka and Beckett. His first novel, The Busconductor Hines takes a sombre subject, but articulates its central character through a mixture of impersonal reports and stream-of-consciousness imaginings. Kelman ignores the conventions of orthodox "realist" fiction in favour of a kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of fact and fantasy, in tribute to the imaginative capacities of "ordinary people." Here is a sample:

Life is too serious.

Hunch the shoulders and march. The furtively fast figure. One fine morning Hines R. was arrested. Crackle crackle crackle. We have this fantasy coming through on the line sir should we tape it and hold it against him or what. Naw but honest sir he's just a lowly member of the transport experience; he slept in a little and perforce is obliged to walk it to work, having missed the bastarn omnibus. A certain irony granted but nothing more, no significance of any insurrectionary nature.

It may be tempting to read this as a purely formal experiment, and relax into appreciating the multivocal texture of the writing. However, the stylistic extravaganza is always at the service of a purposive exploration of Hines's world, and the book retains its human centre in moving descriptions of Hines at work and at home.

Kelman's second novel, A Chancer, adopts a different approach. It portrays a young man without qualities, with no attempt to investigate what goes on inside his head. Instead, it narrates his day-to-day existence as he drifts and gamblesa perennial interest of Kelman'swithout overt or coercive authorial intrusion. The novel is interspersed with brief scenes where Kelman scrupulously describes events, and just as scrupulously keeps his distance. Such reluctance to invade his character's privacy is yet another way of resisting the pseudo-omniscience of more conventional third person narrative. It challenges us to make sense of events, without allowing us any special privileges. The formal features are not decorative, but are ways of identifying the limits of knowledge. What we eventually see through the sombre narrative is a life of purposelessness and indecision, lived within day-to-day privations, invigorated by the austerity of its unadorned, skeletal telling.

In his collections of short fictions, Greyhound for Breakfast and The Burn, Kelman shows more of his range. Some stories are brief vignettes, less than a page long, an anecdotal form he has experimented with from his earliest full collectionNot Not While the Giro onwards. Others are more elaborately developed, in alternating moods of wit, exhilaration, exasperation, and despair. They are certainly the most diverse and exuberant collections of recent years, with the power and intensity and wit of the prose encapsulating very large social and political concerns within miniaturist sketches.

"Greyhound for Breakfast" is an exceptional piece, showing the author at his best. Without ornament, it recounts a couple of hours in the life of a character and his newly-acquired greyhound. It sounds comic, a not-very-shaggy dog story, but it is not. Ronnie has bought the dog for more money than he really has, and as the day goes on he can find no good reason for having done so. He had a half-formed idea of entering it in races, but this soon seems ridiculous. As he wanders, more and more of his life begins to look absurd. He has no job, no proper communication with his wife, his son has just left home, and the whole business of living seems meaningless. As the story ends, the narrative drifts into a wonderfully controlled and frightening stream-of-consciousness reverie. The nihilism is deeply unsettling, representing the inarticulate yearnings and unsatisfied desires of an ordinary man undergoing the alienations of contemporary urban life. Kelman's language is of necessity frank, but never gratuitously so, dramatising the painful struggle towards articulacy of the most complex emotions. The dog is used as a symbol, but to call it that suggests a cruder, more schematic technique than Kelman offers. The story is typically suggestive, enigmatic, and nuanced. Without overly directive authorial intervention, the connections between individual lives and the circumstances which prescribe them are made. Although Kelman's work is insistently angry, it is angry on behalf of his subjects, rather than exasperated with them.

The same intensity and the same humanity can be found in Kelman's 1989 novel, A Disaffection, which returns to the fabric of interior and exterior description. This book puts on display a Glasgow school teacher at the moment when he sees the paucity of his own life. It offers an engagement with the traditional concerns of the social realist novel, but also a more tense mixture of moods than in comparable work by David Storey or Alan Sillitoe. Kelman uses his very flexible style to move inside and outside Doyle's head, to maintain scrupulous attention to him and his fantasies. The novel becomes an unsentimental education, taking us through Doyle's crisis of confidence. Although it is an attack on the constraints and hypocrisies of the State educational system, it is a much more broadly-based revelation of a culture clinging onto the vestiges of its self-esteem.

Doyle's yearnings for something better, represented by the strange pair of pipes he finds and his unsatisfied fancy for a fellow-teacher, become a way of intensifying and demonstrating not only Doyle's own malaise, but also broader national circumstances. At times, the political leanings are explicit. Kelman uses the book to insinuate a disturbing critique of those who believe in the possibilities of change from within. Doyle struggles all the way through under the pressures to effect change, pressures which are much greater than he fully realises. In very powerful scenes with his parents and his unemployed brother, he enacts his alienation from the conditions of their lives, yet he has found nothing to replace their dignity. In the classroom and the staffroom, the futility of trying to educate people genuinely in circumstances so adverse is made very clear.

Yet the book is neither a simple diatribe, nor a purely personal vision. Kelman introduces complex framing devices through Doyle's interests in Hölderlin and Pythagorean philosophy. As in The Busconductor Hines the author seems very close to his character, but these references, like the frequent allusions to Hamlet, are ways of introducing new perspectives, and encouraging distance. At times, Kelman shows a Swiftian taste for irony, using that form as the only possible way of coping with the revealed awfulness of the world. We are not allowed to hold Doyle in contempt, and the sharp oscillations in the narrative between wit and horror are both compulsive and disturbing.

In 1994 Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker McConnell Prize, a highly prestigious award. Yet this harrowing tale of blindness and affliction provoked an extraordinary controversy in Britain. Unable to see the book's deep humanity, many critics castigated its harsh language and its intense concentration on the lives of the dispossessed. How Late It Was, How Late is Kelman's toughest book yet, his most clearly focussed and uncompromising. His fascinating style, combining the darkest humour with glimpses of the horror of everyday life, allows him to produce narratives capable of the caustic and the tender, the intimate and the aloof. Moving in and out of the central figure's consciousness makes possible a fully human realisation of an individual's plight, and a recognition of the material circumstances that impose such pressure. More recently, Kelman has written plays (notably Hardie and Baird ) and numerous political pamphlets, and his development is clearly continuing.

Ian A. Bell

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