Fictional Exits by Alasdair Gray, 1993

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by Alasdair Gray, 1993

As the author states in a lengthy note to his story, propaganda is a "low class of art," yet paradoxically Alasdair Gray takes the short story form and uses it to advance his own ideas about the relationship between police forces and society. At its heart the message is relatively simple: that lack of restraints enable police forces to take the law into their own hands, even if their actions entail breaking the very laws which are their guiding principles.

Two examples are used to give substance to Gray's argument—one fantastic, the other a true story which is included because "its mad logic harmonized with the fantastic." The first is thoroughly Kafkaesque. Someone—Gray does not say whether it is male or female—is locked in a windowless room. No reason is given for the incarceration, and for all intents and purposes, the person has been left to rot without hope of escape.

Gray goes to great lengths to describe the surroundings, although this is done with an economy of language that is positively chilling. Indeed, there is little for the prisoner to see—just a lavatory and a poster showing the face of the head of government. Left alone and with nothing to do, the prisoner could have succumbed to despair, but Gray makes it clear that there are other powers which are more effective than those wielded by the state, namely, the capacity of the imagination.

Staring at the bland image of the anonymous politician, the prisoner is able to imagine the landscape behind the face. It is a familiar view of the countryside merging into a city with the distant hills providing a counterpoint to the foreground. It should have been a bucolic experience that would release the prisoner's mind from a dreadful predicament, but there is no lasting comfort. Instead, the poster that shows a free world beyond the electrically lit cell becomes the picture of an even larger jail.

Then a miracle of sorts happens. The prisoner finds the stub of a pencil and is able to sharpen it to a fine point. Immediately all sorts of possibilities come into focus. The cell's white walls provide a canvas on which could be drawn all sorts of pictures, but the prisoner only has one thought in mind. A door is drawn, a copy of the cell's unopenable door, but there is one difference. This door has a key which can be turned. The prisoner does just that and is able to walk to freedom.

On one level this is fantasy. Although such cells do exist and although people are imprisoned without any reason, it is obvious that an artificial door could never be a real exit. On a deeper level, though, it is an allegory. Art, in whatever form, can provide an escape from the confines of day-to-day life. Creation is therefore a liberating experience, one which is open to anyone possessed of free will, the very essence of which can never be imprisoned.

However, in a somber counterpoint to the first part of the story, Gray adds that the story of the door can be told with a less happy ending. The tale that follows is based on an actual incident that happened in Gray's home city of Glasgow. It, too, is stark and terrifying.

An old blind man, living in isolation in a city housing scheme, fears that his house is being broken into and calls the police for assistance. While he is making the telephone call, the police break open his front door with a sledgehammer and knock him down. This was not a coincidence: they had mistaken his address for that of a drug dealer and were making a forced entry. In British slang, a sledgehammer is known as a "big key."

Instead of apologizing, the police who entered his house tell their colleagues that they will "stitch up" the blind householder. In other words they will fake the evidence to show that they were forced to use violence because the old man had assaulted them while they were trying to do their duty. The calls were recorded, but when the case comes to court the sheriff (presiding magistrate) decides to accept the police explanation that "stitched up" in police slang means "Properly arrested with no hint of falsehood or perjury in the procedure." As Gray adds tartly, they had simply created a fictional exit.

Both incidents are related in deadpan style, and there is no attempt at moralizing. In each case the reader is left to make a judgement which fits the circumstances. Certainly in the first part of the story the moral is that the power of the imagination can triumph over secular difficulties. Opening the door is an ability to imagine escapes using creation as the key. As Gray says, "New arts and sciences, new religions and nations are created this way."

The moral of the second part is less easily defined. Here the big key is a blunt weapon, which is used against a fellow human being. Gray makes it clear that the blind man is not imprisoned but made to pay a fine. The inference is obvious: If society is not restrained by checks and balances, it descends into anarchy and ordinary people suffer. In this case, legal curbs are forgotten, evidence is falsified by the very people who should be upholding the law, and as a result a blind man is wronged.

Although the incident involving the blind man actually happened, it, too, is a metaphor for other cases in which innocent people suffered at the hands of police. Here Gray has in mind the cases involving the false arrest of Irish Republican Army supporters suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism. In the 1980s there were two notorious incidents at Guildford and Birmingham, where suspects were arrested, tried, and jailed as a result of perjured evidence. Later, following lengthy campaigns, they were freed, but their cases blighted the British judicial tradition.

Seen from that perspective, the links between the two parts of Gray's story fall into place, and the irony of the story's title becomes tellingly obvious.

—Trevor Royle