Of Clerking And Of Slaughtering (Alasdair Gray, ‘Lanark’)

lanarkNicola Sturgeon wants Scottish legislation by Scottish MPs. A rightful request, given the political fissure caused by the not-inconsiderably close result in the 2014 independence referendum. Given the iron-clad confidence of the SNP’s political swaggering since, you might be mistaken for thinking they had actually won the thing. The referendum had an astonishing 85% voter turn-out; a gigantic number which any of the three major parties can now only dream about. The SNP, along with Plaid Cymru in Wales, are demanding more devolution; take the power from the talons of London, putting a stop to the abstracted machinations of the self-serving Westminster villains. In Scotland at least, voter apathy has been overturned in a clear message of tiredness and a long-held desire for change finally looking like it might actually get somewhere, come May 7th.

Alasdair Gray has not only long been a vocal champion of Scottish independence, but a conduit for what an independent Scotland has the potential to be. In his fiction, Gray lays not only the foundations for some Scotland ideal, but lays it out in the most labyrinthine and multi-dimensional ways tolerable. “To the Scottish”, as Will Self points out, “Gray is at least imaginable, whereas to the English he is barely conceivable. A creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision is not something to be sought in the native land of the hypocrite.” His monstrous 1981 masterpiece, Lanark, is both literary landmark (Scottish or otherwise) and resembles a kind of sociopolitical treatise (Scottish specifically.)

Read via four non-linear books, Lanark‘s primary narrative tells the story of ‘Lanark’, a young man who finds himself arriving by train at the permanently-noctural town of Unthank, where people his age suffer from existential maladies, and where others suffer from “dragonhide”; a creeping skin condition which, if untreated, eventually leaves the afflicted completely immobile beneath a scaly, armour-like epidermis. A second narrative is the bildungsroman of Thaw, a man born in impoverished Glasgow in the shadow of WWII, who finds himself increasingly struggling with the complexities of love and interaction with others, as he gets closer to achieving his lifelong purpose of becoming an artist. The madness of both concerns eventually lead him to destruction.

Although Lanark as a complete text could be considered low fantasy, Thaw’s narrative, from a world-building perspective, is the more ‘realistic’ of the two. This is significant, given the way that the bildungsroman is usually closely associated with fantasy, especially the fairy tale. Thaw’s complex fixations with women, sex and identity – which lead him to make the same mistakes and repeat unrewarding actions again and again – are excruciating, but also relatable. And although it ultimately takes his entire lifetime for him to realise what kind of artist he must be, Thaw’s relationships with those around him remain at best tense, at worst destructive.


William Blake, Book of Urizen, Copy D, pl.22 (1794)

Contrary to Self’s claim that nobody like Gray might be found within England’s creatives, comparisons with William Blake cry out for recognition. In Thaw’s narrative, for example, although it’s possible to empathise with him (if only with his incapacitation around those he fancies), his characterisation as an artist immersed within the impracticalities of the spiritual and the determination of his craft is alien to most ‘artists’. Like Blake, Gray wields such determination of vision that he doesn’t leave space to worry about his audience. He can’t do; as it is for Thaw, it all just has to come out. Blake’s significant conclusions regarding the ‘contending forces’ permanently haunting the individual (namely, the artist) looking out into the world – the conflicts of the ‘creative’ and the ‘egocentric’ – drive everything of the spiritual within his output. This inner-struggle and the desire to harness a pureness of artistic message, free from the cosmetic piety and politics of the ego, began at one end of the Industrial Revolution with Blake, and is echoed at what could be considered the conclusion of that same period with Gray.

Thaw’s formative years (beyond the family unit) occur in the 1960s; a time of vast social and economic change in Britain, with the financial struggles of urban Glasgow exemplifying these shifts. Thaw matures within a fluid strata of influential art school tutors and classmates, and for a time even has a solid group of friends. When other students embrace the reactionary appeal of radicalised student politics, Thaw is drawn to the isolationism of becoming an ‘artist’ – but what kind of artist takes him a lifetime to realise.

Like Blake 150 years before him, Thaw, once he gets going, dedicates his mind, body and spirit to harnessing his calling and ever-refining his technique. He is commissioned to paint a gigantic mural in a suburban church, and such is Thaw’s dedication to the project that he gradually transforms into a bearded, paint-spattered nightgown-wearing recluse; his paints, brushes and rented scaffolding becoming as much a part of the church as the altar or the congregation. Thaw’s intermittent preoccupations with love and partnership are suppressed by his desire to, never so much complete the mural, but just do it. He believes it offers him absolute spiritual purpose. Thaw, as Blake before him, puts God into the mural, either explicitly as a figure hiding within the myriad flora and fauna, or through the sheer majestic religiosity of the whole enterprise. It is only when he is initially politely, but then more forcefully, advised to complete, alter (read ‘censor’) or abandon the increasingly complex mural that Thaw becomes attacked. (The reality of abject poverty is another obvious factor as well.) What Lanark shares with Blake’s own experiences then is less a mutual misunderstanding and intolerance of society at large, but rather something more prevalent and insidious; parochialism at its most manipulative and destructive. It’s the parochial interference of the Church which causes Thaw the most amount of disruption whilst attempting to complete his masterwork, and parochialism which eventually causes him to abandon the project.

Although Blake died before experiencing anywhere near the recognition he now holds, he also was a victim of the parochialism of tradition (Blake’s pioneering methods of print and painting took time to catch on), and a fashionable non-spiritualism he saw stemming from industrial modernity. Thaw, on the other hand, has the weight of the twentieth century bearing-down on him; the existential quandaries of two mechanised world wars, several waves of financial recession, and the squeezing of Arts funding nationally. In short, social responsibility, and the rigid parochial attitudes of the Church and other institutions attempting to put pressure on his artistic endeavours, are what eventually crush him.

Today, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP vocally positions itself to the left of what it was under Alex Salmond. Salmond, although achieving a great deal during his time in office (it was his referendum, after all), was also firmly in the pockets of captains of right-wing capitalism, such as Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump. (Salmond’s fawning to Trump’s kitsch vision of an exclusive golf resort along the Aberdeenshire coast being the most cosmetically nauseating embodiment of the SNP leader’s whoring.) Now, the SNP clearly wants to be seen as stepping away from such a taste for the foreign dollar, focussing instead toward Scottish means of financial independence from London and Brussells.

One way in which it might be achieved is with the SNP identifying its own nationalism; that is, civic nationalism, rather than the dubiously veiled racism of nativist nationalism (see UKIP. If you must.) Devolution would obviously mean smaller governing bodies, from towns to counties, etc, having the final word on their own spending and infrastructure. In Lanark, it is the influence of the abstracted, never quite present, overriding government who are inactive to the ever-growing insanitary conditions, which leads to chaos. The domestic and social degradation of Unthank and other neglected provinces – the filth of the people outside of the governing body – does not concern the governing body; it is acknowledged but never actually witnessed or addressed.

At first, Lanark attempts to the aid of an increasing number of dragonhide victims. In the Kafka-esque beaurocratic tunnels of “the Institute”, Lanark attempts to help cure the disease, recognising the insightful value of reading and self-recognition with the patients. But eventually Lanark realises he must take the fight further; that the loss of identity and the destitution of the people of Unthank must be challenged from a political standpoint also.

In the final book, Lanark contends with the dual struggles of family and politics; unlike Thaw, who suffered a famine of emotional or romantic narrative, Lanark becomes a father with Rima, one of the group of young people who befriended him when he first arrived. Lanark, like Scotland under the frustrations and control of a Westminster government, is at the mercy of his own history (the supposed one consisting of his ‘alternate history’ as Thaw; a history borne from legend and possible fiction), as well as his newly created future in the form of his child. What world can he shape for his child to grow up in? It’s a question posed by those who encourage him to stand politically, even though self-doubt and a lack of direct political experience fill him with fear.

But stand he must. Like Josef K. in The Trial, Lanark must learn the language of his enemies on the move. And like Josef K., Lanark realises that the institutions of, and sometimes existing before those of the governing power, hold little shelter after all (the symbol of the cathedral providing an ominous symbol of institutionalised exclusion in both Grays and Kafka’s texts.)

Lanark’s journeys, more than just geographical and political, become increasingly alien and surreal. He has to traverse the“incaldrical zone” – an area existing outside of conventional time – to attend the political summit. In a place where physical national commodities have been bought or sold in the name of capitalism, now, time has been harnessed to earn or distribute in just the same way: a commercial Lanark witnesses becries, “MONEY IS TIME. TIME IS LIFE. BUY MORE LIFE FOR YOUR FAMILY FROM THE QUANTUM INTERMINABLE. (THEY’LL LOVE YOU FOR IT)”.


The Author, drunken, with an innocent, in celebration

Lanark concludes (if ‘conclude’ it actually does), with Lanark outside the text – outside the history of Unthank – watching it finally collapse. But rather than a mournful image, instead it emphasises the importance of grasping the now in modern politics; in modern Britain; in modern Scotland. Lanark might have the strange luxury of being shown the entire breadth of destiny for Unthank, sitting beyond his own mortal years, but in doing so we are shown how everything does eventually collapse and always has: it’s called change. With such as genuine display of officially sanctioned discontent as the closeness of the Scottish independence vote, the capitalist politics of Westminster took a body blow. Many of the Yes voters will have been tired of being neglected; others simply want change. There is a poetry to such desire. It’s pure artistry. Although written over 30 years ago, in Lanark, Alasdair Gray has in many ways put voice to such desire. Gray is a visionary, after all. He could see the potential for defiance and change all along. Now, the people have finally begun to shed the other skin they had to wear, as another moment is upon them.


About rpfox

Writer of short, strange fiction. Dabbles in graphic design a bit. Enjoys walking. Does not enjoy sea food.
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