Niall Murphy (00:11):
Hello, everyone. I’m Niall Murphy, and welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk. A podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow. I’d like to start today’s podcast with a quote, “What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, a park, a golf course, some pubs and connecting streets? That’s it. No, I’m wrong. There’s also a cinema and the library. And if our imagination needs exercise, we use these to visit London and Paris.” Those words come from the pen and creative genius of Alasdair Grey, the subject of today’s exciting conversation. The great Scottish writer and artist sadly died in December 2019, just a day after his 85th birthday. But he leaves an inspiring legacy for all to share. A lifetime’s work, which continues to invite a reimagining of Glasgow.
Alasdair Grey was born in Riddrie, in Glasgow’s Northeast, in December 1934. His childhood visits to Kelvingrove Museum had fueled fantasies about escaping to imaginary worlds. But he never wanted to leave Glasgow. And as an adult, actively avoided the law of making fame and fortune in London. His seminal work, the much acclaimed novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, moves through time and space, but never really leaves the recognisable reality, or perhaps surreality, of Glasgow, and some say, especially when it becomes the damp and dreary dystopia of Unthank. Yet the book also challenged and shaped a different way of seeing Glasgow. In one off quoted passage, the centre of Glasgow is seen through patches of sunlight from a windy hillside, which I think is Garnet Hill. And this is an exchange between Duncan Thaw, the protagonist of the book, and his friend MacAlpine.
“‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said MacAlpine. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that? Because nobody imagines living here. Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York, nobody visiting them for the first time as a stranger, because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history, books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.'” So like the opening quote, that’s from page 243 of Lanark, as today’s guest can tell us without a moment’s hesitation. Welcome to Sorcha Dallas, curator of the Alistair Grey Archive. The archive was almost miraculously moved to the Whisky Bond just three months after Alistair’s death, and secured just a day before lockdown in March 2020.
So Sorcha Dallas first met Alasdair Grey in 2007, at a time when she was establishing a personal reputation as an enterprising and innovative young gallery owner, bringing the work of contemporary artists to a wider world. She already knew a great deal about the older artists. Like so many other Glasgow School of Arts graduates, she’d been inspired by reading Lanark. It’s great to have you on the podcast, Sorcha, and we know you have an extraordinary story to tell about the founding of the archive, and how the work of Alasdair Grey continues to inspire new imaginings now and for the future. So first off, in our first question, perhaps you can start telling us more about your working relationship with Alasdair Grey, how it came about, and developed over the course of, how long was it, 13 years?
Sorcha Dallas (03:45):
Thank you, Niall. Lovely to be here today. Yes, so my working relationship with Alasdair goes back to 2007, and as you said, I was at that time running a commercial gallery. Although my interest with his work, as you also mentioned, began many years before. I remember many fellow art students reading Lanark, and was such a formative experience for me, but also living within the West End of Glasgow and encountering his murals in West End bars and lanes, and occasionally glimpsing his carefully designed books in John Smith’s bookshop too. So I guess I was really aware from the beginning of his very expansive practise, but what I really wanted to do, and because of my background was highlight the visual and put it on the same fitting, really, as the literary work, because Alasdair did go to Glasgow School of Art. He studied mural making and stained-glass, and he would always describe himself as an artist who fell into writing, that’s really where the opportunities happened for him.
But for many people, the only way that they were really able to encounter his visual work was through the publications, through these beautifully designed book jackets or plates that he would dot within the text themselves. So I guess when I came in and started working with him, he was thinking about getting his visual archive in order, because he was in the process of starting to work on A Life In Pictures, which was a kind of seminal book, a visual biography told in his own words and using the images that he created throughout his life to describe his story. So he was getting that together with Canongate. So I came in and helped organise and work on that with him. And really then from that I really wanted to try and reposition his work, his visual work, put it on the same fitting as a literary, but you can’t really separate them, they’re fully intertwined, so it’s very much about promoting his work, getting it bought into major collections.
And then really from that, I started to work with Glasgow museums to coincide with his 80th birthday on the Alasdair Grey season, which was a kind of citywide series of exhibitions with the jewel in the crown being the retrospective from the personal to the universal that was at Kelvingrove. So I guess from the start, I’d seen a large body of work he’d amassed over periods in terms of his visual work, and it was very much about bringing that front and centre. And also showing the connections between the visual and the literary. Because as you said, you quoted a section there from Lanark, and that was a book that took 30 years to create and to resolve. But of course, during that time he’s re-imagining the city in other ways, through murals, through paintings, through prints and drawings, and it’s that intertwining between the visual and the literary that I think makes him so distinct and so unique as a creative.
Niall Murphy (06:39):
Absolutely. I mean, for me it was a complete revelation. I went to Glasgow School of Art too, though I was in the Macintosh School of Architecture section, so I didn’t read it until later on, mainly because so many people had inadvertently put me off by telling me it was this incredibly difficult book to read. And then when I did get to it, which was in my mid-thirties, I didn’t really find it difficult at all. I absolutely lapped up, thought was a fabulous book, but to me, maybe it was better that I left it until later, because knowing Glasgow much better by then, I could totally connect with how he saw the city and the things that were happening in the city in the book, and how Unthank operated as well with this mirror Glasgow, that was fascinating to me, because you could see how that surreal take on Glasgow totally connected with what was happening in Glasgow during that 25 to 30 year period that was writing it. And things like the comprehensive development areas where tenements would just disappear overnight, and that the happens would disappear as well.
You could see how the city’s unwinding, and he captures that so well. And I think that’s the best example I can think of how anyone has captured what Glasgow went through in that period, and Lanark does it absolutely brilliantly. Really interesting as well. Sorry, sorry, I kind of jumped back in there, but you say he was trained in stained glass, and you can see…
Sorcha Dallas (08:04):
Yes. And mural making, yes.
Niall Murphy (08:05):
Yeah. You can see in his use of line and his confidence of line, where all that comes from is fascinating. Really interesting.
Sorcha Dallas (08:11):
I should probably put a disclaimer in that, I don’t know how much stained-glass he actually made. He didn’t make really stained glass, he was definitely more focused within the mural making. But yeah, I guess what’s characteristic of stained glass is this very sharp defined outline, which is also a unique style with, I guess, in terms of book-making and illustration. And if you think about Alasdair’s first encounter with storytelling in the visual and forum that was in childhood books where there is a text and a passage, and then there is a visual representation of that that was often very stylised, and very graphic, and very simple in its execution. And I think you can really see that early influence of graphic art and illustration on his work, which obviously, he, actually, later in his life through a good friend of his, he ended up working with her on a stained glass panel. But yeah, it’s interesting that you pick up on that, because it’s a similar usage of line, isn’t it?
Niall Murphy (09:09):
Exactly. They’re like the cartoons that you see, having seen cartoons as some of the great works of, because Glasgow is obviously a major centre for stained glass, having seen some of those cartoons of people’s work, you can see that same use of lines. He was obviously trained in it at some point, that’s very, very interesting.
Sorcha Dallas (09:27):
But I think the mural making for me really shapes everything about what he’s wanting to do and picks up on the point that you raised earlier in terms of, Alasdair, I mean, there’s many things that he’s doing in his work. One is creatively responding to things that exist already. So if you read Lanark, you can see the list of plagiarisms, it’s in conversation with work that nothing’s made in a vacuum and it’s very much having a very participatory exchange with things that have happened before. But it’s also, exactly as you said before, trying to fix and capture, disappearing things are happening, disappearing people, disappearing places. And that period, if you think about kind of Lanark and what he was working on around the same time, the city recorder series that he did for the People’s Palace through for Glasgow Museums, trying to fix a particular period and the social history of the city too, which he’s mapping and recording, which we’ve got material, because the archive is located in Applecross by the fourth canal.
And we look out the window at the old Applecross building and some of the old mill buildings around there that have been since sort of taken over by Scottish Canal. And we can see them reflected and drawn 40, 50 years earlier by Alasdair. So he’s walking in this area, but he’s also living at the time up near the art school at Garnet Bank. So that whole part of the city was part of the same neighbourhood he described as walking from Garnet Bank. But as you said, the planning, particularly the motorway, what that did to the city in terms of cutting off areas, sectioning off communities and dislocating areas, it’s hard now walking in those footsteps to imagine what that was once like.
Niall Murphy (11:05):
Yeah. You have to know what the city was like beforehand. And that whole conversation with MacAlpine, I think happens, I could be wrong, of course, I think it happens kind of where the Hill Street viewpoint roughly is now, because you see that kind of fabulous panorama of Trinity College and Park Circus, and especially when you see that in the sunset, it’s beautiful.
Sorcha Dallas (11:25):
You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking it was drawn from there, but it’s actually not. It’s drawn from the clay pits, from the viewpoint just did the clay pits…
Niall Murphy (11:33):
Right, which is equally beautiful.
Sorcha Dallas (11:36):
Equally beautiful. And obviously the work that Scottish canals have been doing around that area over the last few years has really brought it back as an area for people to really recreationally enjoy in different ways. So yeah, there’s actually a pathway up to the viewpoint. And we went back recently because we have got the passage that you quoted. We’ve got a drawing that Alasdair made, which is a visual representation of that passage. And we went back to look at it and to try to reposition it. And it is made from that viewpoint, but equally as much as it looks like a naturalistic drawing Alasdair’s taken stylistic licence, and he’s moved buildings around, and he reimagined it even in that sketched form.
But yeah, it’s great. Yeah, we’re hoping to do a bit more about that to really bed the material that we have into that landscape, and show the relationship and the connection to it, not just in the formation of Lanark, but if you know Alasdair’s largest painting, Cowcaddens, in the 1950s that he did in 1964, that is a depiction of Garnet Bank extending up to the area in which we are in. You can see Applecross house in the first and fourth canal within that drawing. So it’s all part of the same language that he’s writing about in Lanark, and he’s drawing in some of these artworks like Cowcaddens too. So it’s kind of fascinating from a social history point of view too, to go back and walk in his footsteps.
Niall Murphy (13:04):
Yeah, because it’s this whole part of the city that’s disappeared. It’s a jigsaw you have to piece together again.
Sorcha Dallas (13:05):
It is. And I guess there’s layers of that, isn’t there? Who and what has been disappeared and why? What has been the motivation politically, socially? And creatively for those things to happen. I think Alasdair is always really determined to do that, to try and fix people, and almost keep them alive, keep those stories often overlooked and marginalised too within the work. So there’s something political and social that he’s doing within that too.
Niall Murphy (13:33):
Fascinating. Moving on to our second question. So Alasdair Gray died in 29th of December 2019, so one day after his 85th birthday. And you’ve said that it felt like the end of things. And yet somehow within three months you’d helped secure a new big beginning for this astonishing archive of artefacts and books at the Whisky Bond. And this is in March 2020 just before the lockdown. How did you manage that?
Sorcha Dallas (14:04):
Yeah, I’m not going to lie, it was an intense period, but I think I really went into protection mode, because I knew Alasdair, he lived his life by his Socialist principles, so he was always struggling to pay the rent, to pay other people, because he really relied heavily in assistance to work alongside him. But he didn’t own his flat, it was owned by his second wife, Morag McAlpine, and sadly she died prior to Alasdair. So I think the way it was set up, he was given a lifetimes lease to live in the flat after she died, but it reverted then back to her family and to her will. So that was kind of the prompt to it, the fact that we didn’t have time. You hear about, every archive’s different, every estate’s different. I think the longer we had, if there was maybe an indefinite period, we might still be there sifting through things.
But it prompted me to really go into protection mode quite quickly and to think about what is achievable that I can list and catalogue, who can I bring in to support me with that, and how can we keep it safe moving forward. So there was a few conversations that happened early on. One was, for example, at the National Library Service to look at the literary materials, the Glasgow School of Art came in and helped in regards to the library. And then the Scottish National Galleries came in, they helped by assisting me with an archivist, Kirstie Meehan, who came in and helped me list the artwork. So we tried to capture as much as we could the areas that we couldn’t capture in full detail, like some of the library elements, because there was just books everywhere.
We photographed it. We also did a 360 degree recording of it. We captured all the information we needed so once it was relocated we could continue to go back through that and archive and accession it, really. But it was going to the government to sort of say, “This needs to be protected, can you help me? Time is of the essence.” And fortunately they did step in to do that. And as you mentioned, we managed to pack everything up, move it out, get it into the Whisky Bond, and then we went into lockdown. And that was such a strange period. I kept thinking, “I wonder what Alasdair would’ve thought about all of this at such a kind of strange time,” because as we were packing up, we could feel this wave of Covid coming towards Britain and about to hit. So we were bracing ourselves for something.
And now to reflect on that is hard, isn’t it? Because we’ve all been through it and we’ve experienced it. But fortunately, we managed to get in and get everything secure. But is worth saying that when I started to work with Alasdair he was in his early seventies. So I was very much aware of thinking about legacy. And during his lifetime we set up a foundation and we captured what he wanted to happen to the work posthumously in terms of creating education, learning opportunities from it, and that is what the archive is based on. So it’s not me or others interpreting what Alasdair would’ve liked, we’ve got his intentions at the heart of everything that we do. And equally, it’s got to be a generative resource. So it’s about making people aware of his work and also the web of influence around him, because he worked alongside others.
But as we’d said earlier, his whole interest creatively was responding to things that happened before. So it’s very important to create that opportunity for others in his name. So for them to come in to respond creatively to what Alasdair’s left, and that can be in a respectful, or in an interrogative way, that’s how it should be. And that keeps it being generative, it keeps it being fresh, it keeps these new perspectives and stories being able to be added into it as well.
But yeah, it was a very strange time, I guess in many ways I felt kind of fortunate that then there was a period of things slowed down once it was safe to be able to go into the Whisky Bond. I quite enjoyed having that slow pace to be able to really reflect on what was there. And also maybe to grieve in a way too, because it was so quick that I went into protecting it, and in many ways I feel that Alasdair’s still so alive for me, because every week I’m discovering new things, I’m always learning. But it helped me come to terms with the loss of him not being there, but what remained was the work, and really to think about how I could protect and fix that, not just for now, but for the future too.
Niall Murphy (18:27):
Fascinating. That brings me onto my next question, which I’m quite interested in, because as mentioned before the start, I lived right next door to Alasdair, so I’m intrigued as to how this works. But the archive invites visitors into Alasdair’s front room. So as part of this, can you take us inside and perhaps describe your own first visit to Alasdair’s flat in Marchmont Terrace?
Sorcha Dallas (18:55):
Yeah. So obviously it’s worth saying that the archive, it’s not set up in Alasdair’s last place of residence. It’s a part recreation of his living space at Marchmont Terrace. And many of the objects that were in his flat travelled with him through the various homes that he lived in within the West End of Glasgow. So that last home in Marchmont Terrace was probably his most comfortable, that’s because Morag was a woman of independent means. She was a librarian, a bookseller. She’d bought that flat, it was quite comfortable. There was a kitchen and bedroom to the back, a toilet area, and then a comfortable front living room, which he quickly commandeered as a working studio space.
Niall Murphy (19:36):
Huge front living rooms.
Sorcha Dallas (19:38):
Yeah, it was. But if you reflect on previous flats to that, it was often bed sits where all life and art were fully intertwined. But what what’s lovely and what we have at the archive is obviously key objects, which have travelled with him through these homes. So the rug, his green chair, which he used to sit on when he was working, editors did secretaries, a lot of models sat on it when he was drawing them, even appears in a mural as a throne within one of his murals too. We’ve got his desk that he found discarded on the street and he lovingly brought into his home, drilled it into his wall, and it travelled with him again from home to home. We’ve got all the shelves that he had up in his room, which were recycled from floorboards that he found out by a midden one afternoon too.
So a lot of these objects really, as much as, of course, were not in Alasdair’s home anymore, but because we’ve reinstated a version of it, they have these echoes, and these histories, and these stories too. So they’re very emotive as objects. And also it makes the archive different maybe from what people expect when they walk in. I guess, if you think of an archive, you maybe think of things behind plastic, or in boxes kind of stored away. We have got an element of that, but when you walk in, it is walking into Alasdair’s front room. And for me, I vividly remember the first time I walked over that threshold, and it was a life-changing moment for me.
And I never took for granted every other occasion that I was able to walk and enter into that space, because what you were walking into was the inner workings of Alasdair Gray’s minds. You could look at his bookshelf and see the way he’s curated or put books together. You could see his artworks in various states of completion. You could see cassettes that he was listening to. He didn’t have a CD player, he didn’t have a TV. He would listen to the radio or to cassette players tapes as well. You’d see little objects and material studio ephemera. And I think, Niall, you were saying that you used to walk up and look in, because it was ground floor. Lots of people did, and you would’ve seen at the Bay Window, the plan chest with all the paint brushes.
Niall Murphy (21:46):
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Sorcha Dallas (21:49):
Yeah, I think lots of people do. I’ve had lots of people saying that would kind of mark their root home from work if they could swing past and peer in and see what else Alasdair Gray was getting up to.
Niall Murphy (22:00):
Yeah, I was far too intimidated to ask, but…
Sorcha Dallas (22:05):
I know. And I think a lot of people did, they felt so intrigued. And I wish what it was like on the other side, and I guess we’ve given people an opportunity to see what that’s like. And I think it’s also just fascinating, it’s real insight into a creative imagination and way of working that you’re able to see. And I also think it makes his work accessible in a different way, because he was so hand to mouth in terms of his existence that he’s making these extraordinary worlds, he’s world building on this universal scale, in a way, but he’s using very ordinary stuff that we all have lying around, pens, pencil, a lot of Tipp-Ex, recycled bits of paper. He’s prompted by economics, using and recycling what he’s got around him. And that’s really inspiring, I think, for people to see. He’s not got a massive studio and a workforce of 10 helping him, and he’s spending X amount per month for materials. He’s really not.
Niall Murphy (23:00):
I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, absolutely. Fascinating. I mean, it just sounds like it’s a really enticing invitation to come and visit you at the archive.
Sorcha Dallas (23:11):
Well, it is open to everyone. Obviously, as I described, it’s not a huge space because it’s a part recreation of the front room. But anyone who’s interested can get in touch through social media, through the website, and arrange a visit. And obviously it’s been brilliant over the last year in particular because of restrictions easing, being able to welcome people, groups or one-on-one. And if you’re an Alasdair Grey super fan, you’re welcome. If you don’t know anything about Alasdair Gray, you’re welcome.
Niall Murphy (23:38):
Absolutely. Yeah, it would be a nice escape from the office. And talking about that, question number four, what can you tell us about Alasdair Gray’s own escapes, firstly from Riddrie, and can you tell us about his other passions such as libraries, or his favourite haunts in Glasgow, or things he didn’t like in Glasgow?
Sorcha Dallas (24:00):
Yeah, I mean, I think libraries, he would talk about libraries being his university, in a way. And he was always so passionate about, and so behind libraries, and the importance of them and of education too, really. But libraries gave him access, I guess now we’ve got, if I think about a young Alasdair Gray, eight or nine living in Riddrie and going to the library, and the kind of world that opened up to him, he could take a book down and he could be transported to a real or fantastical place through opening a book a week. I mean, we can do that now in the internet, can’t we? But it’s a transformative power of literature, and the universal right I think that we all have to be able to live imaginatively, and he passionately believed in that. And he also believed in the cornerstone of a civil society as education too, and that we have to value that much better in this country as well.
Niall Murphy (24:57):
Very, very much, yes. I wonder what you’d think about what happened subsequently over lockdown with the libraries and all of those issues that would’ve really touched a nerve with him.
Sorcha Dallas (25:08):
Someone had asked me a while ago, “What were the conditions to make an Alasdair Gray? Could you make another one?” And I guess there’s different catalysts. He was quite a particular product of his time. And I think coming out of the Second World War and this idea that I think there was a real hopefulness of building back a country better that was about collectivity, the NHS, free schools, free education. There was a real hopefulness that drove that, that he never was jaded by, he always believed that that was possible and achievable, but it was about us having to live differently, which he obviously did. He wasn’t driven by material gain, it was about making and a kind of economy around supporting others in an equal way.
And I think there was always, that’s what I found always really inspiring, he was never jaded. There was always that hopefulness that he had in people, and in people being able to reflect and do better and be better. And I think that’s a really inspiring way to be. Your had asked earlier about what did he use to escape, I guess it’s kind of quite well-known that he would escape from this very busy brain by going to the pub. That was a one way that he managed to get out of his very, very busy brain. But another way that he escaped the chatter that happened constantly, I think, in his mind, was through playing chess. And that was a really good way for him to dull his busy brain. And also often when he was having a problem, if he was stuck at a bit of writing, or a mural, he would play chess to help unlock and solve some of those creative issues that he’s having.
Niall Murphy (26:46):
Fascinating. My dad is a really serious chess player, so I can understand. That didn’t rub off on me, unfortunately.
Sorcha Dallas (26:54):
Well, there’s a chess board at the Archive, if you fancy it.
Niall Murphy (26:58):
I think I probably still know some moves. Talking about Alasdair’s mural then and his own physical mark on Glasgow with the murals he produced around the city, what do they say about both him as an artist and the city? Maybe we could start by looking at his work in Òran Mór, and that reimagining of Glasgow, and the mapping of the city, and how it describes the ordinary lives of people and disappearing places.
Sorcha Dallas (27:26):
Yeah, I think that’s what all his work does, really, and the murals in a very particular way, because they’re civically cited. So it’s that idea of them being physically placed within an environment where everyone can access him, and that is really important. You don’t need to walk over the threshold of a gallery, or they’re out there in the world for everyone to enjoy. And I think there’s something really powerful that he does in Òran Mór, and he does in the SPT Hillhead mural, and he does in the Ubiquitous Chip mural too, where he’s using ordinary people and what that does to someone seeing themself reflected back. He did it also in the city recorder series from 1977. He was commissioned at that time by Elsmith King, who was then curator at the People’s Palace to go out and record the people and places of Glasgow, which is now fascinating to go back and look at what’s there, what remains and what’s been disappeared.
But again, thinking of equity of experience, he went out and he drew Councillors, and Politicians, and heads of different Faiths alongside artists, and writers, and secretaries, unemployed people, factory workers, everyone was given equal status. And I think the murals that we’re talking about within the West End do a similar thing. Òran Mór I love in particular the mirrors you’ve got from the management staff to the builders, to the bar staff, to the cleaners. Everyone is given their place and everyone is seen as an important and equally contributing to that community.
And I guess that goes back again to sort of socialist principles that underpin everything, and how powerful that is. And I think that’s such a powerful thing, we’re doing a little bit of work within schools, and of course it’s secondary schools. A lot of the young people are able to read per things, or they’re able to read Lanark. Primary schools obviously not so much, but it’s that idea of what’s he doing. He’s taking stories that people don’t maybe see as valuable, and he’s shining a light on them and saying the ordinary in the everyday is valuable and important and extraordinary. And I think it’s something really powerful, and can really give people confidence to think about how they occupy their own lives and the landscape around them when that happens, or something really empowering that happens, when they see themselves, or a version of themselves, reflected back, because it’s saying you’re valuable, and your life is important.
Niall Murphy (29:58):
Yes. Because everyone’s part of that, the big facets that make up the network that makes up Glasgow. So that’s incredibly important. Okay. Well, we, obviously, as a trust, Glasgow City heritage just focuses on Glasgow, but the archive and what you want do with the archive, it’s also one of the aims, is to influence Scotland’s development, which is incredibly ambitious. And of course, there’s another great Alasdair Grey quote, which is carved into the Canongate wall of the Scottish Parliament through Edinburgh, which is, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation,” which is actually adapted from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. But it’s such a fantastic quote, really love that quote. And I have a photograph of that. It’s one of these fantastic quotes that carved in Morales is building. So can you tell us a bit more about that aim and the ambition of it?
Sorcha Dallas (30:57):
Yeah, I mean, I think Glasgow’s an interesting place at the moment, isn’t it? In terms of if you think about what has sort of defined Glasgow creatively, or aesthetically, over the last sort of couple of decades, it’s probably been Macintosh, and obviously what’s happened with the Art school, with the kind of two fires that happened there, kind of key sort of asset has been lost. I know we’re talking about rebuilding it. But still, I think there’s an opportunity to reimagine Glasgow. And I don’t see anyone better than reimagine it through than the lens of Alasdair Gray, because it’s also getting away from this idea of a lone genius, because he’s not, he’s part of a community. And that’s part of something that we’re really passionate about doing at the archive, is telling the stories of many other lives that we’re intertwined with as some are well-known in their own right too.
So of course you can talk about Alasdair creatively and from a literary perspective, and think about Liz Lochhead, and Bernard MacLaverty, and Tom Leonard, and James Kelman, and this peer group and Agnes Owen who are influencing each other. But the ordinary is in the everyday within that too, for example, Morag, creating that safety and that comfort for him to be able to create within is really important and needs to be acknowledged as well. So I think there’s an opportunity to reimagine what it is to be, and I think that makes it way more accessible to people too, because it’s not talking about someone working in isolation, they’re a product of their environment, and from a web of influence, and people are a network around them. But I also think that also goes back to education and how we think about ourselves creatively, and how we want to be as a nation moving forward too.
I think there definitely needs to be more done in terms of, if you look at, particularly sort of primary and secondary school, what’s taught and highlighted within our creative history, it’s Mackintosh and it’s Burns. And I don’t think that’s good enough. I think we need to do better.
Niall Murphy (32:54):
Completely agree. Completely agree.
Sorcha Dallas (32:55):
And I also think with Alasdair, in a way with Burns, Burns is a complex character. And the more research goes on, we realise that this chocolate book, or shortbread tin version of him is way more complex than layered. And I think what is so important because of who Alasdair was, he lived his life and he made work by his principles. And one of those was being honest and telling the truth. And we have to be honest about his life too, and the best and the worst within that. And I think that’s the only way that we can really then think about who we want to be collectively and nationally moving forward. So I think there’s huge opportunities within the city and beyond to embed not just Alasdair, but this kind of web of network around him. But also if I look at Ireland and Southern Ireland, how they’ve done it, particularly if you look at the Museum of Irish Literature in Dublin and how they’ve used James Joyce as a starting point, Joyce’s relationship with the city, but also the web of influence that’s happened since then.
Niall Murphy (34:00):
It’s this intriguing parallel.
Sorcha Dallas (34:02):
Yeah. But also how that’s a catalyst for others, but there’s new ways of looking at the city. So I’m not saying we’re fixated on Alasdair, he’s a starting point, but it continues, and he’s part of a continuum. His work was made in a continuum with things that had happened prior to him, and it’s only right to continue that from him onwards as well.
Niall Murphy (34:23):
Yes, I completely get where you come from. I get very frustrated with Mackintosh. I mean, I love Mackintosh’s work, he’s incredibly interesting. But you can’t just tease him out as this lone genius. And I used to get frustrated when I first arrived in Glasgow, Mackintosh would be described as this lone flower blooming in this industrial wasteland, which is like, no, you’ve completely misunderstood what Glasgow is about. And you can’t divorce somebody from the context. You just can’t do it. And it’s like, what about Margaret McDonald? And what about his circle of friends? And there are all of these networks you have to appreciate.
Sorcha Dallas (35:02):
Absolutely. And I think that’s something to be said about what gets disappeared and what doesn’t, right? That’s what we were talking about earlier. And I can see that living through a legacy in real time, how those things can easily get buffered and removed, and the narrative can go off. But because of who Alasdair was and what he made, and also because he built that into his work, that honesty and that exposing of himself that we can’t not acknowledge that that’s written into and drawn into everything he’s done. So yeah, I think it makes it way more accessible, because it’s not say we’re all flawed human beings trying our best, but that’s way more interesting to put that front and centre and to own that than to try and buffer it and create a narrative from it, that just becomes so far removed from the reality and many people’s experience of that too.
Niall Murphy (35:55):
Very much. Okay. Well, taking that as a starting point then, obviously Alasdair, he inspired so many Scottish writers and artists, you’ve kind of touched on that whole network. But in particular, I wanted to focus in on the remarkable talent of Agnes Owens, who I think is a really fascinating figure. And can you tell us more about that relationship and how all that came about?
Sorcha Dallas (36:20):
Yeah, so I’ve been really honoured to work with Agnes’s son John Crosby over the last year. And what we’re going to be doing this year is setting up an Agnes Owens archive with Alasdair’s. And I’m really keen, obviously, to extend that for other people moving forward. So Alasdair’s Archive would almost be an umbrella with these other collections and archives sitting within it. So that’s a good way of talking about the web of influence in a very physical way, being able to see that. But Agnes was a woman who had a real lived experience throughout her life. She’d had sort of two marriages, seven children, she’d had a lot of trauma. One of her sons was murdered when he was 19, she never really recovered from that. She was someone who, I guess, creativity in that pathway into writing hadn’t really been open to her.
She didn’t go to university. She worked secretarial, cleaning, sort of menial jobs. And in her fifties, she’d gone to an evening class that Liz Lochhead was running, and I think Liz had read a text she’d written, and just thought it was a really distinct and unique voice. And so she met Alasdair, and Liz, I guess, brought her into the fold of other writers who she was working alongside, like James Kelman and Tom Leonard, and Alasdair, and Alasdair in particular. Well, what I can see from the material that we have on both sides is this very particular and supportive friendship that they had. He really encouraged her. He drew the covers for all her books. He really helped her get an agent and get published. He also paid for her draughts to be type written up to be sent to publishers as well.
And he’s not got a lot of money, but he’s seeing how important and also how she is, from her economic position, marginalised, and how can he use his position for good and for support. But what is fascinating within all of this, it’s not a one-sided thing. He’s sending her versions of his book, she’s editing, commenting on them. It’s a reciprocal relationship where he has got the utmost respect for who she is as a writer, and is trying as much as he can to help support and encourage that. But hat’s been reciprocated on her side too. But she is overlooked, because as we’re talking about, who are those voices get that chosen to be fixed and who doesn’t. Also, these things are complicated by estates, by wills, by dependents. So I’m really glad that, obviously John and I are working together on that to try and redress that, because she passed away over 10 years ago, almost 10 years ago.
And I think there’s a real opportunity to make that connection between her and Alasdair, but also for her work to be more widely known. I know more recently Douglas Stewart, who wrote Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, has sort of cited her as an influence. Other writers who know her work are recognising that. But like anything, if you don’t know it, if her work’s not in print and accessible, how do you find that and access it? So I’m really excited about that work. And also because within the deposit John has dropped in, there’s some unpublished material too. So I think there’s going to be really exciting potential to come from that as well. But an inspiring woman, I never met her, but again, I feel like I’m forming this relationship with someone through learning about them through others, and it’s a real privilege.
Niall Murphy (39:49):
It sounds like a fantastic education resource.
Sorcha Dallas (39:52):
Yes. Obviously, at the moment we’ve had people, we’ve been tentatively telling people on our social media that we’ve got this initial Agnes deposit and material. And even in that short period of time we’ve had quite a few researchers and creatives who’ve been really interested, because they’re like, “Oh, Agnes Owens, a friend of a friend told me about her. I’ve only read a couple of things,” or, “I’ve heard about her.” But again, like we’re saying earlier, it’s about access, isn’t it, for this material. And not just physically, but digitally being able to share that and build it up too. So hopefully over the course of this year that will become more public facing, and people will be able to see what we have, and how we’re starting to grow that collection of Agnes. And obviously, there’s plans that we’d like to do. It’s her centenary in 2026, so there’s plans around how to celebrate and bring her work to a wider audience that we’re working on at the moment, too.
Niall Murphy (40:45):
Fantastic. Okay. Well, moving on from that, and obviously Glasgow can be quite a dreich place, but you’ve got your Gray Day, which is this annual festival of Alasdair’s work. So in the first one took place in 25th of February to mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of Lanark in 1981. And unfortunately, our podcast isn’t going to air until after your third annual Grey Day, but can you tell us more about how you go about celebrating this and turning that into an event?
Sorcha Dallas (41:18):
Yeah, of course. So the first Gray Day, as you said, was the reason we chose the 25th of February, because it coincided with the publication of Lanark, and that 2021 marked the 40th anniversary. So this was a day, an annual day, where we can get together and celebrate Alasdair, but really focus on the work, because he was always, as much as he was a fascinating character, and many people have got lots of interesting stories about him, he always wanted the focus to be on the works. So it’s a way of coming together a bit like Bloom’s Day with James Joyce, and to celebrate Alasdair in a widest sense. So the first one was obviously online, it was a virtual celebration, because we were in the midst of lockdown, but this is a project that started with Canongate, his Scottish publishers. And also we had Neu Reekie, who are an events based organisation who helped us deliver a Gray Day broadcast, which is available online.
You can look at it through the archives YouTube channel if you’re interested. Last year we were able to physically come together and to celebrate it, and of course we had to celebrate it at Òran Mór, there’s nowhere better to do an Alasdair Gray themed event than at Òran Mór under his master work of the auditorium. And again, we focused last year’s on Dante, on his last body of work that he made, the Dante trilogy that was produced just before he died. So we had Liz Lochhead, and Hollie McNish, and Val McDermid, and we had sort of musical elements too. And we’re following a similar format for this year. We’re having a few more readers, music, some film, but we’re focusing it on Poor Things, because Poor Things is being turned and will be screened in May, it’s a major motion picture that the director Yorgos Lanthimos has been working on.
So it’s going to be premiered at Cannes in May. And you’d talked about, Niall, at the start that you read Lanark, I would never say to people, if they don’t know, to start on Lanark, because once you’ve got what he’s doing, it’s complex. So I would always say start on Poor Things, it’s manageable, you can see a lot of what he’s doing on a more expanded and more nuanced way in Lanark. But it’s a good manageable starting point. For those who don’t know, it’s a reworking of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but set in Victorian Glasgow. So it’ll be fascinating to celebrate that on Grey Day. We’re also working on a digital project that really roots that book into the city, because I haven’t seen Lanthimos’s script. And it wasn’t filmed in Glasgow, it was filmed in Croatia, so I’m not sure how many of the Scottish or Glaswegian references come in. So it’s important to root it back into the city and to the people and places that help shape it, really.
Niall Murphy (44:06):
Sure, yeah, how you could divorce Alasdair Gray from that, that’s going to be very interesting to see.
Sorcha Dallas (44:12):
It will be. It will be.
Niall Murphy (44:14):
Okay. Well, what’s next for the Archive? And you’ve said that the Archive is kind of built for the future. So what new commissions and collaborations are being inspired by Alasdair’s work?
Sorcha Dallas (44:25):
Oh, great question. Well, there’s a few things. One of the big things in terms of the organisational development, in terms of building it for the futures, we’ve just appointed our board, and we’ve got charitable status, and that’s really now laying a strong foundation for the future. So we went through a process of doing a call-out for trustees. And we’ve got fabulous five new board members that we’ve been over the course of this week sharing on social media who they are. So I’m really hopeful for, they’ve all got great expertise in archives, collections, fundraising, governance, but also rooting that back into reflecting Alasdair’s values and his vision, really, which last year I did quite a lot of work creating the organisational strategy, which really sets up the organisation in the short and longer term as well.
But as you say, creatively responding to Alasdair’s work has been the heart of what we’ve done from the beginning. And we’ve been largely working on commissions with Strathclyde Creative Writing department. So in 2021, we worked with poet Juana Adcock, who responded to Lanark. Last year we worked with Michael Pedersen, who’s a fantastic writer and poet who wrote a love letter to Alasdair’s green chair. And then this year she’s just been almost on residency. She’s just about to share actually on Grey Day some of her outcomes. We had the fantastic writer and journalist, Chitra Ramaswamy, who came in and wrote a series of micro essays about the archive and various narratives who she picked up in an narrative of Morag, and of Agnes Owens, and of the location around the archive at the Canal too. Really inspiring to work alongside Chitra, her book Homelands, I don’t know if you’ve read it, but…
Niall Murphy (46:06):
Not yet, it’s on my list to read, so it’s kind of highly recommended.
Sorcha Dallas (46:09):
Yeah, I would highly recommend it. It’s, again, a lot about what we’re talking about, what narratives, who do we choose to remember, and who has disappeared, and it’s a fascinating book and really worth a read. So that’s been really inspiring to work with her. We’ve got other series of commissions in the pipeline, because next year is 2024, and Alasdair, would’ve been his 90th birthday. So we’re really trying to root the Archive fix into the city, and also make connections, because a lot of people, I think when they come to the Archive, they say, “Oh, of course I’ve been into Òran Mór,” or, “I’ve read Lanark, I didn’t connect, it was the same person.” So I think there’s a lot more that we can do, and the city can do in terms of fixing and making the connection between what exists in the city already. So that’s in the short term, some of the work that we’re looking at too.
Niall Murphy (47:03):
Fascinating. Okay. Well, that brings us onto our final question, which quite often is the most difficult question. And that is, what is your favourite building in Glasgow, or Unthank? And what would it tell you if its walls could talk?
Sorcha Dallas (47:19):
Such a hard question. And obviously, I thought about this in terms of my own personal perspective, but I feel I’m here representing Alasdair and the Archive. And I think what I wanted to think about was what is a building that in many ways I didn’t know much about, and has been revealed to me over the last few years, particularly through looking through Alasdair’s material and organising it, and rooting it into the landscape around it. And that would be the little house at Applecross by the Firth and Forth canal. I have looked for many, many years at Cowcaddens, the painting that Alasdair made. I never noticed the top right corner in that little building and that area. And now I see it every day. I look out there and I look in the ledger and the sketches and studies, and I see versions of that house drawn from different perspectives and angles, and distorted in that way that when the Alasdair Gray can kind of do, and it sits right outside my window.
And I feel like I’ve learned so much about that building. And I also would love to, I mean, of course, I’m sort of coveting it for a public facing version of the Alasdair Gray Archive, but I also am thinking, wow, if those walls could talk, it would’ve seen a much younger Alasdair Gray walking over the bridge, because that’s the bridge, the quote that you mentioned at the start of the programme, Niall, that’s the bridge that you walk over at Applecross, saw MacAlpine walk over. And the little bit that goes up by Applecross house is the route that they go up to the viewpoint, so I feel…
Niall Murphy (48:48):
Right. Okay, I’ve got my bearings now. Yep.
Sorcha Dallas (48:52):
So as you walk around that house, you’re walking in the footsteps of Alasdair Gray, but of Duncan Thaw, of all these versions of Glasgow too. And I would love if that building could talk and it could remember looking out and seeing him wondering around that area with his pen, and pencil, and easel and drawing. It’s one of these things, because we’ve got photographs from that, the time that Alasdair was drawing that building in the sixties and seventies too. And the bridge is the same, the houses, the Whisky Bond is still there obviously too. But if you look right and left, the landscape of the city is completely altered. And these are almost like these portals back to a period of time, but are still fixed now and for the future. So that would be the building that I felt seemed really appropriate to think about.
Niall Murphy (49:41):
It’s a really nice choice, they have some lovely houses. Scottish canals have some kind of good, I think they’re using it as a wedding venue. I think that’s the idea at the moment.
Sorcha Dallas (49:52):
But it’d be much better as the Alasdair Gray Archive.
Niall Murphy (49:55):
You’re bringing your pitch.
Sorcha Dallas (49:58):
Niall Murphy (49:59):
I think I have a feeling Thomas Telford might have lived in that house. Because it was part of, I think when he was planning the canal, I think that was where he was based. It was the Harbour Master’s house as well, because there was a whole basement that sat in front of it, which is now been unfilled. So it actually does sum up Glasgow really well, because you’ve got this artefact that has stayed there for centuries, but the whole landscape around it is completely altered, and it’s virtually unrecognisable.
Sorcha Dallas (50:26):
I know. It’s like a portal back into time, isn’t it?
Niall Murphy (50:29):
Very much. Yes. Yes. No, it’s good choice on the buildings at risk register for years as well.
Sorcha Dallas (50:34):
Oh, has it? Okay.
Niall Murphy (50:36):
Yeah, yeah. But I’m now rescued, so it’s been given a new purpose.
Sorcha Dallas (50:40):
Yeah, there’s been definitely quite a lot of work done over the last few years around that area. So yeah, I think it’s fascinating. Again, it’s what I love about buildings, and I guess what Alasdair was doing, what we’re talking about, these often unremarkable places that I’ve walked up and down that area all the time, but it’s through now really looking, which I think people did over lockdown, right? We couldn’t travel, we had to really look, and we noticed things that were just on our doorstep all the time that we were zooming past and too busy to really reflect and see the value of. And I think that’s what I love about. I know there was the pub across the other side of the bridge that used to be there. You kind of almost reimagine a portal to the past and what life would’ve been like there.
Niall Murphy (51:27):
Very, very much. That whole area has really fundamentally changed. There was a cinema that sat in front of it, which was like a web-shaped cinema, and a really nice design as well. And then behind that, just next door to the whiskey barn, there was a great kind of, it was a slightly gothic school as well.
Sorcha Dallas (51:43):
That’s right. Rockvilla, yeah.
Niall Murphy (51:44):
Yeah, Rockvilla School, which again, has been completely obliterated. And you’re like, “Who would demolish something that was so grand like that?”
Sorcha Dallas (51:51):
Niall Murphy (51:51):
We did. Yeah. The whole area fundamentally changed. So it does make you think as, I suppose there’s a bit of an element of Unthank about it too, because this whole section of the city that just disappeared and everything, once you get beyond the house and up the rise, that whole area has just been completely flattened. And it’s bizarre to walk around and think there used to be all of these people here, and it’s completely gone.
Sorcha Dallas (52:13):
I know. And that’s what we are seeing in this photo. So I’ll start a series of black and white photos, which it’s a bit like a mural, the way he’s collaged into his ledger, because it’s almost like you’re in the centre and the image expands all the way around, so it’s like a 360 degree view of that area. So you can see the bridge in the house and the Whisky Bond with the old school in front of it. And then all the tenements that were around. You can see Pinkston in the distance, and where the Woodsides development is, an old sort of gothic building there too. It’s sort of mind-bending in a way, because, like you say, these axis that fix it and are familiar, and are still familiar, whereas everything else is completely altered. Yeah, it’s really important, isn’t it, to notice. And again, think about what has been deliberately erased from that and what has remained, really.
Niall Murphy (53:07):
Yeah. It’s one of the things I kind of, in a weird way, really like about Glasgow. Because unlike Edinburgh, which is very carefully conserved, and is almost kind of, Edinburgh people hate me for saying this, fossilised, Glasgow, because it’s been through all this kind of different layers of city that get built on top of each other, I just find it fascinating. And that comes across in Alasdair Gray’s work.
Sorcha Dallas (53:32):
It does. And I’d love to have more… I had Norry up from Lost Glasgow who gave me some great tips about, but I’d love to start to build up more of a kind of bank of images around that landscape and the change from where a Alasdair was recording it up till now. Or if you know, or if anyone out there knows and is interested, please get in touch.
Niall Murphy (53:53):
Sorcha Dallas (53:55):
Niall Murphy (53:56):
Virtual Mitchell is just…
Sorcha Dallas (53:57):
Niall Murphy (53:57):
You could get lost in it. So love the Virtual Mitchell.
Sorcha Dallas (54:00):
I’ll do that now. That’ll be this afternoon. Awesome, Virtual Mitchell.
Niall Murphy (54:06):
Well, Sorcha, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you for taking us through what the aims of Alasdair Gray Archive are. And yeah, best of luck.
Sorcha Dallas (54:17):
Niall Murphy (54:17):
Wish you every success. And if I could pop up and visit at some point, it’d be very welcome.
Sorcha Dallas (54:22):
Absolutely. I’d love that. And thanks for your support and interest. It’s a real privilege to be continuing to share Alasdair’s life and work with others. And of course, as I said, it’s a free space that’s open for everyone. So please, if you’re interested and you’d like to find out more from the serious Gray heads to people who know nothing about Alasdair, please get in touch. I’d love to welcome you.
Niall Murphy (54:45):
Oh, it would be an absolute pleasure.
Katharine Neil (54:47):
Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk, and follow us on social media at Glasgow Heritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnocks.