I have always been interested in delving into origins. I just did a search of old Songs for Scotland Facebook posts, and up popped this one, dated 24 July 2014, describing in detail the very day and hour when the seed for the Songs for Scotland 2 project was first planted. It seems fitting that it also be the very first post here.
‘I have had my Alasdair Gray framed, and the framing worked out brilliantly! (see photograph).
Alasdair is a titan of Scottish culture, according to some the greatest living writer in these islands. He is also an extraordinary artist and muralist (his book illustrations have been compared to the work of William Blake). As a thinker and a social commentator, he has for decades advanced the idea that smaller nations are better suited to true democracy, a theory that is only now really entering the mainstream — and hence his strong support for Scottish independence.
In honour of his 80th birthday, a retrospective of Alasdair’s paintings is currently showing at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow.
Really, I didn’t have lunch with Alasdair. I only watched him polish off the last few bites of his own honest Scottish meal, of haggis, neeps and tatties, at the Ubiquitous Chip off the Byres Road in Glasgow. He had kindly agreed to meet me there to provide me with a very special piece of artwork* for the Songs for Scotland Festival, staged at the Oran Mor venue on Sept 3rd, 2014 (Alasdair painted the superb wall and ceiling murals at the Oran Mor, one of the largest art works in Scotland).
With the artwork safely tucked away, we had a blether. What a pleasure and an honour it was to blether with Alasdair! He spoke of his perfectionism regarding the written word, telling me that he doesnae like writing emails, because he feels he hasn’t the necessary time to properly condense them: as everything that leaves one’s desk in writing ought to be both perfectly worded and also as short as possible. He referenced Pascal, who once apologised to a correspondent for not shortening a letter sufficiently for lack of the available time to do so. Then he sang me a comical song written by a friend as a possible national anthem for an independent Scotland; and we talked about politics, and about the ascendancy of the one per cent, and about the global struggle the 99 per cent have been so signally losing since the Reagan/Thatcher years. And also, we spoke of Scotland’s independence referendum as one that ‘our side’ can win — will win.
We walked slowly back to his home (Alasdair is 80 now) as he had something there to show me. On the way he sang me more songs he had himself written: satirical songs and comical songs about the world’s distempered condition, including one that he composed in the 1970s that still rings true. He quoted Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ (published in 1778): a passage to do with ‘combinations of capitalists’ who concert together the ruination of the rest of society. He also talked about every novel that HG Wells ever wrote in the space of just a few minutes, and connected the novels with Wells’ profound pessimism. The ‘War of the Worlds’ (I didn’t know this) was written as a parable for the mass extinction of indigenous cultures under British imperialism. While Wells was writing it, he wandered London seeking out Londoner character types for his Martians to exterminate, as British imperialists were then exterminating indigenous peoples wholesale throughout the empire.
At his home Alasdair presented me with the artists proof for a logo he had created for the ‘Yes’ campaign (which declined to use it). It is an amazing present, one I shall always treasure as a remembrance of these times. While it was never used as a campaign poster, this work did eventually feature as an illustration in the National Collective’s book ‘Inspired by Independence’ opposite a photograph of Alasdair (on page 142); and that book and illustration is what Alasdair wished to show me as he gave me the piece.
Alasdair Gray is the kind of polymath rarely encountered in these degenerate days of incessant link clicking and shortened attention spans. An artist and a muralist, a novelist and a poet, a journalist and an essayist, he is also, as I found out today — a song writer! Alasdair has been invited to the Songs for Scotland Festival as our magus. Vacant or filled, Alasdair’s chair will be there for him, and I’ll call him the day before the event to remind him to come join us if he can.
I’ll leave you with these words widely credited to Alasdair (although he attributes them to another): ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’’
*The ‘special piece of artwork’ referenced is the Bella Caledonia image that featured on the Songs for Scotland 1 tickets and event programmes — below.