Alasdair Gray

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Cozen was on the money when he pointed out that I might like 'Lanark'. Tell me about some of his other books (I wanna pick up 1982 janine but that seems to be out of print as I haven't seen it round any of the bookstores).

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Thursday, 12 February 2004 23:57 (twenty years ago) link

perhaps something of a fall off in quality after that one, but unlikely stories, mostly is great (mostly), and poor things is worth your time, although less likably eccentric than the first three. quick (lazy) summary is "feminist reworking of the frankenstein's monster trope", i guess.

janine is in print (well, was reissued in 03 with an introduction by will self, and amazon has it.) also is possibly best novel ever written.

tom west (thomp), Friday, 13 February 2004 00:54 (twenty years ago) link

1982, Janine is in print, as stated above w. Will Self introduction ('Will Self' is, naturally, written larger than the author's name on the cover - people assumed I was reading a Self book). I read it two weeks ago. Great Scottish inferiority/nuclear fear (w. desire of apocalypse)/SM porn/arbitrary narratorial role and consequent loneliness stuff. Porn sections, not fitting most tastes (and, even fitting mine quite comfortably, the denim is a turn off) are wearisome eventually. The rest is beautiful (but there is a lot of porn). Accusations of "best novel ever written" (not just above but in critics quoted on cover) reek of an upgrade of an underdog, but you have to read it, as I now have to read Lanark.

Eyeball Kicks (Eyeball Kicks), Friday, 13 February 2004 01:47 (twenty years ago) link

I do recommend Janine. It's been awhile since I read it, but the he time it struck me as absolutely the most depressing novel I'd read. High praise, no?

Capybara, Friday, 13 February 2004 02:46 (twenty years ago) link

i thought the porn sections were hilarious, no one else i've read has put so much effort into catching the curious internal logic of wanking. good on will self for admitting he thought they were a turn-on, too.

i might read a history maker tomorrow.

an alasdair gray website:

tom west (thomp), Friday, 13 February 2004 03:26 (twenty years ago) link

tom west (thomp), Friday, 13 February 2004 03:28 (twenty years ago) link

I thought Janine was pretty fantastic, and it's so in print that it's the only book of his I've ever seen in stores here (and I've been checking). Hopefully I'll write something more about it when I have time in a couple days.

Jordan (Jordan), Friday, 13 February 2004 04:58 (twenty years ago) link

I've only read "10 Tales Tall and True" and thought it very poor. The enthusiasm for Gray on this thread, though, makes me wonder if I should give one of his other books a go.

All Bunged Up. (Jake Proudlock), Friday, 13 February 2004 12:13 (twenty years ago) link

come back, lil' thread, come back

tom west (thomp), Friday, 20 February 2004 04:50 (twenty years ago) link

i did read a history maker, and it wasn't all that, i guess, but i liked it. it used fake editorial apparatus like in poor things (which a half dozen people i know at the university are studying, actually) but whereas the afterword to that was a truly vicious negation of the, uh, fantastic central narrative, in a history maker it rather self-awarely tacks on a sentimental ending: "we prefer the comic to the tragic mode". gray seems unable to make up his mind as to whether he wants to become a cynic in his old age.

one thing i love about his books is that he hides secret messages under the dust jackets. a history maker has "TRY AGAIN, SCOTLAND"; mavis belfrage had a note to the effect that it only claimed to be a novel on the dust jacket so as to sell more copies, but really was a collection of short stories.

tom west (thomp), Friday, 20 February 2004 04:55 (twenty years ago) link

two months pass...
Alasdair Gray is one of the most underrated writers in Britain. Everything I have read by him has involved such a great deal of imagination, wit and seriousness that it's a wonder he isn't a very succesful man.

Unlikely Stories Mostly is my very favourite - possibly the best book of short stories ever written. Excellent typographical and illustrated bits too. The only story I couldn't get through was Logopandacy, but it wasn't really a story I guess.

1982 Janine is a masterpiece in itself - love that one to bits.

I read a couple of others quite a while ago that entertained me. One was a sort of adventure sci-fi and the other was a Dickensian horror about a deformed man and his amnesiac daughter. Can anyone remind me of their names?

Did anyone read the recent book of short stories "13 Sorry Stories" I think it was called. Very good, but slightly off-style to the usual. He seemed very realist in that one but not without a sense of humour.

dog latin (dog latin), Tuesday, 18 May 2004 11:03 (twenty years ago) link

it's so reassuring to see him ambling about the west-end of glasgow in his painting overalls, looking like some kind of relic caught in amber when you just know his massive brain's imagination is fizzing away inside.

cozen (Cozen), Tuesday, 18 May 2004 11:13 (twenty years ago) link

The latter book, about the deformed man and his amnesiac daughter, is called Poor Things. The former is most likely A History Maker, as mentioned by Tom above.

Ricardo (RickyT), Tuesday, 18 May 2004 12:32 (twenty years ago) link

the recent one i read, yes. it had a nice cover:

tom west (thomp), Tuesday, 18 May 2004 16:28 (twenty years ago) link

tom west (thomp), Tuesday, 18 May 2004 16:28 (twenty years ago) link

i'm sliding more and more to the point of view that everything of his after 1984 or so is awful unless you want to invent a new set of standards to judge it and purely it by, though

tom west (thomp), Tuesday, 18 May 2004 16:41 (twenty years ago) link

Anyone got a bibliography of Gray? I'm at work and can't really go googling.

dog latin (dog latin), Wednesday, 19 May 2004 08:25 (twenty years ago) link

Only read Lanark and Poor Things but I'd certainly recommend both and will make read to read more.

Onimo (GerryNemo), Wednesday, 19 May 2004 09:46 (twenty years ago) link


Onimo (GerryNemo), Wednesday, 19 May 2004 10:25 (twenty years ago) link

the site i linked up there a ways has a bibliothingy.

tom west (thomp), Wednesday, 19 May 2004 11:47 (twenty years ago) link

Maybe, Tom, maybe. Certainly Janine and Lanark are by a long way the best things he's done, and much of his later stuff seems different in a way that's hard to pin down. There's often an odd authorial presence, like a constant reminder that Gray has written what you are reading, and this maybe leads to a certain level of indulgence on the part of the reader.

Ricardo (RickyT), Wednesday, 19 May 2004 21:38 (twenty years ago) link

I love, and would implore most people to buy, The Book of Prefaces.

cozen (Cozen), Wednesday, 19 May 2004 21:51 (twenty years ago) link

I've only read Unlikely Stories, which is great. The white dog (pictured above) totally weirded me out. Actually, lots of it totally weirded me out. And made me laugh. I guess I should read more.

spittle (spittle), Thursday, 20 May 2004 05:35 (twenty years ago) link

Drafts and papers of Lanark: A life in four books

i might have got this off ILE in the first place but nevermind.

tom west (thomp), Thursday, 20 May 2004 11:33 (twenty years ago) link

today i'm reading his survey of scottish writing book and liking it.

all the english lit students here are hating poor things but english lit students have no taste anyway.

tom west (thomp), Thursday, 20 May 2004 11:36 (twenty years ago) link

tom west (thomp), Thursday, 20 May 2004 11:37 (twenty years ago) link

one problem with what i'm suggesting is that the novels i think are his least, uh, remarkable - kelvin walker and something leather - were written as plays before lanark was published or janine was started. so was or were another one or two i haven't read. i dunno if the plays - i think they were bbc radio plays? - are still extant.

(leather's afterword's line about "some writers and all lizards", or possibly "all writers and some lizards", that one, that was a great line)

tom west (thomp), Thursday, 20 May 2004 11:47 (twenty years ago) link

(r., i'm not sure that "odd authorial presence" amounts to more than "a tendency to bang on about the same things all the time". also i think i am more willing to indulge gray's bad habits than anyone else writing today, although if pynchon were to start writing bad books this might change)

tom west (thomp), Thursday, 20 May 2004 11:51 (twenty years ago) link

WOW! I'm going up to the library RIGHT NOW to look out that special edition of Lanark.

Has anyone else leafed through The Book of Prefaces?

What is 'his survey of Scottish writing book'?

cozen (Cozen), Thursday, 20 May 2004 12:25 (twenty years ago) link

Oh no I'm not: "Consisting of 412 item entries in all, this collection tracks the development and writing of the novel from its inception through to the first bound uncorrected proof."

cozen (Cozen), Thursday, 20 May 2004 12:29 (twenty years ago) link

(On a side note: the GU Sp. Coll. Book of the Month Archive is seductive reading.)

cozen (Cozen), Thursday, 20 May 2004 12:33 (twenty years ago) link

the survey of scottish writing book is the one i posted the picture of that says his name and then "a short survey of classic scottish writing"

it was commissioned for canongate's pocket classics thing. chronological, cuts off in the early twentieth century, largely self-explanatory. he says in the introduction or somewhere he might one day write a longer version.

tom west (thomp), Thursday, 20 May 2004 14:29 (twenty years ago) link

one month passes...
General Preface

"EVERY PREFACE," SAYS William Smellie at the start of his preface to The Philosophy of Natural History published in Edinburgh in 1790, "Every preface, besides occasional and explanatory remarks, should contain not only the general design of the work, but the motives and circumstances which led the author to write on that particular subject. If this plan had been universally observed, prefaces would have exhibited a short, but curious and useful history both of literature and authors."

This plan, of course, was never universally observed but it has been widely observed. Few great writers have not placed before one of their books a verbal doorstep to help readers leave the ground they usually walk on, and allow them a glimpse of the interior. Prefaces are advertisements and challenges. They usually indicate the kind of attention the book requires, the kind of return it is meant to give. It has been possible for at least two centuries for anyone who enjoys a good library to collate, at very little mental expense, the best part of this history of English Literature by those who created it. If I am the first to turn Smellie's suggestion into a book it is because former critics have been blind to a useful task which would not stretch their brains. To wheedle a big advance from my publisher I take English to be the language of more nations than England, more islands than Britain, more continents than Europe. I also take Literature to be any book worth reading, so include prefaces to works of religion, law, science, philosophy, history, travel, biography and Johnson's dictionary. Prefaces to poems, plays and stories outnumber these. Imaginers like Shakespeare, Burns and Mark Twain wrote for all sorts of people, not for a specially educated part of them, so their fictions make better sense to most of us than the treatises of Isaac Newton, whose discoveries are now more easily learned from modern books by lesser authors. Yet I include Newton's advertisement to his Treatise on Opticks, as a pithy specimen of scientific prose.

By preface I mean any beginning entitled preface, prologue, introduction, introductory, apology, design, advertisement or explanatory, and some beginnings which are not labelled, but prepare the reader for what follows without being essential to it: like the first thirty-six lines of Barbour's Bruce, the first two verses of Gawain and the Green Knight. I also include some dedicatory epistles which avoid sycophancy by making a political statement (see Coverdale to Henry the Eighth) or giving a specimen of the author's style (see Sterne to William Pitt). I had meant to exclude pseudonymous prefaces, but this would eliminate Defoe, whose prefaces to his fictions are all lies. So I include the pseudonymous. In very few places I break the rule of giving one preface per author, and after prefaces to the Bible give the first three verses of Genesis for comparison. The prefaces are ranged chronologically to display sometimes gradual, sometimes quick changes in English over the centuries. Before printing came or became common they are placed in the supposed order of writing. Most authors' preambles have been magnificently crisp. Milton's preface to the second edition of Paradise Lost is four sentences, so is the Notice and Explanatory to Huckleberry inn. I seldom use a long preface to a less important work when an author has put a brief one before his best. This makes it possible to print, without cutting, good prefaces which are essays and manifestos. I list four pleasures I hope you will find in this book, with the nastiest first.


Prefaces to first editions usually try to forestall criticism, those to later editions frequently counterblast it. An author's best defence is to explain why he wrote, but some resort to unfair tactics. The conservative monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, the sturdy corrupt journalist who wrote Moll Flanders were very different men, but their preambles indicate that their books will be abused or misunderstood by the vicious. The commonest defensive tactic is the lofty intimation, the second commonest is its counterpart, the poor mouth. Both are symptoms of intelligences uneasily exalted or depressed by their social standing--a frequent British disease. In his preface to Utopia (not included here) Sir Thomas More loftily intimated that he writes for the discerning few, not the multitude. He had good reason to say so. Utopia was written to introduce King Henry VIII and the literate part of his nobility to some old-fangled notions of tolerance, social welfare and equality under law. It was written in Latin, circulated in manuscript, and not printed till after his death. Yet his example is followed by several great writers who want to be enjoyed by as many readers as possible. Listen to Wordsworth: "Those who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness." He certainly enjoyed constructing that sentence but our amusement is partly at his expense. The Americans are better at critic-deflecting irony because they treat their readers as equals. See Twain's Notice again and the last sentence of Hemingway's introduction to A Moveable Feast. I give no examples here of the poor mouth defence but refer the reader to Goldsmith, Burns, and Charlotte Bronte's preface to her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights. (This last, by the way, with Engels's preface to the English translation of Marx's Communist Manifesto, is an exception to the rule of having every preface by the book's author.)


Some prefaces blend declarations of faith with a personal experience, so we discover Shelley writing and sunbathing on a platform of green turf high among the ruins of the baths of Caracalla, and Shaw conversing gallantly with a London prostitute, and Synge with an ear to a chink in the floor, eavesdropping on the kitchen maids in the room below. These feed our love of gossip.


Preface essays vary as greatly as authors. The Lady of the Lake explains a historical stage which should interest more than the Scots. Lawrence's preface to his translation of Cavalleria Rusticana is a fine essay on modern fiction. An essayist's remarks, of course, only please when they confirm our settled opinions. As a Scottish socialist who thinks a federation of British republics a necessary step toward the creation of humane democracy I am delighted by Shelley's statement in 1820 that, "If England were divided into forty republics, each equal in population and extent to Athens, under institutions not more perfect than those of Athens . . . each would produce philosophers and poets equal to those who (if we except Shakespeare) have never been surpassed"; also by Mandeville's remark a century earlier that small, peaceful, self-supporting states are the best homes of happiness. Those who find such statements comic, unconvincing or irrelevant will find plenty of remarks to support their own prejudices.


Great literature is the most important part of history. We forget this because we are inclined to see great works as worlds of their own rather than phases of the world we live in. No wonder! At first sight the differences in style between Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens and today's newspaper are so great that it is easier to read them as descriptions of wholly separate worlds, instead of the same world at different times and places. It is almost impossible to imagine a passage of history in any solidity and fluidity for more than a few years. But we may get some experience of a civilization over several centuries from extracts which let us see, on adjacent pages, language changing from decade to decade in words of authors who usually know they are changing it. The taste, rhythm and meaning of a statement is the taste, rhythm and meaning of life when it was uttered. So for comparison I include five versions of the start of the Bible most Christians use, one by an Anglo-Saxon, the rest in Chaucerian, Tudor, Stuart and modern translations.

But I want the book to be popular, and know most of us were taught just one way to spell the words we use, that other spellings are wrong or unreadable. To many an original page of Chaucer or Shakespeare therefore seems a gloomy exam they need extra teaching to pass, when the knack of understanding it can be picked up in an afternoon by anyone who thinks of it as an interesting puzzle, a pleasant word game. Storyss to rede are delitabill, Supposs that thai be nocht bot fabill invites us into a great region of our language and history, and with a little thought is as easy to follow as the speech of Nigger Jim in Huckleberry Finn. But it takes time to see that, so in this anthology early verse prologues are printed facing modern translations. I have translated with three aims: to explain obsolete words; to preserve the original rhythm; to leave untouched what makes sense as it stands so that readers (glancing across at the original) see how little the translation is needed. But I have spoiled the flavour of prose before A.D. 1500 by modernising some prose without giving the original, and elsewhere have turned v into u, u into v, i into j, j into i, f into s where this will make sentences look less strange without misleading the pronunciation. The Anglo-Saxon alphabet had two letters we do not now use: one for the soft noise which starts thud and ends bath, one for the lightly buzzing noise which starts the and ends breathe and wreathe. I have replaced both by th. Other shady practices are listed in an apology at the end of the book.

To stop the whole collection looming up in a single daunting heap I have cut it into periods and put a historical essay before each. I sometimes quote other writers without inverted commas. If you find parts unusually fine or pompous you may be appreciating Edward Gibbon or Thomas Babington Macaulay: but I also quote from other work of my own. I acknowledge my sources as completely as possible at the end, only remarking here that Philip Hobsbaum's study of English literature, Tradition and Experiment, along with Green's History of the English Speaking People, helped to inform my views of the whole.

Since nobody reads a book like this from start to finish I advise you to tackle it like a reviewer, going first to the author and period you like best, then fishing for tasty things in other places. I hope you find them.

Everything Leading to the First English

MR. MACQUEDY (producing a large scroll): "In the infancy of society--"

THE REV. DR. FOLLIOTT: Pray, Mr. Macquedy, how is it that all gentlemen of your nation begin everything they write with the "infancy of society"?

--Thomas Love Peacock, Crotchet Castle

Babies embarrass masterful men, who find it queer that once they too could only wail, suck and excrete. When one year old we totter through a bewildering world on unsteady legs while small birds of the same age have already flown, mated, built nests and begun feeding their own children. What unique ability in the following years enables us to handle the world in so many surprising ways? Some say nothing but the strength and intelligence to grab what we want, even from our own kind, and do it in gangs. We would have nothing worth grabbing if that was the whole truth. Our unique ability is to imagine and make something new we can share with others. Conversation, not theft, most explains us. It supplies and shapes the whole matter of our thought, yet we think little of it because all vocal creatures use it. Birds start singing before dawn to stir each other into briskness for the day ahead, then keep up a quieter texture of noise till sunset, announcing their position and territory with calls which also tell when they are congregating toward food or dispersing from a danger. Cats meowl in chorus to declare their separate identities, sexual readiness and united cattishness. For the same reasons our ancestors the tree-rodents must have scolded and chattered a lot.

Though bigger than squirrels they were as alert, inquisitive, and varied in their diet, eating nuts, snails, berries, eggs, carrion, fruit and lice. Conscious choice (dare I eat a peach? Shall I part my hair behind?) began with this variety of edibles and increased when we came to scramble on the ground. Like pigs we grubbed up roots, like foxes grabbed fresh meat, but we grubbed and grabbed with forepaws, not snouts and teeth. Our faces were free to play with a range of utterances and expressions which should still be one of our great freedoms. Some scientists think the big human brain developed through ape people discovering more and more things to do with their hands while using these to do more and more things. Our ability to remember and choose between a large number of actions at last wiped from our nerves all but one inbred skill other beasts use, replacing the rest by a wholly new one.

The surviving instinct is imitation; the new one is making shareable signs for things. Both appear in children learning to talk. They get words by imitating their elders, while inventing names of their own for their favourite objects. The inventions are usually ignored, and even if not the children stop using them because imitated words are more useful, but this private gibberish shows intelligence, not folly. At the same age children without dolls take a handy object and treat it as they want to be treated or as they wish to treat others. They make it a sign of life and hold communion with it. By shaping sounds and handling objects, by attaching memories and hopes to them we learn to converse with ourselves and others. Conversing with ourself is thinking. Conversation with others enlarges that.

About 6000 centuries ago folk like us began moving through the world, each generation surviving by habits learned from elders but habits which could change in a lifetime if the surroundings changed. From a genesis in Africa our tribes moved to Asia, peopling the Chinese plains so densely that most big migrations after that pushed west and south, though ten thousand years before Christ some Asian families crossed the Bering strait into America and began peopling it from the northeast. "Men can get used to anything. What scoundrels they are!" said Dostoyevsky, recalling life in a Russian prison camp. In a half million years our tiny tribes went everywhere, sometimes fighting each other for fruitful territories but usually adapting to a world they could not change much. It passed through three ice ages. Where food was abundant our average height became six feet or more. Usually we were more dwarfish because we kept exhausting food supplies or becoming too many for them. Our skins grew pale in the cloudy north, black in the equatorial south and in east Asia lost a fold of eyelid, but our racial differences were slight because everywhere we strove to keep the same pattern of brain and skeleton by changing our minds, tools, clothes and houses. We changed them through conversation, invention and imitation, being all the time goaded by questions no human brain can avoid.

How did I get here?

What must I do to live?

Where in the world am I going?

These are the first questions children brood upon when they start thinking. Answering them created the vocabulary, art, science and faith of early as well as modern people.

Early answers have been deduced by seeing how the earliest known stories of the pastoral Egyptians and Greeks agree with those of tribes still living in prehistoric ways. Most folk who live directly from the earth believe all they see and feel is alive and holy, and all earthly creatures were originally born by earth through a sexual wedding with the sky. They believe death will return them to a timeless state already occupied by ancestors who converse with them through traditions, memories and dreams. They do not think themselves more important to the world than the flocks or kangaroos they depend on or the crocodiles they dread. Their customs and taboos are intended to revive the beasts and ground that feed them. Most tribes have a priest-doctor to ease pains and illness with traditional prayers and remedies, who recites the stories of the tribal ancestors, and is sometime inspired by a crisis to say what they would have done. Many bushmen and esquimaux are so widely scattered that they do without governments. Closer knit tribes are co-ordinated through assemblies of family heads, one of whom judges disputes between them and speaks for them in dealings with other tribes. A younger member of the leader's family sometimes inherits the job, but if incompetent gets replaced by someone the assembly prefers.

Fewer folk got born before the first city was built than were born in the first sixty years of the twentieth century. They discovered all the main skills we now live by, the skills which make our science possible. The cleverest modern invention is a self-firing bullet which carried three men to the moon and back, burning most of itself up on the way. Imagined beside the first efficient axe, canoe or plough it seems astonishingly useless. Yet we can feel why most in the nineteenth century who first glimpsed how long people had lived on earth had a low opinion of the first human tribes, believing they were practically speechless or had nothing very good to say because they lived without writing. City dwellers also want simple answers to the question, "How did I get here?" and who can start trying to imagine over half a million years of human life--at least 240,000 nameless generations--without weariness and despair? It is a surer reminder of death and the end of fame than a tour of all France's military graveyards. So we call the first ninety-nine percent of human history prehistory--a hardly readable preface to a tale which starts a few centuries before Moses and Homer, takes in all the great human names and leads straight to you and me.

Settled farming began. In fertile places folk grew so productive and thick on the ground that they supported market places where craftsmen dealt in woven goods, pottery and metal utensils. I like to imagine these places expanding through peaceful trade into the earliest cities. Plato thought the first city-states were made by armed hunters on horseback invading valleys of farming people and building central strongholds from which to plunder them. Both things happened.

Between six and four thousand years ago twenty cities of at least 10,000 people were built in Asia and northeast Africa, each for a while the capital of a nation formed and destroyed and reformed by combinations of trade and conquest. They were as different from each other as modern Peking, Delhi, Rome, New York, etc., but had some things in common. Each stood on a plain beside a great river, among fertile farms productive of grain. At harvest time the city revenue officers, who were priests aided by soldiers or vice versa, gathered much of the grain inside the city walls where it became the wealth of the state: the food of folk who did not live by producing what was essential to life but by managing those who did. A big grain store had the power of a modern bank; those who owned it had time to consider problems of survival from a leisurely distance. A sack of grain could nourish a family for a fortnight, so might be used to buy both goods and labour, and buy them cheap in years of famine. Beside a priesthood, army and craftsmen each city had a class of slaves originally created through warfare; but later people--even the original producers of the grain--sometimes sold themselves into slavery to avoid starvation. And each city had a king, originally the commander of a conquering army. Such armies only work with a supreme commander, and when successful can put him in charge of everything. Since underlings grow uncontrollable in e states where the bosses openly fight each other for power, the officers of state supported a single boss who in peacetime inherited the job from his dad. This stabilized ruling classes but ensured that a good king was a lucky accident, or that anyone could do the job. It was too shameful an arrangement to be openly admitted. Kings were advertised as deputies and descendants of a great god in the sky--the sun itself--and most of them believed it.

When social grabbing and shoving dominate architecture it builds Norman castles, Victorian prisons and cotton mills, modern tower blocks, car parks and shopping centres: structures designed to take in as much as possible at a few guarded entrances and elsewhere show nothing but forbidding surfaces. Most cities have looked better than that. Borges describes how one appeared to a barbarian it attracted.

He sees something he has never seen, or has not seen . .. in such plenitude. He sees the day and cypresses and marble. He sees a whole that is complex and yet without disorder; he sees a city, an organism composed of statues, temples, gardens, dwellings, stairways, urns, capitals, of regular and open spaces. None of these artifacts impresses him (I know) as beautiful; they move him as we might be moved today by a complex machine of whose purpose we are ignorant but in whose design we intuit an immortal intelligence.

The intelligence which makes a city attractive is knowledge and craftsmanship working for the good of the majority; in the variety of convenient goods and luxuries which are suggested, made and shared when many sorts of people talk together. But knowledge dies if not widely shared. Some cities had libraries of law tables, religious and medical treatises, historical and astronomical records, maps, poems, stories and tax registers: all destroyed when the small class who used them was defeated by conquerors of a different tongue. The Aryans who destroyed the earliest Indian cities and their writings did without writing for a thousand years. All the writings of ancient Babylon, Crete, Carthage and Etruria have vanished except a few undecipherable inscriptions. Many Egyptian and Assyrian texts survived but for fifteen centuries nobody could read them. Only China was so densely peopled and efficiently organized that every conqueror before the Euro-American invasion of 1839 had to govern it by learning the ways, language and the writing of the conquered.

But the learning in the shattered libraries was not wholly lost. Every alphabet the world uses was adapted from the scripts of Sumeria, Assyria and Egypt by nomads and seafarers who traded with them. These mobile people needed letters for contracts and bills. They also wrote large agreements which are the best human laws, with some undiscussable dictates which are the worst. Then they wrote down the best songs and accounts of the heroes who made their nations, and so many loved these books that buildings were not needed to preserve them, the national epics were so continually copied and recited. Ancestors of literate folk started talking to them through books. Imaginative descendants talked back. The book of Isaiah was put beside Moses, the plays of Aristophanes beside Homer, so later readers heard their ancestors talking to each other. Different national literatures began conversing. Oriental Buddhism happened when some Indian texts reached scholars in China, inspiring them with hunger for more. Barriers of desert and perplexingly different script stopped Indian and Chinese books informing European readers, but the thought of half of the world has been shaped by intercourse between, intercourse with the books of three Mediterranean nations.

The earliest and most influential books belonged to the nation which commanded the least territory and sometimes none. They have lasted over 3000 years because they were the shared intellectual homeland of people who sometimes had no other. The Jews were wandering herdsmen who became guest workers in Egypt, first in a privileged state, then, as their numbers increased, in an oppressed one. They got so used to settled life in Egypt that when their slavery grew unbearable they escaped to the desert intending to make a homeland in Canaan, but a generation passed before they were strong enough for invasion and conquest. In the years between escaping political oppression and founding their state by more of it they put in writing a queer and powerful idea: the world and its creatures were not originally born from acts of love but acts of will expressed through language. One eternally single masterful man-god imagined light, sky, sea, sun, moon, dry land, the plants and creatures, then made them in that order by naming them. This took five days. On the sixth he made a man out of earth to be owner of the earth, and made him of a mature age because nobody can manage a big property when young and babies embarrass masterful men. From one of the earth man's spare ribs god made him a wife, to reproduce copies of him by the animal method. But Adam lost his great property by obeying the wife instead of the god who made him. He and his descendants became miserable toilers and wanderers to the time they escaped from Egypt, when the one god offered the Jews a special contract: if they would follow and have faith in nothing but his words he would give them a secure homeland.

This creation story insults women and defies every commonsense fact but one: where people and nations constantly jostle each other for territory nobody feels secure, and many think life is a crisis between a once happier state and a future they hope will be happier for their children at least. Moses told a horde of fleeing gypsies that they were potential landlords, that the world had been made for them by an imagination and will like their own, and could be repossessed. In a century the Israelites made the contract he had drawn up with god on Ben Sinai come true. They were inspired to grab a land of milk, vines and cities from the Philistines, a race of sea-raiders who had grabbed it a century or two earlier. Many folk wanted that land. In the eight centuries before Jesus the Jews were conquered by the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, disasters which they read as punishment for ignoring god's word or as tests of their faith in it. Later the Eden-to-Canaan story became the first gospel of the Christians and Mohammedans because it explained their feeling that life was a crisis too. It could also be twisted to justify almost any war. Arabs, Crusaders, Spaniards, British, Americans and Israelis have soothed their consciences with it while killing and robbing weaker people. But the Hebrew bible is not a safe prop for heads of state unless they have popular support. God in these books is not symbolized as a man in a strong position. The Jews thought it blasphemy to symbolize him at all. God is the creating mind known by the truth of words spoken through the mouth of anyone: a preacher denouncing those who cheat the poor of their property and try to bribe god with religious services, a survivor lamenting among the ruins of a city, an outcast crying in the wilderness. The Hebrew gospels contain good songs, stories and sermons which don't mention god at all. Many kinds of education can be got from it.

There is a different account of Mediterranean life in the poems of Homer, which tell how a lot of small piratical Greek states and islands combined to attack the city of Troy, and the adventures of one pirate on his way home. The Greeks were descended from Eurasian invaders who learned from Egyptian, Jewish and Carthaginian traders. Their ships and manners resembled those of the Vikings, their communities were not much more than a chieftain's palace with some adjacent farmsteads and a harbour, yet Homer's poems have almost universal human sympathy. The besieged Trojans are presented as more noble than the invading Greeks, nor is the Greek victory a success story. All leaders in that war are shown as eventually losing life, dignity and decency by it, while periodically discussing with a sort of baffled wonder the insufficient reasons for fighting like this in the first place. They talk like intelligent soldiers in any war. Yet along with the wasteful fights, strategies and excursions Homer describes the work by which life is maintained: how cattle are slaughtered and cooked, how a household launders its sheets, the design of a woman's woolwork basket and the pruning of a hedge. When a hero and his men get trapped in a cave by a one-eyed giant, half the story is how the monster keeps his flock of sheep, makes cheese of their milk and loves a favourite ram. Homer's view of life is tragic. He has no hope that human history will ever make up for the unjust things people do to each other, but mingled in the tragedy he shows the eternal gods who are the cause of it and comic relief from it. The Greek gods are manlike and womanlike too. They are the undying forms of love, wisdom, belligerence, art, craft and government which inspire us to greatness yet turn us against each other.

By the fifth century before Christ there were many literate Greek states and colonies round the Mediterranean and some developed conversation to an astonishing extent. In Athens every man who was not a slave or immigrant was expected to attend parliament and openly discuss matters which in other cities led to riots and bloodshed. Should Athens go to war or make peace? Should workmen be compensated for injury by their employer or by the state? Could local millionaires justify their huge incomes? Was the price of food too high? Decisions on these matters were reached by a majority vote and the defeated minority accepted the decisions as law until they could get them reversed. In the city square public lectures and discussions were a common source of entertainment. Is the best system of government monarchy, aristocracy or democracy? What makes a man a good citizen? Is the sun a white-hot ball of iron larger than the Greek mainland or a whirlpool of fiery particles which coalesce on the horizon with the dawn? Is the universe made by chance operating on a chaos of elements with eternity to play about in, or did an eternal mind form it from the start? And how do the other people answer these questions? For though the Athenians thought themselves special they knew that the customs which made them special had been picked up from other people or recently invented.

This Athenian freedom of thought, speech and action was financed by a naval fund. Other Greek states paid Athens to protect them from the vast empire of Persia in the east, and if they refused to pay the Athenian navy attacked them. Over the bodies of men killed in that warfare an Athenian statesman announced that Athens was setting the world such great examples of democratic tolerance, social welfare and civic achievement that the neighbours should gladly pay for these; but they didn't. The Athenians left great writing: among it the history of how their empire was destroyed by the wars to maintain it.

Only the Romans ruled for centuries over many other lands. Rome began as a small republic of belligerent farmers. Theirs was not a democracy on the Athenian plan. The plebeians were represented in the senate by just enough elected speakers to give the state unity in a crisis. Rich families managed the government and officered the army, writing their laws and reports in clear, curt, pithy Latin. Using Latin they conquered and taxed every civilization round the Mediterranean and many tribal nations beyond, but Romans who wanted ideas along with big estates stocked their libraries with Greek writing. For centuries Greek poetry, history and philosophy were as beyond the scope of a Latin author as the Greek art of making bronze statues was beyond the Roman craftsmen. As the republic ended in conspiracies and civil war some Romans feared their achievement and language was also ending. The best account of Mediterranean civilization was still Homer's. If Rome ended without getting into a great book then the best thing its empire had done was preserve and propagate the work of the Greeks.

Twenty-seven years before Christ Augustus Caesar became first Roman emperor with the help of Maecenas, the richest and cleverest Roman banker. After defeating all his rivals in the civil war Augustus (I quote the Oxford Classical Dictionary) "assured freedom of trade and wealth to the upper classes," and, "gave peace, as long as it was consistent with the interests of the empire and the myth of his glory." He and Maecenas knew a Latin poet who cared for human culture and had proved it by writing fine poems about the cultivation of land, doing for Italy what the Greek poets Hesiod and Theocritus had done: making verse about peaceful farming and everyday faith. Encouraged and funded by the most powerful men in the new empire Virgil, who hated war, wrote a Roman epic to rival Homer and justify the Roman conquests.

He had no crude love of earthly power, and like all deep thinkers on human history was more disturbed by the sufferings of the defeated than dazzled by splendid winners. He did not describe the empire growing from a small thatched republican town to a marble-surfaced, world-bullying capital. His story describes the struggles of a Trojan refugee, Aeneas, who escapes from Troy while the Greeks loot and burn it. Aeneas leads his son and a few survivors round several Mediterranean shores, suffering hardship and abandoning the woman he loves before reaching Italy and fighting to found the state which will become Rome. Homer's heroes (Achilles and Ulysses) are moved by a greed for fame, wealth and luxuries. Virgil's Aeneas is a modest, careful, steady man guided like Moses by one idea: to get a home for his people. During his struggle the gods encourage him with a vision of the future when his greatest descendant, Augustus Caesar, will make a peaceful home for all mankind by becoming the first emperor to rule Europe, Asia and Africa. Virgil fell ill before completing this epic and died after ordering his secretaries to burn it. He has been called a perfectionist who did not want to be remembered by something incomplete. The obvious reason is his loss of faith in government by conquest, loss of faith in Caesarism. Augustus Caesar preserved and published the Aeneid. It has been used to excuse him and his kind ever since. Kaisers and Czars adopted his family name. Dutch, English, French and German kings have been sculptured in the armour his statues wear. Most autocrats prefer imitation to creation.

In his novel The Confidence-Man Herman Melville says few books contain a truly original character and no book can contain more than one. A truly original character (says Melville) makes the readers see themselves in a wholly new way, and he mentions Hamlet and Milton's Lucifer. He had Jesus of Nazareth in mind "a but was too cunning to say so. All we know of Jesus is four short books written in a Jewish dialect of Greek over fifty years after his crucifixion. They describe him as the living body of the god who made the universe and say he loved and loves people equally, even his enemies. They say he will give eternal life and happiness to all who believe in him, and prove it by loving each other and forgiving who hurt them. This message is either total rubbish or tells the whole truth about how we should live with each other. Hardly anyone has the strength to wholly accept or reject it, and those who explain why they partly reject and partly accept it end by describing themselves. The portrait is never flattering. I am introducing elements of English literature, so having mentioned the Christian gospels I need only mention a story added to them by the fathers of the Christian church: the story of the devil. They got it from an old Hebrew tradition which the rabbis who edited the Hebrew scriptures had mostly edited out. This says God was not alone before he made the world but lived in the heaven of an earlier creation with lesser gods, his servants. One of these rebelled, was cast out with his followers, and became the devil. God then made people to serve him instead, but first made the world as a ground where he could test their loyalty. The test was the rebel god, allowed by the strongest god to roam the world goading people into rebellion too.

No advantage of race, wealth or cleverness was needed to become Christian and the earliest commentors on Christianity say it was widespread among slaves and women: those whose lives the empire spectacularly cheapened. Roman justice, Roman triumphs and Roman circuses had turned organized cruelty and the murder of the helpless into civic duties, common conveniences and popular entertainments. Like the law in all countries Roman law was mainly devised to protect the property of those who had a lot and allow the owners to do what they liked with it. Roman law defined slaves and infants as property. How the Romans used slaves and prisoners of war in the Colosseum is well known. In the streets outside, inconvenient babies, mostly girls, were left in urns in public places to die or be picked up by those with a use for one. Rich people did this with their own surplus children: why not with the children of their slaves? It was sometimes cheaper to buy or inherit a working adult than pay to rear one from infancy. It is no wonder that the verbal kingdom of Christ speedily grew more popular than the earthly empire of Rome: that when the empire weakened through outside attack and internal revolt, the Caesars allied themselves with the heads of the Christian church. When Christianity was made the official religion of the empire many Christians attacked the temples and synagogues of their neighbours and fought each other over the nature of the man who told them to love their enemies. If Gibbon is right in thinking this alliance destroyed that empire we should still all thank god for it.

In the fourth century of the Christian era Saint Jerome translated the Jewish and Christian Greek gospels into Latin, putting the Bible beside Virgil's Aeneid as the greatest classic of Latin literature. Monks and scholars copied and preserved them till the invention of printing, for though very different they inspired a similar hope. The Bible promised a future heaven, perhaps even a heaven on earth, for those who joined that pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem which started when Moses led god's children out of Egypt. Virgil suggested that centuries of earthly warfare would one day end in a well-governed, peaceful kingdom for everyone. At the present time (Britain 1989) the idea that world history or any people's history can move toward a better state for all is widely advertised as socialist or utopian, but certainly impractical and out of r date. Most prosperous people believe no better state is possible for anyone. This too will pass.

In its republican youth the Roman empire depended on local farmers who worked their own land. The Caesarian empire was ruled almost exclusively by money-lending slave-owners who were defended by armies increasingly recruited from foreigners. That the armies chose the Caesar was the only vestige of democracy, and they chose men who paid them as much as possible. The taxes maintaining them were increasingly levied on the poor. Small farmers became slaves on the great estates, craftsmen left the towns and best came itinerant because they could not pay these taxes. The exploiters of the system kept it going by various shifts, but population declined and fields went out of cultivation. A dietician has suggested the imperial rulers lost their grip because they ate food seethed in lead vessels, which damaged the brain. Some emperors were certainly lunatics, but no class of rulers has yet turned a cruel, disaster-bound system which profits them into a decent, safer one which does not.

About 400 A.D. the Chinese empire had expanded beyond the wall built to protect it, displacing fierce nomads who suddenly invaded Europe from the east. The Roman empire had always been under threat from German tribes in the northern forests and these too now helped to break it up. Caesar Constantine had already shifted the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which became the centre of the biggest and richest region to survive the crack-up. Rome dwindled to a collection of vast half-empty buildings housing a Christian bishop. Elsewhere in Europe a few towns became separate communes ruled by Roman law but fed by traders who mainly bartered: otherwise such towns' government was the protection of local war lords who taxed by plundering. Folk cannot be plundered continually unless allowed time to recover. From this social chaos grew feudal Europe: a collection of states whose fields, cottages and strongholds were not owned by the users but rented from a landlord who was ultimately a king. Rent was paid in produce or labour or war service, not money. Even in the towns money was only used as a means of exchange, so for nearly a millennium Christians thought money-lending for profit was an unnatural vice.

That millennium was once called The Dark Ages, as if a foggy valley separated the sunny heights of pagan Rome from the bright slopes of Renaissance Italy; but these ages seemed as bright as ours to most who dwelled in them, and there is continuous information about every province Rome lost (except Britain) because Christian priests remained active where the legions perished or retreated. The strength of literate thought, or of god's word, or of both, is shown in how fast the belligerent invaders got christened. Chieftains who had worshipped Thor and Woden in the German forests conquered Paris and Toledo, Arles and Ravenna, yet their children became kings who adored the relics of martyrs, discussed the Holy Trinity with archbishops and gave monastic lands to abbots. The new military rulers did not know how to read, write or talk easily in the language of the natives. In the Christian church they met an organization so strong and popular that two centuries before it had christianized the previous military rulers, supported them and survived them. The church had bishops and priests in every town and most settlements. Their monasteries were now almost the only homes of ancient learning. The few kings who tried ruling in spite of the church were soon replaced by better Christians everywhere, except Britain.

In Virgil's first pastoral poem a small farmer robbed of his land by the government laments that he and those like him must now disperse:

To Scythia, bone-dry Africa,

the chalky spate of the Onus,

Even to Britain,

that place cut off at the very world's end.

Britain is now the home of nearly fifty-six million people (56,000,000), over nine-tenths of them in dense urban clusters. Of the remaining land nearly half is very fertile and supports mixtures of arable and cattle farming. The rest is mountain, hill, moorland and downs where very few folk live because it is used for sheep farms, military projects, cheap forestry and the sports of the wealthy. When Julius Caesar invaded Britain it housed about six-tenths of a million (600,000), and they dwelt mainly in the high valleys, the bays and islands round the coast, on the moorlands and downs where the great stone monuments and earthworks stand. The land now occupied by our cities and agriculture was mostly swampy forest, for fertile soil near slow wide rivers can only be cultivated when the banks are made firm and the ground is drained. There was farming here, but in clearings. The legions subdued Britain up to Pictland, though their hold on Wales and the north was slight and they did not touch Ireland. They built towns supported by villa farming and linked by roads which pierced the deciduous jungle. General Constantine was opposing the Picts in 306 A.D. when his father died and the troops proclaimed him Caesar. It was he who, without being christened, made Christianity the official Roman religion, then moved the imperial capital east. Two and a half centuries later a historian and diplomat in Constantinople wrote a book saying an area of Britain is under so thick a layer of snakes that none can stand there, some air so poisonous none can breathe it. He says many think Britain a home of the dead, that boatmen on the French coast ferry ghosts by night across the narrow channel to the British shore. Like the planet Mars in the early twentieth century Britain had become a place of which anything could be imagined. The English were there.

The press of populations westward which drove tribes of fighters down into Italy, France and Spain had pushed other German tribes across the sea in ships. Their skill in woodcraft is proved by their ships, in metalwork by their weapons. In the Romanized Britain of the south and east they found woodlands like those they had left but without enough natives to support them as a ruling class. At home the Anglo-Saxon tribes of only elected a king for the duration of a war. The wars the establishing their settlements in Britain never ended because they were soon fighting or preparing to fight each other. Many little quarrelsome kingdoms were founded, six with the names and territories of modern English counties. Their wars created slaves as well as kings. The remaining Britons were forced out among the Celtic nations of the westward coast, which was now called Wales. Rivers, homesteads and boundaries, even days of the week were renamed in German and with names of northern gods who replaced Christ. What we now call the North Sea became a German sea with German tribes and kingdoms on its coasts from Norway down to France in the west, from Kent up to Edinburgh in the east. But the Germans in mainland Europe were being informed by the language and faith of those they conquered. In the lands lost by Roman Britain the British, Roman and Christian thought vanished as completely as the art of building with stone and brick.

But though the North Sea had become a German Mediterranean the Irish Sea was still a Celtic one, the kingdoms of Ireland on its west coast, the islands and peninsula of the Scots to the north, Strathclyde and Cumbria and Wales to the east, Cornwall on the south. These had been governed by alliances of tribal chieftains and a hereditary class of poetic lawmakers who sang of the chieftains' prowess and judged their disputes. Without pressure of conquest the chieftains were now adopting Christianity, several of them becoming missionaries and priests. Monasteries were founded where monks copied Jerome's Bible and other Latin classics while writing their own chronicles and poems in Gaelic as well as Latin. For two or three centuries before the Viking invasions knocked everything about, this Celtic Mediterranean was a safe place for scholarship. The cathedral island of Iona became its spiritual capital. Two seas and stormy new pagan kingdoms separated this Celtic church from the Roman one, which for a while had little time for peaceful scholarship. Mohammedan raiders were taking Africa and Spain away from Christianity; in north Europe the priesthood were helping the fierce gothick monarchies against Attila; the Roman and Byzantine bishops were quarrelling about the nature of the Holy Trinity. As a result of these upheavals Irish-Scottish scholars had a high reputation around the Latin-Greek Mediterranean. Irish Celts founded monasteries in Burgundy and Switzerland. This Christian scholarship on the far side of a pagan wilderness encouraged the view of Britain as a dank dangerous forested place lit by supernatural gleams. The English settlers there had this view of life in general, when they came to write it down. Reader, after another four paragraphs and a prayer you will reach the start of this book.

In the seventh century Northumbria became the biggest and most stable English kingdom, holding back Picts north of the Forth, Mercians south of the Humber, and driving the Welsh of Cumbria further into the west: yet it was christianized by monks from Iona in what seems less than fifty years. At Jarrow, Wearmouth and the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne they and their pupils made gospel books in a style the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls Hiberno-Saxon, which means Irish-English. The initials of words were surrounded or filled with richly interwoven Celtic scrolls and spirals, skilfully inlaid with gold and the jewelled colours the Anglo-Saxons used in their finest metal ornaments. Remember a piece of music, or a building, or machine, or anything which gave you delight along with astonishment that people could make it. Pages of the book of Kells and the Lindisfarne gospel are as good as that. Until the ninth century such books, with church ornaments of metal and ivory, were Britain's only notable export--the continental clergy wanted them. And at Whitby in a monastery with a Gaelic name (Streaneshalch) the new Christian learning stirred two very different people into making the first English literature.

Hilda's uncle was a pagan Northumbrian king, a successful warlord who gave his name (Edwin) to his northern capital (Edinburgh). He got baptized five years before he died and Hilda, then thirteen, was baptized with him. She became a nun, an abbess and a saint, after ruling the double monastery for nuns and monks at Whitby. While working there she learned that a local herdsman thought he was a poet, though he had not composed anything. An angel in a dream had ordered him to sing about "the beginning of things," but he was too ignorant to start. Hilda tested the man's talent by getting priests to tell him the Christian creation story and to write down what he made of it. His verses were good. He never learned to write but was enrolled in the monastery where he dictated more poems.

Any talent which gives a good new thing to others is a miracle, but commentators have thought it extra miraculous that England's first known poet was an illiterate herdsman. They forgot three things.


Poetry is a kind of speech, not a kind of writing. For over half a million years poets learned to make it by hearing it sung or recited, then by repeating it with the changes and additions they preferred. In a very few places, three or four thousand years ago, writing approached poetry as a humble secretary, able to record an especially good poem so that later folk could not change or lose it. The vulgar notion that a poet must be a writer arrived when a lot of wealthy literate folk decided nothing good could be made without the help of their expensive educations, except by a miracle. In Hilda's day even emperors could not write. Nobody expected it of a poet.


After hearing and repeating poems until the rhythms and the vocabularies are in their nerves, poets need long uninterrupted spells of talking to themselves. Herding once allowed this. From Theocritus in ancient Greece to James Hogg twenty centuries later, the link between herding and poetry was so famous a literary cliche that even writers forgot it had been a fact.


The miracle was a clever strong ruler using her learning and advantages to free a poet in the slave class. Most patrons who want poetry seek it where Augustus and Mycaenas searched--in a social class close to their own. With more like Hilda literature would not now contain such huge silences and absences about the lives of most people. She really was a saint.

So now English literature can start. A monk who got learning from the Irish Scots is taking dictation from a herdsman singing to him in a Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon. He sings a Jewish creation story transmitted to him through at least three other languages by a Graeco-Roman-Celtic Christian church. Since the verse forms and vocabularies in his nerves were learned from pagan German warrior chants, his Genesis poem is colder, fiercer and more spooky than the version most of us know: the version authorised by a Tudor head of state nearly a thousand years later. This is also because he prefaces his Genesis with the story of how god's chief angel became the devil. The monk writing this uses an alphabet close to our own, a Roman adaptation of a Greek adaptation of a Semitic adaptation of an Egyptian adaptation of signs used first beside the Euphrates river in the city of Sumer, later called Babylon, five thousand years before Christ.

The Anglo-Saxon alphabet had two letters we do not now use: one for the soft noise which starts thud and ends bath, one for the lightly buzzing noise which starts the and ends breathe and wreathe. I apologise for replacing both by th. This compromise will not stop you getting some taste of the language the poet and the monk used, if you murmur aloud Christ's best known prayer in Anglo-Saxon. The better known Tudor English version will help understanding. Note that in 650 the c is always hard, and a final e is pronounced, so rice sounds like ricki.



Thu the eart heafonum,

Si think nama gehalgod.

Tobecume thin rice.

Gewurthe thin villa on eorthan swa swa on heofonum.

rne gedaeghwamlican hlaf syle us to daeg

And forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfath ure glytendum

And ne gelaed thu us on costnunge,

Ac alys us of yfele.



Our father.

Whyche art in heaven,

Halowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy wyll be doen in yearth, as it is in heaven.

Geve us this daye our dayly breade.

And forgeve us our trespaces, as wee forgeve them that trespasse agaynst us.

And leade us not into temptacion.

But deliver us from evill.


All these old English words contain sounds of words we still use in similar ways, apart from rice (realm, or reich in German) and sothlice (truthlike or truly). Gewurthe means worth be given: the unwieldy gedaeghwamlican has daily inside: hlaf means loaf: gyltas, guilt: gyltendum, guilty-doers-to: costnunge, a bad or costly choice: alys, release. If spoken in northern accents Christ's prayer in Anglo-Saxon sounds oddly familiar. Some Scottish and Northumbrian folk still say "oor faither" and "thoo art."

Read on, please.

- A.G.

notme, Tuesday, 22 June 2004 18:00 (twenty years ago) link

i hope you didn't type all that out

tom west (thomp), Tuesday, 22 June 2004 21:50 (twenty years ago) link

I'm still reading Poor Things and it's just wonderful. Frankenstein keeps appearing in my life lately too, and the inevitable (intentional by Gray) comparisons.
With regards to Tom's comment above:"all the english lit students here are hating poor things but english lit students have no taste anyway"
If only they had made us read this as english lit. students.

jocelyn (Jocelyn), Monday, 28 June 2004 20:55 (twenty years ago) link

(nb. i am an english lit student)

tom west (thomp), Wednesday, 30 June 2004 00:42 (twenty years ago) link

seven months pass...

Casuistry (Chris P), Tuesday, 8 February 2005 22:04 (nineteen years ago) link

Lanark just came into my shop, for the first time since I heard you all talking about it. I am very excited. Of course, this means that if the book is anything short of amazing, someone's for a kicking.

I'm looking at you, ILB.

accentmonkey (accentmonkey), Wednesday, 9 February 2005 12:48 (nineteen years ago) link


cozen (Cozen), Wednesday, 9 February 2005 17:14 (nineteen years ago) link

Well, so far so good. So you're all in the clear.

accentmonkey (accentmonkey), Wednesday, 9 February 2005 18:42 (nineteen years ago) link

I finished Lanark this morning. Although the last section of it really drags something awful, I liked this book enormously. It does a great job of being science fiction, magic realism, kitchen sink drama and boys' own adventure all in one. It has a bitter humour to it, I didn't mind the masturbation at all, and a lot of it kind of reminded me of Fowler's End in its squalid reliance on coffee and bitching as the only forms of entertainment really open to people who have no money.

HOWEVER, I have decided I definitely don't like books where the author turns up as a character. It just pisses me off, and I particularly disliked all the post-modern stuff towards the end of this book. I thought the whole thing would have been much better off without it.

accentmonkey (accentmonkey), Monday, 21 February 2005 18:11 (nineteen years ago) link

Is there a reason why Jessa hasn't posted on this thread?

jaymc (jaymc), Tuesday, 22 February 2005 23:52 (nineteen years ago) link

one year passes...
Well I never. Just looking at Gray's offical site, and it says that there had once been plans to make a film of Lanark but it was abandoned due to lack of funding. All the way through reading it I thought "This would make a great Mayazaki animation or Terry Gilliam film". Why aren't people lobbying to have this made into a film??

wogan lenin (dog latin), Thursday, 14 September 2006 13:35 (seventeen years ago) link

I think I would prefer tantalizing glimpes of almost lost footage to the actual completed Terry Gilliam film.

Run Ruud Run (Ken L), Thursday, 14 September 2006 14:37 (seventeen years ago) link

Mmm, I don't think it would be as good as a film as the book is.

Forest Pines (ForestPines), Friday, 15 September 2006 16:50 (seventeen years ago) link

four years pass...

a book that is very good is Alasdair Gray's A LIFE IN PICTURES.

one of the clearest compliments that I can pay this book is that it makes me feel as though I am interested in painting and visual art.

the pinefox, Sunday, 26 December 2010 23:53 (thirteen years ago) link

it should be super-popular then, people love feeling as though they're interested in things.

j., Monday, 27 December 2010 02:31 (thirteen years ago) link

We've been looking at "A Life in Pictures" in Panda Mansions, ever since I got it for Mrs The Real Dirty Vicar for Christmas. Yes, it is nice.

The New Dirty Vicar, Tuesday, 28 December 2010 14:20 (thirteen years ago) link

This is good news!!

the pinefox, Tuesday, 28 December 2010 17:12 (thirteen years ago) link

one year passes...

Hi, so what are the best lesser-known books by this fella? I've read Lanark, Unlikely Stories Mostly, Ten Tales Tall And True, The Ends Of Our Tethers, Poor Things, A History Maker (although I remember nothing about it now), 1982 Janine - actually that's quite a lot innit?

I still see a few things in shops - there's a very beautiful hardback copy of the Book of Prefaces which I can imagine might work better as an artefact than something I'd be interested in reading. I also want to get hold of A Life In Pictures.

make like a steak and beef (dog latin), Wednesday, 24 October 2012 15:58 (eleven years ago) link

Book of Prefaces is great. Really good preface.

Might there be a torrent or similar of transmissions of his radio and/or tv plays? That might be worth investigating. I'd go hunting, but I'm at work.

woof, Thursday, 25 October 2012 09:57 (eleven years ago) link

two years pass...


Alasdair Gray at Eighty Programme

Portrait of writer, artist, irascible interviewee and controversial essayist Alasdair Gray. The film shows him creating work that has become part of Scotland's living heritage.

First shown: 9.30pm 27 Dec 2014
Available for 27 days

Ottbot jr (NickB), Monday, 29 December 2014 23:19 (nine years ago) link

five months pass...


as verbose and purple as a Peter Ustinov made of plums (James Morrison), Sunday, 21 June 2015 08:52 (nine years ago) link

Nooooooo. Was browsing through the English-language section of the Guangzhou public library last week and stumbled across this:

etc, Sunday, 21 June 2015 18:11 (nine years ago) link

six years pass...

Live stream of a celebration of Gray.

the pinefox, Friday, 25 February 2022 20:23 (two years ago) link

thanks pf

Fizzles, Friday, 25 February 2022 20:23 (two years ago) link

one year passes...

Interesting background on Poor Things and the sort of arseholes who have traditionally run/ruined Glasgow.

Little Billy Love (Tom D.), Thursday, 11 January 2024 10:24 (six months ago) link

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