Alasdair Gray sets the record straight at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Alasdair Gray made a welcome appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this afternoon to talk about his recent eclectic creative projects, the looming prospect of an Independent Scotland and to set the record straight on the ‘anti-English’ debacle that erupted around him in December 2012.

In an event chaired by Book Festival director Nick Barley, Gray talked about Scotland’s great history of exporting its own citizens – citing, among other things, a disparity between Scotland’s relatively high level of education and low standard of living compared to England – and how Scottish emigration has enriched the wider world, both in cultural resource and financial fortune. Gray’s definition of a Scot as ‘any adult living in Scotland able to vote’ may be too narrow for some, but the value he places on those who seek to contribute to society was articulately and passionately displayed. Gray sought to use his event to clarify, ‘in case there is still any lingering doubt’, as Barley put it, that he was not anti-English in the slightest, but rather felt that those with the power to put people in the top creative jobs in the country – bodies such as Creative Scotland and the NTS – should look to the people with a deep understanding of the culture of the country in addition to excellence in their own artistic medium. Gray roused a laugh from the rapt crowd when, in response to an accusation that was part-and-parcel of the flak he got after his Settlers and Colonists article that he was ‘attention-seeking’, he remarked that he didn’t think he was but ‘I must be seeking attention, otherwise I wouldn’t get so much of it.

Inevitably the conversation between Gray and Barley moved from Scottishness to Scottish Independence and Gray used the opportunity to outline a few key things about his vision for a post-referendum Scotland. Gray said his interest was in proportional representation, a country where people didn’t necessarily know how they would vote in every election, and for political dialogue driven by issues rather than ideology.

The discussion then turned to Gray’s recent work; most prominently his recent mural on the wall of Glasgow’s Hillhead subway station. He also discussed his latest project in progress – a new translation of Dante’s Inferno written in his inimitable poetically sweary Scots. When discussing the accuracy of his text to the original, in light of his lack of Italian language, Gray said he ‘…decided I was going to be inaccurate to the extent that the words within it were words I could say.’

In the final stages of the conversation Gray’s status as a national institution was warmly commented upon by an astute audience member who observed that if he were English he’d have been knighted by now. Gray’s reply that he actually was offered a knighthood by ‘Mr. Brown’s administration’, but ‘turned it down when [he] realised there was no money attached to it’ will go down in Book Festival history.

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