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‘All I could think of was how could one man know all this?’: Bernard MacLaverty celebrates polymathic pal Alasdair Gray on anniversary of his death

© Andrew CawleyWriter Bernard MacLaverty at home in Glasgow’s West End
Writer Bernard MacLaverty at home in Glasgow’s West End

More than 30 years ago, during Monday night chess sessions at his home in the west end of Glasgow, Bernard MacLaverty gently encouraged his fellow writer Alasdair Gray to finish a short story he was working on.

Over the course of a few weeks, Gray would bring more pages for his friend to read and the answer was always the same: “It’s good but it’s not finished.”

Those crumpled early passages would eventually become the 1992 novel Poor Things, considered by many to be Gray’s masterpiece, winning literary prizes including the Whitbread Novel Award.

If any writer – even an acclaimed author like Gray – is going to have a “first reader” for their work, they would want that person to be bestselling author MacLaverty.

The Belfast-born writer of novels such as Cal, Lamb, Grace Notes and Midwinter Break has won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award and been shortlisted for many other major prizes, including the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award.

Bernard MacLaverty in the early years with his friend, author and artist Alasdair Gray
Bernard MacLaverty in the early years with his friend, author and artist Alasdair Gray

MacLaverty, who has encouraged countless published authors over the years – including Gray and Ali Smith – is a born storyteller. Hilary Mantel said his writing “locates the precise point where life bleeds into art, and art into life”.

Later this month MacLaverty will join in celebrating his friend’s life and work at the annual Gray Day, set up to secure the late polymath’s literary and artistic legacy.

When I met MacLaverty last week he laughed as he told the tale of how he ended up playing midwife to Poor Things. MacLaverty, 80, first met Gray in the 1980s, while he was living on Islay. He had moved there with his wife, Madeline, and four children to become the head of English at the high school.

The family lived on the island for eight years and, during this time, MacLaverty established himself as a published writer. His heart-wrenching debut novel, Lamb, was published in 1980 and was followed by Cal, a tale set against a backdrop of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, in 1983. Both novels were turned into films, with Cal starring Helen Mirren and John Lynch and Lamb starring Liam Neeson.

“During this time, I started to go down to Glasgow for readings,” says MacLaverty. “I got to know the writer Jim Kelman, and he asked if I had ever met his friend Alasdair Gray. I said no, but I’d like to.

“I’m not alone in this, but your first meeting with Alasdair was surrounded by an aura of astonishment. All I could think of was, ‘how does this man know all this?’”

Later, when MacLaverty moved to Glasgow, he found himself living a few streets away from Gray. The two would meet and, over a drink, discovered a mutual love of chess. The Monday night chess sessions began and, afterwards, they’d discuss their work.

“Occasionally, Alasdair would read me snippets of things he had written,” says MacLaverty. “One night, he arrived at the house and said to me, ‘do you mind if I read something to you?’ He was working on a collection of short stories called Ten Tales Tall And True. This was one of them – although in true Alasdair fashion, the 10 tales became 14 over time!

“He went on to read me a story about a Victorian doctor that had echoes of Frankenstein. I loved it but I knew it wasn’t finished.

“So Alasdair went away and the next week came back with another 10 pages. This went on for a while. It was a bit like the The Arabian Nights series. After he had read aloud to me, I would say, ‘it’s great but it’s still not finished, Alasdair’.

“That short story became a novella, which then became a novel which was Poor Things.”

Gray’s personal drawings in author’s copy of Poor Things © Andrew Cawley
Gray’s personal drawings in author’s copy of Poor Things

When he finished Poor Things, Gray, who illustrated all his books, asked MacLaverty to sit for him so he could come up with a portrait of his character, Godwin Baxter, a Victorian surgeon who implants the brain of an unborn baby into its dead mother.

With a characteristic belly laugh, MacLaverty says: “Alasdair told me he would like me to sit for ‘the monster’, but said he would distort me to such an extent that I would not recognise myself! That is actually what happened.”

These drawings grace the cover of Poor Things and the chapter of the novel titled Making Godwin Baxter. As we talk, MacLaverty pulls out his own copy and shows me a series of original portraits Gray drew inside the book of Bernard, his wife and two of his daughters.

“This copy is actually one I asked Alasdair to sign for a friend of mine who works in the film industry. He is a huge fan of Alasdair’s writing. It’s dedicated to my friend but, in true Alasdair style, he drew portraits of me and Madeline and the girls on blank pages inside the book.

“My friend sent it back to me recently because he said, even though Alasdair had signed it for him, it was really all about me and my family.”

Poor Things seems to be having a moment. Gray’s surreally peculiar Gothic masterpiece was recently adapted for the big screen by Oscar-nominated Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos. The film stars big names, including Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe. According to recent unconfirmed reports, the film will receive its premiere at Cannes Film Festival in May.

He knows little about the forthcoming film but MacLaverty says Gray was excited about the prospect of Lanthimos being involved. “Alasdair was completely incompetent with tech,” he explains. “One day, before his accident [Gray suffered a broken back and other life-changing injuries after a fall in 2015], he arrived at the house with a DVD and asked me if I could play it.

“It was a copy of Lanthimos’ film Dogtooth. We all sat down to watch it and thought it was a brilliant piece of filmmaking. I said to Alasdair, ‘if this man wants anything to do with your fiction, say yes!

“After years of the engine idling, so to speak, I’m glad that Lanthimos’ film version is finally coming out. I can’t wait to see it.

“Looking back, it really was a privilege to play midwife during the birth of novel of such quality.”

Annual day of tributes celebrate legacy of author and artist

Alasdair Gray in 2014 © Tina Norris/Shutterstock
Alasdair Gray in 2014

Alasdair Gray died in December 2019, at the age of 85, but his legacy – as both an artist and a writer – is now being cemented by his friend and former gallerist, Sorcha Dallas, who set up The Alasdair Gray Archive in 2020.

In a nod to Bloomsday, an annual celebration of Irish writer, James Joyce, Dallas also established Gray Day, held at Òran Mór in Glasgow on February 25 for the last three years.

Gray Day 2023 will take place next Saturday night and, this year, it is devoted to Poor Things. The 1992 novel, considered by many to be Gray’s masterpiece, won both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1992. The Òran Mór auditorium, with its stunning mural painted by Gray, was an important space for the polymath.

Dallas says: “It really is special to be under this roof which is so Alasdair, celebrating his life, unique collaborative creative spirit and his work. This year, to mark 30 years since its publication, we felt the time was right to look at Poor Things.

“Gray Day 2023, hosted by writer Alan Bissett, will hear contributions from Bernard MacLaverty, author Chitra Ramaswamy, poet Michael Pedersen and Gray’s biographer, Rodge Glass. It will also include an acoustic set from Jill Lorean.”

For ticket information about Gray Day 2023, visit For more on The Alasdair Gray Archive,