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Alasdair Gray: The Ingenious Mind Behind Poor Things

How I came across Alasdair Gray 

My first encounter with Alasdair Gray was an unconscious one. It occurred when I was exiting Hillhead station in Glasgow West End, riding the escalator upwards; an immense mural of a map of the city came into view, covering the entire surface of the wall in front of the escalator. What caught my attention was the intricate details of the Glaswegian streets and buildings and the artist's distinguished drawing style. Despite my curiosity, I walked away without knowing the name of the artist. 


My second encounter with Alasdair Gray was in Oran Mor, a theatre pub that hosts events and concerts in the West End. I was there for a musical concert. Nevertheless, I couldn't help noticing the celestial ceiling mural of the auditorium, which was filled with constellations of the zodiac signs. Along with the magnificent concert, the experience was memorable as it was a feast for the eyes and hearing. Unfortunately, I returned once again without learning any information about the artist. 


My third encounter with Alasdair Gray was a relatively recent one. I just finished watching the trailer of Poor Things and would like to write a review about it. After learning that the film was an adaptation of a book, I then decided to read the book before watching the film. I went to the nearest Waterstones to pick up the book that was written by an Alasdair Gray. To my astonishment, from the lips of the bookstore owner, I realised that not only was Alasdair the author of the recently adapted film, but the entire Glasgow was dotted with his work, including the mural in Hillhead station and Oran Mor. 


Whilst picking up my book in Waterstone, I learned that Alasdair once lost the plan of his mural for Oran Mor. Luckily, retracing his way back to the pub, Alasdair managed to retrieve his draft mural. 


The process of acquainting myself with Poor Things and its creator has thus opened a rabbit hole for me to dive into. Living in a city filled with Alasdair Gray's footprints, I then decided to unveil this mysterious character, his work, and our beloved city— Glasgow- through the lens of Poor Things. 


A Brief Review of Poor Things (The novel)   

Poor Things is a classic gothic fiction set in Victorian Glasgow. It tells the story within a story from various narratives, yet on the same subject: Bella Baxter. Bella Baxter has the body of a 25-year-old woman but the mind of a toddler and was a creation of Godwin Baxter, known as 'God', a genius surgeon with a distorted face, out of his loneliness. 


Consequently, an undeveloped mind in a grown woman's body would only lead to chaos. Bella demonstrated extreme speed in adapting to the environment as well as absorbing knowledge. More importantly, her ability to obtain self-consciousness and strong moral values that resemble a 'socialist' ironically contradicts her image of an upper-class English woman. 


In addition, Poor Things depicted the narrative not only from Bella herself but also from Godwin, her creator, McCandless and her various lovers. These combined fictional narratives touch upon subjects such as patriarchy and the current world order, feminism, humanity, and medical ethics, which provides readers with thought-provoking insights. 


As mentioned, the intertextuality of the interwoven narratives in this novel is what makes the plot unique. Gray's idea of Poor Things perfectly recreated a fiction based on the narratives from the 'unreliable narrators' which "allow[to the] various events narrated appreciably more than their apparent significance." Therefore, a story told by these unreliable narrators prevents the readers from singling out 'the truth' of Bella Baxter's events and encounters. 


Moreover, the film's outstanding themes on women empowerment and awakening with outlandish as well as daring visuals are some of the reasons that attracted the audience in the first place. 


However, despite being regarded as yet another masterpiece through the representation of director and filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things was also criticised by some due to its exclusion of the elements of the city of Glasgow, on which Gray based the novel heavily. 


The birth and origin of Poor Things 

Readers of Poor Things might wonder where such an eccentric idea originated from. 


Alasdair Gray was a Glaswegian. Born in 1934 in Riddrie, Glasgow, he took on several occupations besides writing. His debut novel Lanark in 1981 was a one-of-a-kind piece of work that became legendary in Scottish literature. As an artist, he is renowned for his paintings and murals. Moreover, "He was a proud supporter of socialism, believing in a fair and equitable society." 


According to Alasdair in an interview, the inspiration for Poor Things came to him simply from his love of fairy tales and gothic novels. As a kid, Alasdair grew up with the stories of Anderson. Later, he worshipped Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy as their works were characterised by melodramatic plots and exotic rural settings, which beguiled a sentimental young Alasdair. Horror and gothic literature also captured Alasdair's young mind. Thus, it is unsurprising that the blueprint of Poor Things was inspired by Shelly's Frankenstein and Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 


Apart from Alasdair's early literary preference that had contributed immensely to the creation of Poor Things, his second wife Morag was also one of his muses regarding the book, as Bella's character was derived directly from Morag. According to Alasdair in an interview, the idea came to him when they were married and was based in Glasgow. 


Alasdair's Glasgow - Glasgow through the lens of Poor Things 


"Glasgow is a magnificent city," said McAlpin. "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 is 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."

Alasdair Gray, Lanark


Undeniably, the film Poor Things still manages to convey the exoticness of the novel while showcasing Bella's development of an independent mind. Nevertheless, as a reader and fellow resident of Glasgow, the city, in my opinion, is an essential element when staging the story, which was absent in the film. Despite the book being fiction, Alasdair dropped several hints of Scotticism and names of an actual location then and there that make the plot even more believable. 


The very first instance would be Bella and Godwin Baxter's residence at 18 Park Circle. Park Circle is located in West End, Kelvinbridge. Surrounding the area would be Glasgow University and the Municipal Art Gallery in Kelvingrove, where the two male protagonists, McCandelless and Baxter, study and frequent strolls. 


Another example was a scene where McCandless was strolling on Kelvingrove Park suffering due to heat while reminiscing his first encounter with Bella, unintentionally capturing a monument that is well known among Glawegians.


"I strolled to the Loch Katrine memorial fountain whose up-flung and downward trickling jets gave some freshness to the air." 


The mentioned Loch Katrine memorial fountain is currently known as the Stewart Memorial Fountain, located in the Kelvingrove Park West End was to commemorate Lord Provost Robert Stewart, "the man deemed most responsible for establishing Glasgow's first permanent supply of fresh water from Loch Katrine." 


The 'Lansdowne United Presbyterian', now known as the Webster's Theatre, where McCandless and Bella had an interrupted wedding, was also an actual location on the Great Western Road in the Glasgow West End. The church has now been converted into a theatre and used as a bar and restaurant in present-day Glasgow. 


Travelling from the West End of Glasgow, Alasdair also takes the reader to the city centre, where the river Clyde penetrates the city. The river Clyde is another crucial location in the novel, as it was where Bella committed suicide before being transformed by Godwin Baxter. 


At the end of the story, Godwin unfortunately passed away due to his poor physical condition. Readers can learn from the book that Godwin was buried in an odd-looking coffin in the Necropolis next to the Glasgow Cathedral. 


"He sits like that to the present day, under the floor of the mausoleum Sir Colin acquired in the Necropolis overlooking Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary." 

Poor Things is the kind of novel that readers will always go back to due to its complexity and hidden information that can be easily overlooked if one does not pay attention. Despite the absence of Glasgow in the adapted film, which disappointed some fans of Alasdair, including myself, the film acted as a medium according to Aladair's son Andrew as well as Alasdair Gray's biographer Rodge Glass. Both men hoped that Alasdair's work and the Scottish references would be more visible and recognised globally through the movie. The former commented that "[thanks to the film] they'll read other books and explore perhaps further into the hinterlands of Scottish literature", while the latter acknowledged Lanthimos's interpretation of Poor Things and that readers should "be at peace with it". "In many ways, the film is very faithful to Alasdair's way of seeing – feminism, socialism, moral responsibility", commented Glass.


Edited By: Josh Reidelbach

Image: A Gray Space 

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