Alasdair Gray/Dermot Healy

A weird, wonderful lunch hour

I’m just back from a two-up reading by Alasdair Gray and Dermot Healy, part of the Dublin Writers Festival. Last night, I saw Andrew O’Hagan and Zadie Smith.

Gray and Healy were doing their thing in Project – the trend/dated new name for the Projects Arts Theatre, or Centre, arr, whatever.

I wasn’t previously too aware of Healy’s work… in fact my only previous encounter with him was in the Chester Beatty Library. The SO and I had ligged into a reception there, for the free booze. I think we’d drunk an earlier one into submission.

We stood there, sipping our cheap wine, until we were prevailed upon by a man covered in white hair and wearing one of those green waistcoat things usually worn by farmers, or horsey people.

He was quite drunk, and had his arm in a sling.

The intricacies of of the subsequent conversation are too surreal to go into hear… but I thought that he was some drunk old codger. Which he was. My SO, however is far more au fait with the Irish literary world, and recognised this sauced-up invalid as being Mr Dermot Healy, author of the celebrated Goat Song. And he was kinda getting cosy with my lady.

Still, we made friends, in a way. He pleaded with us to rescue him from his ‘minders’, and take him to some fine drinking establishment where he might receive asylum. He said that THEY were taking him the Front fucking Lounge, and we COULD NOT leave him to rot in such an establishment.

We went ahead as a scouting party. He never showed. His minders must have had our card marked.

Today tho, Healy was masterful, witty, and very sober… he read little poems of the sea (he lives, I think near Grange in Sligo), and told stories of adolescent sex in Westmeath cinemas of the 50s and 60s. Much hilarity, very human… warm…

Some poems:

A story:

Alasdair Gray… I discovered his work after a Scottish employee of Waterstones on Dawson St. saw me buying a Flann O’Brien book, she demanded that I also try Gray.

He’s inclassifiable… a bizarre, surreal novelist, a poet. Also an artist – he designs and illustrates his own novels. His most famous Novel – Lanark – A Life in Four Books somehow manages to incoporate the weird town of Unthank, a disease where people slowly become dragons, and and a Glasgow-based autobiography. However, the first thing I read by him was Five Letters from an Eastern Empire, the wonderfulness of which nearly made me flip…

See description of Lanark below.

Today, Gray read some typically mad poetry, and a short story about writers. Dangerous ground he reckons… but not one he was afraid of. By anyone else, the story would have been ordinary… but Gray can make the normal seem bizarre… the story centred around a struggling writer who takes a job as a creative writing lecturer. He ‘discovers’ a brilliant young poet, unleashing a chain of events which will plague him for two decades…


Lanark defies description. Like Slaughterhouse Five it is both outlandish science-fiction and obvious autobiography, like The Third Policeman it makes use of lengthy footnotes that say absolutely nothing, it begins with book three, has a prologue halfway through, and it includes a long index of plagiarisms in the middle of a discussion between the author and his lead character. Like many difficult books it is probably better appreciated on subsequent readings, but it is likely to grab you from the off. Books 3 and 4 (which you read first and last) are about Lanark, a man who appears in a strange town. Having no name, he takes one from a roadsign. The city has no daylight and the inhabitants do no work, living off subsistence-level grants from an unseen power. Many people suffer from oddly symbolic diseases. Lanark develops ‘dragonhide’, a physical manifestation of Wilhelm Reich’s emotional armouring, which smothers his arm in thick heavy scales and claws where his fingers were, one of his friends develops ‘mouths’ the symptoms of which involves mouths opening like wounds over the body which then speak independently of the sufferer. Lanark commits suicide and comes round in ‘The Institute’. The Institute is devoted to curing those it can, but uses the hopeless cases as fuel (dragonhide sufferers eventually ‘go nova’ if uncured, when their pent-up emotions cause their bodies to explode, which energy is harnessed to power generators) or as food (the glutinous ‘softs’ are turned into a processed blancmange-like substance which Lanark refuses to eat when he discovers its source). This is only part of the opening book. The novel later trips back to Glasgow just after the war, where we meet Thaw (who it would appear is Lanark in a previous incarnation) for books 2 and 3. I will stop the description here, because it cannot do the book justice.


Drafts and papers of Lanark: A life in four books

Lanark 1982: an unofficial Alasdair Gray website

Alasdair Gray

at the complete review

An Interview with Alasdair Gray

enough rambling… a good way to spend a lunchtime.

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.


  1. Superb! Wonderful to see Gray mentioned here. I finished Lanark last month- I thought it was wonderful. I came straight here afterwards- I thought “blather’s bound to have something on him”- like the Waterstone’s assistant, I connected him with Flann O’Brien. I was disappointed at the time, but am now deligted that you’re trying to turn other people towards Gray. well done!

  2. Always wonderful to see Alasdair get attention. I also failed, on first reading, to recognise my own description of Lanark – which was a very strange experience.

    The Lanark 1982 site is available without pop-ups (damn that tripod) at so you might like to amend your link on the page. Which reminds me, I must go back and do some updating to the site – after all AG has a new book out later this year called “Ends of Their Tethers” a collection of short stories.

    I also came to Gray through Flann O’Brien and had a enjoyable conversation with him (Gray, not O’Brien) at a book signing in 1993 in which he did his own impersonation of a man who was largely bicycle.

  3. hiya – hope you didn’t mind me quoting you!

    And yeah, it’s a weird sensation. There’s pages in this site that I’ve forgotten I’d written, so when I open them I’m pleasantly weirded out…

Comments are closed.