Old Men in Love by Alasdair Gray

John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers. Edited, decorated by Alasdair Gray
Bloomsbury, 2007, 312p

Lanark‘s publication in 1981 marked not only Alasdair’ Gray’s arrival as a major Scottish novelist but also of his distinctive style. Ever since it has been impossible when sampling his work to escape the fact that you are reading a Gray book.

Old Men In Love is no exception. The usual Gray appurtenances are present; illustrations, marginal notes, typographical excursions. The Bloomsbury edition also comes with a nice internal bookmark.

The book is presented as the literary papers of John Tunnock, a retired primary school teacher, and includes extracts from Tunnock’s diary and from the various writing projects he had started, abandoned, and perhaps restarted. As a result, a couple of (short) chapters of Old Men In Love are set in renaissance Florence, there is an abortive History of Scotland from the Big Bang, a longer section dealing (in two well separated parts) with Socratic Athens, another with the origins of a small nineteenth century English religious cult called the Agapemonites, also known as the Lampeter Brethren. This last becomes a trifle tedious as it meanders on. Aside from the diary extracts the most successful of these is the part featuring Socrates – especially the scenes of his trial.

In the diaries, Tunnock is revealed as a curmudgeonly socialistic Scot, ill at ease with the modern world. But then, he was also uneasy in his youth, being brought up by two aunts and unaware till much later of his illegitimate birth.

All of this is tied up in a metafictional conceit since there is an introduction, as by Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar (an Englishwoman, now living in the US, who is the supposed beneficiary of Tunnock’s will) which mentions Gray himself in less than flattering terms. As does the epilogue, attributed to Sidney Workman – an educator marooned in Fife (I know the feeling) whose address is given as 17 Linoleum Terrace, Kirkcaldy, which, of course, does not exist – wherein the book is said to be a ragbag collection of previously published stories, plays or television transcripts. This is another Gray trope, attempting to defray criticism by anticipating it. The epilogue treats extensively with Lanark (‘Workman”s contribution to which is maintained to have sabotaged his career) as well as the remainder of Gray’s Ĺ“uvre which ‘Workman’ characterises as derivative and not worthy of the acclaim it has garnered.

Whatever the truth of these criticisms and whether Gray himself believes them or is merely presenting a posture of self-effacement, Lanark did prise open a door through which an array of Scottish SF/Fantasy writers at first trickled (Banks 1984, MacLeod 1995) then breenged (eg Cobley 2001, Gibson 2004, Duncan 2005, Campbell 2007.)

Had it been Old Men In Love which had been published in 1981 that flowering might not have taken place.

Edited to add:-
The Guardian’s Review section had a capsule review of Old Men In Love on Saturday 10/10/09. I can’t find it on their website so I can’t link to it. However, if you caught it, I wouldn’t demur from its assessment one jot.

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