For many writers, Gavin Wallace, who has died aged 53, was the acceptable face of arts administration. Though neither a novelist nor a poet himself, he was a genuine and gifted creator. His never-failing wisdom, kindness, generosity and passion for literature did much to give life and hope to contemporary Scottish writing. He brought a personal commitment to his role as head of literature at the Scottish Arts Council and subsequently as portfolio manager for literature, publishing and language at Creative Scotland. Whenever some of us writers got together in a Rose Street bar, he knew he was always welcome to join us. He'd laugh, joke, gossip and get serious by turns. He was a good friend first and a government official second. Among the good guys in the arts, Gavin was one of the best.
Before joining the SAC in 2002, Gavin had served an extensive apprenticeship as editor, reviewer and teacher. His Phd thesis had been on the neglected Compton Mackenzie. When I first got to know him, he was a busy, busy man: a reviewer for the Scotsman and a tutor at both Edinburgh University and the Open University. He was that rare being – an intellectual with a genuine feeling for literature.
Having spent a two-year period lecturing in Japan, he returned with his partner Pauline Jones to set up home in Edinburgh and, later, in Aberdour. After working on Cencrastus from 1991-94, he went on to jointly edit Edinburgh Review, with Alan Jamieson. With Randall Stevenson he edited two definitive anthologies of essays: The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies and a similar volume on Scottish Theatre.
Unlike some editors who are content merely to compile what suits their own tastes, Gavin brought a characteristically fine sensitivity to his editorship. These ground-breaking books demonstrate an unusually wide range of opinions and authorities – including Ian Rankin writing on Muriel Spark and the poet Douglas Dunn on a trio of novelists. They mark an editor of the first order – insightful, challenging and creative.
In 1992 he was appointed director of the Edinburgh Universities' International Summer School. Here was the only time I ever saw him stymied. As always, Gavin gave his all and then some. When playing football with the staff and students, however, he did not excel. He remarked: "It's like giving a cow a gun – my shot could go anywhere." And it frequently did. When Randall and I encouraged him to join in our informal kickabouts on the Meadows, he declined ever so gracefully.
With Pauline and their young sons Alasdair and Patrick, my wife and I often walked our dogs together in Aberdour. Between stick-throwing and hide-and-seeking among the trees, we'd discuss the whole gamut of contemporary Scottish writers, most of whom he knew personally. Contemporaries got a good airing – from the freshness and energy of Irvine Welsh to the shameful neglect of a master like Robin Jenkins. We'd also talk about music, falling out good-naturedly over his love of Wagner and Mahler.
When he finally gave up academia, it was in favour of a more hands-on approach at the SAC. Scholarship's loss was Scottish literature's gain. An ideal move. With his vast knowledge and total commitment to literature, his burning enthusiasm and what would now be called his "people skills" – Gavin had all the necessary qualities, and in spades. Quite simply, he was brilliant, at every level. When talking on the radio, at festivals and hosting official functions, he was engaging and spontaneous. In private, he turned formal committee meetings into opportunities for genuine discussion; after a one-to-one professional meeting with him, I always left feeling I'd been listened to and understood, and had been given the best-possible advice and guidance.
On telling me he'd been made a portfolio manager in the newly formed Creative Scotland, Gavin added wryly, "And what's that when it's at home?" The open-plan layout of the office and the business-speak language did not come naturally to him, but he struggled to make the best of things. He tried his utmost to maintain his personal commitment to literature and to put writers first. In the last few years, he looked increasingly strained. Ever the gentleman, however, he tended to keep his professional frustrations to himself.
Towards the end of 2012, his health began to be a cause for concern, and he was placed on sick leave. He talked about getting back to work and expressed his hopes for change as a result of the recent resignations at Creative Scotland. Sadly, Gavin did not make it.
The news of his passing has inspired a host of tributes from Scottish writers and publishers, all stressing the deep personal loss they feel. Already a get-together has been arranged to raise a sorrowful glass and to celebrate our champion and friend. He was so young and still had so much to give. He was loved, and will be sorely, sorely missed.
Gavin Wallace is survived by his partner, Pauline Jones, and their sons, Patrick (20) and Alasdair (15). The date for the funeral has still to be set.