John Barclay Pick.


Born: December 26, 1921;

Died January 25, 2015.

It is not often that you hear the term "man of letters" these days, but John Pick was such a man. Unfailingly learned, gentle, loyal and modest in demeanour, he published as J. B. Pick and made his living as an accomplished journalist, novelist, poet, scholar and literary critic. His novels include The Lonely Aren't Alone (1952), A Land Fit for 'eros, with John Atkins (1957) and The Last Valley (1959), a tale of exhausted mercenaries during the Thirty Years War which was made into a memorable film, directed by James Clavell, starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharif.

Born in Leicester, John Pick was educated at Sidcot School, an independent co-educational establishment run by the Society of Friends in Somerset. He gained entrance to Cambridge University but when war broke out he left after only a year to serve with the Friend's Ambulance Unit, a voluntary medical service founded by individual Quakers.

His liberal sympathies were evident in early publications, such as Under the Crust (1946) which describes the lives of coal miners from the author's own experience, when he chose to work underground for a year and a half, before ill-health forced him to stop. Pick was a young poet and the editor of a small review at the time, and few literary men, apart from George Orwell perhaps, have taken their research quite so far.

In later years he went on to publish the Liberal document Democracy at Work, with Stephen Abel (1976) and Freedom Itself: an Enquiry with Witnesses (1979). In the years after the war, Pick and his wife Gene moved to Ullapool where he made a lifelong friendship with the Scottish novelist Neil Gunn, before returning to London in 1957 and then to Leicester.

Pick's first collection of poems, Expeditions, was published in 1946 and a retrospective volume Being Here: Selected Poems, 1943-2010, was warmly introduced by the poet Alastair Reid. In fact, in the intervening years Pick had been producing books of verse almost annually in small volumes designed by Gene. There is a balance in these lucid and Zen-like short poems between the classical clarity of the epigram -rational and astute- and a saving sense of further mystery, of what can never be wholly said. These little poems are much bigger than they seem, and the two lines of What Is So say a lot about the man himself: "The behaviour of what is in fact the case / Avoids all theory with ambiguous grace."

In recognition of this work, Pick won the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award for small volume publications in 2001. His output in these earlier years included a study of Robert Graves's poetry, The Poet as Cynic (1949), and several different compendiums describing games for one player.

The Picks moved back to Scotland to live in Galloway in 1979 and although he was never to be employed by a university or college, his literary interests began to bear serious critical fruit. He had become an authority on the hitherto neglected early 20th century Scottish novelist David Lindsay, producing The Strange Genius of David Lindsay, with Colin Wilson and E. H. Visiak in 1970. Pick wrote several essays on Lindsay's strangely visionary work and edited and introduced reprints of his fiction. He went on to develop a wider critical interest in this field, which he made his own with a substantial monograph The Great Shadow House, Essays on the Metaphysical Tradition in Scottish Literature (1993).

His friendship with Neil Gunn and a strong but not uncritical admiration for his fiction led Pick, along with F. R. Hart, to produce the first critical biography of the writer, Neil M. Gunn: A Highland Life (1981). This was followed by Selected Letters (1987) and The Anarchy of Light (1991), which was a celebration of Gunn shared with much younger poets W. N. Herbert and Richard Price. Pick returned to the theme in 2003 with his study Neil Gunn in the Writers and their Work series.

Pick was a founder member of the Canongate Classics reprint project, pioneered by Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, and he introduced the first volume to appear in the series, which was Willa Muir's Imagined Corners, chosen as something of a statement of intent for a publishing venture that spanned some 17 years and 116 titles.

Pick went on to edit and introduce seven books in the series, but it was a lifetime's experience with books and reading that made his advice such an invaluable part of the project. He remained a vital member of the editorial board from first to last, and those who worked with him remember his delight in bringing what he called hidden gems back to light, and his trenchant reader's reports on likely titles. He had an acute ear for well-written prose (and an utterly unforgiving one for leaden lines) and would often read particular passages aloud to make his point.

His long contribution to Scottish literary culture was recognised in 2014 when he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. As an independent minded person, he was no follower of fashionable ideas or established reputations, and as an acute critic and a gifted writer he was indeed a true man of letters. From another of his own poems: "Look sharp, see deep, and don't relent; / Use short words, say only what you know, / And when you've said it, go."

He died peacefully at his home in Balmaclellan at the age of 93. He is survived by his loving wife Gene and two sons, David and Peter.