John Manson: An appreciation by Alan Riach

JOHN Manson, who died at five minutes after midnight on Monday, August 3, comfortably and at peace, was a poet, translator, critic and literary historian, publishing over fifty articles on Scottish and European authors.

His most significant impact was as editor, first, with David Craig, of the 1970 Penguin Selected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, then of The Revolutionary Art of the Future: Rediscovered Poems by MacDiarmid (2003), which provoked front-page news due to the controversial nature of some of its contents, and then most importantly, of the 627-page Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve) (Glasgow: Kennedy & Boyd, 2011).

His own poems were published in Stabs & Fences and Later Poems (also Kennedy & Boyd, 2012).

In 1995 he was awarded the Scottish Arts Council’s first bursary for translation. He was awarded the 2011 Saltire Society Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award for services to Scotland at a ceremony in Langholm in 2012, the same year in which he was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

His was a life out of the limelight, away from celebrity and devoted to scholarship and provision for others through his attention to literature and political ideals. It is an extraordinary story of selflessness and commitment.

He came from a crofting family in Caithness, born on a croft on the coast of the Pentland Firth on July 20, 1932. His great-grandmother was among those cleared from Strathnaver. In 1941 his father died, leaving his mother, a deeply religious woman, to bring him up alone. John grew up helping his mother working on the croft, whilst excelling at school. There is a raw, moving elegy for her in Stabs and Fences and many of the personal details of his life are the prompts for piercing, minimalist poems in that book.

He was Dux at the Miller Institution, Thurso, 1948-49. In 1950 he went to Aberdeen University to study English Literature and Language, attending David Murison’s Extra-Mural lectures on Scottish Literature in 1952-53, where he encountered the work of MacDiarmid and as he said, “followed the two strands of Scottish and European (and World) literature ever since.”

He also began to read “from a Marxist point of view” and started writing. His political consciousness developed in the era of the Korean War, and colonial repression in Malaya, Kenya, and what was then British Guiana.

In 1955, he and his mother moved to a small croft in Sutherland. He qualified as a primary school teacher, going on to work in Fife, Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway. Early years in Caithness, he said later, had been difficult, but Sutherland he remembered fondly, and he enjoyed his teaching career.

After retirement in 1990, his work as an independent scholar and researcher meant that Edinburgh, and especially the National Library of Scotland, were at the heart of his intellectual pleasure and commitment. He moved to Kirkpatrick-Durham, Dumfriesshire, in 1975, where he lived modestly until moving to a residential care home near Kirkcudbright on Christmas Eve, 2018. He was delighted to meet his grand-daughter Kira a week before his death.

Wide reading in Russian and European literatures developed his interest in working class and politically engaged literature, including Martin Carter, Antonio Gramsci, Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker and George Orwell. The political intensity of his interest was reflected in his own work as essayist, poet and translator.

After visiting MacDiarmid in February 1955 at Brownsbank, the small cottage near Biggar where he lived with his wife Valda, John set about his work of literary archaeology. He met David Craig at Aberdeen University in 1951 and their co-edited Selected Poems of MacDiarmid, while a slim volume, had the great virtue of making the best poems immediately accessible to a broad international readership.

John’s research went further. In 1990 the National Library of Scotland purchased the archive of material collected by Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton. John worked through it, finding what he described as “important poems” that had remained unpublished. This led directly to the posthumous publication The Revolutionary Art of the Future: Rediscovered Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by John, Dorian Grieve, MacDiarmid’s grandson, and myself. It made front-page news when some of the poems of the early 1940s were sensationally described as calling for the “imminent destruction of London”. MacDiarmid was making headlines a quarter of a century after his death.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1991, John described himself as “a non-Party Socialist” and emphasised his belief that “politics is part of the public life of the times” and “an important aspect of culture”. He was sharp to note that the literary side of politics tells a complex story. His sensitivity to such complexities was exemplary.

For John, MacDiarmid was “the most important literary figure in Scotland in the 20th century” because he was not only a great lyrical and satirical poet but was also a national regenerator through his anti-imperialist writing, who had “enormous influence on other people”, an influence that “extended to the worlds of art, music, history, language, philosophy, politics and economics as well as imaginative literature.”

John’s endorsement of MacDiarmid’s committed optimism led him to detailed repudiation of lazy accounts of the poet’s extremism. His research made public the details of shifting commitment and wayward statements, dating, tracing and tracking his political engagements and pronouncements, giving them historical contexts and human understanding, rather than click-bait headlines.

He also worked extensively researching the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and championed James Barke’s novels The Land of the Leal and Major Operation. He translated several international writers, particularly Pablo Neruda, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Cesar Vallejo, Eugenio Montale, Constantine Cavafy and Victor Serge.

Many of his translations and essays were published in small press magazines and pamphlets, whose recovery remains a project for a devoted scholar which is bound to yield highly valuable intellectual reward.

The major project of his later years was the massive selection of letters addressed to MacDiarmid in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library, Dear Grieve, which was short-listed in the Saltire Society Literary Awards.

It comprises over 500 items from correspondents as diverse and distinguished as T.S. Eliot, J.D. Fergusson, Sir Patrick Geddes, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, F.R. Leavis, Ezra Pound, Herbert Read, Muriel Rukeyser, Bertrand Russell, Dylan Thomas, Dame Sybil Thorndike, Alexander Trocchi and W.B. Yeats, as well as family and close friends.

It amounts to a biography at-one-remove, charting MacDiarmid’s life through his engagement with others. Throughout, John’s presence is manifest only in the unfailingly helpful editorial apparatus. His personality is felt through his own selflessness.

The historian and poet Angus Calder once said to me, “John Manson is a saint.” By which I think he meant utterly self-effacing and attentive in his devotion, and genuinely illuminating in what he uncovered. A friend wrote to me: “he ploughed a long and sometimes lonely furrow for MacDiarmid, whom he revered whilst also being unflinching and meticulous in his accounts, warts and all. A classic lone researcher. That’s a light gone out.”

His political allegiance was firm but almost always unobtrusive. Another correspondent emailed me: “John Manson was a fine and decent comrade and a seeker after truth”, while MacDiarmid’s daughter-in-law Deirdre Grieve commented, “He always seemed the most selfless, honourable and intellectually rigorous of men and without parallel in his understanding of the MacDiarmid mind in all its manifestations.”

He was good-humoured and appreciative in conversation, eager to enjoy good company and the occasional meal with friends, of whom there were more than his modesty might suggest. Humility need not disguise magnanimity of sympathy and dedication. John Manson’s achievement and example are lasting.