John Manson (1932-2020)

John Manson at Saltire Society, 2012

Some people lead such quietly unassuming and self-contained lives that there can sometimes be quite a delay between their death and the knowledge of their death filtering out into the wider world. The poet, translator and independent researcher in the field of Scottish literature John Manson is a prime example of this. He’s brilliantly profiled in this short film by John Hudson. He died in August this year, but it was only yesterday that I found out about his passing, and then only by happenstance.

This, however, seems fitting – I met John only once and again this was by chance. In 2012 I was a writer-in-residence for a month at Brownsbank Cottage in Biggar, the last home of Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) and his wife Valda. For anyone interested in MacDiarmid’s life and work one of the key scholars is John Manson, from his vital work in unearthing MacDiarmid’s WW2 poems to John’s huge academic magnum-opus Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid (Kennedy and Boyd, 2011).

One day I was in Edinburgh getting my messages in to take back to the cottage on the little bus to Biggar. At some point on Lothian Road, a face familiar from a photograph got onboard. I was pretty sure it was John Manson, and he was wearing the trademark black suit with tie. After a few minutes I moved to the seat behind him and introduced myself. Luckily it was John, and he was pleased to meet me – we’d corresponded when I was preparing to apply to do a PhD back in 2010 and one of the first expensive books I bought with my Carnegie scholarship money was a copy of Dear Grieve (now much thumbed).

I explained that I thought it was very apt that we’d meet on a bus heading for Biggar, after all so much of John’s intellectual energies had been focussed on a sympathetic rehabilitation and revelation of MacDiarmid’s vast body of work. John himself was just coming back from St Andrews where he had spent the afternoon with the poet Lillias Scott Forbes (then in a care-home and in her 90s – she died aged 94 in 2014). It struck me then as a magnanimous move – to spend all day in transit to pay someone a visit (he lived in Kirkpatrick-Durham), but John was extremely generous with his time and knowledge, not to mention patient with Scot-lit neophytes like myself.

My correspondence with John – always via letter, sometimes typed or word-processed, often handwritten – spans 2010 to 2017. The letters (40 or so) ended when I was in the preparatory stages of putting together a book on the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith. John helped me greatly in laying the foundations of that book and putting me in touch with people but unfortunately once I got involved in the writing and editing of it, I let John escape my mind and our letters petered out. He might, however, have forgiven me – John has a wonderfully arch poem about the self-absorption of the scholar:

There was a silent scholar near me

though many a time I saw him


and once he answered a question

I had addressed to someone else

and once he asked me,

‘Has anyone found The Monmouthshire Labour News?’

I assured him they had not

and he never spoke to me again.         (from ‘In the Library’)

Not only would his letters be bursting with valuable bits of information that he had worked hard to find himself and gave away so unstintingly, but they would also be prompt and punctual, sometimes even by return of post and enclosing all sorts of other things, such as translations or poems or articles John was working on at the time.

I feel bad that I met John after he had visited Lillias Scott Forbes in a home and for the last two years of his life I didn’t even send him a card asking after him. I had no idea he had moved to a care home himself in late 2018 and no idea until yesterday of his death. John’s great modesty prevented him from pushing his own poetry onto others and by today’s standards of over-production, his output was slender, whittled, pared down to the most necessary utterance. But my, could he craft an image when he wanted to. I’m thinking of his four line poem ‘Old Stab’ (a stab being a fence post) and the central image in it being as good as Georg Trakl’s opal which is said, on close inspection, to resemble ‘a village wreathed in withered vines’ (Will Stone’s translation):

The wood wears a grey skin

Lichen seals the ridges of fibres

The head is a ruin

Of concentric amphitheatres.

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