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  • John Manson 1932–2020
  • Alan Riach

John Manson 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 (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003), which provoked front-page news due to the controversial nature of some of its contents, and most importantly, Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid (C. M. Grieve) (Glasgow: Kennedy & Boyd, 2011). His own poems were published in Stabs and Fences, and Later Poems (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.

Manson came from a crofting family in Caithness and was born on 20 July 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. 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 Hugh MacDiarmid. His Marxist political consciousness developed in the era of the Korean War, 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 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 [End Page 163] 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.

Wide reading in Russian and European literatures developed his interest in working class and politically engaged literature. 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 made 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. This led directly to the posthumous publication The Revolutionary Art of the Future: Rediscovered Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by Manson, Dorian Grieve, and myself.

Manson 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.

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...


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