Obituary: Alan Bold

Douglas Dunn
Thursday 26 March 1998 01:02

AS a tireless man of letters, Alan Bold's contribution to Scottish literature is as extensive as it was relentlessly pursued. That he should have died at the age of 54 amounts to the tragic curtailment of a career which promised more, much more, for example his apparently unfinished biography of Robert Burns.

Although noted as a prolific poet, the author of at least one novel, and a collection of short stories, Bold was a maverick if also gifted critic, reviewer and anthologist. His literary hero was Christopher Murray Grieve, better known as Hugh MacDiarmid, whose Selected Letters Bold edited (in 1984), as well as writing a critical study, MacDiarmid: the terrible crystal (1983), following this scholarly labour in 1988 with a biography, MacDiarmid, which won him the McVitie Prize as Scottish Writer of the Year.

Having first met MacDiarmid in 1962, he found his hero a willing friend and supporter. Indeed, MacDiarmid provided a foreword to Bold's first collection, Society Inebrious (1965), which appeared while he was still a student at Edinburgh University, where he was associated with a remarkable generation of painters which included his friends John Bellany and Alexander Moffat. It could have been the propulsion of this acknowledgement by the most conspicuous figure in modern Scottish letters that generated the extreme oddness of Bold's reputation in Scotland. In one of his poems he called Scotland "the land of the omnipotent No", and as for many Scottish artists his struggle with "the matter of Scotland" was arduous and uneasy. But it also happened.

To be in Bold's company was to know that you were in the presence of a mind, of someone who was making an effort and with a capacity for infinite toil. Indeed, in keeping with the teachings of his master, he was perhaps closer to being a European intellectual than a purely local product infatuated with native things. There was a robust and enlivening seriousness to him.

It is sad to say, but Bold's reputation was vulnerable in a Scottish literary scene famous, or notorious, for what's been described as "back- scratching with a dirk". Personally, I enjoyed his company, but many others found him intimidating. In conversation he could be tiresome on such subjects as football and Elvis Presley. When he engaged you with Burns's poetry, though, or MacDiarmid's, he was spellbinding. His erudition on these and many other matters of literary interest was passionate, astounding, and truly mesmerising. He wrote well on Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, Muriel Spark, the Scottish ballads, George Mackay Brown, war poetry, John Le Carre, and a host of other subjects, including the fine arts.

For years he contributed book reviews to the Glasgow Herald, with style, acumen, and insight. As a literary journalist, he was one of Scotland's best, but didn't get the credit for it. I admired him enormously for the diligence with which he got his work done and earned a living by his pen. True, though, he could be a "difficult" man, and he seemed to like it that way. But there was a teddy-bear side to him as well. Generous, whole- hearted, as he undoubtedly was, he seemed to open up but seldom, as if - like many writers - he was too engaged with his own privacy and solitude to allow you to get to know him better. He was out of step with literary and other values of younger writers tackling MacDiarmid. To put it mildly, he was in two minds (at least) when it came to the work of recent writers associated with Glasgow.

Although I disagreed with him (to an extent) I found his views refreshingly free of cant and humbug. He was his own man, a writer of absolutely independent mind, a quality of being which he may well have learnt from MacDiarmid. For example, although an Edinburgh man, he chose to live at Balbirnie in the Fife countryside. It is tempting to see Bold's Balbirnie as the equivalent of MacDiarmid's Biggar.

From time to time I would see him on that patient, prudential ScotRail "Sprinter" which wends stoppingly from Dundee to Edinburgh. He'd be off for a dutiful stint in the National Library, after, that is, we'd sunk a few in one of the pubs he favoured as being a literati-free zone. No sooner, though, than you get used to the longevity of recent Scottish poets - octogenarians, spry, and they didn't even bother to look after themselves - than something like this happens.

Bold's poetry is inconsistent. It ranges from the dull, through the indifferent, to the very good. There's a lot of it. But as a poet-critic he was productive, reliable, fast, poised, and invaluable. A new selection of his poems is now necessary, and there may be no one better placed to edit it than his daughter, Valentina, one of the brightest of the younger Scottish scholars and critics.

Alan Norman Bold, poet, writer, critic and artist: born Edinburgh 20 April 1943; married 1963 Alice Howell (one daughter); died Kirkcaldy, Fife 19 March 1998.

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