Obituary: Thom Nairn, poet and translator

Thom Nairn was feted for his surreal poems
Thom Nairn was feted for his surreal poems
Share this article
0
Have your say

Thom Nairn, Poet. Born: 8 July, 1955 in Perthshire. Died: 15 August, 2017 in Edinburgh, aged 62

Thom Nairn was one of Scotland’s most distinguished contemporary poets.

Originally a heraldic artist rather than a writer, he went on to combine his love of art with literature, expressing his creativity through words and subsequently illustrating the covers of his own books. He also mentored others through creative writing courses and became one half of an award-winning translating team with his Greek partner Denise Zervanou.

Though not especially academic as a youngster, after leaving school he worked hard to improve himself, attaining marks at college that allowed him to study English language and literature in a cohort that included novelist Ian Rankin. Over the following 30 years or so he edited various literary magazines, translated numerous works of other poets and produced several volumes of his own poems, often characterised by the absurd and surreal but lauded for their lyrical quality.

The son of Helen and Tom Nairn, he grew up in Coupar Angus and eventually changed his name from Tom to Thom, to avoid confusion with the Scottish political writer and academic with whom he shares the same name.

Following his initial job in heraldic art he attended the University of Edinburgh, graduating with an MA in 1982 and completing his PhD some years later. He then became involved with a range of literary magazines, replacing Gavin Wallace, the late literary and publishing manager of Creative Scotland, at Cencrastus, which he co-edited for many years.

During his career he also co-edited The Scottish Literary Journal, the magazine Understanding and was the founding editor of Northwords. Meanwhile his own work and reviews were being widely published in magazines and anthologies and in The Scotsman, as well as being recorded for broadcast on radio and television.

In 1991 he and Professor Robert Crawford, of St Andrews University, co-edited The Arts of Alasdair Gray, a volume on the works of the author of Lanark, also known for his surrealism and as a visual artist.

A couple of years later Nairn, described as a post-existentialist surrealist poet, took a job as writer in residence at Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty and in 1993 produced his own collection of poems, The Sand Garden. He went on to become a writing fellow with East and Midlothian District Libraries and developed a niche translating poetry from Greek to English.

He met the Greek poet and writer Denise Zervanou, initially through Understanding to which he had submitted half a dozen poems. They kept in touch and met again on a creative writing course in Kos, Greece.

Nairn, who had married his school sweetheart Patricia, later divorced her and subsequently forged a personal and professional relationship with Zervanou, also a divorcee. Nairn’s collection Poems For Bonnie and Josie was translated into Greek with financial assistance from the European Union and, in collaboration with Zervanou, he published more than 40 books of translations of contemporary Greek poetry and fiction.

In 1999 their volume The Complete Poems of George Vafopoulos won the award for the best translation of contemporary Greek literature.

Nairn, who also wrote Chagall Takes A Fall and Sky Burial, lived latterly in Edinburgh and habitually worked through the night, smoking more than was good for him and neglecting to take good care of his health.

He was deaf in one ear due to a medical condition but continued to work and read voraciously, devouring almost a book a day.

Before he fell ill in July he had just completed another translation and had a number of his own works ready for publication.

After developing pneumonia he contracted two superbugs and had both his legs amputated in a bid to save his life. Despite the drastic surgery it was a fight he was ultimately unable to win.

He is survived by his partner Denise, her daughter and granddaughter and plans are in hand to create a memorial to his work by establishing a Thom Nairn award for poetry.

ALISON SHAW