Angus Calder: Historian, author and poet

Born: 5 February, 1942, in Surrey. Died: 5 June, 2008, in Edinburgh, aged 66.

ANGUS Calder was a one-off, a multi-talented man. He was born in Surrey, the middle of five children of Peter Ritchie Calder (later Lord Ritchie Calder of Balmashannar) and Mabel McKail, and his brilliance shone out from the first.

His eldest sister, Fiona Rudd, remembers him as a charming child who brought great comfort to the rest of the family with his sunny nature.

Despite his own gifts, he always felt in awe of his father, and his great achievements in journalism, especially scientific journalism – which he more or less invented – politics, diplomacy and international affairs, and his tireless battle against hunger and poverty the world over. He found Ritchie Calder a hard act to follow.

Angus graduated with honours from Cambridge in 1963. There he had met and married Jenni Calder, daughter of historian and polymath David Daiches. He edited Granta at Cambridge in 1962-3, a high literary distinction in those early days. He went on to do a Phd on politics in the UK during the Second World War, an adapted edition of which later was published in 1969 as The People's War 1939-45. This remains a seminal work.

This was a period of furious activity for Angus and Jenni, both working flat out on their respective theses, bringing up two young children and co-authoring Scott on Sir Walter Scott, published in 1969. Angus went on to write Revolutionary Empire, intended as a three-volume history of the English-speaking empire, but the task was too huge and he completed only one volume, covering the 16th to 18th century.

A review at the time of publication in 1981 said of it: "Generations of Phd students will be mining this book for a long time."

His output was formidable, including Russia Discovered: Nineteenth Century Fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov (1976), Revolving Culture (1994), Scotlands of the Mind and Gods, Mongrels and Demons: 101 Brief but Essential Lives (both 2004). He also co-edited The Rauchle Tongue: Selected Essays, Journalism and Interviews by Hugh MacDiarmid, (with Alan Riach and Glen Murray, 1997-8). This was an enormous project of heroic proportions.

In 1968 the family moved to Nairobi, where he and Jenni taught at the university. This imbued Angus with a passionate love of Africa – but also of native cultures the world over – especially in the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. He befriended many commonwealth writers, and black writers here in the UK – John Agard, David Dabydeen, James Berry and many others, doing everything in his power to promote their work. He also judged the Commonwealth Literature Prize for several years.

In 1972, the Calders and their three children, Rachel, Gowan and Gideon, moved to Scotland, where he stayed until his death from lung cancer. For 14 years, he worked as a lecturer for the Open University. He was also passionately committed to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex. In 1986, he left the OU to become a freelance writer, contributing many works of journalism and reviewing for The Scotsman, the Independent, the Guardian, the Herald and many other newspapers.

One outstanding contribution was his dialogue with Alasdair Gray for The Scotsman, published in the run-up to the 1997 devolution referendum. He was also a regular broadcaster – particularly memorable was his series for BBC Radio Scotland, based on The People's War.

His lifestyle was highly pressured and erratic, leading eventually to the break-up of his marriage in 1983. He subsequently married Kate Kyle, with whom he had a son, Douglas.

Angus had a great appetite for life and people and would always help friends if he could, especially emerging writers, often to the detriment of his health.

As he grew older, he came out of the closet as an increasingly fine poet. I well remember meeting him for the first time in the late 1970s in Greyfriars Pub in Edinburgh when I was selling Chapman, the literary magazine I have edited for many years. He was having a post-lecture drink with OU students and invited me to join them. He bought copies of the magazine and soon after sent me poems for publication. Between 1979 and 2004, he published five books of poetry, the last being The Sun behind the Castle, and made many contributions to magazines.

He was a tireless supporter of Chapman and many other literary publications. Our friendship was cemented by various collaborations, the most important of which was the creation of the Scottish Poetry Library in 1983.

He became the library's first convener and I the deputy. Given the task of organising the library launch on a snowy night late in January, we served up "vegetarian haggis", based on a mushroom roast made by a friend, together with Forfar bridies and Cullen skink instead of canaps and savouries. Given the Arctic weather, the guests were glad of the hot fare and our concept for the launch was greeted with astonishment (nobody had thought we could pull it off) and delight. Angus said he wanted to be remembered as the inventor of the vegetarian haggis.

Angus was a major player in the Scottish cultural scene. He had a lifelong commitment to socialism, and to a devolved and then an independent Scotland, and he moved his allegiances from the Labour Party to the SNP, then to the Scottish Socialist Party and finally to Tommy Sheridan's Solidarity. I doubt if there was any major political march or rally he missed, if he was well enough to go. He also gave everything he could to projects such as Scottish Writers Against the Bomb in 1984 and the Glasgow festival Writing Together for Glasgow's Year of Culture in 1990, involving many Commonwealth writers.

Far from being the intellectual in the attic, Angus was always out there in the mud with the rest of us. He was probably the most un-snobbish man I've ever met, though his privileged background and "posh" accent were a constant source of embarrassment and, indeed, grief to him. I suppose he felt that by being who he was, he was somehow betraying his socialist convictions.

He also had a passion for sport – cricket most of all, but also rugby and football. We were all frequently amazed at how he could turn up for his curling engagements. In his last three years he suffered many traumas and increasingly poor health.

Angus was certainly one of the most remarkable sons Scotland ever produced. His love of what he always felt to be his soul-home never wavered, in spite of the fact that he always felt in some ways exiled in class and culture. His passing will leave a great hole in the lives of countless people.

He is survived by Jenni, Kate, his four children and his close friend, Celia Nazir.