Obituary: Douglas Galbraith, author whose life was devastated by the loss of his children

Douglas Galbraith (Picture: Neil Hanna)
Douglas Galbraith (Picture: Neil Hanna)
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Robert Douglas Galbraith, author. Born: 28 October 1965 in Glasgow. Died: 23 March 2018, aged 52.

Douglas Galbraith was a historical novelist whose work was highly acclaimed for its meticulous approach to research and detail. He was at home as an academic whilst championing the place for poetic licence in his works of fiction. Douglas was formidably articulate, intellectually self confident, and possessed of a flinty integrity.

His first novel, The Rising Sun, was published by Picador in 2000. The book earned the largest advance in Scottish publishing for a first novel and enabled Douglas to abandon his work in the wine trade to focus solely on writing.

The novel explored the Scottish trade expedition to Darien in Central America in 1698 which ended in unfulfilled hopes, financial ruin and the loss of hundreds of lives. It was awarded the Saltire Award for Best First Novel. The Rising Sun and subsequent works revealed that what interested Douglas most were delusional mentalities and the nature of power.

His follow-up novel, Crichton, was even more ambitious and contained several virtuoso pieces. Perhaps crucially for his career, it was never published: his agent rejected the first offer, without consulting him, in the belief that more lucrative offers would follow. They never did. Galbraith was resolute that this work was his best.

He fought back with A Winter in China, set during the Nanking massacre. Not only did he pen the novel, he negotiated the deal himself, his agent taking over only in the final stages.

He was born in 1965, the third child and only son of Judy and the late Alan 
Galbraith. He was formally educated at Glasgow Academy although he would have said his broad taste in books was the main source and inspiration of his knowledge.

He was a frustrating scholar, often declining to engage with his teachers as his sharp mind quickly became disinterested. He was not one of nature’s joiners and rejected all aspects of team sport and competition.

He began writing in his teenage years. He studied Medieval History at St Andrew’s University, where his best work came early on, earning marks of which his classmates could only dream. He developed an interest in modern literature, particularly post-war American drama. He progressed to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a doctorate. Douglas later returned to St Andrews as a guest lecturer in Creative Writing.

It was at Cambridge that Galbraith met Tomoko Hanasaki, a Japanese student of English. Douglas regarded their early relationship as a meeting of minds and marriage followed. It was a union which was to cost Douglas dearly, and brought immense personal loss after initial joy at the birth of their two sons. Following a meeting with his publishers in London, Douglas returned to his home in Scotland to find his house locked and empty. Tomoko had abducted the children, aged six and four, and returned with them to her native Japan. Douglas never saw his children again.

The resulting pain and loss were captured in My Son, My Son, with a controlled fury. Douglas begins with a factual account of his personal trauma and sense of injustice but goes on to explore the complexities of relationships between parents and children, the significance of culture and identity, and of legal systems mired in bureaucratic indifference to fathers’ rights. Douglas was an intensely private man who dreaded promoting the book but traded his privacy in the hope of reaching his sons through his writing. He remained ever hopeful of reconnection.

He was an impressively self-taught guitarist with an unerring eye for artistic quality. He supported himself between writing projects by bidding in Scottish auction houses for hidden gems and selling them on to collectors. He followed domestic and international politics closely and was dismayed, though not surprised, by the societal fractures caused by the Scottish referendum. “Nationalism”, he once observed, “is a dirty trick”. He was a lifelong atheist.

Few got close enough to appreciate his deep kindness and compassion. He was a stalwart attender at family gatherings where he often surprised, with an array of eclectic talents from press-ups to astronomy and clay pigeon shooting. He was a loyal friend, a good son and brother and, above all, a loving father. He is survived by his mother and sisters and sons, Satomi and Makoto.

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