Obituary: Dr Gavin Wallace, arts administrator

Born: 27 May 1959, in Hull. Died: 4 February, 2013, in Burntisland, aged 53.

Born: 27 May 1959, in Hull. Died: 4 February, 2013, in Burntisland, aged 53.

Scotland’s writers were yesterday mourning the death of Gavin Wallace, Creative Scotland’s portfolio manager for literature, publishing and language.

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What that rather unwieldy title essentially meant was that his was the voice for Scottish literature within the organisation, even if he often felt that Creative Scotland lacked his own commitment to the cause.

That passion for Scottish literature had been evident early on in his career – perhaps even as far back as 1987, when he received a doctorate at Edinburgh University for a critical study of Compton Mackenzie.

It became clearer in some of his first jobs after receiving his doctorate – at the literary magazine Cencrastus, on which he worked from 1991 to 1994, and on the Edinburgh Review, which he co-edited with Robert Alan Jamieson from 1994-1997.

At the same time, his depth of knowledge of Scottish literature was reflected in two books which he co-edited with Randall Stevenson of Edinburgh University – The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies (EUP, 1993) and Scottish Theatre Since the Seventies (EUP, 1996).

When in 1996 Jenny Brown, then head of literature for the Scottish Arts Council, was looking to appoint a deputy, he was the obvious choice.

Not only was he passionate about Scottish literary culture, but he had already worked as an associate lecturer at Edinburgh University and worked abroad in Japan, as lecturer at Shinwa Women’s University (1988 to 1990).

He had been accompanied there by his long-term partner, Pauline Jones, whom he met as a fellow student at Edinburgh University in 1987.

But the literature job at the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) was the one on which he had always set his heart. “It was the logical conclusion of everything he wanted,” she said last night. “To get that opportunity to work with Scotland’s literary community was very special to him.”

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It was in the literature department’s book-lined offices, or the burgeoning number of literary festivals it supported, that many of Scotland’s writers – often the recipients of arts council bursaries to encourage their work – got to know Dr Wallace.

He and Jenny Brown worked well together. At first, he was responsible for grants to publishers and literary magazines, then for grants to publications in Scots and Gaelic. In 2002, when Jenny Brown left to found a literary agency, he took over responsibility for the bursary scheme supporting Scottish writers.

“His great thing was his support for individual writers,” Jenny Brown said last night. “He just connected with them and tried to find ways of supporting them in every way. He found it a difficult balancing act when organisational change at Creative Scotland required him to do more than that and took him away from working with literature alone.

“His support was instrumental in setting up the Literature Forum – a platform for all the literary and writers’ organisations – and when that was disbanded, Gavin felt that very acutely.”

Last night, writers were queuing up to emphasise Dr Wallace’s contribution to the flourishing of Scottish literature. “His dedicated love of words and great loyalty to those who struggle to make them into books was invaluable, “said Janice Galloway.

“It formed part of what made the 1990s resurgence of work in this country possible.”

Poet and novelist Ron Butlin echoed the point. “Both at the SAC and subsequently at Creative Scotland, he worked passionately on behalf of us all and did more than anyone else to guide and support the recent upsurge in Scottish writing. His untimely death is a tragic loss to each one of us and to Scottish literature itself.”

Even commercially successful novelists who didn’t need SAC bursaries could see Wallace’s hand in the support of those who did.

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“When writers had grievances,” said Ian Rankin, “Gavin was always on their side. He didn’t seem to be part of the system, but he always tried to make sure that they got what was their due. He was a really good guy to hang out with too.”

As the arts council’s director of literature, he was, according to the literary administrator Catherine Allan, “a joy to work with, highly respected, and much liked.

Despite all the demands on him, he would pull out all the stops to make things happen.”

Sometimes that could be just a word of encouragement, like a supportive chat he had with novelist Kirsty Gunn that turned out to be instrumental in the writing of her magnum opus, The Big Music.

Sometimes, it could be, as Edinburgh International Book Festival’s former director Catherine Lockerbie points out, the willingness to roll up his sleeves and deal with endless fine detail and occasionally mind-numbing bureaucracy involved in supporting projects in which he passionately believed, such as Edinburgh’s application to be the world’s first Unesco City of Literature.

But it went beyond that. “Gavin was that rarest of things, an intellectual who connected deeply with the real world,” Ms Lockerbie said yesterday.

“Most unusually for someone in charge of funding and sometimes difficult decisions, he earned the absolute respect, affection and gratitude of the literary and artistic community within which he worked. He never let protocol suffocate passion.“

The son of a consultant psychiatrist father and a mother who was a teacher, Wallace grew up in Prestwick, where he attended Prestwick Academy, as the third child of four children in a particularly creative family. The novelist Morag Joss is his sister; international theatre impresario Neil Wallace is his eldest brother.

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As an arts administrator, an enabler, a supporter of projects, a book festival chair or as an academic, his name might appear to lack their lustre.

But as he wrote in his latest CV, “It has been my privilege to have played a fundamental part in three decades of unparalleled achievement in Scotland’s literary culture, at home and abroad.” And that’s surely got to count for something.

Gavin Wallace is survived by his partner Pauline Jones and their sons, Patrick, 20, and Alasdair, 15. An inquest is still to be held to determine when and how he died, and a funeral date still to be set.