Scotsman Obituaries: Brian Johnstone, poet and StAnza festival co-founder

Brian Johnstone, poet and writer. Born: 1950 in Edinburgh. Died: 3 May 2021 in Largoward, Fife.

Brian Johnstone was an ambassador for Scotland's poets
Brian Johnstone was an ambassador for Scotland's poets

Brian Johnstone was a poet and an ambassador for poetry. His skills as a writer were matched by his gift for organisation and natural ability to motivate and involve. As a co-founder and director of StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival, based in St Andrews, he was a driving force in taking the festival from modest beginnings to international acclaim.

He is the author of four poetry collections, three pamphlets, a chapbook and a memoir, and was involved in a steady stream of collaborative projects with other writers, artists and musicians. His final poetry collection, The Marks on the Map, was launch in early April, just weeks before his death.

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Brian was born in 1950 in Edinburgh. His father, Gilbert, was a commercial traveller and he and Brian’s mother, Bea, worked hard to establish their family home in Morningside and privately educate their two sons. In his 2017 memoir, Double Exposure, Brian wrote about the secrets which emerged after the deaths of his parents: his father’s first marriage, in which he had a daughter, and a second half-sister, born to Bea out of wedlock and given up for adoption soon after birth.

Brian studied at St Andrews University where he showed early talent for organising events. As the Student Union’s entertainments convener, he managed to book Pink Floyd for a concert in the town’s Younger Hall in February 1969. The poster boys of the avant-garde, more accustomed to playing in Paris or Berlin, were persuaded to come to Fife, establishing a precedent he would continue at StAnza: aim high, don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

He met his wife, Jean, who is an artist, while he was a student and they married and settled in Fife in 1972. Brian trained to become a primary school teacher and worked for 22 years “at the chalk boards” in Fife schools; former pupils have described him as inspirational.

He wrote poetry from a young age and gave his first public reading when he was just 18 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe poetry sessions at the Traverse Theatre. His writing was forced to take a back seat during his teaching years, but he returned to poetry in the early 1990s as a founder of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets and an organiser of the Cave Readings series for the Pittenweem Arts Festival. His first poetry collection, The Lizard Silence, was published in 1996.

Around this time, he took a year’s sabbatical from teaching, part of which was spent exploring the possibility of launching a poetry festival in St Andrews. He went on to teach creative writing at the University of St Andrews Centre for Continuing Education (1998-2003), and the Open College of the Arts (1998-2000).

The first StAnza Poetry Festival took place in 1998, the brainchild of Brian (who also came up with name and logo), Anna Crowe and Gavin Bowd. Brian became its director in 2000, a post he held for 10 years. Anna Crowe has said: “Brian will always be remembered as the man who made StAnza happen.”

During Brian’s decade as director, StAnza grew from small beginnings to an ambitious and internationally recognised festival hosting writers such as Roger McGough, Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy. Top North American poets such as Mark Doty, Jane Hirshfield, Sharon Olds and Anne Michaels were persuaded to cross the Atlantic. Many had such positive experiences of St Andrews that they wanted to come again. A tribute on the Scottish Poetry Library website says: “Few people in Scotland can claim to have done so much for the promotion of live poetry.”

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Brian’s dedication was tireless in promoting StAnza to funders, partners and sponsors, and more and more people became familiar with the warmth and enthusiasm of the man with the trademark ‘tache. Crises were averted and gaps seamlessly filled. When Caribbean poet Derek Walcott was booked to attend in 2004 and cancelled at short notice, two world-class poets based in St Andrews, Don Paterson and John Burnside, stepped up to top the bill.

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In 2010, Brian’s final year as director, record numbers attended the festival as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney gave a spellbinding reading. But Brian was also proud of the ways in which StAnza showcased younger writers, some of whom went on to win major poetry prizes. After he stood down as director, Brian continued to support the festival as a consultant, and in 2014, in recognition of his work, was made its Honorary President.

When he stood down, it was with the specific intention of concentrating on his own writing, which he did with characteristic energy and application. The next decade would bring his third poetry collection Dry Stone Work (2014), his memoir Double Exposure (2017), and an acclaimed pamphlet, Juke Box Jeopardy (2018), which was shortlisted for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award. His work was recognised in several major poetry competitions, and was translated into more than a dozen European languages. He gave readings and performances across the UK, Europe and in Central and North America.

Juke Box Jeopardy celebrated his lifelong love of music, especially jazz. Describing himself as a “frustrated musician”, he performed regularly with musicians Richard Ingham and Louise Major in Trio Verso, which combined poetry with jazz vibes and improvised soundscapes. Other musical collaborators included clarsach player Wendy Stewart, jazz saxophonist Ben Bryden and composer Rebecca Rowe, and in 2011, he worked with Richard Ingham on a setting of his long poem, Robinson: A Journey, for jazz orchestra. Photography was also a passion, and he has been described as having “a photographer’s eye for detail” in the way he wrote.

He was always energised by collaboration. In 2009, the Italian print studio L’Officina published an artist’s book featuring his work, Terra Incognita. On the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, he and fellow writer Chrys Salt created The Fields of War, a multi-media, poetry and music performance remembering the wars of the last 100 years. In 2019, he and Andy Jackson edited Scotia Extremis, a poetry anthology probing the extremes of the Scottish psyche.

His fourth and final poetry collection, The Marks on the Map, was launched in early April with an online reading. Praising the book, poet Rachael Boast wrote: “Throughout, we encounter that characteristic Johnstone timbre — one of respect, sophistication and, above all, grace.”

Brian died a few weeks later after a long illness borne with grace. He is survived by his wife, Jean, his brother Neil, his nieces and nephews and their families.


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