Scotsman Obituaries: John Burnside, Scottish poet​ and novelist whose outstanding work brought acclaim and awards

John Burnside in his role as a 2015 Man Booker Prize judge (Picture: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)John Burnside in his role as a 2015 Man Booker Prize judge (Picture: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
John Burnside in his role as a 2015 Man Booker Prize judge (Picture: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
John Burnside, poet, novelist, writer. Born: 19 March 1955 in Dunfermline. Died: 29 May 2024 in Kirkcaldy, aged 69

The first cancelled event in this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival is the saddest. On its opening day, John Burnside was due to talk about his new collection, Ruin, Blossom – his 17th in a career that established him as one of the outstanding poets in this or any country.

That much at least is reflected in the roll call of literary awards Burnside won over the course of a prolific career, including both the top two poetry prizes – the TS Eliot and the Forward – for his 2011 collection Black Cat Bone and last November’s award of the biennial £40,000 David Cohen Award in recognition of his lifetime’s achievement in literature.

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Presenting it, the biographer Hermione Lee nodded to the fact that Burnside’s body of work includes ten volumes of fiction, three highly regarded memoirs and a book of essays as well as his poetry. “He has,” she said, “been writing every imaginable kind of book – and some unimaginable kinds – for at least 35 years.

“He casts a spell with language of great beauty, power, lyricism and truthfulness. There is much sorrow, pain, terror and violence lurking in his work: he is a strong and powerful writer about the dark places of the human mind – but he’s also funny and deeply humane.”

Like many of its predecessors, Ruin, Blossom mixes the spiritual and the ecological with apparent ease. It also has echoes of Burnside’s own near-death experience in 2020, when he was admitted to hospital with what he initially thought to be a bad case of Covid-19 but which turned out to be heart failure combined with a severe lung infection. At one stage his heart and breathing stopped and doctors told his wife Sarah to “prepare for the worst”.

Yet as he wrote in an essay for the New Statesman and further explained in a 2022 Radio 4 documentary, the experience both reminded him of the hallucinations from his Seventies drug-taking days but also, on recovering, underlined his experience of the wondrousness of life’s “nowness”.

John Burnside spent his earliest years in Cowdenbeath, the son of a hard-drinking, often vindictive factory worker and a devoutly Catholic mother. The house they lived in was a prefab scheduled for demolition, and there were no books in it. When he was 11 his family moved to Corby in Northamptonshire, which did at least have a local library well stocked with classic novels, which he read with the zeal of a true autodidact – which he remained throughout his life – after getting an adult reader’s ticket aged 12.

School, however, didn’t interest him, and he was expelled for smoking cannabis. By 16, he was taking LSD and going on alcohol and barbiturate-fuelled binges that lasted for days. In his 2006 memoir A Lie About My Father, he revealed that at one stage he seriously considered murdering his father, who blamed him for causing his mother’s death from cancer by making her worry so much about him. Only years later, when he became a father himself, did he come to understand the vicissitudes his father – a foundling – faced in his own life.

In the next volume of his memoir, Waking up in Toytown (2010), he described both the crushing mental breakdown (for which he was hospitalised) after studying English and European Languages at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology and his determination to build a studiedly “normal” suburban life, moving to Guildford in 1985. In that year, he published his first book of poetry, which he wrote while working as a civil servant and later as a computer software engineer.

By 1995, when he met his wife Sarah – then an artist, now a celebrant – at a writers’ course he was teaching with novelist Margaret Elphinstone at Moniack Mhor, near Inverness, he was already a prize-winning poet.

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They married the following year and moved back to Fife, first to Cellardyke and then to a cottage in open country near St Monans.

As well as working as a freelance writer – he regularly reviewed for The Scotsman and several other publications – he taught for years in the English Department at the University of St Andrews, where he was appointed Professor of Creative Writing in 2009, and was widely admired as a caring and generous mentor.

Although a confirmed atheist from the end of his childhood onwards, Burnside always acknowledged the influence of religious thought and art on his poetry. He sought, in the absence of God, a sense of the numinous in the natural world, and of grace and redemption within ourselves.

His early novels – The Dumb House (1997), The Mercy Boys (1999) and Locust Room (2001) – were altogether darker and more disturbing and seem difficult to reconcile with Burnside’s own personal kindness and the deep ecological concerns of his poetry. Some critics point out that the macabre element in his fiction lessened once he had exorcised his demons by writing his memoirs.

Perhaps it was fatherhood instead. The man who once told Sarah that he wasn’t interested in babies turned out to be a loving and devoted father to his sons, Lucas and Gil. And in the last year of his own life he found great joy in the first year of his grandson, Apollo.

“He was a wonderful dad,” she says. “He could talk extensively about practically everything and he had a huge amount of stories. The children absolutely adored him and they, in turn, were the sunshine of his life.”

Obituaries

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