Remembering Brian Johnstone

Saturday 8 May 2021

Brian Johnstone, photo by Al Buntin

(c) Al Buntin

We have learned with much sadness of the death this week of Brian Johnstone. He was one of StAnza’s founders and a major figure in this organisation’s history, as well as being an acclaimed poet in his own right, recognised internationally through his readings overseas and translations of his poetry.

Brian was already well known in Scottish poetry circles for his own writing and as an events organiser when he helped deliver the first StAnza festival in St Andrews in 1998. As festival director from 2000 to 2010 he led StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, from its modest beginnings to recognition as a leading international festival and a major fixture on the Scottish cultural calendar. After he stepped down from this role in 2010 to concentrate on his own writing, he continued to support and encourage StAnza, serving as a Consultant from 2010 until 2013 and remaining a StAnza member until his death. In 2015, in recognition of his contribution to the organisation, he was appointed Honorary President. StAnza owes Brian a huge debt and he is remembered with fondness and gratitude by those at StAnza who worked with him from 1997 until 2020.

Anna Crowe was another of StAnza’s co-founders. She recalls what a pleasure and privilege it was for her to work alongside Brian and Gavin Bowd to plan a new Scottish poetry festival.

“From the very beginning Brian, who had a lot of experience in organising poetry readings, had ambitious hopes for what has become StAnza (the cunningly-spelled title was his idea, as was the logo). I was keen to make the festival international in scope, and Brian had the vision and energy to see how this could be achieved. He quickly saw that it would be crucial to the festival’s success to involve the new Byre Theatre built in 2001, and to make it our hub, and he used his gifts of persuasion to convince the theatre management of this new idea, namely that poetry would in fact bring big audiences. Following advice to make the festival independent of the University, we were able to attract our own funding, and Brian had a tremendous gift for persuading people to back StAnza. This was because he believed in it so strongly and funders recognised that commitment and were brought on board. Brian was a man of great generosity and human warmth, with a gift for making friends. With his artist wife, Jean, he welcomed many visiting poets to their house in the Fife countryside. He was a dedicated poet with a distinctive voice and passion for memorialising what others might overlook. His interest in music and art led him into fruitful collaboration. Brian will always be remembered as the man who made StAnza happen.”

Drew Clegg, one of StAnza's trustees, has known Brian from their student days and recalls Brian’s early experience organising events:

“When he was an undergraduate Brian was Entertainments Convenor at the university and in that role he brought Pink Floyd to St Andrews. Back then you might have seen the Floyd in London at the Roundhouse or in Paris or Berlin but St Andrews? Brian charmed them and they came and in that youthful moment we can see the quintessential Brian Johnstone. You aim high. You do the best you can do. You fetch the finest poets and artists in the contemporary world out of their usual metropolitan haunts and persuade them to come to Scotland, to the kingdom of Fife, to St Andrews. One among those ‘ finest poets ‘ is himself. He owns a reputation that will grow and grow that he might say with the wee stammering Roman poet Horace ‘Non omnis moriar’ – I’m not all dead. And poetry was but one of Brian’s superbly honed skills. He was a first rate photographer and the detail in his poems, little things caught in a rare light, things most of us would never even notice, is a consequence of the countless creative hours he spent behind the lens. He had been a primary school teacher and by a wonderful example of contingency two of the nurses who cared for him latterly had been in his class. They told how he had been an inspirational figure in their schooldays. All of us who were privileged to know him will not be surprised to hear that said of Brian. The man remains a marvel.

“After a long illness borne with grace he’s gone but has left us with such memories, such poems to read again and again, and of course StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, an enduring legacy for those of us still here and innumerable generations yet to come. Non omnis moriar indeed!"

Brian and Jean JohnstoneEleanor Livingstone worked with Brian as Artistic Director and from 2010 as his successor as Festival Director. Brian’s wide knowledge of poetry, his commitment to StAnza and his ambition for it were the inspiration for her own involvement. He devoted huge amounts of time and energy to the festival and this enthusiasm was catching. His love of music and visual art shaped the inclusion of cross-arts element at the festival which became one of its unique features. Eleanor found him an excellent mentor.

“I learned so much from Brian that was essential in my various roles. I was fortunate in inheriting the relationships he had established – with funders and partners, with venues and the many businesses whose cooperation underpinned the festival’s success – and the procedures and processes he had designed and initiated. It was instructive and rewarding to work with him; he approached the challenges and choices which we encountered with flexibility and insight. And it was also fun – Brian was always great company. By encouraging my involvement with StAnza, Brian gave me an opportunity which changed my life. I will always be grateful for his generous and unfailing support up to and including for this year’s festival, even as his health was failing.”

Robyn Marsack speaks on behalf of StAnza’s Board of Trustees.

“Brian continued to be a genial presence at the Festival after handing over to Eleanor, putting his experience and his vast knowledge of poets and poetry at StAnza's disposal. Free of his director's responsibilities, he was glad to focus on his own work – in prose, poetry and musical collaborations – and indeed launched a new collection in April, The Marks on the Map, when dozens of friends were gathered online to celebrate the occasion. He will be greatly missed, but his hospitable spirit and devotion to poetry will live on in StAnza.”

We offer our deepest sympathy to Jean and Brian’s family and many friends in their loss: 'Always the bough is breaking / heavy with fruit or snow.'

 

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