I was ready to be moved to tears at the Dunfermline Crematorium, but I wasn’t expecting Steely Dan.
Beloved of musical anoraks for their technical precision, and of anyone else with any pretensions to being cool for the two fingers they raised to the anodyne world of pop, the slick West Coast jazz-rockers were giants in the musical landscape of the 1970s.
But Gavin Wallace’s favourite band? Surely not. If anyone had asked me what his taste in music might be, I would have said something classical and probably cerebral. But in her eulogy, Gavin’s sister Fiona had already described him as the first of his peer group to grow his hair, wear outlandish clothes, start a band and generally embrace the 70s’ zeitgeist. Then his son Patrick, a drama student, spoke touchingly about a recent father-and-son trip to a Steely Dan concert, and more generally about his father’s readiness to strap on a guitar at the drop of a hat and out-rock his son.
But Gavin was a literary man, said the bit of my brain that remained unable to suspend disbelief. Gavin was serious, bookish, learned, sensitive – and anxious, eternally anxious, or so it seemed. He was also warm, passionate about Scottish literature, and a true friend to the many writers who came to know his endearing splutter of a laugh.
Gavin died two weeks ago aged 53, after being off work for some time. I first met him 17 years ago when he joined the Scottish Arts Council as literature officer, just as I became a member of its literature committee. When the then director, Jenny Brown, left to start her literary agency, Gavin became director. Then, a couple of years ago, the arts body morphed into Creative Scotland. Doing his best to conceal his bafflement and dismay, he dutifully took on the new mantle of portfolio manager, a title that he must secretly have detested.
Gavin was that rarest of creatures, an arts bureaucrat who adored his artform and served it with absolute dedication. When he left us, too young, too soon, the high esteem in which he was held was evidenced by the standing-room only crowd at the crematorium – a Who’s Who of writers, publishers and other friends of Scottish literature, at whose heart his departure leaves a gaping hole.
It leaves me, also, with a feeling of regret that I didn’t know about Steely Dan. In truth, I always felt a little awkward with Gavin. I liked him greatly, sensed his personal warmth, sympathised with the sensitivity that made him at times seem so vulnerable. But I felt that I was not sufficiently literary, didn’t hold opinions about the things that really mattered to him. So even though he endorsed my application for a bursary to write my novel The Witness, which his son Patrick later reviewed enthusiastically for me, aged 14, even though we met round the Edinburgh International Book Festival board table, or in Charlotte Square in August, or at other literary events throughout the year, I always held back with him.
I held back when there was Can’t Buy A Thrill and Pretzel Logic and Aja and Katy Lied and The Royal Scam to be pored over, pint in hand – gateways to a whole world that neither of us knew we had in common; that might in turn have led to other worlds, to a real friendship rather than just a mutually respectful acquaintance. How I regret that reticence. It seldom serves me well.