Alan Lothian, 1947-2010

This is a divergence from my usual academic content here, but it was important to me to share it.

This week I lost my uncle, one of the greatest influences on my growth as a writer and a thinker and a person. He introduced me to computers, gave me my first email address and set me loose on the internet; nurtured and fed my love for science fiction and fascination with technology; taught me what it means to write, the craft and skill to transmit knowledge and feelings and ideas through words.

He didn’t like a lot of what I was doing with our shared interests and skills, or with my life, but he accepted it; and painful arguments over politics and ideology eventually cooled into the occasional wry comments about French philosophers who wanted to tear down Western civilization. The last email I had from him contained a link to a news story about the imminent disintegration of the American academy. The last few years of his life were a scene of disintegration, filled with estrangement and anger and illness, but I spent some time with him over the summer, and I was glad to know that our connection was still there and still strong.

I’m very sad that I can’t travel to Europe for his funeral. I wrote the words below to be read there in my absence.

Ten years ago, for his father’s funeral, Alan wrote 500 words on his parents’ lives that didn’t leave a dry eye in the house. His daughter Kirsty and I agreed that, when the time came, I would be the one to compose 500 words for him. I’ve thought of the task more than a few times in the intervening decade, though I never expected I’d be sitting down to it so soon.

I’ve started and deleted many beginnings, thinking of everything he taught me by discussion, lecture, rant, example and counter-example. I’ve sat at my computer with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, not writing, and thought about how much time he spent doing just that. He used to talk to me about the things he hadn’t written, call himself a failure, and announce that he was passing on the baton of the family’s writing pride to me. He was always a writer first, narrating his own life with a keen sense of drama, and he knew his story was a tragedy with moments of farce. I used to mock his melodrama. But now his story’s at an end, his accuracy in literary criticism doesn’t have to hide the details that give life most of its meaning.

He smelled constantly of Gauloises. He would take all your money at poker (and teach you how to take other people’s). He thought that balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes were the foods of a grand bourgeois conspiracy (now no one in the family can eat them without feeling as though we are getting away with something). He could fire a gun with reasonable accuracy, and he was proud of it. He loved flying and lit up with remembered joy when he told the story of going up in a small plane and being allowed to take the controls for a moment. He once got a voicemail from space, from an astronaut he met through his work with the European Space Agency, and felt the bitterest disappointment that he hadn’t been there to take the call. He wrote a text-based computer game with ASCII graphics for his daughter, son and niece to explore the universe with.

He wanted everyone to be as excited as he was about the things he loved, to see what was true and marvelous about them. About science, about the sky, about powerful engines of speed and destruction and subtle mechanisms of electronics: how they work and the great and terrible things people have done with and without such machines, both in the past and in the possible futures of science fiction. About food and wine, the traditions of European cookery and the perfect way to scrub a potato, stem spinach, make a vegetable stock (you start by boiling chickpeas)––and, of course, the best Italian pasta. About language, the magic that happens when the right words find the perfect order and the sweat and bloody-mindedness it takes to achieve that––not only narrative, structure, paragraphing, openers, links, but also the subtleties of translation and the shifts in character and feeling between English, French, Italian and his smatterings of German, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hebrew and more (he could definitely swear in Serbo-Croat).

Alan’s demons made loving him a painful thing. Yet he was easy to love, in spite of it. He may never have written the great work that he hoped would be his legacy. But in all that time he spent not writing, he left pieces of himself in the minds and hearts of more people than would probably have read it––more than we could fit in any church.

His best self is in us and with us. He won’t be forgotten any time soon.

***

ETA: I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. It would be great to have some contributions from other people who knew him.

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25 thoughts on “Alan Lothian, 1947-2010

  1. Stef

    I’m so sorry for your and your family’s loss Alexis. I know he was a complicated man, and you and your family had a difficult relationship with him, yet he was charming and kind for that one day I met him and I still appreciate his and your aunt’s sweetness and hospitality. much love.

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  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Alan Lothian, 1947-2010 « queer geek theory -- Topsy.com

  3. Sean

    Beautifully written, thank you.
    I’ve frequently exchanged posts with your uncle over the last few years. It was always with joyous anticipation when I would notice his name in the list of the hundreds of mostly dreary, contentious, and small-minded blathering’s that dominate our group. When Alan posted you knew that regardless of the subject or his mood, the message would be entertaining, focused, and of course well written. I’ll miss our discussions, especially when we would banter about cooking, which we shared a love for.
    He claimed to have turned over a new leaf in this last year or so and would often describe himself as ” The most tolerant and liberal of men.” I’m certain his tongue was firmly planted in cheek. This is how I’ll remember him.
    My condolences. You did a fine job above, I’d bet he’d critique it while silently loving it.
    Sean Keck

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  4. Arved

    Just as with Sean I knew your uncle from a Usenet newsgroup, where he will be a much missed contributor. He was the kind of guy that when he agreed with one of your posts you’d go back to what you wrote and admire it, and when he disagreed you wouldn’t necessarily change your mind but you would definitely think about your argument. He had that kind of effect in a debate.

    I still remember the pleasure I felt when he invited me to start participating in some casual conversations by email. Really just that, conversations about arcane topics. He had just moved. As you might surmise we never did have that many emails back and forth, to my great chagrin. It’s a mark of the man that we never discussed his state of health.

    Thank you for your eulogy.

    Arved

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  5. Paul J. Adam

    Like Sean and Arved, I knew Alan via Usenet: however, I was also fortunate enough to meet him in person and discover that his wits were as quick and as sharp in the flesh, as they were in a written exchange.

    Traces of his troubles occasionally broke through, but he kept them to himself: and while he had a few flaws I knew (and doubtless many more I didn’t) he was a man whose opinions, ideas and advice were always worth listening to; and expressed such that you enjoyed the process, whether you agreed with him or not.

    I also valued him as a debating partner because he could clearly and coherently argue his case, yet listen attentively to a contrary view. He’d then explore the no-mans-land between your opinion and his, looking for information he wasn’t aware of; sometimes he’d adapt if we found something convincing, a rare trait, and sometimes he persuaded me to adapt (a rare feat indeed).

    You’ve lost more than I have, yet my world is still diminished for his passing.

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  6. John Cottrell

    I, too, only knew Alan as a working colleague -in our years as editors with Time Life Books. If there was a darker side to his life I never encountered it. He was always an absolute joy to work with, one of the few staff writers who seized upon any rare opportunity to inject some humour and wit into dry-as-dust subject matters.`Typically, when I was editing a book on Germany, it was Alan who contributed a joke to illustrate how dour, dilgent Saxons in the north were so dedicated to undustry and efficiency. After a funeral, a young man, clutching an urn, says to his mother: “Shall I put grandfather’s ashes on the mantelpiece?”
    “Certainly not”, the mother replies. “Grandfather’s ashes will go into the hourglass. We Saxons must always work you know”.
    Even towards his sad end, Alan left a moving farewell message that brought back memories of his inimitable style and wit and charm. I am deeply saddened by the premature end to his journey along life’s pot-holed road to oblivion. The world is a duller place without such original characters. As he would have approved, I defiantly light a cigar and raise a glass of Hermitage to his memory.

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there (typo corrected of course!)––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  7. Lewis Esson

    I came upon this page when trying to find the whereabouts of Alan. He and I were best friends at school (Allan Glen’s in Cathedral St, Glasgow… alas now a teacher training college) and quite separately ended up working in publishing – indeed, I once did some work for him when he was at Time Life, writing some pages on soufflés for the Good Cook. I am so sad to hear of his death and my heart goes out to his family. Even at the age of 18 he was larger than life and an extraordinary character. Together we published an unofficial and irreverent school magazine called Nik (after a noise we used to make to irritate teachers when they were working on the blackboard), which was inevitably eventually banned. I can still see our fierce Headmaster Dr Somerville tearing down the posters for it that we fly-posted around the school. We were both surprised when Alan was eventually made a prefect, and I wasn’t… I think it embarrassed his anarchistic soul deeply. Sadly we grew apart when I came down to study at Kings College in London and he started his peripatetic journey round the Scottish Universities, but in our years as close friends he was a great inspiration to me – teaching me never to accept second-rate from myself and to question accepted norms. The two of us used to give our RI teacher a terrible time. I shall have a special brew thinking about him tomorrow and perhaps make a midnight omelette as we used to do often at his parents’ home in the wee hours during the long summer holidays. Nik, nik Alan..

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. It’s amazing for me to hear from someone who knew Alan at such a young age… it’s very easy to imagine a teenage Alan from your description.

    I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  8. SAGReiss

    Alexis,

    I’ve stumbled upon this while searching for Alan’s obituaries. Thanks for publishing it. I couldn’t really hear it at the funeral because my daughter Rose kept asking questions. Glad you could be with us on phone/Skype.

    My condolences.

    Scott

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  9. Ian

    I knew and worked with Alan briefly in the early 1990s. We once had difference of opinion that resulted in a drunken brawl at an office christmas party. We then met accidentally online years later playing Bridge.

    I’m sad he’s gone and I’m even sadder that I didn’t get to know him better.

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  10. Sue

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your uncle. Alan and I were good friends from 1995, when I worked with him at Focus Magazine in Victoria, London. We started as we meant to go on; lunch was a major part of work, and over it we planned many things. In later years we would occasionally meet and skip over to France for the day, and when he moved there we kept very much in touch. We would also work together on a couple of editorial projects, where his immense knowledge shone through. I miss Alan a great deal, he was a chum who could be relied upon for cheer, intellect and erudition – a rare thing in these days, and my most sincere condolences go to his family, and his friends.

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  11. Pingback: 500(ish) words « In Memory of Alan Lothian

  12. John Irvine

    I have just heard (from Angela Porter) of Alan’s death. When I was lecturing in dramatic art in Aberdeen, Alan was a student at the university there and we met often, usually in the Kirkgate bar. He was quite a character with his long hair and long harangues against the various establishments. He always had an admiring group around him. I am very sad at his early death.
    John Irvine.

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thanks so much for your comment. It’s been amazing to hear from people who knew Alan at so many different points in his life… he was certainly always a “character.”

    I have made a site to commemorate Alan here, including some photographs. I’d like to repost the comments from this blog entry there––could you let me know if you aren’t comfortable with that? Otherwise I will go ahead in a day or two.

    Alexis

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  13. ALAN LOTHIAN

    Alan Steel(e) Lothian
    Born Dalkeith 1939
    Ex Publishing London
    Hutchinson
    Ex Bookseller
    Herefordshire

    Something in the” Blood” !!

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  14. Angus McLellan

    Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I had the pleasure of sharing Alan’s virtual company on usenet for several years so it is wonderful to find out more about the man behind the name. My very belated sympathies for your loss and thanks again.

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thank you so much for commenting. It’s lovely to see the ways that Alan’s digital presence continues to be remembered, and to think about how many lives his rather crotchety online presence touched.

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  15. Jim Grindlay

    Tonight I though about Alan T Lothian, completely out of the blue, and found this website. It wasn’t what I wanted to find.

    I often think of my days at Allan Glen’s School. I wasn’t the most attentive pupil and could have made better use of my opportunities there, but the experience of being there has given me independence of thought and action.

    In the first couple of years at Allan Glan’s, Alan and I would walk along Cathedral street after school to the corner of Dundas Street where I lived. I actually held the dubious distinction as the pupil who lived nearest to the school, which meant that I couldn’t be ‘booked’ by teachers or prefects for not wearing my cap while going home (a great crime in these faraway days), because they could never prove if I had been home or not!

    Alan used to revel in this, and although we took different roads academically after the end of third year, I never forgot his sense of of off the wall fun. He helped me enormously in our first year to cope with school as I suffered from a serious lack of confidence in my abilities and shyness in relationships with other pupils and teachers.

    Thank you Alan, it was a pleasure to know you. Tonight I will drink to your memory.

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