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Arts world pays warm tribute to Alex Cluness

Alex Cluness.

A HOST of warm and effusive tributes have been paid to the writer, poet and key Shetland literary figure Alex Cluness, who died suddenly at the weekend.

In addition to being a highly accomplished poet and writer, Alex was Shetland Arts’ first ever literature development officer and played a major role in establishing the Wordplay festival.

Several local writers expressed gratitude for the help and advice Alex offered when they were starting out, and for the opportunities he afforded them.

He also hosted a 2004 conference on the Shetland dialect, featuring guest speakers from Faroe, the Scottish mainland and elsewhere, which Laureen Johnson said was a “very important” step along the way to setting up Shetland ForWirds.

Laureen said Alex was “always one for really good ideas”, helping to establish a writers’ group, organising the aforementioned conference and helping countless writers who were just getting started. “He really did a lot,” she said.

Shetland-based writer Donald Murray, who heard from Alex via email shortly before his death, said he was struggling to come to terms with the loss of a good friend who he credited with “immeasurably” enriching his life.

“I will miss him loads and can only imagine what his loss must feel like for his family,” Donald said. “They must be utterly desolate without him. Sometimes we walk with angels in this life – even if they come in the most unusual and unlikely guise.”

Local archivist and historian Brian Smith said he remembered Alex’s “very impressive” edition of Robert Greig’s work Doing his Bit: a Shetland soldier in the Great War, published by The Shetland Times in 1999.

Alex edited the first-hand soldier’s account of the First World War and wrote a long introduction for it, which Brian said was “a very, very good piece of work” especially given he “wasn’t normally regarded as a historian”.

Brian said he would remember Alex for his “extraordinary sense of humour” and recalled collaborating with him on an article for the New Shetlander magazine – which Alex edited along with John Hunter from around 1998 until 2002 – and “us being in stitches for long periods during that”.

Alex Cluness played a key role in setting up book festival Wordplay.

Alex was “utterly hilarious”, Brian said, his “off-the-cuff remarks” able to lighten up subject matters that may otherwise have been less than fascinating.

Before leaving the profession to pursue other literary interests, Alex had taught English for several years at the Anderson High School in Lerwick in the mid 1990s.

Retired head teacher Ian Spence remembers being “very disappointed at the time” that the school was losing Alex.

“He was outstanding, and he got on really well with all types of pupil – a good people man,” Ian said, adding that Alex had also been very highly thought of by the two departmental heads, Gordon Dargie and the late Donnie Campbell, that he worked under.

Western Isles author and poet Kevin MacNeil said Alex was “one of the best and most underrated poets I knew, not to mention someone of whom I was very fond”.

His work featured in an anthology, These Islands, We Sing, that Kevin edited in 2011, and he described Alex’s poetry as “epic, intimate, elemental, complex and beautiful”.

That same year Kevin wrote about Alex for a feature about writers who deserve to be better known, noting he was “quietly revered” in Shetland’s literary circles and was “a typical islander in that he devotes his energies to promoting the work of others”.

To that end, Alex worked as Shetland Arts’ first ever literature development officer for six years between 2001 and 2007, and the organisation said it was “shocked and saddened” by the news.

Shetland Arts credited him as being “responsible for an explosion of literary activity throughout the islands, supporting new writers and creating Shetland’s book festival, Wordplay.”

The organisation said it was “in keeping with his sense of fun and his commitment to young people that the first festival was entirely for children”.

“Many people have reason to be thankful for his kindness and his patience and his belief in them. As a colleague, we remember him as intensely creative, modest, caring, and endowed of an irrepressible sense of humour and a poetic sensibility second to none,” a statement from Shetland Arts read. “He will be missed.”

Shetland writer Christian Tait echoed the words of many in saying she will be forever grateful to Alex for being “a tremendous support to me when I started to write, most understanding and encouraging, and he gave me opportunities that I would never have had otherwise”.

“He was a wonderful poet himself, a lovely example to us all, though he was very modest about his poetry. He’s a sad loss both as a writer and as a friend.”

Several people remarked with some sadness that they lost touch with Alex – who was the son of former Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness – in the last few years, but it is clear that his dedication to literature continued after he left the islands.

After moving to England’s south west he played a major role in the survival and renewal of the organisation Literature Works in Exeter. Alex then moved on to work at an innovative museum and arts centre called Taigh Chearsabhaigh in Lochmaddy, North Uist, before returning to the south west.

Latterly he lived in Carnoustie where he continued to work for Literature Works remotely and also worked for The Poetry Archive.

Marc Lambert of the Scottish Book Trust described him as a “funny, modest and kind” soul whose company was “always a life-affirming pleasure”.