Robert Gray

Andro Linklater by Robert Gray - obituary

Andro Linklater by Robert Gray - obituary
Text settings

For 24 years Andro Linklater, who died aged 68 on 3 November, reviewed books in these pages. Always an enthusiast, with wide sympathies and of genial disposition, he wanted others to share his pleasures, so that, while he could spot a dud author as well as anyone, he much preferred to dwell on the positive side, in literature as in life.

As the youngest of the four children of the novelist Eric Linklater, Andro might seem to have been born to a life of letters. His father, though, never subscribed to the sensitive school of paternity. ‘Reprimand was unstinted,’ remembered Andro’s sister Alison (‘Sally’). ‘My father never lifted a finger to punish us physically, but his tongue was formidable. His favourite threat was “I’ll beat you to within an inch of your life!” and when he was really angry this became “I’ll beat you to an inch of your life with rusty barbed wire.” ’

‘Look at the boy,’ Eric Linklater proclaimed, observing the young Andro across the breakfast table, ‘you can see the light through his ears.’ Of course, there was a strong element of self-parody in all this; and when Eric Linklater was in sunny mood the children basked in his brilliance. Nevertheless, Andro did not find himself as a writer until his father died in 1974.

His mother, in her prime an actress of great beauty, was also formidable, but far less complicatedly affectionate. In many ways Andro’s childhood was blessed. When he was three, the family moved from Orkney to a large house and garden on the sea outside Tain, where the children were encouraged to roam at will, sailing, climbing and fishing with a proud disregard for safety.

So Andro developed a keen sense of independence, along with a zest for travel and adventure well supported by valour. Throughout his twenties he appeared to be chiefly concerned to avoid becoming trapped in a permanent career, though he showed his steel by teaching in a tough school in west London.

His first authorial venture was to complete the history of the Black Watch regiment on which his father had been working at his death. By the end of the 1970s he was well established as feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph’s magazine, his principal source of income over the next decade. Other papers were equally keen to employ him. He was courageous enough to tackle the most daunting projects, from Chernobyl to Cliff Richard; and talented enough to write up his findings in stylish and entertaining prose.

Journalism made possible Andro’s career as an author, for he was never so vulgar as to undertake books with obvious sales potential. His interests were rather on the dangerous edge of things, as in his biographies of the firebrand suffragette, socialist and Sinn Feiner Charlotte Despard; of his father’s friend Compton Mackenzie; and of that chief of all bounders, the American general James Wilkinson.

In addition, Wild People (1994) was a gloriously funny and humane account of a journalistic mission among the Ibans of Sarawak, while Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die (2012) hazarded the intriguing suggestion that there might have been a slavetraders’ plot behind that obscure prime minister’s assassination.

All these books were well received; with the unpromisingly titled Measuring America (2001), however, Andro Linklater commanded wide attention, fostered by his relaxed brilliance on television and in lecture halls. The book showed how the federal division of America into squares and rectangles based on the English chain turned the land into an easily negotiable commodity which fostered democracy and enterprise.

Andro’s dedication to writing demanded periods of isolation, which he eagerly embraced. In the mid-1980s he made his base on the almost uninhabited Isle Martin, off Ullapool; equally, after he married in 1987, he settled happily in a Kent village. He never much cared for frills of any kind, least of all in social life.

At intervals, however, he would emerge to see the many friends whom he loved, and who found in him a matchless companion. Whatever the subject, Andro could improvise with wit and eloquence, while his instinctive generosity of spirit always elicited the best from others. This was particular true of children, who found in him a wholly reliable ally against the tedious threat of adulthood.