Reigniting Radical Culture

Neil Gray and the Variant editorial board pay tribute to Leigh French, writer and editor.

portrait of leigh french

Leigh French’s death on Sunday 28 May, aged 53, was a devastating blow to his partner, family and many friends and acquaintances. Leigh was a writer, researcher, artist and cultural worker, renowned as the brilliant editor of Variant magazine (1996-2012). Leigh will be remembered as a tremendously vital, wickedly funny, convivial, generous, supportive and kind man whose rigorous criticality was a powerful antidote to prevailing ‘common-sense’, whether on the right or the left. Leigh made us think harder and better, whether we agreed with him or not. He set a standard for non-academic research rarely matched in contemporary Scottish cultural and political life.

According to Leigh’s father Eric, in news that will amuse his friends, Leigh was a ‘very strong-willed’ child. Eric was a civil technician in the RAF. The family moved from North Wales to Fife and eventually, after a marital breakup, to Darfield, South Yorkshire. There Leigh lived with his mother, Margaret, who worked as a postwoman, his younger brother, Craig, and soon his stepfather Tom, with his father living in a neighbouring village. A teenager in South Yorkshire, Leigh remembered both the solidarity and community division of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

By the time Leigh finished school, students were no longer invited to visit the pit en masse as an introduction to a coal-mining career. He left Darfield in 1988 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. The artist John Beagles, a close friend and former flatmate in Hackney, said that his life drawing was the finest he’d ever seen. However, Leigh rarely followed an obvious path, choosing instead to specialise in sculpture. He enjoyed new encounters and discussion in London and developed lifelong friendships with other students from similar working-class backgrounds also disaffected by the ‘symbolic violence’ encountered around the art student milieu. After spending a year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, he became a student at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) in 1993, where he developed an avant-garde practice of critical reflection on art and society, transgressing the individualised production of art objects within reified art settings.

This practice chimed with the first incarnation of Variant magazine (1984-1994) under Malcolm Dickson’s editorship. In 1996, with William Clark, Leigh revived the magazine as an artist-run project in a new free tabloid format, with Paula Larkin (advertising, distribution and editorial input), Ian Brotherhood (editorial assistance) and Kevin Hobbs (design). Daniel Jewesbury took on a co-editing role with Leigh in 2003. A wider Variant editorial group was formalised in 2011 for what would be the final two issues. The magazine’s focus was on ‘cross-currents in culture’, and besides its written form it held numerous events. Variant held an affinity to the radical left but challenged consensual ways of thinking on left and right alike, questioning the very nature of what a ‘cultural magazine’ might be. If the content was serious, Leigh carried it lightly: being involved in Variant was an exercise in ‘difficult fun’, inspired by Leigh’s playful, dissenting mode of discourse. It was a pleasure to meet Leigh in The State Bar or The Doublet, proudly patting a new ‘hot-off-the-press’ edition of Variant while wearing a mischievous grin as he contemplated the effect of the latest issue on the magazine’s readers. Variant was a labour of love for Leigh; it is also no contradiction to say that the exploitation of artists’ labour or cultural production was an abiding theme.

For Leigh, art and culture were always political, always classed. In a contemporary Scotland where the blogosphere is often consensus-affirming and anti-intellectual, Variant helpedto produce the theoretical grounds for genuinely radical social transformation. It’s a lazy truism to say that criticism is easy, but it’s much easier to follow prevailing common-sense.

The quality of the magazine concealed the constrained circumstances of its production. When I moved to Glasgow in 2008 and got to know Leigh and others associated with Variant, I realised it was a kitchen space endeavour motored by huge amounts of enthusiasm and very little money. Without Leigh’s unpaid labour and dedication, it wouldn’t have been possible to maintain the magazine. I have abiding memories of his spartan but neat flat on Maryhill Road, with stacks of Variant lined up against the wall and Leigh ploughing into his curious diet, equal parts allotment vegetables turned curry, diet coke and
ready-salted Golden Wonder crisps.

Leigh’s articles for Variant remain vital reading on the purpose of arts funding, cultural ‘regeneration’, and the role of the critic. This work can be found in Variant’s online archive and deserves careful re-appraisal. In Variant’s latter years, he focused more on editing the magazine, but an article we cowrote for Scottish Left Review in 2010 provides a glimpse into some of his ongoing concerns. ‘The Empire in Miniature’ argued that the personalised ‘scandals’ associated with Stephen Purcell’s fall from grace as a Labour Party City Council leader were symptomatic of the city’s neoliberal politics, replete with an ‘elaborate system of political patronage’. For us, Purcell’s demise obscured the neoliberal restructuring and marketisation of local government at public expense. This was typical of Leigh: dissatisfaction with topical political ephemera, and a stringent dissection of the material relations obscured by popular common-sense debate. This attitude was to the fore in his writing with long-term collaborator Gordon Asher on the 2014 Scottish Referendum. ‘Crises Capitalism and Independence Doctrines’, written in 2012, undermined the content and form of independence as an unexamined good, shredding the ‘plodding redundancy of positivism’ and consensus-making in favour of critical scrutiny, open discussion and anti-capitalist participatory democracy.

Variant eventually paid for its bold critique of institutions like the Scottish Arts Council, Glasgow Life and Creative Scotland, when the latter withdrew funding in 2012. This was a major blow to Leigh, wresting from him a beloved project and depriving Scotland of its premier magazine for self-reflexive critical cultural and political debate. Nevertheless, he continued developing new projects, often involving his long-term partner, Gesa Helms. One was the Strickland Distribution, an artist-run group (developed with former Variant associates) supporting the development of independent research in art-related and non-institutional practices; another was his PhD on Scottish cultural nationalism and cross-European curatorial practices on nationalism, for which he organised a series of events. Leigh’s frequent email exchanges were legendary for their care, depth of discussion, and masses of links and references; and alongside his work as editor and proof-reader in Higher Education, he continued doing editorial work for friends and acquaintances, contributing to dissertations, articles, chapters and books, often gratis. Since Leigh’s death a host of people have stressed how much these discussions and collaborations meant to them.

Following a lengthy process of complaint, Variant received funding from Creative Scotland to review cultural democracy in Scotland, publishing in 2016, ‘Divergence and Agonism’, co-authored with Gesa Helms and Lisa Bradley. This was Variant’s final piece of funding. In 2017, Leigh moved to Lochwinnoch after a new factor violently intimidated fellow residents in his Maryhill tenement close. Contracting Covid during the first UK wave, and struggling for a year with its long-term effects, the rural setting provided welcome respite, distance and air. His editorial work, mentorship and support for numerous colleagues, comrades, friends and students was then based within a flourishing back-yard garden in Lochwinnoch––many of the fruits of which are now treasured by friends far-and-wide. He maintained a close cross-border, post-Brexit relationship with his long-term partner, Gesa, now living in Germany, welcomed guests to Lochwinnoch and regularly undertook long-haul cycles to see friends in Glasgow and tend to Gesa’s plants in her absence. Numerous plans were afoot with friends and allies, not least a move to Northern Germany with Gesa and a potential one-off issue of Variant, so it was a major shock for us all to hear of his death.

Leigh loved plotting new schemes and I will miss that pleasure greatly, as will many who have worked with him over the years. His impact on politics and culture will be remembered long after his passing. Variant is his greatest cultural and political testament. Under Leigh’s guidance, Variant was at the centre of much that was genuinely radical in Scottish culture and its archive remains a treasure trove for contemporary researchers looking to reignite critical cultural and political debate and practice. Leigh is survived by Gesa; his father, Eric; his mother, Margaret; and his brother Craig. His unique, passionate and forceful personality and his mischievous sense of humour is sorely missed by all.

Explore the archives and other writing and resources at