No journalist had a deeper sense of history than Ian Jack | Donald Macintyre

Endlessly curious and knowledgeable, the Guardian columnist was renowned for his interest in the industrial working class from which he came

No one can fill the hole left in British journalism by Ian Jack. He had a huge body of work behind him, of course, as a reporter, feature writer, author and editor. Yet to demonstrate his quality you’d only to have to refer someone who hadn’t read him to his pieces over the past few months when he was writing as well as ever – not something you could say about many 77-year-olds.

His last column for the Guardian, a mere week ago, was an example – on the face of it a rich elegy on what the BBC had meant to him since his earliest years, yet in fact, and without a shred of polemic, a subliminal reminder of why the Corporation needed defending against its encircling enemies. This was typical. No journalist had a deeper sense of history than Jack. He frequently recalled his childhood and his formative years, after his parents moved back to Scotland when he was seven, in North Queensferry, Fife – where he interviewed with rare insight and sensibility the then chancellor in 2003 in a piece that began: “Gordon Brown lives in the house I once delivered newspapers to.”

But Jack’s extraordinarily detailed memory was never merely nostalgic. On the contrary, his recall always had a point. He wrote an epic and definitive account this year in the London Review of Books of the Scottish government’s bungled attempts to replace the ageing ferries to the islands. But it started with an authoritative account of shipbuilding and shipping on the Clyde, coloured by the testimony of his own relatives who had worked in and lived around the shipyards. Andrew Marr was right to speak today of his “deep understanding and love of industrial working class culture”. And for Jack this was the context that set the ferries fiasco against Scottish pride in its historic talent for building ships. (My last day spent with Jack was on a memorable trip earlier this month with other friends on his beloved Waverley, the last steamship built on the Clyde, for which he was the ideal guide.)

No doubt Jack will be remembered best as a writer whose pieces from the 1970s on can still be read with such pleasure – another rarity for journalism – and for his books. But, having been a pivotal figure on the Sunday Times during its glory days under Harold Evans, he was himself a great editor – endlessly curious, super-knowledgeable and, though always serious in purpose, great fun, as well as an inspiration to work for. He also had the advantage of having done every job in journalism that mattered. He was a fine talent spotter – plucking Lynn Barber, for example, from relative obscurity to the Independent on Sunday where she began her famous interviews. And – a skill no doubt honed by his time on the Scottish Daily Express – he wrote great headlines. The one on the front page he wrote for the very first issue of the IOS, over the picture of a joyful parent reunited with her kidnapped baby daughter, was pure Ian Jack: “Enter young mother with a smile saying what words can’t”.

Jack might have gone on to edit the daily Independent with great distinction. It nearly happened. Instead, he went off to edit the literary magazine Granta, a job for which he was also supremely well qualified. Jack was one of a journalistic generation who had never been to university. Yet it’s hard to think of anyone in our trade who was better read or had deeper intellectual interests and passions. He will be painfully missed first by his family and then by his very wide circle of friends. But in an era when journalism is hardly the most respected of vocations, Ian Jack was the exception: a lasting reminder that it can at its best be a noble calling.

• Donald Macintyre is the author of Gaza: Preparing for Dawn

Contributor

Donald Macintyre

The GuardianTramp

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