Ian Jack obituary

Brilliant exponent of long-form journalism, Guardian columnist and editor of the Independent on Sunday in the 1990s

Ian Jack’s last published work was a column in the Guardian of Saturday 22 October, in which he invoked what the BBC meant to his generation, born as or after the second world war ended. It meant, in his telling, a vast amount, as the corporation’s broadcasts drilled themselves into lives then lived almost entirely outside the all-embracing media domains of today.

Schoolboys, then, were being “almost Freemasonic in their mysteries”, repeating lines such as “He’s fallen in the water” from the Goon Show or “Stone me!” from Hancock’s Half Hour, that only initiates, addicts to 1950s airwaves, could know (a signature trick, to insert a word – here, “Freemasonic” – whose meaning needed thought before it clicked). Ian was of an upper-working-class generation: a boy helping his mother at the hand-turned mangle while Oh What a Beautiful Morning, from Oklahoma!, crackled out from the Light Programme: he imagined the song had been there always – and the “bright, golden haze on the meadow” was there always for him, a spurt of remembered joy.

Ian, who has died aged 77 after a short illness, wrote, when possible, slowly, each paragraph polished to perfection, before moving on. While, as a foreign correspondent, he was familiar with the “six paras by seven o’clock or it’s not in” school of reportage, he really wanted time. The designation “long–form journalism” was minted for him: a style clearly his from the first lines.

From the mid-70s till the 2010s Ian often visited India, and for a spell lived in Kolkata. The resulting collection of essays, Mofussil Junction (2013), is a series of “encounters”, experienced as far as possible as Indians experience it – on crowded trains, and in tea shops and down-at-heel hotels. “I became a frequenter of the neglected and obscure. During the monsoon in Jalandhar I stayed in a damp room that was somehow located under a cinema; at Jamalpur in a hostel for engine drivers; at Maldia (and quite a few other junctions) in the station retiring room.”

The historian Ramachandra Guha wrote of his essays that there is “a real feel for culture in nature, for how different kinds of Indians are embedded in the forests, fields, rivers, mountains, factories, and towns in which they live and die. One reason Ian Jack writes so well about India is that he is never in a hurry.” The strangeness is noted, but never with condescension.

Trying to find the birthplace of George Orwell – in Motihari, in Bihar state – he arrives with a headache, in part through re-reading 1984 on the bumpy car journey, observing (an offence against received intellectual opinion) that “as a novel it’s poor, as a prophecy it’s wrong, as an estimate of the human spirit it’s unforgivably bleak”.

The search for the true birthplace fails, but it contains another Jack trademark – the long parenthesis, an excursion into the British-created opium trade, gathered in India and sent to China, supervised by British officials, one of whom was Richard Blair, father of the Eric Blair who became known as Orwell. He connects the trade to the novel through doublethink: in the Indian case, the doublethink that allowed the imperialists to believe they were bringing enlightenment to the natives (Indian and Chinese) while getting one side to narcotise the other for profit.

Ian had a “thing” about Orwell: he was, after all, often doing something similar, trying to get a sense of life and work among people up against it, “blundering into other peoples’ lives”, as he put it in his 1987 collection, Before the Oil Ran Out. There he wrote of a journey to Wigan in the autumn of 1982, in the footsteps of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, yet unable to discover the misery Orwell had. He found the cheapest room he could – £6 a night with breakfast – “but of the squalor that shocks I could find no trace” – continuing, another of Ian’s tricks, with the tiny particular – “the toilet roll was encased in knitted wool”.

He came into subjects crabwise. The Women and Children First in his 2009 collection The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain, patiently examining the myths of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, had the first pages on his children, five and three, playing with a toy ship and an iceberg – “a ball of white paper”. After some discussion with a shopkeeper on a better toy version of the doomed ship, he considered the James Cameron 1997 film, thence as much to framings of the calamity, from George Bernard Shaw to Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who “wondered if … we were losing a proper sense of history”, as to the disaster (1,503 drowned, 703 saved).

This most refined of journalists did not go to university, but followed a hallowed apprenticeship route to Fleet Street. Born in Farnworth, now in Greater Manchester, at seven he moved with his mother, father and elder brother, Harry, to North Queensferry, on the coast of Fife: his father, Henry, was fourth engineer on a British India Line cargo ship and later worked as a fitter in various companies: his mother, Isa (nee Gillespie), was born in Kirkcaldy to the daughter of a Royal Scot wounded in the first world war, and was a quality inspector in linen mills before marriage.

On leaving school, he enrolled for a librarian’s course: but he wanted to write, not to lend out, words – and did, first in the Cambuslang Advertiser, followed by the East Kilbride News. He was quickly taken up by the Glasgow-based Scottish Daily Express, and as quickly by the Sunday Times in 1970, in the Harold Evans era, where he edited a section, and moved to reporting and feature writing. He won several awards, including Journalist of the Year, and established both a growing reputation and a style.

In 1986 he started writing for the Observer and for magazines – he was considered for the editorship of the New Yorker – and three years later went back to editing at the newly created Independent on Sunday, first as a supplement editor, then as editor (1992-95).

In 1979 he married Aparna Bagchi; they divorced in 1992. At the Independent on Sunday he met Lindy Sharpe: they became partners, had two children, Bella and Alex, then married in 1998 – a close, mutually stimulating, marriage. The three survive him, along with Harry.

His departure from the Independent on Sunday meant no more Fleet Street: he went to edit the literary magazine Granta, itself an exercise in the long form, where new writing flourished. Under Ian, from 1995 to 2007, the writers included Monica Ali, AL Kennedy, Andrew O’Hagan and Zadie Smith, still flourishing.

Before his death, he was preparing a book about the Clyde, helped by (among others) the actor Bill Paterson, a native Clydesider in awe, in their talks, of Ian’s grasp of detail and meaning.

He moved through every one of his pieces, in damp Indian basements, toilets with knitted toilet-roll cover, his own living room – careful, querying, gentle but acutely tuned for falsities, contradictions, omissions, keeping the point waiting until the scaffolding of the piece is erected. It is the journalist as contemporary shaper of a Socratic dialogue, always kindly, yet with a “but what about…?” ever ready, to probe through to deeper revelations. No other British journalist was working at that level and he was still working when he died.

Ian Grant Jack, journalist, born 7 February 1945; died 28 October 2022

• This article was amended on 2 November 2022, to correct information about Ian Jack’s parents


John Lloyd

The GuardianTramp

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