JOURNALISM: Ian Jack, Guardian columnist and former Granta editor, dies aged 77

Writer who also edited Independent on Sunday remembered as one of the best in British journalism

Ian Jack pictured in Paisley in 2017.
Ian Jack pictured in Paisley in 2017. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/The Guardian
Saturday 29 October, 2022

Sad news tonight. Northern Ireland journalist Hugh Jordan tells me that Ian Jack has died. Ian Jack was one of Scotland’s finest journalists and a friend and mentor from long ago when we were both learning our trade on the Scottish Daily Express in Albion Street, Glasgow. I was on the reporters’ desk and Ian was sitting in for the chief sub editor Clive Sandground. I had written a story which Ian decided was to be the main news page lead. I can’t recall what it was about. What I do recall was that Ian decided to give me a by-line, but he didn’t know who I was. He walked across the editorial department on the third floor and asked what it was to be … “Will I make it William, Billy, Bill or Liam,” he asked politely. He was always that thorough. By lines were treasured in those days as a reward for having done a good job. They signified that what would appear in the paper had (mostly) been written by the person whose name was on the story. I was thrilled and forever grateful thereafter.  I have only discovered tonight that we were exactly the same age and that he was still working when he died, although I did hear from him last year when he was trying to contact another old Express colleague in Scotland.  Ian Jack was a fine journalist, a real gentleman and a true friend and colleague. He was greatly admired and will be missed. Bill Heaney

By Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian

Harriet Sherwood@harrietsherwood

Ian Jack, the Guardian columnist and former editor of Granta and the Independent on Sunday, has died at the age of 77 after a short illness.

Jack was a gifted writer, a brilliant and imaginative editor and a mentor to younger journalists. His final piece for the Guardian, published last weekend, was marking the centenary of the BBC, “one of the world’s great cultural projects”.

He wrote: “It looks unlikely that Britain will ever again invent anything so admired and influential; we have been lucky to have it.”

Katharine Viner, the editor of the Guardian, said: “Ian Jack was one of the finest journalists of his generation. He was an incredible reporter, full of curiosity and observational skill, and he was also a wonderful writer. Our readers loved him; there was no one like him.”

Jack was taken ill on the Isle of Bute, where he spent part of every year, and died in Paisley on Friday morning.

He was born in Lancashire, but his Scottish parents returned to North Queensferry when he was seven. He started work as a trainee journalist at the Glasgow Herald in 1965.

In 1970, he moved to London to join the Sunday Times, then in its heyday under the editorship of Harold Evans. He was a section editor and then a foreign correspondent, specialising in India.

He wrote for the Observer and Vanity Fair before joining the team that created the Independent on Sunday, which he edited from 1991 to 1995. From there he moved to the editor’s chair at literary magazine Granta, where he remained until 2007.

For the past 15 years, Jack had been a columnist for the Guardian. Alan Rusbridger, its former editor who stepped down in 2015, tweeted: “Ian Jack was one of the best. A beautiful prose stylist who loved the craft of reporting. An outsider with incurable curiosity about how places, institutions & people worked. A sharp & impish intellect. A nostalgist who lived in the present. A warm, generous man.”

Andrew Marr, a former editor of the Independent, said Jack was “one of the great, wise originals of British journalism, strongly rooted in working-class Scotland – unlike most of the trade these days – and with a deep understanding and love of industrial working-class culture.”

The writer and former Observer foreign correspondent Neal Ascherson said: “We have lost one of our great journalists, a writer of enchanting imagination and at the same time a reporter rigidly scrupulous in his insistence on fact.

“In Scotland, Bengal and industrial England, he mourned the slow loss of faith in the value of work, skill and community. He honoured the certainty of a Glasgow-forged piston driving the wheel of a steam locomotive across Indian plains and of the family man coming home from the mill in a secure profession with a decent wage packet.”

The journalist and interviewer Lynn Barber said Jack was a “wonderful editor”, adding: “I owe him so much.” Jack hired Barber from the Sunday Express to join the new Independent on Sunday at its launch in 1990 – one of the many emerging talents he spotted as an editor.

The music writer Richard Williams tweeted: “Shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden death of Ian Jack, among the most admired journalists of my generation. It was a privilege to work with and for him, and to be able to call myself his friend.”

The Indian historian Ramachandra Guha said Jack combined professional distinction with “a rare personal decency – he was one of the nicest human beings I have known”.

As well as his journalism, Jack wrote, commissioned and edited a number of books. In the foreword to a collection of essays and previously unpublished writing, The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain , he wrote of “the memory of a different country, the one that shaped my identity as both British and Scottish, and also, eventually, as a Londoner with a part-time life in Scotland”.

His last big commission was a 17,300-word piece for the London Review of Books on the Scottish government’s mishandling of the vitally needed refurbishment and resupply of ferries between the Scottish west coast and islands in the context of a history of shipbuilding on the Clyde.

Jack’s first marriage, to Aparna Bagchi, ended in 1992. He later married Lindy Sharpe, a fellow journalist and food systems academic, with whom he had two children.

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