JOURNALISM: Ian Jack took lives and memories from the past and gave them a vivid description

By Gerry Hassan in the Scottish Review

The death of Ian Jack last week at the age of 77 marks a significant watershed in the world of journalism. It seems fitting to muse that not only does Jack represent the last of a tradition of long-form interpretative journalism making sense of our changing world, but that he did so understanding and giving respect to lives which would have been otherwise forgotten.

Jack, pictured right was born in 1945 in Farnmouth, Lancashire, to parents from Fife. When he was seven, they returned to Fife and he spent the rest of his childhood in North Queensferry where he was educated before going to Dunfermline High School.

Fife’s rich traditions of mining, small towns, communities and football was a rich tapestry for Jack, his imagination and subsequent writing. Maybe the scale of change that Fife endured post-1945, like South Ayrshire and South Wales, gave Jack an acute eye for its impact, and the fragile nature of much of what is special about being human.

After leaving school, he tried and failed to train to be a librarian, instead becoming a journalist in 1965. He started off as a trainee journalist on the Glasgow Herald, quickly followed by two stints on weekly local papers – the Cambuslang Advertiser and the East Kilbride News. This was followed by working at the Glasgow offices of the Scottish Daily Express, then a proud paper with a confident unionism born of being the best-selling daily newspaper in the country.

This background led to him moving in 1970 to the Sunday Times in its pre-Murdoch days and edited by Harold Evans, where he became a foreign correspondent and feature writer. From 1986 to 1989, he wrote for, amongst others, The Observer and Vanity Fair; edited The Independent on Sunday from 1991 to 1995, before becoming editor of prestigious literary journal Granta from 1995 to 2007. Post-Granta, he took up regular residence with The Guardian, his last column appearing just days before he died.

This brief itinerary does not do justice to Jack, his qualities and what he brought to the world of writing and journalism. It is difficult to convey his contribution in words, which in form and feel do not have the same nuances, nooks and crannies, highways and byways as Jack’s did. It was a form in his writings that the diversions, B routes, and parenthesis discussions were as important as the main menu.

I have long admired how Ian Jack interpreted and captured the human spirit, and caught the sense of what was hanging in the air in a given moment or place, alongside the importance of understanding silences, pauses and what was not said.

In the 1980s, Jack found a voice in describing the seismic changes being felt throughout Britain as industries closed, unemployment soared and communities became forgotten places. Jack’s writings at this time stood out like a beacon of humanity, understanding and complexity, but what is even rarer is that they stand the test of time.

His first collection – Before The Oil Ran Out: Britain: 1977-1987 – published in 1987, captured these feelings and stands as one of the signature texts of that divided decade. He firmly places the 1980s within the context of the ripping up of the social contract and values that he had grown up thinking were secure and long-lasting.

In the introduction, he quoted historian M J Wiener from his English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980, published in 1981: ‘Until the late 1960s the generally accepted frame for the history of Britain over the previous century was that of a series of success stories: the bloodless establishment of democracy, the evolution of the welfare state, triumphs in two world wars, and the enlightened relinquishment of empire’.

Weiner’s quote critiques this worldview, going on to say that this ‘happy frame’ disguised what he thought was the long descent of the UK towards ‘an economic Sargasso Sea’. But it is clear from Jack’s quote that he believed in the positives of that ‘happy frame’ and its promise, while not being oblivious to its shortcomings. At the same time, the brutal ‘shock therapy’ of the dismantling of that social order were to provide him with the canvas and a major theme in the decades to come.

Jack had a rare attention to detail in his writings, ruminating over something which seemed small-scale but made a wider point, with a love of minutiae and miniature worlds. In this, some people over the years have dismissed him as a lover of nostalgia, but that is a misreading. Nostalgia means a yearning for a past age, whereas Jack wanted to illustrate stories, lives and memories from the past and give them a vivid description so that those stories were remembered and given their due place.

While Jack’s politics were never didactic or proselytising, there was a political purpose and intelligence in his writings, and a clear desire to honour working-class lives, cultures and experiences. A central element in this was the industrial working class and related industries which had already begun to experience sharp decline long before Thatcher in 1979.

Here Jack’s curiosity and humanity took him back in time listening to accounts of Britain’s industrial heyday, of the ingenuity which produced what was the long-term transformation of how we lived and worked.

There was a sense of respect and even awe at the skills and talents of the British working classes, from the machines they worked and maintained, to the terrible working and living conditions which people endured, and which despite of (and because of) produced a vibrant working-class culture in places such as Fife, South Ayrshire and South Wales.

I cannot remember when I first spoke to Ian, but at some point he was just there and I knew him. He was as many have said a generous and thoughtful man. He was always quick to offer positive feedback and congratulate you on a piece he liked and then offer a little of his own insight into a subject.

He was suitably humble about lots of things. Over the years, I had many discussions with him about contemporary Scotland and he would often confess about one topic or another that it was something he knew next to nothing about, which I always found surprising and refreshing.

There were many worlds he wrote about which touched me – about Fife and the story of going to see Dunfermline play in the Scottish Cup Final with his father; his father’s bookcase and remembering him through his books; the joys of the Firth of Clyde; and Glasgow.

There are many other worlds of Ian Jack: the story of the village where the band which played on the Titanic came from; going back to trace the birthplace of Eric Blair (George Orwell) in India; and his search for Orwell’s Wigan in 1980’s Britain. But, for me, it was his portraits of his homeland Scotland that were most evocative and timeless.

There are many Jack pieces on Glasgow that I could choose to pick as my favourites. One stands out as of its time, and saying something which stands the test of the time – The Transformation of Glasgow – published in 1984 as the rebranding and remaking of Glasgow got into gear.

Jack travelled the city, spoke to many people and cited some of the numbskull caricatures of Glasgow prominent in the UK media at the time. He acutely talked of the city of aspiration, wealth and go-getting which had never disappeared, but came back with a flourish and brashness in the 1980s. And he talked of the Glasgow and its people who had lost their way.

He then spoke to Kay Carmichael, social work pioneer and force for good, who lamented a city where so many people were being written off by the social system and UK Government. But then, in typical Ian style, as well as typical of Kay, the conversation went deeper. He recorded her making the following observation: ‘Glasgow had always been enthusiastic about ideas. She thought it important that the city held on to the idea that ideas are worth discussing. But lifestyle was displacing ideas; people wanted objects, good food and drink, homes with original features, and had turned away from worrying about problems which seemed without solutions’.

Jack signed off: ‘Not a uniquely Glasgow phenomenon, of course, but that it should have happened in Glasgow at all is a symptom of how severely it must have gripped the rest of the country’. Those words were written in 1984, nearly 40 years ago, and sadly their prescience and relevance to what came after is more poignant than ever.

Jack wrote about the human condition, spirit and imagination. He was not an academic and did not use jargon or theories to show how clever he was. He was in many respects a self-taught sociologist and chronicler of our times, and in this the debt to George Orwell, who was always there in the background of Jack’s writings, is a clear and proud one.

Underneath this, Jack wrote about a world beyond the empty pursuit of ‘I’ and ‘we’. Even when he was drawing from his own background and family, he was grounding it in a wider picture beyond the person.

This was about a richer tapestry of what it is to be human than being reduced to just our credit card and consumer choices. In Britain and in his Scottish travails, this meant he gave space and voice to a lost world, age and set of experiences. His writings over the past four decades offer a rare elegy for a lost Britain which had much to value and was built by the efforts of millions – and which tragically is not coming back at any point.

He knew the importance of having a ‘happy frame’ underpinning a society, had no illusions about its imperfections, and knew that we have over the course of his writing, lost something valuable. There is no going back to that past land, but Jack has acted as a rare documenter of the pasts we have lost and lives which need remembered.


This week, The Scottish Review republishes an article Ian Jack wrote for SR in 1995.
Click here
 to read ‘
This place called home’

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