Ian Jack’s last published work was a column in the Guardian on Saturday October 22, in which he spoke about what the BBC meant to his generation, born at or after the end of the Second World War. This meant, he said, a large amount, as the company’s broadcasts drilled into lives then lived almost entirely outside of today’s encompassing media realms.
The schoolchildren, then, were “almost Masonic in their mysteries”, repeating lines such as “He fell in the water” from The Goon Show or “Stone me!” of Hancock’s Half Hour, which only insiders, addicted to the waves of the 1950s, could know (a signature trick, to insert a word – here, “freemason” – whose meaning required thought before it clicked produce). Ian belonged to an upper working-class generation: a boy helping his mother mutilate by hand while Oklahoma’s Oh What a Beautiful Morning! crackled from the Light program: he imagined the song had always been there – and the “bright, golden mist over the prairie” was still there for him, a surge of joy he remembered.
Ian, who died aged 77 after a short illness, wrote slowly, if possible, each paragraph honed to perfection, before moving on. While, as a foreign correspondent, he knew the school of reporting “six paras at seven o’clock or it’s not in”, he really wanted time. The name “long-term journalism” was struck upon him: a style clearly his own from the very first lines.
From the mid-1970s to the 2010s, Ian visited India often and for a time lived in Kolkata. The resulting collection of essays, Mofussil Junction (2013), is a series of “encounters”, experienced as much as possible as Indians experience it – in crowded trains, in teahouses and seedy hotels. “I have become accustomed to the neglected and the obscure. During the monsoon in Jalandhar, I stayed in a damp room which was sort of under a cinema; at Jamalpur in a hostel for engine drivers; in Maldia (and quite a few other crossroads) in the station retreat room.
Historian Ramachandra Guha wrote of his essays that there is “a real sense of culture in nature, of how different types of Indians are integrated into forests, fields, rivers, mountains , the factories and towns they live and die in. One of the reasons Ian Jack writes so well about India is that he is never in a hurry. The strangeness is noted, but never condescendingly.
Trying to find George Orwell’s birthplace – in Motihari, Bihar – he arrives with a headache, partly re-reading 1984 on the bumpy car journey, observing (an offense to intellectual opinion received) that “as a novel it is poor, as a prophecy it is false, as an estimate of the human spirit it is unforgivable dark”.
The search for the true birthplace fails, but it contains another trademark of Jack – the long parenthesis, an excursion in the opium trade created by the British, collected in India and sent to China, supervised by officials Britons, one of whom was Richard Blair, father of the Eric Blair who became known as Orwell. He links trade to the novel through doublethink: in the Indian case, the doublethink that allowed the imperialists to believe that they were bringing enlightenment to the natives (Indians and Chinese) while making one side narcoticize the other for profit.
Ian had a “thing” about Orwell: after all, he often did something similar, trying to make sense of life and work among people who opposed him, “meddling in life others”, as he said in his 1987 Collection, Before the Oil Runs Out. There he wrote of a trip to Wigan in the fall of 1982, following in the footsteps of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, but unable to discover Orwell’s misery. He found the cheapest room he could – £6 a night including breakfast – “but of the shocking misery I could find no trace of” – continuing, another of Ian’s tricks, with the little detail – “the toilet paper roll was wrapped in knitted wool”.
He entered the subjects in crab. Women and children first in his 2009 collection The country formerly known as Britain, patiently examining myths of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, had the front pages about his children, five and three, playing with a toy boat and an iceberg – “a ball of white paper”. After some discussion with a trader about a better toy version of the doomed ship, he considered James Cameron’s 1997 film, from there as much to calamity framings, from George Bernard Shaw to Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who “wondered if… we were losing a good sense of history,” as to the disaster (1,503 drowned, 703 rescued).
This finest journalist did not go to college, but followed a hallowed path of learning to Fleet Street. Born in Farnworth, now Greater Manchester, he moved at age seven with his mother, father and older brother, Harry, to North Queensferry on the Fife coast: his father, Henry, was a craftsman engineer in the navy, then worked in the same trade in various companies: his mother, Isa (née Gillespie), daughter of an Irishman who had served in the Royal Artillery in India, was a quality inspector in flax mills before her marriage .
On leaving school, he enrolls in a course as a librarian: but he wants to write, not lend, words – and does so, first in the Cambuslang Advertiser, then in the East Kilbride News. It was quickly picked up by the Glasgow-based Scottish Daily Express, and just as quickly by the Sunday Times in 1970, during the Harold Evans era, where he edited a section, and moved on to reporting and writing feature films. He won several awards, including Journalist of the Year, and established both a growing reputation and a style.
In 1986, he began writing for the Observer and for magazines – he was approached for the editorial staff of the New Yorker – and three years later returned to the editorial staff of the brand new Independent on Sunday, first as editor of supplements, then as an editor (1992 -95).
In 1979 he married Aparna Bagchi; they divorced in 1992. On the Independent on Sunday, he met Lindy Sharpe: they became partners, had two children, Bella and Alex, and then married in 1998 – a close and mutually empowering marriage. All three survive him.
His departure from the Independent on Sunday 1995 meant more Fleet Street: he would edit the literary review Granta, itself an exercise in long form, where new writing flourished. Under Ian, from 1995 to 2007, screenwriters included Monica Ali, AL Kennedy, Andrew O’Hagan and the still-thriving Zadie Smith.
Before his death he was preparing a book on the Clyde, aided (among others) by actor Bill Paterson, a Clydeside native impressed, in their discussions, with Ian’s grasp of detail and meaning.
He walked through each of his rooms, in dank Indian basements, toilets with a knitted roll cover, his own living room – careful, questioning, gentle but sharp for falsehoods, contradictions, omissions, keeping the point in waiting for the scaffolding of the room is erected. It is the journalist as a contemporary shaper of a Socratic dialogue, always benevolent, but with a “but what about…? always ready, to probe to deeper revelations. No other British journalist was working at this level and he was still working when he died.