In praise of journalist Ian Jack

Ian Jack’s Guardian by-line photo

We’ve lost a fine writer and observer of British life and politics with the death of Ian Jack.

My spirits always rose on a Saturday when I spotted one of Jack’s beautifully observed Guardian columns. It helped that I’m fascinated by the topics he made his own, such as Britain’s industrial heritage, and the long-lost glories of our railways and maritime traditions. Who else would have linked the disastrous new rail timetables of 2018 with the misreading 153 years earlier of a timetable that caused the Victorian railway crash that ruined the health of Charles Dickens? (In that piece, Jack also highlighted that Dickens was travelling with his lover when their train crashed into the river Beult.)

He turned wistful memories into compelling copy. Take this example, a childhood memory of a 1950s dining car experience, woven into a column mourning Chiltern Railways’ axing of on-train catering services:

“Just before we crossed the Tay we took our seats in the restaurant car, where a uniformed waiter brought us plates of haddock and chips. A shaft of the midday sun lit the white tablecloth and glittered on the cutlery, and on the other side of the window gave a silver burnish to the sea. The haddock lay golden in its coat of breadcrumbs, decorated with a lemon slice and some unfamiliar pale sauce, identified much later in life as tartare. It was utterly delicious; better by far than anything out of our local chip shop – perhaps even tastier than the kind my mother cooked. Ice-cream and tinned fruit salad followed. The last morsels had gone long before we reached Montrose.”

(I was lucky enough to experience one of the last Chiltern breakfasts: a delicious bacon bap and coffee enjoyed en route to Birmingham in April 2013.)

Ian Jack also wrote a devastating indictment of the privatised railway company Railtrack for the causes and consequences of the Hatfield rail crash of October 2000. His short book, The Crash That Stopped Britain, explained how more lives had been lost as a result of Railtrack’s disastrous reaction to the accident, inflicting speed limits on much of the network resulting in journey times the Victorians would have regarded as slow. Jack highlighted that Railtrack had downgraded the importance of engineering expertise that is essential to the successful and safe running of the railways. Stung by public concern after a series of post-privatisation railway disasters, the company reacted in a way that forced travellers onto the roads, which were inherently more dangerous than the railways.

Not what it seems…Picture: Peter Wagner, Thomas “Tim” Dyson, George Salmon, Jack Catlin and George Young, outside Lord’s, 1937; Jimmy Sime/Getty

Ian Jack also examined the eternal issue of class in Britain. He looked into the famous 1937 photo of two public schoolboys and three working class boys outside Lord’s cricket ground. The resulting long article in Intelligent Life magazine exploded the myths that have surrounded the image ever since. Jack researched the lives of the five boys immortalised in the photo, turning myth into their true life stories. Both Harrow schoolboys had sad endings: ‘Tim’ Dyson died of dysentery in India the following year, while Peter Wagner suffered mental traumas before dying in the 1980s. By contrast the other, supposedly less fortunate boys, appear to have lived longer, contented lives. They were far from the ‘toughs’ some reports have labelled them as. They attended a Church of England school not far from Lord’s, and all seem to have lived into the 21st century.

Jack grew up in Scotland, and many of his most evocative, elegiac pieces are about the country. His collection of essays, The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain, includes this sad explanation of why he kept returning to Rothesay for holidays:

‘I should know better. I’ve been coming to the Firth of Clyde on holiday since the 1950s, the last decade in which the population of industrial Scotland poured itself wholeheartedly downriver by train and steamer to the coasts of Cowal and Ayrshire and the island resorts of Bute, Cumbrae and Arran. Ten years or so later they were off to Spain and a fortnight of guaranteed heat and sun… Now you’ll be lucky to find six people walking the prom at the same time and, if you do, all of them will have the brave look (which is perhaps our look) that suggests they are making the best of it.

‘”Should we have another go at the putting?”

‘”Too wet. Let’s have an ice cream in Zavaroni’s.”‘

Ian writes movingly about his mother’s young life in Hill of Beath, a village east of Dunfermline that sounds more bucolic than the mining community it once was. I was intrigued by the name when I read the book, and was pleased to find out that I’d cycled within four miles of it on my Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride in 2019. Jack recounts a return visit to Hill of Beath after his mother died: ‘I walked about for a while and met nobody… Hill of Beath looked like a small and not very prosperous suburb, with arrowed traffic signs .. as its most prominent features.’

Ian Jack was more than a talented writer. He co-founded the Independent on Sunday newspaper and was its editor from 1990 to 1995, after which he edited the literary magazine Granta. But I will always remember him as the columnist who brightened countless Saturdays with his finely observed reflections.

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