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:

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When British mortgage rates hit 15.4 percent

John Major – the man who prompted my announcement

Mortgage rates doubling. Home owners in despair. Thousands of homes being repossessed.

Sounds familiar? This was Britain in 1990. I was running Nationwide Building Society’s press office and had the job of announcing that February that mortgage rates were going up to 15.4 percent. Just two years earlier the home loan rate was just over 8 percent.

The 1980s were a golden time for home ownership in Britain. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher championed a home-owning democracy, and the proportion of people owning their own home rose from 56 percent in 1980 to 67 percent in 1990. (Source: Statista.) But the housing boom crashed after Thatcher and her chancellor Nigel Lawson allowed the economy to overheat, and interest rates almost doubled in just over 18 months, culminating in that eye-watering 15.4 percent mortgage rate.

As spokesman for Britain’s third largest mortgage lender, I was busy explaining the impact on borrowers (and savers). Fixed rate mortgages were in their infancy in the UK, with the first launched in 1989, and I can’t remember Nationwide offering one back then. Many borrowers were on annual review mortgage schemes, which fixed the monthly payment but not the interest rate for 12 months. If interest rates soared, the borrower had to pay back the extra money owed later.

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Mick Lynch: a text book lesson in winning the argument

Mick Lynch, the leader of the union that represents Britain’s railway workers, has become the media star of the past week. His calm, clever responses to hostile questions about the rail strikes have shown that disrupting people’s travel plans to fight for better pay needn’t be unpopular.

He brilliantly defused Sky News’ Kay Burley’s crazily over the top attempt to raise the spectre of a return to the violent picketing scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Mick calmly turned to the tiny group of peaceful pickets behind him. ”That’s what a picket line looks like. We’ll try to persuade people not to go to work.” Outrageously Burley tweeted that Lynch was flustered – yet he was as cool as the cliched cucumber. The Sky presenter was the one losing her cool as her interview went nowhere. Lynch had the facts and the humour to defuse what could have been a tough interview.

The unions have a very good argument. So many people have had their real incomes slashed by 12 years of Tory austerity at a time when industry bosses have shown no restraint. The government may think that a summer of discontent will help it win back support. It didn’t work for Ted Heath in 1974 or Jim Callaghan in 1979. The cost of living crisis is going to get worse in the next year and Boris Johnson and his cronies have no answers. (Especially when Johnson tried to get one of those cronies to pay for a £150,000 summer house for his son in the grounds of Chequers.)

Keir Starmer should take lessons from Mick Lynch about how to win an argument. Right now, Labour’s leader is like a football manager winning 1-0 and determined to play safe and close down play at the risk of conceding a goal or two. He should be going for a convincing win.

Gate: it’s a scandal

First there was Watergate. The scandal that eventually brought down American president Richard Nixon was named after the Watergate office building in Washington DC, the site of a burglary in 1972 linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Since then, every scandal – or, in truth, concocted controversy – has had ‘gate’ as a suffix. Partygate – the scandal of illegal parties held at 10 Downing Street during lockdowns – is just the latest.

I’ve always found this a tiresome, lazy journalistic practice. So I was pleased today to see The Times agreeing with me. Rose Wild in her feedback column agreed with a reader, David Simpson, who pleaded with the paper to “stop writers putting ‘gate’ at the end of any scandal”.

Rose responded that The Times style guide discourages the practice as tired and lazy.

The only time I applauded the usage was when the Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign after allegedly abusing police officers at the Downing Street gates in 2012. Gategate was a witty description – but the more common description was plebgate, after Mitchell was accused of calling the police plebs.

I hope Rose’s verdict holds, But I fear lazy journalists will still be calling scandals gates a century after Nixon resigned.

Goodbye to Guardian Weekend

Weekend covers

“Where’s the Weekend magazine?” I asked myself. I had just bought Karen her print copy of The Guardian, and wondered if I’d picked up an incomplete copy of our favourite Saturday paper.

I hadn’t. A quick online search told me that the paper had ditched the supplement, launched in 1988 in response to The Independent’s very popular Saturday magazine. I hadn’t noticed because I read the Guardian in the daily app rather than in print, where it is less obvious.

It made me nostalgic. I’ve been reading The Guardian for over 40 years, but was seduced by The Independent’s Saturday supplement in the late 1980s. Edited by Alexander Chancellor, it was the perfect Saturday morning read. The Indie was a good looking but rather dull paper in its early days, but its editors were clever to see the potential of Saturday in an era when that day’s edition was typically the worst selling of the week. It was famous for its photography, which was arguably the best of any British newspaper at the time. The Guardian recognised the threat and launched the Weekend magazine – at first as a low cost print effort, upgraded to a glossy magazine in 2001.

I enjoyed Weekend, especially the often quirky readers’ letters and Stephen Fry’s witty reviews of the latest text gadgets, such as this essay on the Canon 1000D. (The camera with which I recorded Owen’s early years.) Not to mention Let’s Move To…, which offered a quirky take on places around Britain. (Though not always accurately – the feature on my mother’s hometown of Penarth was a sour piece.) The Guardian’s supplement suited my mood in a way that the Sunday Times’s far longer-lived colour supplement didn’t. And Blind Date was a winner, an often laugh-out-loud account of two people going for a … blind date.

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Mourning David Amess – and yearning for a kinder politics

Britain was horrified by yesterday’s murder of Sir David Amess – the second member of parliament to be killed in five years, after the tragic loss of Jo Cox in 2016. Police are treating Sir David’s killing as an act of terrorism.

In the meantime, I yearn for an end of the climate of hatred that has developed in British politics in recent years. As I blogged a week ago after the death from cancer of James Brokenshire MP politics has always been a rough trade. But calling your political rivals scum (as Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner did recently in referring to Tories) and enemies of the people and traitors (as populist right wing papers labelled the judiciary and MPs who didn’t support Brexit) is undermining democracy and the rule of law. All amplified by the poisonous echo chamber of social media, which circulates hate speech and lies.

This rancid mix may not have been the spur to the person who ended David Amess’s life. But it makes reasonable debate on crucial but sensitive topics almost impossible.

Britain’s parliamentarians – in Westminster, Cardiff Bay and Holyrood – serve the people tirelessly. A friend recently praised the new MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green, for her superb support on a family matter. Our friend is not a natural Lib Deb voter – but Sarah, like all MPs, is dedicated to serve and help all her constituents, no matter how they voted. MPs, MSs and MSPs have become a social service, far removed to their predecessors years 60 years ago who had far less contact with their constituents. They deserve our support especially when they live in fear after two of their peers have been struck down in the service of the people.

Women in journalism: my mother’s view from the 1940s

My mother’s article about journalism as a career for women

We got a precious glimpse into attitudes to women in journalism in the 1940s this week when my father Bob Skinner gave me a handwritten article my late mother Rosemary Skinner (nee Preece) wrote over 70 years ago as part of her journalism training.

I could hear Mum’s voice as I read her talking about rude awakenings, and advising women reporters to dress quietly but with distinction. (Her point being that you may be present at an inquest and a fashionable reception on the same day.) Intriguingly, she comments that ‘the old saying “women are the unfortunate victims of sex prejudice” is rapidly dying’, given that there were more openings for women workers on a newspaper at the time. I suspect that may have been a little optimistic!

Rosemary Preece as a young reporter

Mum’s own career in journalism was short lived. She put down her reporter’s notebook for good after my sister was born in 1953 when she was just 25. (It was common for women in the Fifties to give up their careers on starting a family, in many cases because unenlightened employers insisted on it.) Reading her article today, I can’t help thinking she could have done very well, with her determination, her way with people and her unique personality. She wrote all those years ago that ‘most women reporters soon learn to add a small amount of charm, and larger amounts of persuasiveness, even persistence’. Mum had all those qualities in abundance.

You can reads Mum’s article below: click continue reading.

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Elections 2021: London media ignore Wales again

For Wales, see … nowhere

It’s the same old story. The London media has always ignored and neglected Wales. The Times is a classic example. It has a Scottish edition but never pays Wales the same attention. So I was not surprised to see the Welsh Senedd elections barely reported – and then badly – in today’s iPad edition of the paper. The Saturday news summary above ignores the fascinating and unexpected Senedd election results.

No such thing as the Welsh Assembly

The story The Times did run (above) repeatedly referred to the Welsh Assembly – an institution that no longer exists. The country’s legislature is the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament.

Yet in its obsession with Hartlepool and Holyrood, the London media (with the honourable exception of the BBC and The Guardian) were missing a really significant story. The incumbent parties in government in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Westminster did well. Labour’s Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has won plaudits across these islands for his calm leadership during the pandemic. The Senedd results showed that voters rewarded Labour for its steady hand on the tiller. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon looks to be close to an SNP majority. And, as the London media keep telling us, Boris Johnson has dealt a blow to Labour’s UK leader Keir Starmer by capturing another traditional Labour parliamentary seat in Hartlepool. But the story is rather more nuanced even in England.

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David Walsh and Lance Armstrong: truth to tell

It was all about the cheating

Almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. His best selling book, It’s Not About the Bike, told the extraordinary tale of the cancer survivor who returned to win the world’s toughest cycle race, the Tour de France.

Back then, I was a modest cyclist (I still am) with dreams of cycling the length of Great Britain, Land’s End to John O’Groats. I was inspired by Armstrong’s story, especially his dedication to training. Yes, I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.

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Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”