A farewell tribute to Ian Bell

A farewell tribute to Ian Bell

I’m breaking my self-imposed word limit today for reasons that should be obvious. This is the full version of the tribute I made to my friend Ian Bell at his funeral in Edinburgh today. It was just one part of a flow of warm words in his memory. A little of it appeared in the piece I was asked to write about Ian recently in The National.

I’ll begin and end with songs because song mattered to Ian Bell.

He was a great admirer of Bruce Springsteen, and our time together on The Scotsman in the seventies and eighties brings to mind Glory Days “that pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye.”

The Boss sang: “I hope that when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it, but I probably will / telling boring stories of Glory Days.”

Well here I am doing it. But my friend never got old. I hope at least that these stories aren’t too boring.

A quirk of fate saw me in 1973, straight out of school, accepted to be an indentured apprentice journalist — such were the terms of the old craft — joining The Scotsman in the New Year. It was an experiment never repeated. Those trainees who followed were all high-flying graduates and some, such as Andrew Marr, Lionel Barber and James Meek, were to scale the heights of journalism, broadcasting and literature.

But Ian found an unusual foot in the North Bridge door, a post for which his academic record should have rendered him absurdly over-qualified. Hence, as a tyro news reporter in 1978 using the newspaper’s library I found this intriguing new assistant there, soon to be taken across onto the sub-editors’ desk, and in turn to the features department as his writing talent was recognised.

Jim Seaton had succeeded Harry Reid as features and literary editor, and with deputy David Ross, set about assembling a team that could be a powerhouse at the heart of the paper. To avoid losing Ian, Jim gave him the literary editorship. So many talented trainees and staff passed through the department, I cannot name them all.

Melanie Reid is upset to be unable to be here today, but Jim Seaton recalls the day she came back to write up a feature about a course to help women be more assertive in the workplace. As she held forth, assertively, Ian swivelled in his chair and said: “Shut up, Mel!” The whole place collapsed.

But we got the inside joke. No-one was kinder or gentler with male and female colleagues than Ian, as Sarah Nelson has spoken of. He was a tower of strength in his role as union FoC in dire times.

At that time we worked ferociously hard and played harder. I well remember the day a strong rumour emerged from Westminster that Home Secretary Leon Brittan was the subject of paedophilia rumours. We decamped to Le Sept restaurant to celebrate the imminent downfall of the Thatcher Government. We returned from many toasts to discover it had all gone mysteriously quiet.

Only decades later did it emerge that he had indeed been handed a dossier of allegations at that time but the document conveniently disappeared. Our celebrations had been premature.

When Ian left after the lock-out of 1987 he wrote a memorably excoriating take-down of the state of the newspaper he was turning his back on. I read it again last night and three decades on it is prescient.

“Newspapers are fragile things, hard to build and easy to to topple. They depend on an odd, unspoken contract between editor, journalists and public, a contract based on trust (we believe what we write, you believe what you read); mutual respect (we try to write intelligently, believing in your intelligence); some sort of belief in the importance of reliable information (Zircon, Peter Wright, Westland to name but three); and reliable prose.”

Ian left, supporting Mandy and a very young Sean with no job to go to. I secured a ripcord before jumping, and we both ended up courtesy of Arnold Kemp and Harry Reid on The Glasgow Herald as it then was. Others were to take a similar escape route, including Andrew Hood and Drew Allan.

When Ian took to cyberspace he blogged under the name Prospero. The hero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest used supreme intellect to work magic for the cause of good. Given Ian Bell’s relentless flow of journalism, biographies and who knows what else still to be published, it was apt.

He recorded in that blog exactly two years ago his love of his forebears who fought and strived for a better world and lamented the way the Labour Party seemed to have lost sight of that, particularly in the side it chose in the independence referendum.

He wrote: “We can live without a Labour Party. I’m not sure we can live without the beliefs that first brought Labour to birth. When that party remembers as much, our politics will be respectable again. But I won’t hold my breath.

“The important thing about those old, departed folk is that they didn’t think for half a minute they were being radical. They believed they were being human. We could try that. There’s a country yet unmade, and a politics waiting.”

Ian’s writing was simply that, articulating being human.

I doubt Ian would have expected he and I to meet again to argue the merits of Hearts and Hibs. I know I don’t. But if we are pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong by those among you of faith, I’m ready with how to greet my old friend:

“We’ll meet on edges soon, said I,
Proud ‘neath heated brow,
But we were so much older then,
We’re younger than that now.”


Sarah Nelson, now an academic at Edinburgh University but back in the day a features writer and education correspondent at The Scotsman, adds:
“After the sudden quite untimely death of Ian Bell most tributes have featured his fierce and crafted writing and his breadth of intellect, alongside his many years with the Herald.
“Ian’s writing repeatedly revived and gave heart to those of us on the Left of politics, who had become too depressed or too exhausted with the turn of political events to respond with his own unquenched spirit.
“As an ex-colleague I also want to mention his time in the features department of the Scotsman under Jim Seaton.
“I most remember Ian’s quiet  supportive presence, his dry and acerbic wit and the years of fun and friendship we all had, in the days when we took our work seriously, but did so during happier times for journalists everywhere.”

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

I RETURNED from my regular morning walk with an added spring in my step today, thanks to the recently departed Willie McIllvanney.
He was a regular visitor to The Scotsman features department when I worked there in the eighties and always the most fantastic company. He was generous, broad-minded, full of anecdotes that didn’t centre on himself. What is the opposite of bumptious? Not just unbumptious but actively anti-bumptious. That was Willie, holding court, but modestly. That cliche of the thriller blurbs was apposite: “Women want him. Men want to be him.”
I didn’t have that much contact with Willie over the next decades, brushing briefly during the occasional literary/political interface. But to know him and his wonderful, smooth malt voice — even through broadcasts such as the re-run of a beautiful  Janice Forsyth interview this week — was to think you were close, a tangible link with the word on the page.
His politics — non-partisan socialist and supportive of independence — were mine too, but the beauty of Willie and evident in his passing was that you did not have to share his views to admire him as a writer and a man.
The evidence was there in the wake of his death at the weekend, when writers as diverse as Alex Massie and Kevin McKenna united in magnificent tribute.
So why the spring in my step mentioned above? His passing made me realise that while I had read all of his novels I had never read his poetry, an omission I thought to put right. On my morning walk I dropped into the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge and there was In Through the Head, his 1988 collection of new and collected verse.
I open my new purchase, read: Love’s counterfeits are endless and a bore. I’m in.