Obituary: Ian Bell, journalist and author

Born: 7 January, 1956. Died: 10 December, 2015, aged 59.
Ian Bell, colossus of Scottish journalism whose political beliefs served to sharpen his prose. Picture: Steve CoxIan Bell, colossus of Scottish journalism whose political beliefs served to sharpen his prose. Picture: Steve Cox
Ian Bell, colossus of Scottish journalism whose political beliefs served to sharpen his prose. Picture: Steve Cox

For a great many ­people, Ian Bell was not only the leading figure in Scottish journalism, he validated our trade’s very existence.

Those who enter journalism do so for many reasons: novelists manqué, seekers after truth, or simply to write for a living, we all have our reasons. Most toil all our lives and are not recognised by the generality, some head off into public relations or lecturing, others fall by the wayside and get a sensible job.

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A few, a very few, transcend the grinding business of putting mere words on paper, and become beloved by many people who appreciate their wit and wisdom. In Scotland, Ian Bell was supreme among that minuscule coterie.

Fellow journalists, commentators and politicians, and thousands of his readers across the land, mourned his sudden passing in hospital from a suspected heart attack on Thursday evening. That it occurred so soon after the death of his great friend William McIlvanney has only added to the grief that so many people are experiencing just now.

Grief is the price we pay for having loved, and in all the tributes to Bell perhaps the most succinct and affectionate came from his friend and publisher, the former Mainstream Publishing co-owner Bill Campbell who said simply: “He was a colossus. I loved him.”

Ian Bell was indeed greatly loved, though not perhaps by the greedy and avaricious of this world, or the vacuous and pompous, for he took those charlatans to task fearlessly and with unerring accuracy.

Born in Edinburgh, Bell’s great-grandfather was John Connolly, brother of James, the socialist and trade unionist executed by the British Army for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

Raised on the Magdalene council estate, Bell was educated at Portobello High School and Edinburgh University – he was one of the first youngsters from his locality to go study there.

English was his subject – he had been a prizewinner at school so he jumped at the chance to become a sub-editor on The Scotsman. It was soon noted that he was quite brilliant at turning adequate prose into polished reading material. At The Scotsman he played a leading part in the National Union of Journalists. The BBC’s Andrew Marr was a youthful colleague and recalls him in those days as “a man of massive moral authority, ferocious in argument, yet very, very kind to young journalists like myself”.

Many of those arguments were conducted in the Jinglin’ Geordie, the haunt of many a Scotsman Publications journalist – as Bell loved company and a libation among people who knew he was far their intellectual superior but who he always treated as friends. Indeed, more than a few of those discussions were on the merits or otherwise of Hibernian FC, to whom he had a lifelong allegiance.

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Bell became literary editor of the paper and also wrote columns and features that attracted attention from the outset. He moved to the Glasgow Herald, as it then was, where that role expanded and he wrote many of its most trenchant leader columns.

He would also edit the Scottish edition of The Observer where he first persuaded McIlvanney to try his hand at commentary on the events of the day.

Turning freelance, Bell wrote often for The Scotsman where Andrew Neil became publisher on the purchase of the newspaper by the Barclay brothers. Yesterday, Neil said of Bell: “He knew the power of words and used them with conviction and intelligence. He was always readable, informed and concerned.”

In the late 1990s, Bell was persuaded by its former editor, Martin Clarke, to join him at the Daily Record for a brief but highly entertaining period that gave him a great fund of stories.

Latterly he wrote again for the Herald and particularly enjoyed his association with the Sunday Herald. He also contributed to the Times Literary Supplement.

Amongst all that activity, he found time to write a superb biography of his literary hero Robert Louis Stevenson, Dreams of Exile, which was published by Mainstream Publishing, now part of Random House. It was critically acclaimed and won the Saltire Society’s Best First Book in 1994.

For the same publisher he also wrote two volumes of a life of Bob Dylan, another hero of his, called Once Upon a Time and Time Out Of Mind, both subtitled the Lives of Bob Dylan.
 Yet it will be for his journalism that most people will remember Bell. Twice the Scottish Journalist of the Year, and winner of many awards for his columns, in 1997 he won the Orwell Prize for Political Journalism.

One of his finest pieces was published in The Scotsman on 15 March, 1996, after the Dunblane Primary School massacre. He concluded his heartfelt yet analytical piece by writing: “For what it’s worth, I can tell you that this one small nation, dressing its children for school, preparing for another hard day, and suddenly afraid for everything it cares about, directs all the hopeless love it has towards a small town in Perthshire. The defective species, eloquent beyond its own understanding, calls that humanity.”

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The following year he was called at home in the early hours of 31 August, 1997, to be told of the death of Princess Diana. Less than two hours later he had supplied Scotland on Sunday with 1,500 words of peerless prose on the tragedy.

In person, Bell could be shy and retiring at times, a difficult feat for a tall and well-built fellow. Remarkably, this man who was so eloquent on the page suffered from a lifelong stammer, yet it did not hold him back, especially in his journalism that was bold and inspiring, not least because he openly admitted to socialist beliefs, and to a love of Scotland – the Yes cause in last year’s referendum was one he espoused gladly.

Whether capturing the feelings of a nation, or spearing the pretentiousness of politicians, Bell always found the words to make an impact.

Bell spent the last part of his life at Coldingham in Berwickshire where he took ill on ­Thursday morning, dying later in hospital.

His son Sean wrote movingly after his father’s death: “Our family has lost a husband, a father and a son and Scotland has lost its finest journalist. He set a standard none shall ever reach again yet he inspired us to never stop trying.”

How true, how so very true. To those of us who have lost a friend, mentor and leader, there can be no successor or ­substitute.

Ian Bell is survived by Sean, his wife Mandy, his parents and brother and sister. Details of his funeral will be announced in due course.