Ian Traynor was one of the greatest post-war Scottish journalists. He may have been relatively unknown in his native Scotland but was renowned throughout mainland Europe for his fearless, acerbic reporting, savage scepticism and brilliantly lucid writing as the Guardian’s Europe editor.
On Monday, at the start of the “new term” in the European Union, the European Commission’s chief spokesman paid a rare and fulsome tribute to Ian, admitting that the reporter’s tough questioning on his early appearances at the “rendez-vous du midi” after the spokesman’s own appointment had forced him to up his game substantially. Colleagues stood in respect and admiration for their much-loved colleague.
Ian Traynor was a passionate European, a multi-linguist at home in East and West, who was dismayed and downhearted at the pro-Brexit vote on 23 June. But he had no truck with lazy, complacent integrationists and pampered eurocrats – nor with petty nationalists masquerading as great statesmen/women. His EU was one of an informed, active citizenry and civil society.
Equally, he remained profoundly rooted in Scotland, a keen (if often let-down) supporter of Celtic, watching their Champions League games at the Michael Collins pub off the Avenue Louise with our national foreboding of inevitable failure and a shrug at the final whistle.
He shared with Angus Roxburgh, a friend from Aberdeen University days and ex-BBC correspondent in Moscow and Brussels, a great love for Scottish folk music. The two would jam Dick Gaughan and John Martyn songs together into the night, a couple of old socialists loudly singing Hamish Henderson’s Roch the Wind/Freedom come a’ ye. Ian was, says Roxburgh, a fabulous guitarist, adding: “He and I would often consume red wine and play old jazz and folk CDs, talking of the EU, the SNP and why everything had gone to custard in Europe.”
Ian Traynor was born on 11 November, 1955, in Penilee, Glasgow, to Tommy, a toolmaker, and his wife, Phemie. The family moved to East Kilbride – which he considered home – when he was 12 and he went to Holy Cross High School in Hamilton. He remained proud of his Scottish working-class roots and values all his life.
According to Ed Vulliamy, a Guardian colleague and fellow reporter on the civil war in Yugoslavia, Ian was – like many – motivated to be a foreign correspondent by reading George Orwell. At an early age, he was so good at Russian and German he went to Glasgow University at 16, though he dropped out before completing a modern languages degree at Aberdeen. There he met Jean Forsyth, whom he later married.
After undertaking a translation/interpreting course, he joined the BBC Monitoring Service in Caversham, near Reading – a breeding ground for Kremlinologists, spooks and foreign hacks – in 1978. Nine years later, he took over Roxburgh’s old job on the foreign subs desk at the Guardian in Farringdon Road, Clerkenwell, but swiftly moved to reporting under the tutelage of the paper’s formidable foreign editor, Martin Woollacott.
The end of the Cold War made Traynor as a reporter and analyst, at first of the collapse of communism and the democratic revolutions in east Europe – Romania, Poland and elsewhere. But it was in what was then Yugoslavia that he made his name as a Guardian on-the-ground war reporter and East European Correspondent based in Vienna.
In 1995 he replaced me as the paper’s man in reunited Germany, first in Bonn, then in Berlin, and he remained a top-rate German specialist with wonderful contacts in the Chancellery and other ministries. After a stint in Moscow he moved to Zagreb – from where his second wife, Ivanka, hailed – and then, in 2007, to Brussels where she was to die of cancer four years later.
Here, where the pair of us worked together above the aptly named Old Hack pub opposite the Commission, he came into his own as an outstanding European journalist, winning plaudits for his news reporting and, above all, insightful commentaries written in beautiful prose that often caught the eye – and took one’s breath away.
He was never prolific in the style of those journalists who have to put their mark on the world at least once a day, often dismissing events as “nae f***ing tale here”. But when he wrote, it was original, tough, cerebral – something that bore re-reading, unlike most of our copy.
His range of observation expanded, too, taking in Turkey and the rise of Islamophobia in Europe and, not least, the fall-out of the 2008 financial crisis in the eurozone, notably Greece. His learning path was astonishingly steep and fast: he soon became an accomplished financial/economics journalist.
Ian Traynor was an utterly generous man, full of kind and wise remarks and advice for young correspondents. Beneath his dour façade, his dishevelled beard, there beat a heart of gold and he was a model of caring for his youngest son, Sean, as he nursed Ivanka during her illness. Officials, diplomats, politicians respected and liked him too.
Of course, he had his blind spots – a profound dislike for “public school” twits; an uneasy, sometimes irascible relationship with the paper’s Oxbridge elite, a sense he was under-paid and under-valued. He had far too little sense of his own worth both as a journalist and as a human being. But, like many of us, he had no time for fools, especially those given to superficial opining or what a mutual colleague calls “columnar pox”.
Ian, who died of cancer, leaves three sons, Paul, Martin and Sean, as well as his first wife, Jean, who latterly returned often to care for him in Brussels – where I last saw him a few weeks ago for gossip and chat, including his wish to see his summer home in Istria if the oncologists would allow it. He never made it.