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Celebration of the life of NUJ member Ian Bell

8 May 2017

The famous Jinglin’ Geordie pub in Edinburgh’s Old Town was packed on the evening of 12 March for a convivial commemoration of the life of the radical journalist and writer Ian Bell (1956-2015) by his family, friends, former colleagues and readers. The tribute was organised by the NUJ Edinburgh & District branch, of which Bell was a member.

Chair Iain Macwhirter said that the "well refreshed" hacks of The Scotsman often used to phone in their copy from a tiny public booth at the back of the pub, now occupied by a fruit machine. "It’s all very different now. But in their defence, journalism is a contact sport, and to get stories and intelligence you really needed to spend time in the bar. It was where a lot of journalism happened. Councillors and other politicians would often come here so that they could mingle with journalists."

Macwhirter remembered that his first column had been commissioned by Ian Bell in 1990 when he was editor of the Scottish edition of The Observer, a highly regarded 48-page pull out section that inspired the creation of the Sunday Herald ten years later. "I found myself shadowing Ian as a columnist for the next twenty years," said Macwhirter. "But it was a privilege to work alongside a writer who made political commentary into a literary art form. Ian had a hinterland as a cultural and literary critic which gave depth and colour to his writing." It was very sad, he said, that Bell was not here to write about Brexit. "And of course, he would have been hugely energised by the prospect of Indyref 2, having been a long standing and dedicated supporter of Scottish independence."

Sean Bell, Ian’s son, said: "Those journalists amongst you of a certain age will recognise how appropriate a venue this is; there’s probably no pub in Edinburgh with a more illustrious connection to the newspaper business. I remember occasionally coming in here as a child, in the company of my father, and there would invariably be familiar colleagues who would recognise Dad with a smile and a cheer. What they were doing in here in the middle of a weekday afternoon I don’t know, but it probably says something about a certain era of Scottish journalism."

He remembered his father chiefly as "a teacher, and a friend, and an extraordinary parent, of which I was blessed with two ... I was only vaguely aware of how the rest of the world saw my father. I knew the awards stacked up with some regularity. I knew he was taken seriously, by friends and enemies alike. One former Sscretary of state of Scotland threatened to sue him, and then, with typical cowardice, didn’t. According to gossip, when Donald Dewar heard that he had left the Daily Record, he was so delighted he punched the air.

"Dad didn’t fit into most people’s preconceived notions: nationalists were meant to be insular and petty, not cosmopolitan and forward-thinking; communists were meant to be humourless and doctrinaire, not sardonic and imaginative; working-class Scottish men were meant to be gruff and unemotional, not endlessly gentle and kind, and journalists were meant to be cynical and untrustworthy, not principled and idealistic. When he passed away, I gained an understanding of just how many lives he had touched, and what an effect he had on the country he did so much for.

"However, there are still aspects of my father that remain largely unknown, even to his most fervent admirers ... Too many are unaware that he was a poet of rare talent, a situation that will hopefully be rectified as I prepare his work for publication. He was also a hospital porter, a lighthouse keeper, an oddly talented cook of Chinese food, a brutal pool player, and the first man ever to go before the editor of the Scotsman wearing a ponytail.

"Dad was, right up until his death, a link between the old, often romanticised world of Scottish newspapers – a place of typewriters, dartboards, vacuum tubes and blankies – and the modern day. One of the reasons my father advised me against following in his footsteps was because of this: the industry is changing, and rarely for the better. With Dad gone, in this unenviable context, it would be very easy to be pessimistic. But looking around this room, and thinking of all those others who couldn’t be here, but whose work I’ve been privileged to enjoy over these past few strange years in Scotland, I do feel an odd sense of optimism ... I have faith that many in my profession, with their lives and careers ahead of them, will rise to meet that challenge."

Susan Flockhart spoke of the immense contribution Ian had made to the Sunday Herald, having joined the paper as a columnist just a few months after the paper’s launch. "Marking our eighteenth birthday recently, the editorial team were reminded again of how much we missed him ... there’s not a week goes by when we don’t wish we could seek Ian’s unique perspective on that week’s big event, whether it be Brexit or the election of Donald Trump." She commented on the number of messages and calls from readers following the very sudden and shocking announcement of his death, expressing their grief and remarking on how important his columns had been in helping them to make sense of a turbulent world. 

Jackie McGlone, Bell’s deputy when he was editor of Observer Scotland from 1988 to 1990, said that of the fifteen editors she had worked for "some bad, some mad, some dangerous to know", Bell had been the most brilliant. "It was a privilege and a pleasure to work with him. We had first met as features subs on the Scotsman where we sat side by side for several years. Then he was a downtable news sub at The Herald when he began writing for Observer Scotland under George Rosie’s inspired editorship.

"I was in charge of production, which was done on Saturdays with knife-edge deadlines. We started at the crack of dawn, so the Observer paid for Ian and me to stay over in Glasgow every Friday evening. There was always a convivial session in Babbity Bowster with friends and colleagues, particularly the late, great Willie McIllvanney.

"Early Saturday morning I would race along Albion Street, often nursing a hangover, to get on with the production process. Come 11am I would be gnawing on my fingernails waiting for Ian to arrive to write his column. Often, I had to send the piratical Fraser Laurie, owner of Babbity Bowster, to wake Ian by knocking hard on his door. Half an hour later he would stroll nonchalantly into the office, puffing on a cigarette, sit down at his keyboard which he played like a concert pianist. An hour later there would be 1,100 perfectly crafted, cogently argued, beautifully written words with not a literal in sight. But oh the joy of finding a misplaced comma!"

McGlone said what she remembered most about Bell was his wicked humour, his enormous intelligence and intellectual range, his wisdom and his gentle kindness. "I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to write next ... he was the ultimate journalistic ally. In life, art and politics, I trusted him absolutely."

Christopher Silver spoke about Bell’s participation in his film Scotland Yet, and his book on the Scottish media, Demanding Democracy, in which Bell had said of himself: "Politics always meant I was never properly in the tradition of certain journalists, titles, or programmes. Scotland's media are still made by the middle class, for the middle class. Perspectives – we saw as much during the referendum – follow. I haven't lived in a housing scheme for a very long time, obviously. But the voices still sit at the back of my head."

"People can despise traditional journalists all they wish", said Silver, "but if we have jobs we all have one thing in common: getting paid tends to matter ... Voluntary labour and fund-raising only get you so far. There's no shortage of people with day jobs who'll write you a column (or equivalent) on a subject close to their heart ...  It's not enough.

"There remains (just) a critical mass in traditional journalism. It might not be around much longer ... Too much of what intends to be new is parasitic on the outlets it despises. There's no such thing as free in journalism. New outlets seeking a wider audience should remember this: the one thing the public can't abide is amateurism. Anyone can tell a story badly."

Silver said that Bell was a writer with the capacity to map an era of radical political and technological change, and that in doing so he shaped our collective understanding of it.

The Edinburgh NUJ branch and Ian Bell’s family are setting up an award bearing his name for new writing by young writers under the age of 30. Donations towards this are most welcome, and can be made to the branch’s account at: Co-operative Bank, sort code 08 92 99, account no. 6553736900, indicating ‘Bell award’. For further details contact vice-chair Hilary Horrocks at

Tags: , edinburgh, branch, obituaries, obituary, scotland