Tribute to Ian Bell
Ian Bell - © Steve Cox/Herald & Times Group
8 January 2016
Ian Bell remained in Scotland for his whole journalistic career, but his recent death was noticed beyond these shores.
From Ottawa, columnist John Ivison tweeted: “This guy was one of the reasons I wanted to write columns.” I felt compelled to respond: “This guy was one of the reasons I was frightened to write columns.”
And it was true. As someone who was a fellow leader writer and columnist on The Herald in recent times, I wrote in The National: “I could never look back on anything I have written by way of commentary or analysis without thinking Bell would have put it better.”
Ian Mackay Bell was a socialist and that blood ran in his veins. His great-grandfather was the Scottish activist John Connolly, whose brother James became an international figure until his execution in Dublin approaching a century ago.
Ian was brought up on a council housing estate in East Edinburgh, attended Portobello High School, gained a first in English and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and won a scholarship to the US.
His entry into journalism was unconventional, joining the library at The Scotsman in 1978, before his talent was spotted and he trained as a sub-editor. His writing abilities were soon recognised and he crossed to the features department as a writer and literary editor.
Always a stalwart of the chapel and serving in many roles including FoC, Ian left The Scotsman in disgust after the lock-out of 1987, explaining in Radical Scotland: “Newspapers are fragile things, hard to build and easy to to topple. They depend on an odd, unspoken contract between editor, journalists and public.”
He found sub-editing work at the Glasgow Herald, leaving to become editor of the Observer Scotland supplement. When that folded he entered the long phase of his career living by his pen, writing columns for The Herald and later the Sunday Herald, reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and Scottish Review of Books, and producing two acclaimed biographies, of Robert Louis Stevenson and in two-parts of Bob Dylan.
In a column two years ago he wrote of 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. He said:
“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.”
Two of his final contributions to The Herald and Sunday Herald were a typically forensic take-down of Hilary Benn’s pro-bombing speech in the Commons which exposed its empty rhetoric and lack of logic and a beautifully crafted tribute to his great friend, the novelist and poet Willie McIllvanney, who had been best man at his wedding.
Just two days later Bell himself died suddenly. Colleagues travelled from all over the UK to pay their respects at his funeral in Edinburgh, where his mother and father, brother and sister, wife Mandy and son Sean said their farewells to a fine man and journalist of the very highest order.
Robbie Dinwoodie, a life member of the NUJ, was with The Herald for 26 years until last September's round of redundancies.