Remembering Ian Bell

The palpable sense of loss with the passing of Willie McIlvanney has been added to by the sad news of the death of the writer Ian Bell. This is a tragedy for Scotland and beyond, for anyone who wants to understand the world and to strive for a better one. His writing gave a rhythm to the week. His column was like a refuge, a regular bout of sanity, clarity and righteous anger.

Friends have been unrestrained in tribute. Kevin McKenna said: “Am distraught at the passing of Ian Bell. He was quite simply the best at what the rest of us try to do … and the most gentle and humble.” His colleague Neil Mackay wrote: “Ian Bell inspired me as a young writer. He stood for everything journalism is about: telling truth to power. His loss to us all is profound.” Iain Macwhirter wrote: “Loss of my colleague Ian Bell leaves an aching void in Scottish journalism. He set the standard we all tried to equal, but never could.” Joyce McMillan wrote: “Can’t believe Ian Bell gone – superb column on Hilary Benn speech just last weekend. Goodbye, Ian, greatest writer in Scottish journalism.”

He won the Orwell Prize for political journalism in 1997, and was awarded the Best First Book in 1994 by the Saltire Society for his biography of Robert Louis Stevenson Dreams of Exile, and, as the broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli said: “The Scottish columnist of the year was affectionately known as the Ian Bell prize, he won it that often.”

To say ‘he was a man of principle’ sounds like a routine and lazy epitaph. But in Bell’s case it was a defining feature of the man. Hugh MacDonald reminds us that:

“Ian Bell’s march on Glasgow in the 1980s was but the setting of the preparatory ground where he waged his war on lies, greed, avarice, political opportunism and corporate crime. He was propelled by principle. He arrived at the Glasgow Herald, gravitating towards a desk where the sub-editors laboured in a cigarette smog that carried a heavy hint of alcohol, because he could not work at The Scotsman. A labour dispute, long forgotten by most, had prompted Ian to state with typical elegance and with unwavering purpose that he had to find other employers.”

51OCALe6DcL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_His writing had a quality of purity about it that will be sorely missed. He wrote about what was important, urgent, but managed to write with a restrained elegance that gave his anger all the more impact. He was a writer who practised journalism. He was hard-headed and disciplined yet in touch with his feelings. Reviewing his Dreams of Exile (1992) Michael Wood wrote: “This is an admirable biography, full of intelligence and scruple, and often beautifully written (‘Stevenson’s feeling for the movement of time, the way in which the texture of memory could catch in his throat, was a remarkable thing’). An interest in Stevenson has not turned Bell’s prose to treacle, as he rightly says it does that of many Stevenson fans.”

Dreams of Exile should be a textbook in Scottish schools. But whilst his Stevenson book is well-known, his massive two-part Bob Dylan biography is maybe less so. The first part Once Upon a Time is followed by Time Out of Mind, which starts with the recording of Dylan’s mid-70s masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks and ends, with the release of 2012’s critically acclaimed Tempest. It’s a vast ambitious work.

For me Bell’s writing on poverty, power and war will be what I remember and what we have lost. He was scathing about the powerful, and used his words so carefully they had real impact. He developed a faithful following with many people citing him as the ‘reason they buy the Herald’. His quiet anger was relentless. He was also passionate about Scotland, what it is and what it could become.

In April 2013 he wrote: “Contrary to much of the propaganda, Scotland is a prize worth keeping. It is not some broke little country incapable of contemplating independence. It has assets that are valued, and not all of those are in the North Sea. A Chancellor who believed his accounts would be improved by Scotland’s departure from the UK would not be going to the trouble to which Mr Osborne has gone. The argument cuts both ways. The Chancellor’s threats are clear evidence that an independent Scotland is viable. Even a currency union would work, if that’s your taste, given goodwill on both sides. Mr Osborne has just made it clear that the prize is too valuable to let such a sentimental notion get in his way.”

He continued: “Mr Swinney, a moderate man, probably understands exactly what George Osborne is up to with his Scotland Analysis: Currency and Monetary Policy report. In effect, the Chancellor has come to Glasgow and said: “Vote for independence if you like. But in any sense that matters, we won’t allow it.” In some circles, it’s known as a threat.”

We will miss his quiet authority. Thoughts are with his friends and family.



Comments (26)

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  1. MBC says:

    Devastated to hear this. He only just wrote McIllvaney’s obituary last week. It must have been very sudden and a shock to his family. Scotland has lost a champion of sanity, a true friend. Thanks Ian, for everything.

  2. Jamie Kirkwood says:

    A very sad day. There are too few eloquent pro independence writers in the mainstream media and he is without a doubt a great and irreplaceable writer. A fantastic writer and I feel this as a personal as well as national loss.

  3. Margaret McNeil says:

    Very shocked and upset by this dreadful news. What a terrible loss for Scotland. An outstanding journalist who deserved every award he achieved. His honesty and integrity shone through everything he wrote.

  4. Sandra Stewart says:

    Like many others I will miss Ian’ insightful contribution and candid assessment of our political landscape. My thoughts are with his family. Scotland has lost a journalist and good human being. Where will we find truth with his departure. I feel lost already.

  5. Bill Ramsay says:

    The last time I felt like this was when Gore Vidal passed away

    1. Yes, very similar feeling. I think its about the quality of the writing that makes you feel that you have an actual relationship with the person

  6. Archie Hamilton says:

    A very sad loss on all levels.

    The Herald will be hard put to find someone of a similar calibre to fill his shoes and they will be greatly weakened if they don’t.

  7. Kevin Williamson says:

    Despite being poorly served by its media Scotland has many fine journalists who speak truth to power. Ian Bell was the very best of them. Ian’s columns for me were fearless, enlightened and lucid. He was never annoyingly preachy either, nor, as Chris Brookmyre wrote today, was he one of the “attention seeking blowhards” of the Scottish media. There was a soft edge to his anger that drew you in and made you listen. He was one of the good guys. Gonna miss him.

    1. Calum McLennan says:

      Ian’s passing so young, is truely sad!

      But I would take Kevin to task on this comment:

      “Scotland has many fine journalists who speak truth to power.”

      With the exception of Ian and one or two others, whom are these fine journalists?

      The same journalists who supped with labour and still sup with labour, disguising labour attacks on its opponents as news.

      The same journalists who are happy to misinform the Scottish people on a monumental scale?

      The same journalists who are a mouth piece for the union, e.g. The Vow?

      I see people who are happy to pick up a pay cheque and they don’t care about misleading the public or comprimising their own morals.

      At sad times such as Ian’s passing, many can be tempted into transferring the decency, intellect and humanitarianism of one person to his entire profession, in this case I think this is an injustice to Ian.

      Journalism in Scotland is squalid it does not serve the people, it misleads the people, we all know that, Ian was a rare exception, a shinning beacon swimming against the tide!

  8. Anne Roberts says:

    A lovely tribute to a truly great writer and journalist. Having just lost McIlvanney the other day, we could ill-afford to lose another. Scotland – and especially pro-independence Scotland – mourns another gone, and so suddenly and unexpectedly. Dreadful for all of us, but his family in particular. We’ll not see his like again. RIP.

  9. James Mills says:

    Such a sad and perhaps irreplaceable loss to Scotland . His column in The Herald so often articulated the emotions and thoughts of many of us who had neither the skill nor the intellectual capacity to voice our discontent at the wrongs being perpetrated in and on our land and its people .

  10. Iain Cameron says:

    This came as a terrible shock so soon after William McIlvanney. What a loss to his family, friends and admirers.

  11. David McCann says:

    Greatly saddened by the loss of one of Scotland’s greatest writers.
    I felt I knew him like a friend, although I only met him once, when he received the Oliver Brown award from the Scots Independent for his literary services to Scotland.
    Our condolences to his family at this sad time.

  12. Elaine C Smith says:

    Really saddened to hear of the passing of Ian Bell- an insightful, gifted writer on so many levels. His writing during the referendum and beyond kept many of us sane and believing that better was indeed possible and holding the powerful to account is a job worth doing. He will be very sorely missed and my thoughts are with his family and those who loved him.

  13. John Mooney says:

    Ian’s loss pierces the heart like a stiletto,He was the greatest journalist of our time,passionate,incisive and filled with an inherent truthfulness ,along with the passing of William Scotland stands bereft,when will we see their like again?

  14. cynthia martin says:

    This is when I am glad I keep tuning in to Bella Caledonia. A wonderful article, and as I have spent a long time away from Scotland before coming back to contribute to the fight for independence, and there is still so much that I can catch up on. I have read so much on Dickens, but never came across Ian Bell’s book. I am so grateful to know about it now.

  15. Walter Scott says:

    Ian Bell almost alone amongst Scottish journalists wouldn’t put his name to propaganda pieces. His integrity shone through everything he wrote. Scottish newspaper journalists for the main part are easily recognised unquestioning supporters of a big British state. Cheerleaders for everything that’s wrong with Scotland. Thank you for being different Ian. You stood out from that shabby crowd.

  16. Ruairidh Maciver says:

    A lovely tribute, Mike. Ian Bell was a wonderful writer and, as others have said, it feels like a personal loss because he gave so much of himself in his writing. I didn’t meet him but chatted to him online a couple of times about his first Bob Dylan book, which to my mind is the best book to have been written about Dylan. More than a biography, it has a journalistic, socio-historical, musicological and wonderfully tangential quality to it. And the prose is brilliant. He just said ‘that was my take on the old puzzler’. My thoughts and condolences are with his family.

  17. kailyard rules says:

    A thank you to Ian Bell. His truly balanced journalism was laced with decency and integrity. He certainly will be missed.

  18. Elspeth Forbes says:

    A fine tribute to a man who deserved no less.

  19. JG says:

    An honourable man in the true sense, so no OBE fur him!

    He went as far as he could (the first columnist in a mainstream journal to even hint at Prince Harry’s tue parentage!), his column was the one thing I missed when I gave up on the Herald.

  20. Drew Campbell says:

    Lovely tribute, Mike. Shocked and saddened to hear of Ian Bell’s death – a towering figure in journalism.

  21. Eduardo Ricardo says:

    The Bob Dylan books are indeed excellent. Anyone who knows Ian’s work in other spheres should be sure to read them, whether or not they have an interest in the song and dance man Bob Dylan.

    All who knew Ian can be proud of the work he has left us. Read. And think.

    My heart’s in the highlands at the break of dawn
    By the beautiful lake of the black swan
    Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low
    Well, my heart’s in the highlands, only place left to go.

  22. Redguantlet says:

    Ian Bell reached for words the way a surgeon reaches for his medical instruments, and used them with the same precision….his passing is a great loss and very, very sad news.

    I cannot think of a better journalist the length and breadth of these isles, he was a one-off.

    We have his books and his writings, and that is something, that is maybe quite a lot.

    RIP Ian Bell and thanks for everything.

  23. C E Ayr says:

    Stunned at this tragic news.
    Ian stood alone as a voice for decency, for morality, for honesty, in public and private affairs.
    A great writer, a great man, a great Scot.

  24. Eleanor Ferguson says:

    We started getting the Herald and Sunday Herald after being disillusioned by the Scotsman in the time leading up to and after the Referendum. We quickly realised that Ian Bell was the man who could articulate the things we were thinking so perfectly. We looked forward to his articles and one or the other of us was always exclaiming “exactly”!, as we read. It is a long time since I felt so sad when someone I didn’t know died (apart from William McIllvany a few days before) but I do find it heartening to see that so many other people feel the same.
    Perhaps we will be lucky and someone else will fill his role-it won’t be quite the same, but there is a huge gap that needs filled.

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