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2 November 2022

A farewell to Ian Jack – a peerless reporter of British life

With his mastery of technical detail and direct style, many journalists rated Jack the greatest of his generation.

By Peter Wilby

Charles III is a disappointment. Many thought he would be unable to restrain himself from meddling in politics and expressing his contentious opinions on architecture, education and medicine. But he has made it clear that he accepts the restraints of his new role.

On climate, however, his views are hardly controversial in Britain except on the lunatic fringe. The BBC no longer gives global warming deniers airtime to preserve “balance” as it did for so long. So why would it be partisan for the King to continue his support for green causes by attending the Cop27 meeting in Egypt? After all, his mother made little secret of her broad support for the anti-apartheid cause. It may be argued that she did so as head of the Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth countries that most vigorously opposed apartheid, such as Pakistan, are also those most affected by climate change.

We are told that prime ministerial “advice” not to travel to Egypt, initially from Liz Truss and now from Rishi Sunak, was because the government wants the King’s first overseas trip to advance its foreign policies. Canada has been mentioned, presumably as the UK is negotiating a new trade deal with Ottawa. Is such a deal more important than the future of humanity? And, given trade deals create losers as well as winners (whereas everyone loses on an overheated planet), is it less controversial?

If we must have a monarch, can’t he at least lead on an issue that any sane person recognises as urgent? As it is, he is allowing insecure prime ministers to use him as a tool for placating extreme right-wing backbenchers.

[See also: The right-wing press were dismayed by the lack of dissent from the royalist consensus]

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***

What makes a great journalist? Ian Jack, who wrote for the Sunday Times, Guardian, London Review of Books and many other titles, has been widely described as such after his death aged 77. Indeed, many colleagues rated him the greatest of his generation. Yet, though he was a distinguished editor of the Independent on Sunday in the early 1990s (where I served first as his deputy, then as his successor) and later of the literary quarterly Granta, he was passed over, wrongly in my view, for the editorships of both the daily Independent and the Observer. He was not a war reporter or a disaster correspondent who would write “I saw the horror” about floods or terrorist atrocities. Nor was he a “colour” writer (“the setting sun glinted on the Queen’s coffin”), a polemicist or a television performer. His talent was for reporting in the purest sense: he would take a subject, drill to the bottom of it, talk to people, delve into the historical background and, in prose that was precise, restrained and witty, tell readers things they didn’t know. If you began a Jack piece – whether it was 1,000 or 15,000 words – you nearly always finished it.

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He was fascinated by ships and trains and, unusually for a journalist, could master technical detail. He wrote clearly and at length about Trident nuclear submarines, the causes of a railway crash, the decline of Scottish ferries and the sinking of the Titanic. These and many other pieces led to reflections on the condition of Britain, the decline of its industry and empire, and the uneasy relations between its social classes. One, published in 2010, concerned a famous photograph taken outside Lord’s as the annual Eton-Harrow cricket match began in 1937. It showed two early-teenage public-school boys in top hats and tails being watched by three scruffier and evidently less privileged lads. How did the photo become an iconic representation of Britain’s social divisions? What were the backgrounds of the five boys? What happened to them and their families after 1937? It was characteristic of Jack’s curiosity that he asked those questions, and characteristic too that he disclosed how not everything in the picture was as it seemed.

As a chronicler of British life, Jack has been ranked alongside George Orwell and JB Priestley, and the comparison isn’t a bad one. But it’s not quite right, not least because Jack wrote no novels and his few books were collections of his published journalism. In truth, he was a one-off: a peerless reporter (of Indian as well as British life) who commanded admiration, even love, among colleagues and a devoted following among readers.

Jack came from a Scottish working-class background and began on papers such as the now defunct Cambuslang Advertiser. Like Orwell, he never went to university. Yet he was more knowledgeable about history and better read than I, despite my history degree from Sussex.

That was not exceptional in our generation (Jack was three months younger than me). But it’s hard to imagine a similarly untutored young journalist now emulating his success. More’s the pity. Jack’s mind was uncluttered by academic abstractions and that was what allowed him to write more insightfully and sympathetically about ordinary Britons and their lives than many of his supposedly better educated peers.

***

Can anyone help with my energy bill? I don’t think I need help paying it, but I would like some control over the family cash flow. Because my wife and I recently had a more efficient boiler installed, our consumption has fallen sharply, putting our account into credit. Two months ago, our energy provider cut our direct debit by a third. Now it has almost doubled it and refuses (or, rather, its algorithm refuses) to let us reduce it. Confusingly, it also says that the full sum won’t be debited because the government’s “energy support” will be taken off.

I consider myself numerate, solvent and in full possession of my faculties. If I am struggling to cope, what of those less fortunate?

[See also: Peter Wilby’s Diary: Remembering Bruce Page and how to house Ukrainians in need]

This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak