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Only connect

December 11, 2015
Journalist Ian Bell 1986

Ian Bell pictured in 1986, during his time at The Scotsman. Picture: Alan Macdonald

Looking back over my Blogs over the last couple of years, I realise that many are tributes to those we have lost. It is, I suppose, as a result of my age, and of my capacity for admiration of those who possess talents far in excess of mine in areas to which I aspire.

When I wrote earlier this week about Willie McIlvanney, I suggested that I was keeping my piece brief as a reflection of his terse imagery. That wasn’t the entire truth – it was as much a recognition that his words were so sublime that I was miles from possessing the ability to pay adequate tribute.

And now we have lost the inestimable Ian Bell, I find the words even harder to come by.

Integrity, though, is a useful starting point. There is an unfortunate, small but influential subculture in Scottish journalism which seeks to promote a consensus that to hold radical views– about politics, the constitutional position, or well known Scots figures, is somehow immature: “When you’ve seen as much as me, laddie, you’ll come to your senses and accept that the status quo is the best we chance we have.” Sometimes the younger the writer, the more this line is followed, as a kind of attempt at faux maturity.

Understandably, this came to the fore during the Referendum campaign when the “established order of things” was used as a political stick to beat the uppity Yes voters. “Why change now for a future we can’t predict? it’s worked for 300 years,”

Of course, as Ian Bell would have pointed out: that depends on your definition of “worked”.

Such an approach to the national question enjoyed a modicum of success, not least because, just as a parental “Because I say so” tends to elicit a teenaged slamming of doors, there were many Yes supporters whose response was visceral rather than measured.

Ian Bell would have none of this.

He was a socialist, a republican and a Hibs supporter – and you might well have expected the great grand nephew of Edinburgh born Easter Rising leader, James Connolly, to espouse all of these beliefs. However, a look at the lineage of those such as Portillo, Shinwell and, more recently, the subject of Ian’s last column, Benn, suggest that not infrequently the apple can land a good distance away from the tree.

Ian Bell was fiercely proud of his connection to Connolly, and, though he never traded on it, neither was he afraid to mention the relationship – even in times when such a reference could elicit negative response.

However, he was not a republican and socialist, or even a Hibee, as a kind of tribute to his heroic ancestor – and he often showed scant patience with those who misappropriated republicanism for their own ends, without any proper understanding. He was starting to reflect on the marking of the Rising’s centenary next year – in Scotland and in Ireland, and the absence of his wise and thoughtful input to the whole affair will diminish it.

As anyone who ever read his pieces would be well aware, Ian Bell’s convictions came from intelligence, study, reflection and understanding. Where others might shout and wave a flag in your face, Ian’s response would be measured in terms of facts, research and exact interpretation of the position – be it politics, economics, or cultural matters.

He was educated in the best and every sense of the word. He could illuminate an economic strategy, a piece of political chicanery, or a Dylan track in a way which showed knowledge but never showed off. His prose was elegant but accessible, accurate but engaging. Sometimes, reading his Saturday morning piece made sense of an entire week of puzzlement and despair. When the general media consensus was starting to make you question your own sanity, Ian’s words would reassure you that the “norm” was not acceptable, that injustice must be highlighted, and that you were not alone in believing that.

His anger at those who took advantage of the weak and vulnerable was palpable but never deflected from the point he was making, nor gave his detractors any opportunity to attack the writer while avoiding the resonance of the message. His content was solid and based on facts rather than emotion – his feeling for the downtrodden was obvious but controlled.

You could say that he took on the establishment at their own game – and invariably made his point successfully, something which is reflected in tributes today from many who disagreed vehemently with his political standpoint.

When I was given the chance to blog for The Herald a few years ago, I was, of course, delighted to have the opportunity – but the biggest thrill was to see my picture on the same home page as Ian Bell’s – never had so much distance in ability been covered in so small a space on the computer.

Only a few days ago, he wrote of McIlvanney – in typical eloquent style: “The song is outlived by the singing”. That will certainly be the case for Ian Bell, who, like his illustrious forebear, was guided by what was right, rather than what might promote personal success.

I am taken back to a Saturday morning in October 2011. I am, inevitably, sitting in the car in a supermarket car park, waiting for the rattle of the trolley that will spring me out of my seat and into bag loading duties. As usual, I am reading Ian Bell’s column, and to the dismay of passers by, I am sobbing, and tears are running down my cheeks.

He is writing about railways in a piece called “Only Connect”. He is making the political case for a well run, far reaching, nationalised railway system, but, being Ian Bell, alongside the economic facts and figures, are names, family history, childhood memories and the emotional pull of the train. It speaks so much to my own history, to my own sense of things, that I am overwhelmed: by a political column, about transportation, and sitting in a supermarket car park!

That’s what Ian Bell would do to you!

He would make a rational political argument which spoke to your humanity; with him it was people before parties, words not slogans, knowledge not hearsay.

I would recommend everyone to read “Only Connect” – if you can access it. It makes its point but it also nourishes the soul – and there is a delicious irony in a socialist like Bell being locked behind a pay wall.

I am going to miss Ian’s words dreadfully – and I suspect the country will too – and not just on Saturday mornings.

Thank you, Ian, safe home, – and I hope you’re travelling by a good old tank engine.

“As it happens, the trains never stopped where I live. Nor did they ever stop in my dreams. I hear them in the night, when they shout hoarse at the sea. Here and now, where the coast bends, and where the country of Scotland seems always to turn its shoulder to the northern ocean, questions about trains and names seem to sound out. Trains come for people. They bear them off, and bring them home.”

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