In the course of my life, I have met many remarkable men, who have distinguished themselves as scholars, writers, artists, sportsmen, scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and activists. These men, almost without exception, have had a high sense of self-regard. As the Hindustani expression goes, “apne ko bahut samajhte hain”. Some are crudely boastful about their achievements; others practise one or other form of what is known as “humble bragging”. Either way, within minutes of first meeting you, they have unmistakably conveyed a sense of their self-importance.
Of the several hundred successful or famous men I have met, I can think of only two clear exceptions to this rule. One is a cricketer, GR Viswanath. The other was the writer, Ian Jack, who died last week. Like Vishy, Ian combined professional distinction with personal decency. He was both the greatest columnist and literary editor of his generation as well as a kind and generous human being. Reading him was a hugely pleasurable experience; knowing him was a joy and a privilege.
Scottish by family background, British by temperament, Ian Jack had a long-standing interest in India. He first came here as a reporter in the 1970s, while working for The Sunday Times, and returned many times thereafter. Among his closest friends were two Indians, the feminist publisher, Urvashi Butalia, and the documentary film-maker, Nasreen Munni Kabir. And he liked Bengal and Bengalis too. Although he loved travelling in Indian trains and visiting small Indian towns, he stubbornly clung to the view that (as he once wrote to me) “Calcutta is probably, and in its own strange way, the most interesting Indian city to live in (given a certain amount of cash).”
A deep sense of place
It was Munni Kabir who, in the late 1990s, first introduced me to Ian Jack and his wife, Lindy Sharpe. We met thereafter in London and Bangalore and at other places where we found ourselves at the same time. We also carried on a fairly regular correspondence. In October 2014, while researching a biography of Gandhi, I wrote asking him: “Amidst a flurry of sceptical or abusive responses to Gandhi in the British press at the time of his first big non-co-operation movement in 1921, there was a most thoughtful and balanced assessment in the Glasgow Herald. What kind of paper was it? Liberal or left-wing?”
This brief enquiry prompted a long and ruminative reply, which I wish I could reproduce in extenso. Ian told me that when he himself joined the Herald in 1965, it was in fact “a conservative and Conservative pro-business paper” proud of the city’s industrial heritage; it had “not one but TWO shipbuilding correspondents”. At the time, “it didn’t like trade unions… One of two of its leader-writers became a Tory candidate for parliament. The deputy editor then was George Macdonald Fraser, who was about to achieve celebrity and wealth as the author of the ‘Flashman’ series of novels, which took a comic (but not unkind) view of the Empire.”
But, added Ian, “in 1921, the picture may have been a little different. The editor then was Sir Robert Bruce [sic] whose knighthood was owed to his friendship with [the Liberal Prime Minister David] Lloyd George.” He then quoted from the paper’s official history to note that Bruce’s own metier was domestic affairs; he left it to others in the paper “to direct their eye and their assessment to what was going on abroad.” So, Ian now informed me, “It must have been one of these who wrote about Gandhi – they seem to have been given a fair amount of freedom. But the general ethos of the paper wouldn’t have been sympathetic.”
This private mail displays all the characteristics of Ian Jack’s public writing – his deep sense of place, his ability to blend social and political history, his fascination with technology, his interest in the idiosyncrasies of the human character, his keen understanding of Britain’s complicated relationship with the world.
In a fine profile published in The Guardian, his close contemporary, John Lloyd, wrote that Ian Jack was “the journalist as contemporary shaper of a Socratic dialogue, always kindly, yet with a ‘but what about…?’ ever ready, to probe through to deeper revelations. No other British journalist was working at that level and he was still working when he died.”
Several readers of Lloyd’s essay wrote to the newspaper to say that Ian Jack’s was always the first piece they turned to in the Saturday Guardian; as one remarked, “He was the G’s best writer by a mile. Always felt though that they rather hid him away. Never v[ery] prominent online.” Another called Ian “a man of honor, character, and immense craft”. That would have pleased my friend; as would have the comment that in his writing he was “so obviously not an Oxbridge showboater. Clear observation but rooted in and often referring to his own experience”.
For such a wonderful prose stylist, Ian Jack was curiously diffident about his writing. He was comfortable with the 1,000-word piece for The Guardian and the long-form essay (of 10,000 words or more) for Granta or the London Review of Books. Three collections resulted from this work; one splendidly (and presciently) named The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain; another, containing the best of his Indian pieces, titled Mofussil Junction.
Yet for many years, he resisted writing a full-fledged book on a single subject. Publishers urged him to write a book on the railways (an early and enduring love); friends asked him to write a memoir of his growing up years in Scotland. Towards the end of his life, he began work on a social history of the river Clyde and its surroundings. I had the privilege of reading two chapters in draft; they were brilliant, seamlessly combining personal memory with historical and technological detail. (One contained a superb character sketch of the inventor, James Watt.)
An insightful correspondent
I’d like to end this tribute with some samples of Ian Jack the correspondent. His mails were as informative and insightful as his columns, if slightly more unbuttoned. When his fellow Scotsman, Gordon Brown, became prime minister, I asked Ian about him, and he replied: “He hoovers up great amounts of information all the time – that’s his hallmark. Whether these are good qualities in a prime minister is a different question, but at least he’s preferable to the dreadful Sarkozy.”
Some years later, I wrote to Ian that I was meeting one sort of young Indian “enchanted by the Maoists and hyper-critical of Gandhi” and another kind “enchanted by the BJP and the RSS and their idea of a strong nation with a Hindu core, and naturally just as critical of Gandhi”. “Why is extremism and violence so appealing to the young male?” I asked.
Ian replied: “Good question. Testosterone? Lack of imagination? All those millenia of hunting and gathering? We should maybe be thankful that its previous outlets in armies and wars have largely been blocked, even if this means more violent behaviour in civilian life. And it’s been aggravated, of course, by the fact that women play a much bigger role in the world of work and that work itself (in a lot of the world, at least) is so much less physical than it used to be.”
Back in 2008, I sent Ian Jack a column of mine arguing that writers who were awarded Nobel Prizes often found their work rapidly declining thereafter. “But did Tagore write anything decent after 1913? Such a question could have filled your Kolkata mailbag,” he responded mischievously, before offering this reflection of his own: “Naipaul proves the case that there comes a time when writers should stop writing. Roth is an exception (so far) and maybe Bellow was too, but writers, especially novelists, usually run out of things to say. A terrible aspect of a writing career is the need to go on doing it for money and self-regard. Perhaps age accounts for the post-Nobel syndrome as much as the prize itself: writers are usually getting on when they win it. Pamuk, being young, may be the test case to watch.”
As with fiction-writers, so too with journalists. In India as well as the United Kingdom, most newspaper columnists (and not just male) become pompous and predictable with age. Ian Jack was the exception. His writing was as fresh and vivid in his seventies as it had been in his thirties. Though he never completed his Clyde book, his corpus was so rich and so wide-ranging that an energetic young editor could easily arrange to publish several volumes of Ian Jack’s work. And perhaps a book of his selected correspondence too.
Ramachandra Guha’s new book, Rebels Against the Raj, is now in stores. His email address is email@example.com.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph.