When I learned of Ian Bell’s death, just past midnight, I was in the middle of writing an obituary.
It’s something I do when I can’t sleep. Ghoulish perhaps but in journalism you have to think ahead.
My tribute was to a much older man. Ian Bell was just 59. It is no age to die, at least outside the developing world or Scotland. Mortality is a stalker that pursues our people more lustily than any other in Europe.
Great writers cannot be memorialised; their words speak for themselves. We can offer only pale shadows. But if anyone deserves the attempt, it is Ian Bell. The rest of us were always loitering in his shadow anyway; why should death alter the matter.
His taking is no simple fluke of blood and muscle, no mere testament to social ills and bastard inequality. It feels like an attack upon the national psyche. How else to describe the snatching away so soon of our most eloquent writer, a few days after the removal of William McIlvanney, our most powerful writer. There is only so much loss a country can take.
Bell will be remembered by his colleagues as an adept editor and principled journalist, whose career spanned the Herald, Sunday Herald, Scotsman and Daily Record. To his readers, and I have been one for the past ten years, he was more than professional ethics and commas in the right place. The Edinburgh-born scribe was a contemporary historian of Scotland, a vivid chronicler of the ups and downs of national life. He was Scotland’s other makar, on a tighter deadline.
Bell wrote with left-wing fury, a secular fire and brimstone that tolerated no tabloid deviance, forgave no free-market peccadillos. Never has a sceptic been so certain of so much. That could be grating on some and made his Herald column and his page in the Sunday Herald love-it-or-loathe-it fare. Not me. Whether I raged with him or railed against him – more of the latter than the former as the years went by – he was always a joy to echo and a pleasure to disagree with.
His analysis seldom touched on tactics or the clever-clevers in the backroom. Ideas animated his writing, not limp “issues”. He was ferocious in his left-nationalism – and, yes, sometimes shrill – but it was never a programmatic dogma. Politics was about people and Bell was fluent in the human condition.
And he was perceptive. It was Bell who predicted early on that the SNP would win the 2007 Holyrood election. The duller of mind mocked him but he was vindicated. Before any other mainstream commentator he saw trouble ahead for the BBC’s coverage of the referendum. Little wonder he was named Journalist of the Year and Columnist of the Year several times, picking up the prestigious Orwell Prize along the way.
One column has stayed with me; not his best but one of his truest. In the course of this essay on education, he confessed that no one – not a single employer – had ever asked to see evidence of his MA. Reading this as an undergraduate at Glasgow University was a disheartening experience, to say the least, but truth was deep in it: Education is so much more than a scrap of paper.
He joined Twitter in 2013 but never seemed to take to it, even though it was an ideal forum for his steel toecap elegance. His final tweet read: “Quiz: If Carmichael now claims to have been a helpless victim, is the lie a) political; b) personal; c) none of your business, oik?”
The referendum occupied many of his column inches as he threw himself into the national cause. No smelling salts routine with him: He was a nationalist, a real one. Independence for Scotland, troops out, free Palestine. For him, the right to self-determination didn’t begin and end in our wee bit hill and glen. It was a nationalism that could hold its head high in the world.
The result last September was a delay not a defeat, as he mused a year ago:
McIlvanney was the one who called us feart in 79, after all, and he wasn’t wrong. But in 2014, the fear fell away. I’ll remember that. They brought up every pop-gun in the armoury and people far younger than I found all their threats comical. Scotland woke up. Its young men and women turned the lead of the usual political crap into gold. They didn’t get an answer worth the name from the decayed hulks of old political traditions, but they kept on asking their questions. They exposed the rot. Things are set fair, I think, for a wee country.
Bell has not lived to see that wee country take its place in the world but he would have drawn satisfaction from knowing it was only a matter of time.