Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Ian Jack

12th November 2022

Sue Brooks celebrates the life of the late reporter, writer and editor Ian Jack, who died at the end of last month aged 77.

On Saturday October 22nd, I cut out a page by Ian Jack, one of my favourite writers in the Guardian, and it’s been here on the table ever since.

The BBC marks scenes from my own life, as it does for millions – aren’t we lucky to have it? 

My own sentiments exactly, and day by day, the scenes have been returning. Sundays in the early 1950s especially. My mother cooking the dinner, my father in the garden and Cliff Michelmore’s kind uncle voice introducing Two Way Family Favourites on the wireless. When we sat down to eat, it would be Life with the Lyons (hard American accents) or Meet the Huggetts (northern England). We didn’t talk much: the wireless was too engrossing, and it all felt good to me, aged ten.

Later, there was the Home Service — Hancock, the Goons and Dick Barton, Special Agent. We had our first black and white TV in 1959. Quatermass and the Pit scared me silly walking home from school in the dark. That Was The Week That Was exploded in 1962, scandalising my parents. I can still hear Millicent Martin’s extraordinary voice, the way she relished the words, every single one.

The reverie was shockingly broken when I read a reader’s letter in the paper a few days later, about Ian Jack’s death. How could this be, after that marvellous piece of writing…?? He died on October 28th. He was aged 77. The tears came, and they still do. He was, like the BBC, a touchstone in my life.

It began with Granta magazine (The Home of New Writing). I have twenty nine copies, spanning 1983 – 2008. Ian Jack was the editor from 1995 – 2007. Through him I discovered travel and nature writing by Barry Lopez and Robert Macfarlane, without knowing the debt one owed to the other: only that it transcended anything I had read before. Prose that was non-fiction, but told stories. Often deeply personal stories which included myth, magic AND science. 

And then there was the journalism. Ian Jack has been a regular contributor to the Guardian since 2001. In search of the perfect round rolling object — the headline for his Opinion piece on June 26th 2010, the day England lost 4:1 to Germany in the knock-out stages of the World Cup. A sideways look which I treasure, at the history of the football approved by FIFA, and exclusively marketed by Adidas. The obscene amounts of money accrued on all sides.

If there is a favourite, it has to be this one — September 23rd 2011.

At their best, newspapers became beautiful objects. I shall miss them

It has all the hallmarks of Ian Jack’s journalism. A dramatic opening sentence — Printed newspapers are shedding readers faster than Greenland is losing ice — finely researched details from the industry’s past and present, his colleagues, his family and above all, his own feelings. Whatever Ian’s subject, it was always clear how much he cared about it. In this case, a lament and a love letter to the Guardian.

Newspapers, like coal fires, can be the centrepiece of casual domesticity. Their meekness, as they lay silent on the sofa, gives a frequently misleading sense that there is order in the world…I miss them, and if you do too, the best thing is to carry on buying one.

I made a vow that day in 2011, and it remains unbroken. I buy at least two copies every week, sometimes three. The piles are smaller now in the little shop in this rural part of the Forest of Dean, but sales are steady. And there are always one or two lying silent on the sofa, looking beautiful (and well read).

Thank you Ian. I miss you.