11 December 2015

Ian Bell

Term is over, teaching done, the sun is shining and the rain falling. But there's a shard of ice in this morning, in the news that Ian Bell - redoubtable voice he was - has died. As Bella says, his writing "gave a rhythm to the week." He was constant, smart, and smiting, sometimes cantankerous but always idiosyncratic in the best sense of the term. I struggle to remember a time reading Scottish newspapers, when Ian's insistent, dryly-humourous prose did not feature. Throughout my adult life, he has been there. 

A column like Ian's was a sustained engagement with another person's humanity. Across months and years. With their preoccupations and their inclinations, their sympathies and antipathies, their blind-spots and the things they see with a penetrating clarity all of their own. I'm reminded today of this verse from one of my favourite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Selves is absolutely right. Ian spun a life from words. No doubt elements of his personality, his feelings, himself remain elusive. Writers always reserve something of themselves. That's as it should be. But many, many people will be stricken by today's news. People like me, who never met him, yet nevertheless felt a keen sense of a whole personality, won over months, column by column. We worked our way back from the ink, to the hand, to the man. And we can only be heartsick today. 


  1. The man wrote so candidly, and without fear, that I felt I truly knew him. Few intellectuals have the courage to lay bare their thought processes the way Bell would in offering his trenchant critiques. He'd talk about Gordon Brown, and root his distaste for the man in his personal experiences with the Kirk and the squandered ambitions the former PM used to trumpet. And he'd talk about Scottish Independence, and excoriate the political class in general with reference to the humanity of the people making this decision, who he consistently believed could see through the political thicket the likes of Blair McDougall and Blair Jenkins were trapped in.

    I'd go as far as to say he was my original validator, the man who taught me that just because an idea is unpopular or unconventional, that doesn't make it wrong. It simply demands you interrogate your own process, how you arrived at this belief, in order to see whether you or the zeitgeist are at fault. And he knew what the answer would be for every would-be intellectual he inspired. He'll be missed, sorely missed.

    1. It is sad though that yet another doughty champion of Independence will not see the day when we are.

  2. A very fine tribute to a very fine writer.

  3. Well written, Peat Worrier. You have captured his essence. God rest his soul. He was a noble man.

  4. Only 59.

    I feel death's knap bane's haun on ma shouder, his hey-sned at the apogee o its swing...

    1. 'He spairis no lord for his piscence,
      Na clerk for his intelligence;
      His awful straik may no man flee:—
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.'

    2. The Lament for the Makaris. Fitting.

  5. Your fine post captures how many of us feel. I don't remember ever being so upset or shocked by the death of someone I'd never met. His exquisite writing made you feel you knew him. A huge, huge loss.

  6. Ian and Iain are and were my main reasons for reading the (Sunday) Herald. I will miss him.

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