Journalist and author

Born: January 7, 1956;

Died: December 10, 2015.

ALL organisations, whether they are political parties or FTSE 100 companies, need a conscience, someone who personifies their core values. Though he would doubtless have heaped scorn on the notion, Ian Bell, who has died suddenly at the age of 59, was The Herald’s and the Sunday Herald’s. This is not to suggest that every opinion he subscribed to was shared by the newspaper in which it surfaced. But in piece after piece he demonstrated what a noble trade journalism can be, and ought to be, when practised at the most elevated level.

Above all, Bell was a writer, who took care to craft sentences which sang and said exactly what he intended them to say. Like Hemingway, he preferred declaration over insinuation, nouns to adjectives, verbs rather than adverbs. “He wrote like an ice-breaker going through ice,” said Magnus Linklater, former editor of The Scotsman, who admired but rarely agreed with him. “A lot of it was polemic, but it was good polemic.”

Over three decades and more Bell’s byline was a guarantee of quality, and reason enough to buy a paper. For someone who wrote so much his standard was consistently exceptional. One website estimates – perhaps underestimates – that he wrote around 1,000 articles between 2007 and 2014, averaging more than 900 words for each. In the week preceding his death he wrote two columns – one on climate change, the other on Hilary Benn’s pyrotechnic speech advocating the bombing of Syria – a review of a book on the history of Ukraine (which appears in today’s issue), a couple of leading articles, and a heartfelt memoir of novelist William McIlvanney.

For Bell, journalism was more than the job, it was a calling, the means by which he could make sense of chaos and the case for a fairer, freer and juster world. His standpoint was that of a republican, a nationalist, a socialist and an atheist, not necessarily in that order. Scotland, he always insisted, ought to be a better place than it is. But to realise that we need to stop dithering, whining, infighting, excusing, havering, sleep-walking. He was there at Holyrood on May 12, 1999, when after 300 years the Scottish Parliament was reconvened. He was impressed, and not a little moved.

“History is memory,” he wrote. “This moment was memory reclaimed, a right restated, a truth reaffirmed. The nation of Scotland, with all its thrawn suspicions, numberless confusions, apathy, clumsy rivalries and disparate hopes, had remembered.” Something had been achieved, a fresh chapter in the nation’s history had been opened. “This process will take us where we want to go”, he concluded. “Just for once, we cannot say we have seen it all before. Yesterday, for a moment, Edinburgh was the only place in the world to be.”

Ian Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1956. His parents left school when they were 13 or 14. His father, a constant trade unionist, was a fireman on steam engines who later became a postman. His mother worked in personnel for the City of Edinburgh Council. It was on her side that Bell was related to James Connolly, one of the architects of the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. He attended Portobello High School where on behalf of the Communist Party he hung a banner from a window saying Support the Vietcong. When an unsympathetic teacher accused him of being a “Pinko”, Bell corrected him: “I’m not a Pinko, I’m a Red.” Disinclined to wear a uniform, he was told he was “not university material”.

Nevertheless he was accepted by Edinburgh University where he studied English Literature and Philosophy. He did his dissertation on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and got a 2.1, missing a First because he failed Logic. Among his contemporaries was Gordon Brown who, apparently, had to be chivvied to buy his round. Such, it seems, is the stuff of which a future Chancellor of the Exchequer is made. A letter of introduction from Nora Connolly, James’s daughter, led Bell to meeting and befriending historian Owen Dudley Edwards, which was to prove formative.

While at university, Bell found employment on a lighthouse which, after it was automated, allowed him to claim that he was one of the last generation of lighthouse keepers. Thereafter he spent a semester at Ivy League Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he was the only white face in the African Studies class and took delight in serenading capitalist fellow students with his version of Money Makes the World Go Round from Cabaret.

He applied for The Scotsman’s graduate trainee scheme but was offered the consolation prize of a berth as sub-editor, for which training he was eternally grateful. In the pre-Google era, subs, now an endangered species, were a combination of encyclopedists and grammarians, ensuring facts were verified and sentences conjugated. Bell then drifted into writing, becoming rather belatedly in the mid-1970s the Scotsman’s first rock critic. His peers included Sally Magnusson, Melanie Reid and Andrew Marr. Even in such stellar company Bell sparkled.

By 30, he was the paper’s literary editor but a deeply divisive strike led him to believe his future was elsewhere. It was a risky, some said foolhardy, move for he was now married for a second time, to Mandy, and had a four-month-old son, Sean. But he wanted release from The Scotsman’s oak-panelled halls and to concentrate on writing. Newspapers were his natural habitat and he responded to deadlines as a moth does to flame. He never missed one and always wrote exactly to length.

He was twice named Scottish Journalist of the Year and was routinely made Columnist of the Year. In 1997, he was given an Orwell Prize. “What I have most wanted to do,” he said, “is to make political writing into an art.” He edited the Observer’s short-lived Scottish section, contributed to the Times Literary Supplement and struggled to finish a novel, which may yet be published. Mainstream, the publisher, said in its 1992 catalogue it was “coming soon”. He did complete three books, though, including one on Robert Louis Stevenson, which in 1994 won the Saltire Prize for the best first book. Family holidays, recalled Bell’s son Sean, were spent following RLS’s famous journey in the Cevennes, mercifully without a stubborn donkey in tow.

“Had he lived, Louis would have sealed his greatness,” Bell wrote of Stevenson. “Given his last works, the proposition seems impossible to doubt. He was barely into his maturity as an artist when he died with his energy undiminished. He had measured his own achievement with precision and was working at the last to enhance it. Writing was a puzzle, troublesome, intractable; it touched something mysterious and profound, as though to tell was to remake. But the phrase “had he lived” tolls like a cracked bell through every account of the career of RLS. No one knows exactly how the story might have been concluded; it was not that kind of tale.”

He also wrote two books on Bob Dylan, the very definition of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, which was surely part of the fascination. Bell had been following his career virtually since its inception. A master of obfuscation, an inveterate dissembler, a supreme self-contradicter and as elusive as a shadow, Dylan was a biographer’s worst nightmare. Yet without having met him – for what would be the point of that? – Bell produced a work that one critic said is “as knotty, beguiling, contrary, infuriating and ambitious as its subject”.

Like Dylan, like Stevenson, Bell was an artist who did not look back. The dynamic of newspapers is always changing. The challenge for the journalist is to adapt to the times without forgetting what lies at the heart of this inky business. It is as invigorating as it is unrelenting. Ian Bell, who had a slight stammer and was as tall as a lighthouse and as bald as a billiard ball, was the kind of newspaperman who gives the rest of us a good name.

For the past several years he lived in Coldingham, having forsaken the discreet charm of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, or what he called “the People’s Republic of Morningside”. He is survived by his wife Mandy, his son Sean, his brother Alan, sister Eileen, and his father and mother.