Born: 7 February 7, 1945;

Died: 28 October 28, 2022.

BY his own account Ian Jack, who has died aged 77 after a short illness, was a citizen of that borderless, mythical country that is known as the past. Throughout his long and distinguished career in journalism he frequently returned to it, as Glaswegians used to trek to Saltcoats or Largs. It was Winston Churchill, who cast a long shadow over the formative years of Jack and his contemporaries, who supposedly said that “the Balkans produces more history than it can consume”. Jack felt much the same about the Britain in which he grew up and lived. Not without reason did he title one of his too few books The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain.

His subject (if such a varied body of work can be so telescoped) was the decline of this place, exemplified for him in the neglect of the railway system and the decimation of the shipbuilding industry. Devotees of his journalism knew that sooner rather than later Jack would get round to introducing boats and trains into whatever story he was writing.

Indeed, one of the last pieces he wrote was a 17,000-word essay for the London Review of Books in which he described in pellucid detail the CalMac ferry debacle. But it was much more than that, encompassing a history of shipbuilding on the Clyde and Jack’s own family’s involvement it, and of a Scotland that had evaporated in his lifetime: “Lipton’s the grocers, the Scottish Co-Operative Wholesale Society, North British Loco, Keiller’s marmalade, the Great North of Scotland Railway, the Dunfermline Linen Warehouse: where are they now?”

“What was it like before?” was a question that Jack acknowledged he may have been too fond of asking. A typical piece would start with a news peg – the Hatfield train crash, the Titanic movie, or Celtic playing in the UEFA Cup final in Seville – and develop into a threnody for an age when things were grayer, simpler and less meretricious. Jack’s preferred tense was the past and he was exercised by fellow hacks who resorted to the present. If he was nostalgic – which he surely was – he was self-consciously so. His prose, which was the equal of that of George Orwell, James Cameron and Joseph Mitchell, was fact-centred, never flowery, always taut. He was a reporter who preferred to rove and seemed never happier than when visiting once-thriving towns that were now down on their luck.

Writing in 2006 about Dunfermline, for instance, where he had been schooled, he despaired for what it had formerly been, and for the loss of Scott’s Electricals, where he had first heard the Everly Brothers, and Macpherson’s the bookshop, where he bought for £1 a leather-bound copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems. What had contributed to the town’s downward spiral, he concluded, was not the closure of an industry or a dockyard or the exhaustion of a mine. “What ended it wasn’t poverty but rootless wealth.”

Ian Jack was born in 1945 in Lancashire. His father, Henry, who was born in lowland Scotland, was a steam mechanic, or “fitter”, as he preferred to be called. His mother, Isa, of Irish extraction, had worked in a linen mill before her marriage. The family, who had moved south in search of work, returned north in 1952 and settled in North Queensferry, virtually within touching distance of the Forth Railway Bridge.

Jack was one of four boys, two of whom died at a young age. In one of his finest essays, ‘Finished With Engines’, he wrote of how as a boy he was obsessed with death and was sure that he, too, would not live for long. At primary school, he was bullied for having buck teeth, of which he was eventually cured: “Some people may remember the early Fifties for the Korean war or the Coronation or the first erratic flights of the Comet, but I remember them for a triumph of dental science and receding teeth.”

His family, particularly his father, he recalled, was redolent of the past. “I sensed that my father was at odds with his surroundings,” he wrote, “that something had gone wrong with his life – and hence our lives – and that I had been born too late to share a golden age, when the steam engine drove us forward and a watchful God still held the helm.” Despite his obsession with oily trades, he first thought was to become a librarian. But this was shelved in favour of journalism, progressing from local papers to nationals, including the Glasgow Herald (where he started as a trainee journalist, in 1965) and the Scottish Daily Express.

In 1970 he moved to London where, hired by Harold Evans, he joined the Sunday Times. Andrew Neil, Evans’s successor as editor, described him thus: “Jack was the most talented feature writer on the paper, a Scottish socialist whose left-wing views were tempered by a healthy scepticism for metropolitan political fashion. His beard and scruffy dress made him look like an ageing hippy and he was shambolic when it came to organizing anything. He was not our most productive writer and seemed to disappear for months. For years he had supposedly been writing a book on Indian trains; I don’t think it ever materialized. When he did concentrate his mind on journalism, however, he wrote like a dream.”

Much to Neil’s chagrin Jack left the Sunday Times in the aftermath of the Wapping dispute. He later joined the newly formed Independent on Sunday, which he edited from 1991 to 1995. Thereafter he edited the literary magazine Granta from 1995 to 2007. As an editor, he was loyal, supportive, kind and intuitive. Others of his books are Before the Oil Ran Out (1987) and Mofussil Junction (2013).

Never having attended university, he had an autodidact’s love of knowledge and shared it generously. For the past 15 years he wrote a column for the Guardian, including one about the legendary Polish reporter Rysard Kapuscinski, who stood accused of blurring the line between fact and fiction. An admirer of Kapuscinski, he was inclined to be sympathetic but ultimately felt that if a book is labelled reportage it ought to be true to that word. That was Ian Jack in a nutshell.

Katharine Viner, the editor of the Guardian, said: “Ian Jack was one of the finest journalists of his generation. He was an incredible reporter, full of curiosity and observational skill, and he was also a wonderful writer. Our readers loved him; there was no one like him.” Andrew Marr, a former editor of the Independent, described him was “one of the great, wise originals of British journalism".

Ian Jack was twice married, first to Aparna Bagchi (1979-92). In 1998 he married Lindy Sharpe, with whom he had two children, Isabella and Alexander. He is survived by all three, along with his elder brother, Harry. He fell ill in Rothesay and was taken to hospital in Paisley, where he died.