Ian Jack

Ian Jack writes a monthly column for the Guardian. He left school to work in a library.

Diary: Class 1H

Ian Jack, 15 July 2021

‘The golden generation’ is the way Selina Todd describes us in Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth (Chatto, £25). We are the children born between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s (1945 in my case) who, in Todd’s words, ‘were more likely to be upwardly mobile than any generation before or since’. More than 50 per cent of us, if we were...

The Railway Hobby

Ian Jack, 7 January 2021

On​ a wet and windy Saturday in October a few regulars of the Ian Allan Book and Model Shop gathered inside the premises for the last time. The shop – on Lower Marsh, behind Waterloo Station – would soon be a memory, like many things to do with the railway hobby. One or two customers chatted to the soon to be redundant staff. Others encouraged a yappy terrier to chase a tennis...

The notion of idleness is important to the argument: land cannot be allowed merely to sit there minding its own business – it needs somehow to be put to work, to be efficient. As for surplus, that can be created by various ruses, not least by setting targets, such as those that drive up occupation densities in civil servants’ offices from 14.5 square metres to ten square metres (and in some recent cases to six square metres) per full-time employee; or by establishing a minimum area for playing fields determined by the number of pupils at a school, and declaring anything above that figure surplus to requirements. Public land becomes surplus, in other words, as the result of the state’s determination to shrink itself. At the heart of this project lay a brazen deceit.

In​ 1987 the Proclaimers released a single called ‘Letter from America’, which compared the then ongoing industrial destruction of the Scottish Lowlands with the Highland Clearances two centuries before. It was a rare intrusion by an 18th-century lyric into the UK top ten. ‘Lochaber no more/Sutherland no more/Lewis no more/Skye no more’, sang the Proclaimers,...

In​ 2016, Oxford Dictionaries made ‘post-truth’ their word of the year, defining it as an adjective that described circumstances ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. This hardly seems up to the job: if that’s all the word means, the wonder is that we have waited so long for it....

Brexit voters can’t be divided into two – Hannanites on one side and Faragists on the other. The voter who was impressed by the financial argument – Vote Leave’s extra £350 million a week for the NHS – wasn’t necessarily tut-tutting at Ukip’s stance on refugees and immigration. In my experience, he was shouting his agreement. Too many headscarves in the high street, too much money sent to Brussels, the Empire, St Crispin’s Day.

The Best Stuff: David Astor

Ian Jack, 2 June 2016

Thanks to​ my older brother, I was an Observer reader as a schoolboy. On most Sundays in the year or two either side of 1960 he would take the bus six miles to our nearest town and return with a paper that augmented the Sunday Post – delivered to the door that morning by the village newsagent – and its claustrophobic worldview formed fifty years before in Presbyterian Dundee....

In March​ this year the Daily Express sold an average of 488,246 copies a day. In 1945 it averaged 3.3 million copies – a figure that went on rising until it peaked in 1961 at 4.3 million. The Daily Mirror eventually overtook it (selling an average of five million copies in 1964), but for a time the Express was the biggest-selling newspaper in the world. There was a crackle and dazzle...

Of the two leading rivals for the London mayoralty, Ken Livingstone is much the more difficult to imagine as a child. Nobody, surely, can have that problem with Boris Johnson. The mind’s eye sees Boris as one of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, a bouncy fellow demanding his tea and laying plans ‘to be/the next Prime Minister but three’. But the mind’s eye can be wrong, and it may be that the reason we can readily conceive Johnson aged seven is that the public persona of Johnson aged 47 is so irrepressibly boys-will-be-boys.

Downhill from Here: The 1970s

Ian Jack, 27 August 2009

Of recent decades, the 1970s is the most reviled. I once had a colleague who'd been a little girl in the 1970s, and not a particularly poor one, yet she would shudder and say: ‘Oh, it was like Eastern Europe then, all stews and root vegetables and wet holidays in caravans.' Her austere picture didn't fit with my own memories, but it remains a popular view.

Cocoa, sir? The Royal Navy

Ian Jack, 2 January 2003

‘Well,’ Wallace said, ‘if you were on HMS Black Prince or HMS Emerald, oh you couldn’t wear that cap ribbon. You used to write to Ward and get a Vengeance, Revenge, Powerful, Terrible they were the favourite cap ribbons. The only time you wore it [was] when you were on leave . . . because girls come along – “Oh, look at the ship he’s on – Vengeance! – Terrible! – Powerful!” – flirt.’

Problem Families

Ian Jack, 26 October 1989

Southern Britons may be forgiven for thinking that most people in Scotland grew up in cottages among the purple bens, or in tenements dwarfed by shipyard cranes, or in douce villas where grace was said over every scone. This is the legacy of Scottish literature and Scottish comedy, which in the course of this century has replaced one romantic stereotype with another – J.M. Barrie’s soft mothers with William McIlvanney’s hard men, Harry Lauder’s but-and-bens with Billy Connolly’s tenements – and it is in large measure a lie. In the decades between Attlee and Thatcher, Scotland could fairly be described as a nation of council tenants. During these years the towns and cities of the Lowlands accelerated a process which had begun before the war and decanted their populations into houses built by and rented from the local authority, an internal migration which gave Scotland the highest ratio of public to private housing of any country in Western Europe, and higher even than many countries in the Eastern bloc. Old industrial towns such as Coatbridge still accommodate four-fifths of their population in council houses. England, even its New Towns, has never seen the like; but then England, even in Victorian Salford or Limehouse, never quite attained the degree of squalor which Scotland’s new council houses were supposed to remedy.’

Cheering us up

Ian Jack, 15 September 1988

In the opening pages of Thomas Mann’s novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the hero debates a question which has always worried him: which is better for the careerist, to see the world small or to see it big? The small view has its attractions. Great statesmen and empire-builders must see the world this way, Krull thinks: like a chessboard, with human pieces that can be manoeuvred coldly and boldly as the player rises above the mass of mankind. On the other hand, such detachment might just as easily lead to indolence and indifference – ‘to one’s doing nothing at all’. Moreover, a coolness of attitude might put other people off and prevent ‘any possible success you might have achieved involuntarily’.’

Treating the tiger

Ian Jack, 18 February 1988

Dervla Murphy made her name as a writer who got on her bike and travelled bravely and alone through the less accessible parts of the non-European world. More recently, she stayed closer to her Irish home and investigated the religious and social divisions of Northern Ireland. In this book she turns her attention to the non-European populations of two British cities, Bradford and Birmingham, and there confronts the hazards and complexities of inner-city life with the same fortitude – sometimes amounting to pig-headed ness – which carried her through Baltistan, Ethiopia and the further reaches of Nepal. Her physical courage is manifested on many pages, most notably in her prolonged confrontation with some West Midlands Rastafarians. But no less courageous is her remarkably open treatment of a theme, race in modern Britain, which for too long now has been narrowly viewed – by the white population at least – through the wrong end of two faulty telescopes: the one cracked by guilt and ideology, the other by complacency and hate.

Literary Guy

Ian Jack, 19 June 1986

Readers of the old Eagle may remember that educative comic’s colourful centre-spread, where every week the latest triumphs of British technology (this was the new Elizabethan age) would be dissected for the enlightenment of British boyhood (girls read the Girl). The cutaway drawing, the arrow and the numbered part explained the workings of the jet engine or the diesel locomotive, or how Hunt’s expedition scaled Everest with oxygen masks and Kendal mint cake. The Eagle believed in the future – Dan Dare was on the cover – but when, a decade or so later, its brilliant tradition of pictorial explanation was revived by newspapers such as the Sunday Times, neither technology nor the future looked quite so good. ‘How things work’ had become ‘why things went wrong.’ Arrows usually pointed to defective parts. Today, when scientific achievement is questioned more often than celebrated, an accident like Chernobyl can produce diagrams which resemble the sky over Crecy.’


It’s coming yet

22 December 2019

In her study of political failure on Red Clydeside, Jean McNicol mentions Harry McShane, a close colleague of the revolutionary John Maclean (LRB, 2 January). As McNicol says, radical socialism had more or less died as a popular movement in Glasgow by the end of the Second World War. Personal convictions, however, were a different matter. In 1984, more than sixty years after Glasgow’s insurrectionary...

Comprehensible Disorders

David Craig, 3 September 1987

The item which seems set to stay longest with me from Ian Jack’s alert and precisely-written record of British life in the Seventies and Eighties comes from the opening memoir of his...

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