The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: Writings 1989-2009 Ian Jack

Cape, pp.325, 18.99

It’s odd that a writer as excellent and long-established as Ian Jack hasn’t ever written an actual book but has stuck doggedly to the humble trade of journalism, of which this volume is a collection.

It’s odd that a writer as excellent and long-established as Ian Jack hasn’t ever written an actual book but has stuck doggedly to the humble trade of journalism, of which this volume is a collection. The reason may be that since what he called ‘perhaps the best Sunday morning of my life’, the day in 1970 when Harold Evans offered him a job as a sub-editor on the Sunday Times, journalism has remained his first love. In the struggle between the fun and comradeship of the editorial floor and the loneliness of the ivory tower, the former has always seemed to be the victor.

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Still, we mustn’t complain, for what he has given us here, whatever you care to call it, is superb. Collections of columns and newspaper articles are not usually a very good idea. They quickly become stale and dated, and one sometimes wonders what the point of them is except to deceive journalists into thinking that their ephemeral scribblings deserve some permanence. Jack is an exception to the rule. His columns (which now appear each Saturday in the Guardian) are not of the kind popular with tabloid editors — heavy on phoney outrage and light on honest observation. Jack goes, sees, looks and thinks; and his subsequent reflections are of timeless interest.

The title under which they are gathered together — The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain — sounds as if it might have something to do with Scottish devolution and the possible break-up of the United Kingdom. But, although a Scot by blood and upbringing, Jack isn’t interested in any of that. He is no advocate of Scottish independence. On the contrary, he considers himself as much ‘British’ as ‘Scottish’, a rare attribute nowadays, and the theme of the book (convincing, even if unplanned) is the disappearance of what he calls the cornerstones of Britain’s identity and what once ‘bound the people of its various nations and regions together in a common enterprise’ — industrialism, imperialism and the Protestant faith.

It is steeped in nostalgia, especially for Britain’s old industrial cities, each with its own manufacturing speciality and associated way of life, now uniformly in thrall to Tesco, Ikea and Strictly Come Dancing. But Jack is no curmudgeon, no grumpy old man. He does not judge the present against the past, and he points out that there was maybe as much incest and paedophilia in the council estates of the 1950s as there is supposedly today. As he says in his introduction, ‘the present always depends on the past, which makes the past a necessary subject of any reporter’s enquiry’. It is difficult, reading this book, not to conclude that the past was in many ways preferable, but Jack is not trying to persuade us of it.

The longest essays in the book are about the Hatfield rail crash of October, 2000; the sinking of the Titanic in April, 1912; Serampur, the Victorian headquarters of British Christianity in West Bengal; and the great contralto from Lancashire, Katheen Ferrier, who died young of cancer in 1953. They reflect Jack’s passions for railways, ships, India, and, indeed, Kathleen Ferrier. And they all somehow work in their different ways as reminders of a lost British civilisation. Why West Bengal, you might ask? To Jack it seemed to be one of

the last places on earth which preserved the old industrial civilisation of Britain, people as well as scenes, manners as well as objects, frozen in the Victorian economy of the lower Ganges. Sometimes it even seemed, particularly in a place such as Serampur at dusk, that I had come home; or if not home, then to some tropical version of the time and country that my Scottish parents and grandparents knew.

It makes you want to cry.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Anthology, Journalism, Non-fiction