I’d not usually try to write a tribute to somebody I’ve never met, but Ian Bell is a special case. Knowing that I’ll never again open the paper at his column to find some abuse of truth and language being dissected with a fine intelligent anger feels less like losing a writer than like losing a more gifted thinker of my own thoughts. No excuse is needed — just an appreciation of the ironies — to be reminded of Winston Smith encountering Goldstein’s forbidden book: “It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden.” Ian Bell could write about football — even Scottish football; even the Hibs defence — and make it readable, and he could even do the same about Scottish and British politics.
Not many people can write about politics for decades and continue to see it not as an elaborate game of ends and means, but as an extension of morality. It doesn’t surprise me that Bell was a biographer of Stevenson, another Scot for whom moral consequences and moral compromises were so often the drivers of a story. He knew the importance of the language we use, and how easily we pervert it and let it in turn pervert our thoughts, and he wasn’t going to let that happen on his watch. There will be lies and bullshit enough among the tributes paid to him; I hope that if there is a press bar in the afterlife then he’s able to raise a glass there with William McIlvanney and toast confusion to all the bastards before getting back to the serious business of disputation.
A little more Orwell is excusable, I think. Here’s the end of his essay on Dickens:
It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry… a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
Farewell, big man. We’ll keep up the fight.