Ian Jack on the invention of the columnist

Pooja Bhula | Updated on May 08, 2020 Published on May 08, 2020

Taking note: Ian Jack believes documenting even small episodes in a diary improves one as a columnist   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Writer and journalist Ian Jack on the newspaper column and how it has evolved over the decades

* The seemingly ubiquitous newspaper column has come a long way from its humble beginnings

*Ian Jack, former editor of the Independent on Sunday and Granta, has been a columnist for several publications, allowing him to trace the arc of the evolution of the newspaper column

With the explosion of columns accompanying the digital and social-media revolution, it might be tough to believe that columns emerged only a century or two ago. Or, that folks just two generations earlier wouldn’t have been able to name you their favourite journalists or opinion writers because back then, bylines weren’t common and anonymity was the norm. Ian Jack, an award-winning British journalist who was the editor of Independent on Sunday and Granta, as well as a columnist for The Telegraph (Calcutta) and, until recently, The Guardian, has been witness to the evolution of the newspaper column. Jack — currently based in London and working on a book on Scotland — traces the rise of the columnist, and ruminates on the importance of keeping diaries. Excerpts from an e-mail interview with BLink:

Tell us about your first column.

In 1965-66, I worked with East Kilbride News, a small local paper in Scotland. This paper and another one, the Cambuslang Advertiser (now defunct), shared an editorial staff of two. The editor generously allowed me to have a column. As I liked looking at and describing things, I called it ‘Observed’ and signed it ‘Gillespie’. Pseudonyms were more fashionable then (I like how they free you from the burden of your own identity). My first column was a thousand-word account of the local agricultural show. I hope it was fair and didn’t upset anyone, but you never know.

Who were the famous columnists whose work you followedwhen you were growing up?

Around 1960, a few British columnists appeared in popular newspapers and often had a special focus. ‘Cassandra’ (The Daily Mirror) was political, ‘Beachcomber’ (Daily Express) was brilliant and whimsical, and famed agony aunt ‘Marjorie Proops’ (The Daily Mirror) was for women. When I became a journalist — in 1965 — columns were still rare. I remember Michael Frayn in The Guardian and, at the end of the ’60s, Jilly Cooper in The Sunday Times. When I joined it in 1970, apart from Jilly, there were perhaps three other bylined columns.

How did columns gain momentum and popularity within journalism?

Signed pieces began appearing in British and American newspapers in the 19th century. Anonymity was the rule for reporting then. ‘Bylines’ were rare. My guess is they emerged when newspapers became vehicles for entertainment as well as for reports of military victories and the rising price of onions. Around 1890-1900, newspapers began being aimed at a much broader and more numerous class of people than the old elite. Women, for example, and the lower middle-class. These ‘popular papers’ had higher circulations and worked hard at stunts to sell newspapers. Daily Mail and Daily Mirror in Britain, as well as many American newspapers came out of that time. It was the beginning of a new kind of popular culture — mass audience reached through the rotary press, early cinema and phonograph, all of which produced ‘personalities’ and ‘stars’. Columns really began taking off in the ’80s and ’90s, the last golden age of newspapers when they were awash with advertising, which meant more pages and space. The peak is now. Thanks to the web and social media — blog, tweets, memes, etc. — we’re all columnists.

Did economics play a role?

There was a narrow economic reason for more columns — columnists sit at home or in office and don’t incur costs such as transport, lunches with contacts or hotel bills like reporters do. But I don’t think that’s the main reason. Columns offer readers intimacy with the newspaper — a voice readers can like or dislike, agree with or otherwise. And the climate of the time was very much for the individual — the “me decade” and all that. When the web arrived, it was also imagined, wrongly so, that newspapers didn’t need information anymore, it could all be found online (as most of it can, but often incomprehensibly — a reporter’s job being to verify information and make sense of it). So papers began to emphasise opinion, hence more columns.

What trends have you noticed in columns in recent decades?

Changes in columns reflect changes in British society over the past 60 years. In Indian society too, I suspect. Different ways of being were acknowledged. Taboos were lifted from conversations about such things as gender, sexuality and personal unhappiness. Matters once held to be deeply private became public. Many things you can say now, couldn’t be said in 1960. Restraint has gone. Shyness is now seen as something needing medical treatment. Good in some ways, of course. But tiresome, too. And one or two things that could be said in 1960, I’m thinking particularly of race, couldn’t be said now in the same way. Now, everybody is a columnist, or can be. Their pieces have access to huge audiences, attracted by their wit or their pungent/ repugnant opinions. Because the web is a platform rather than a publisher, the columnists don’t necessarily have to worry about libel laws or public distaste. But the craftsmanship — the delight in the tricks of the written word — is often missing. Journalists of my generation came of age in a world of hot metal, where columns needed to fit a page, and therefore had limits to their length. There was a skill in all of this. I don’t know if it matters that it’s gone.

How did your own columns evolve? Any favourites or regrets?

I guess in all I’ve written 700, most of them for The Guardian, from 2001 to last year (when I took leave to write the book). I don’t think I have a technique. I used to find writing much easier earlier than now, but to some extent the process has always been panic, write a bit, panic more, write more, and then send it down the line, hoping pathetically that someone in the office will say they quite like it. At The Guardian they began to be more retrospective and, I suppose, personal. There are some things I regret writing because they hurt people who didn’t need hurting. Like a lot of journalists, I sometimes — not too often, I hope — had fun at another’s expense. Or what I thought was fun at any rate. Like many people of a certain age, I have come to see kindness as a great human virtue.

Why do you have this need to take breaks from writing columns?

I have a great fear of boring people — including myself — which isn’t a convenient attribute for a columnist.

You encourage aspiring columnists to keep diaries.

Diaries are useful for all kinds of writing. I have kept a diary sometimes. I regret not keeping one all the time — and not just because they help in writing. They help you remember how life was, simple things to do with family and friends as well as your reactions to public events.But diaries are hard things to write, they require a daily discipline and an ability to write without an audience in mind. ‘Dear Diary’ is the traditional way of solving this. As is describing one interesting thing a day. Alan Bennett writes very good diaries today (edited versions appear every year in the London Review of Books).

Could you name a few columnists who kept enviable diaries?

Khushwant Singh wrote a multi-item column (paragraphs about different things) that read a bit like a diary. His favourite subjects were gossip, women and whisky — or so I remember. He was a natural columnist — confident, breezy, slightly indiscreet and his column also seemed effortless, which I guess it was. Arnold Bennett was a good diarist too. Others include Harold Nicholson and Alan Clarke. But these were literary and political figures of last-century England, not columnists. The Daily Express had a gossip column called William Hickey. Few know the original William Hickey, an 18th-century nabob (a colonial British officer who made a fortune in India), who lived in Kolkata, and kept a diary of his disgraceful life and misadventures. Hair-raising! No columnist these days could compete with it.

Diary-keeping advice for aspiring columnists?

Write every day. Keep a diary if you can. It doesn’t have to be soul-searching — it’s often better if it isn’t. Some small episode well described is probably more useful to you as a writer.

Pooja Bhula is a Mumbai-based journalist

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Published on May 08, 2020
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