Friendships emerge in the strangest moments. I first met Alison in the weeks following the Scottish Independence Referendum: a moment of loss that some said really was like grief itself. 

Across the intervening years there was no lesson in journalistic ethics too specific, no tangle of interpretation too complex, to form part of the many conversations we enjoyed together. Alison talked to me about a world of journalism that was far more thoughtful, convivial, and serious than much of the residue we are left with today. She was a mentor, supporter and comrade during personal moments of doubt and disarray. 

Quality news and current affairs radio broadcasting was Alison’s vocation. She excelled in a career that was relentless in its pursuit of the standards and ideals of public service broadcasting. 

But Alison had to watch up close as great hopes for accountability, transparency and journalistic endeavour crumbled in the face of the criminal political cynicism that characterised the ‘War on Terror.’ Like so many of her colleagues, the BBC was a source of mission and frustration in equal measure. She knew that the corporation never recovered from wounds inflicted in this period, as she delivered some of the highest quality output on the planet in the most testing of circumstances. 

Now, I picture a small Dundonian woman with a militant gaze set amongst the corporation’s old boys’ networks and bullshit bureaucrats and wonder at the sight. Those women who built that city have no peers. The Mary Brooksbanks and the Alison Balharrys of Dundee and this ill divided world were great critics of powers that they sought to shake back towards some semblance of humanity.

Alison despised and chastised euphemism and polite silence. So here is the unredacted version, in the spirit of the culture of disclosure that she yearned for. She died in great pain. I think part of that pain was indeed a symptom of a wider condition. It was of course coincidence, but Alison died as another conflict was enveloping a place – full of the kind of urgent young people whose company she preferred – that she knew so well. I think that the politics of anguish was present in Alison’s death, as it was in the final years of an increasingly isolated life. There was simply too much to rage at within one body. 

Last week I joined a group of other quiet folk to politely chat over tea and sandwiches in a nice hotel about a woman who raged at the fate of the Arab world, as it was indiscriminately bombed once again. Saucers clinked as bombs burst over Gaza just as they had done over Baghdad two decades ago. 

We talked in hushed tones of a woman who turned down the volume for no one and harangued the powerful at every turn. Norman McCaig imagined ‘two minutes pandemonium’ (rather than the traditional silence) being held to commemorate Hugh MacDiarmid, this would be fitting for Alison too. 

Still, the hotel offered a view to die for. You could look out across the River Tay, serene and fine under the winter sun, and remember that Alison loved this place and must have felt calm before it, once. Perspective gives crowded minds space to be at ease. 

But the truth, once again, will not be quiet. Alison’s rage could be pure and precise, but also erratic and cruel. She brought an arsonist’s devotion to the burning of bridges (few were safe from the flames). Her utterly partisan dedication to people and causes had its darker inversion in the form of a kind of scorched earth policy towards those unable to meet her (often exacting) standards. This impeded much of the necessary work that she wanted to do as she battled with rapidly deteriorating physical and mental health. 

There was also raw and terrible grief, particularly for her father. But though they often don’t realise it, there is a quality to those who have seen that great void of loss open up before them which means that they are not really diminished. Many, like Alison, are quicker to call-out injustice and practice equality towards all, to walk with ease beside those whose suffering is abject. Knowing the awful briefness of our time here – the hardest truth of all – so much seems inconsequential. Only a radical impatience remains.

So when we met for the first time in 2014 to pick over the remains of what had been a radical independence campaign, before machine politics swept in and tamed it, hard truths were the order of the day. Scotland was settling back into its comfort zone of couthy consensus. Alison was appalled to see those who cried the loudest for change and needed it most (Dundonians foremost among them) told to pipe down.

When I think back to that moment of loss in 2014 there is now a Joni Mitchell verse that slips into my head every time. 

We really thought we had a purpose

We were so anxious to achieve

We had hope

The world held promise

For a slave to liberty

Freely I slaved away for something better

And I was bought and sold

And all I ever wanted

Was to come in from the cold

Some sell out, others are bought and sold. Alison had different ideas.

A detailed obituary by Michael Gray is a available here

Photo: Neil Williamson