Kevin Jackson, who died on 10 May 2021, aged 66, was a writer, film-maker, broadcaster and founder member of the London Institute of Pataphysics
Kevin’s many books included an acclaimed biography of Humphrey Jennings, Constellation of Genius: 1922, Modernism and All That Jazz, Mayflower: The Voyage From Hell, and three volumes for the BFI’s Modern Classics Series (Withnail and I, Lawrence of Arabia and Nosferatu). Although Jackson came from an establishment background – his father, Lt Col Alec Jackson was “a legendary Riding Master of the Household Cavalry” – he was the most unstuffy and off-piste of men, a bloodhound after weird, wonderful and esoteric topics.
Jackson was writing an article on Captain Bligh for this issue of Perspective at the time of his death; we are running this tribute by his friends Bharat Tandon and Michael Brooke in its place.
Some imaginations are born to e felicitously in tune with the conditions of their time, others to stand as displaced inhabitants of another age; one of Kevin Jackson’s many notable achievements was the ability he possessed to do both of these and more. One reason why he was drawn, in his writing, broadcasting, and film-making, to figures such as Sir Thomas Browne, Samuel Johnson, and the Elizabethan magus John Dee, must have been that, like them, he had a gift for collecting and synthesising, for bringing together dizzying, encyclopaedic bodies of knowledge while plotting illuminating radii of thought back outwards from them. In another age, or even in another country, one where the life of the mind was honoured rather than suspected, and where intellectual range were not so much at the mercy of “monetisation”, Moose (as Jackson was known to his innumerable friends) would have the kind of status afforded to, say, the public intellectuals of France.
Yet Moose was also very much of and in his time and place, as he demonstrated the last time I saw him in person, between lockdowns in 2020, when my youngest son questioned him at length about scary films a nine-year-old could get away with watching. And so I got to witness Moose, for one last time, completely in his element: from Young Frankenstein to The Innocents, from Night of the Demon to Poltergeist, the conversation conjured enthusiasms almost visibly into the air of the room (how Karswell in Night of the Demon might have envied that). Yet those enthusiasms were never presented as prescriptions, but rather as examples of what anyone might do if only they followed their interests far enough. I could see that dance of the intellect reflected in my son’s eyes as Moose spoke, like magic-lantern slides projected around the room. Moose was not just thoughtful in himself, then, but the cause of thoughtfulness in others.
Just look at Iain Sinclair’s description of Moose from London Orbital – that extraordinary account of an attempt to circumambulate the M25 – a project which must have appealed to the part of Moose involved with pataphysics (the science of imaginary solutions). “If you spotted Kevin,” Sinclair observes, “hanging about the bus stop near TV Centre, you might guess: alpha male from Blake’s Seven”. In later years, that tall figure with whiter hair could sometimes call to mind another aspirational model from 1970s sci-fi: Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor Who, a figure in whom you’d place your trust, however scary the project proposed. And whatever project Moose’s intellect came up with, it would always be conducted with an eye to the ways in which ideas are prismatically reflected through experience itself, and how they are – sometimes awkwardly – given bodily life.
Look, for example, at his accounts of figures as diverse as Maya Deren (the Ukrainian-born American experimental filmmaker) and Genesis P-Orridge (lead vocalist of Throbbing Gristle) in the collection of occasional pieces Carnal to the Point of Scandal (2015), at his narration of standing directly below the site of the Crucifixion whilst on pilgrimage with Rev Richard Coles in Coles to Jerusalem (2017), or his meticulous accounts of the deliberate and accidental channels of cultural influence at the “official” beginning of modernism in Constellation of Genius (2013).
Thoughts and ideas, in Moose’s writing, are always, for good or ill, lived through how people live all the other parts of their lives. At the most obvious level, this made him an exemplary biographer, whether he was writing about Humphrey Jennings or TE Lawrence. But that sense for the multidimensional connections that ideas tend to forge, whether we wish them to or not, also led Moose to some wonderful collaborative work. This was exemplified by the work he did with Hunt Emerson, inside and outside the pages of the Fortean Times (the journal for those who pursue uncanny and strange phenomena): get one of the corny gags in their works, and you will have got so much else about how the world does and doesn’t operate. For many of the same reasons and regardless of the esoteric nature of what he might have been working on at the time, Moose got on as well with children as adults: he clearly saw in their indecorous and unrelenting willingness to ask questions a kind of collective kindred spirit and they glimpsed in him what a grown-up life might be like if you didn’t have to heed the adults’ injunctions about when to stop asking, “Why? Why? But, seriously, why?”
“Strange, isn’t it?” asks Clarence the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life; “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” That’s true for everyone, but its truth is especially pertinent to the life and work of Kevin Jackson; he resembled a figure from eighteenth-century literary culture, where friendships and enmities were never (and could never be) hermetically sealed off from matters of artistic creation. Moose became an enormous presence on Facebook – even today, those of us who post messages lamenting his death still half expect him to pop up in the comments with a terrible pun at our expense. But then that was because, long before Zuckerberg was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, Moose was himself a social network avant la lettre, someone who valued friendship and tried to pass on its intellectual and emotional possibilities to everyone with whom he came in contact.
The final frame of Bloke’s Progress, the graphic novel that Moose and Hunt Emerson devised to dramatise the ideas of John Ruskin, features the entire cast of the story, along with Moose, Hunt, and the crew, taking a curtain-call, and raising a glass to the reader; the reader, likewise, is represented by a hand, holding a flute of bubbly, reaching forward into the frame. As I look around the traumatised and bereft, I know that the connections Moose forged, the footsteps of his life in ours, will endure and develop, and that we can recall and deliver on that final Ruskinian prompt: “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE!” So long, Moose, and thanks for all the wealth that your own life gave us all.[Raises glass.]
Bharat Tandon teaches in the School of Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing at UEA; he has edited Austen’s “Emma” for Harvard University Press, writes regularly about nineteenth-century and contemporary fiction, and was one of the judges for the 2012 Man Booker Prize
I’d been a fan of Kevin Jackson’s writing since the 1990s (an Independent article, in which he persuasively argued that Geoffrey Willans of Nigel Molesworth fame was a more challenging 1950s experimental novelist than William S Burroughs, being wholly typical), and we’d occasionally bump into each other a decade later. By then, I’d read several of his books – his Invisible Forms (1999) being a particularly delightful example of how his magpie eye would alight on and delight in the most trivial marginalia, although for scholarly heft his biography of Humphrey Jennings (2004) fully lives up to its dust jacket’s lofty claim to be definitive. I devoured it for pleasure at first and then re-read it for professional reasons a decade later when we were fellow contributors to the booklet notes for the BFI’s three-volume video edition of Jennings’ complete works. And had their lives overlapped even slightly (Jennings, died 1950; Jackson, born 1955), one feels that they would have hit it off unusually well even by Moose’s legendary standards of bonhomie, with their shared eclecticism and fondness for going off at seemingly mad but ultimately surprisingly productive tangents.
My fondest first-hand memory of him involved a trip to Moosebank, his rural Cambridgeshire retreat, and a blissful day spent putting together a video tribute to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Demonstrating cherishable attention to detail, he’d prepared cooked ham and eggs for lunch – the roadside café meal Veronica Lake buys for a downcast Joel McCrea in the movie. A few months later I mixed his Blu-ray commentary for Withnail & I, my speakers regularly shaking with his infectious laughter (bafflingly, a reviewer later complained about this, as if a furrowed-brow, scholarly analysis would have been preferable). He’d been commissioned because of his marvellous Withnail monograph (2004) for the BFI Modern Classics series, and his other two BFI books (Lawrence of Arabia, 2007; Nosferatu, 2013) also dovetailed with other projects: Bite: A Vampire Handbook (2009), Legion: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Lawrence of Arabia (2020). In an interview to promote the last of those titles, he said “writers fall into two broad camps: those who write for cash, and those who write because they are obsessed.” He was, entirely unashamedly, notably generously and overwhelmingly enthusiastically, one of the obsessives (his constantly updated Facebook page being a particularly scintillating treasure trove), and we loved him for it. RIP.
Michael Brooke is a writer for Sight and Sound, editor (text and video) and technical producer for the Indicator Blue-ray label