The disappearance of Kevin Jackson

Matthew Sweet pays tribute to the late writer, broadcaster and cultural polymath, who has died aged 66.

29 May 2021

By Matthew Sweet

Kevin Jackson © CC BY-SA 4.0 Marzena Pogorzaly via Wikipedia
Sight and Sound

The last time I saw Kevin Jackson was in the first place I saw him. A dark room under Soho. It was the afternoon and we were on the front row. We were watching a kids’ film, but we knew we were the target audience because we had both read Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 essay On the Marionette Theatre, and so, we were convinced, had the makers of Toy Story 4.

It was Forky who moved us to tears. Forky is a spork imbued with life by the addition of goo-goo eyes and pipe-cleaner limbs. He is also the focus of the film’s most memorable musical moment – Randy Newman’s I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, which describes Forky’s inclination to reject being and consciousness and return to the trash bin. It was a song about despair, but it made Kevin feel optimistic about the state of popular cinema. “That was marvellous,” he said, as we went back out into the light. “We’re living through a golden age, aren’t we?” 

Attempts to summarise Kevin Jackson’s life start simple but then explode into a dizzying (and doubtless thrillingly Vertovian) montage sequence of books, broadcasts, monographs, essays, articles, and breathless extemporisations by a man who knew culture, its canon, arcana and apocrypha.

He was born Clapham in 1955. He was the son of a lieutenant colonel in the Household Cavalry, which gave him the facility for sending up stiff-upper-lip attitudes without quite rejecting them. (He dealt stoically and sensitively with the deaths of his parents, which came only a year before his own.) At Pembroke College, Cambridge, he was the least scary member of a gang of students and dons who edited an arts review mag called Broadsheet.

In the 1990s, an actual broadsheet, the Independent, claimed him as an arts editor, and its Sunday sister as its film critic. In this capacity he detected shades of Gerard de Nerval in the lobsters of Muppet Treasure Island, found the rapprochement between the protagonists of Tom and Jerry: The Movie “not so much Hamlet without the prince as War and Peace without the battles”, and felt no obligation to deference: one of his columns offered higher praise to Ninja Turtles III than a rerelease of Chantal Akerman’s Night and Day.

I inherited that job. One of the first films I reviewed was a mockumentary called The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson, which made me wonder whether he’d seen the title on the Film Distributors’ Association list of upcoming releases and resigned for a joke. Except, once released from the obligation to spend every Monday, Tuesday and Friday in the preview theatres, Kevin became more visible than ever.

Let these spin on the screen: a graphic novel about John Ruskin (2009); an English version of Adam Mickiewicz’s Crimean Sonnets (2015); a passionate and painstaking biography of Humphrey Jennings (2005); Constellation of Genius (2012), his larky and rigorous account of Modernism’s annus mirabilis; Greta and the Labrador (2019), a verse fantasy that sent the star to the North Pole in quest of solitude; studies of Paul Schrader (2004), Nosferatu (2013) and Lawrence of Arabia (the man and the movie), and the BFI Classic on Withnail and I (2004), a film he loved – though Kevin’s own drunken rainswept Shakespeare recitation would not have been to the Regents Park wolves, but to his spirit animal, the Moose, which furnished his soubriquet, the subject of a 2013 book, and the name of Alces Productions, the company he founded to make short films, often about vampires.

Another entity he summoned, the London Institute of Pataphysics, staged an exhibition that reconstructed, with impressive accuracy, all the art made by Tony Hancock in The Rebel – from a Pollock-like action painting to Aphrodite at the Water Hole, the giant sculpture that falls through the floor of his studio and narrowly avoids pulverising Irene Handl.

On the radio, he was an utterly reassuring presence. No question defeated him. He would talk, effortlessly, about the proto-cinematic devices found in Homer or Shakespeare, or Sir Thomas Browne’s attempts to disprove the myth that the beaver practiced self-castration. On one live programme, he reviewed an exhibition about the Elizabethan occultist John Dee, whose obsidian scrying mirror he coveted, and made Studio 50A at Broadcasting House resound with an incantation in Enochian, the language of Renaissance angels. Was he really a fluent speaker? Had he, perhaps, just taught a course in this? Kevin jobbed around, in a slightly mysterious way. He once told me about the possibility of being engaged as a private tutor to a strange but brilliant teenage boy who lived in a Venetian palazzo and might have been dying of something. He thought this would be a stimulating way to ameliorate the unfortunate consequences of his habitual indifference to money.

Kevin’s sudden death, of heart failure at the age of 66, has shocked his friends and his readers. He shouldn’t have gone like this. He should, perhaps, have been taken by a demon accidentally summoned by his reckless enunciation of some cabalistic text found in a second-hand bookshop in Paris. Or failing that, expired while gazing at the cinema screen, through that sensibility so full of erudition and lacking in critical prejudice.

A couple of nights before he died, he messaged me to ask if I could take on some work he no longer had time to complete – a piece on the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. He remembered that I’d once visited Orgonon, the estate in upstate Maine where, in 1941, Reich was besieged by men from the FBI, who wanted to destroy his stock of orgone accumulators. The conversation turned to Reich’s acolyte, the cartoonist William Steig, whose most celebrated creation, Shrek, was written as an embodiment of Reich’s ideas about social and political freedom. A fragment from the history of lost ideas, lodged, almost invisibly, inside popular culture. Textbook Jackson stuff. 

That textbook won’t be written, and the conversation will never be finished. My personal consolation: we’ll always have Forky, and his reminder that being and consciousness, though unsought and temporary, are the only pathway to marvels.

  • Kevin Jackson, born 3 January 1955, died 10 May 2021.

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