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A Polymath's Polymath: A Conversation with Kevin Jackson Conducted by Kevin M. Flanagan

Kevin Jackson, known to be a journalist, scholar, broadcaster, and critic in rougly equal measure, recently took some time from his busy schedule to discuss his books and films. Just back from Edinburgh and Paris, he is currently full-speed-ahead on his latest project 1922: The Birth of Modernism, which is set to release Spring 2011 from Perseus Books.

I have pretty diverse taste in reading material, especially when it comes to non-academic "free time." I tend to gravitate toward relatively obscure subjects when left to my own devices. Though I first encountered the name "Kevin Jackson" in connection to his fine work on the British filmmaker (and so much more...) Humphrey Jennings, I gradually realized that I had managed to buy or read a number of books that he'd done throughout the years: themed compilations like The Oxford Book of Money (1995—a great source of quotes to stave off the lingering fear of debtor's prison), edited selections of Robert Burton and Anthony Burgess, books of alphabetically-ordered lists, and historical books on everything from the pyramids to John Ruskin. Though he had discussed his career before—see this interview from Ready, Steady, Book—it seemed a good turn to ask him more about the eclectic books he'd done. Plus, his frightfully funny style, in his books as in this interview, runs rings around this issue's loose circumvention of comedy.

Invisible Forms

KMF: Though you've written on an almost impossibly wide-range of topics, I've noticed that you always bring a great deal of humor to the proceedings. Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities (2000) is comedic in a cleverly organic way, usually letting the subjects of each chapter wallow in their full idiosyncrasy (the section on "Marginalia" alone is worth its weight in gold ). By contrast, Fast: Feasting on the Streets of London (2006) finds humor in incidental observation and travelogue. I found myself grinning and chuckling at some moments, such as when you recall a chance meeting with one of my favorite neglected filmmakers, Richard Stanley, whose presence ads some intellectual weight to the seemingly superfluous act of questing for perfect fast-food. Do you have any formal training in comedy? When younger, had you harbored any ambitions as a humorist, either in writing or acting?

KJ: Thanks so much for the kind words! I am always thrilled if I can make people smile or chuckle; especially at readings, where it's always horribly easy to tell the merely polite or otherwise forced laughter from the genuine article. No, I don't have any "formal training" in comedy, and I never really thought that I would ever have any career in the form—not, anyway, until quite recently. Nowadays I often think how much I would love to write a comic novel (possibly along the lines of one of Anthony Burgess's "Enderby" novels) or screenplay. And an actor friend of mine, Tobias Beer, keeps egging me on to come up with a sitcom.

But I've loved funny things ever since I was a quite a little kid: the wonderful Warner Brothers cartoons (I interviewed Chuck Jones once; charming man) and the Hope & Crosby Road to... movies, and the Ealing comedies, and James Thurber, and so on. Probably the most important "training," though I had no idea at the time that I was doing anything other than idling, happened between the age of about eight or nine to about thirteen, when MAD magazine was an almost unparalleled source of delight and instruction. (For a young tyke in South London, trying to figure out the meanings of "Madison Avenue," "two-martini lunch," "ulcer," "neurosis" etc, let alone all the wild Yiddish-derived slang, was first-rate exercise for a future close reader). And, my God! the graphics were gorgeous, especially those from the early days of MAD in the mid-1950s, by amazing artists like Bill Elder. I would also, I'm sure, have loved Krazy Kat, but I didn't discover Herrimann until I was in my 20s, at college. Then there was an unequalled wealth of British radio comedy—The Goons, with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan: which amounted to an introduction to Surrealism, though again I didnt know it; and a hilariously silly show called I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, which was written and performed by a lot of the people who went on to create Monty Python.

KMF: Sadly, my closest childhood equivalent to your MAD experience was with Cracked magazine, which seems embarassingly bad when revisited today. But, on that note, do you have any film/TV comic heroes? Playwrights? Caricaturists?

KJ: Two of the films of recent years that make me laugh no matter how often I see them are The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers and Withnail & I by Bruce Robinson. I wrote a short book about the latter for the BFI, trying to explain why. From earlier years: pretty much anything by Preston Sturges, especially The Lady Eve, and anything in the screwball vein like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday or It Happened One Night.


My favourite funny book of all time is not, I think, all that well known in the US?: it's The Compleet Molesworth, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle—an obscure genius of prose collaborating with a famous genius of caricature. People who love this book, like my friend the horror novelist Anne Billson, can hold entire conversations made up of Molesworth gags. I'm also lucky enough to be good friends with several gifted cartoonists, notably Martin Rowson, who does political sketches for the Guardian, and has produced a dazzling full-length comic of Tristram Shandy; and the incomparable Hunt Emerson. Hunt and I have worked together on a couple of comic books inspired by Ruskin and published by the Ruskin Foundation; we also collaborate quite often on a slightly lunatic strip called "Phenomenomix" for the Fortean Times, which are usually about the great occultists: Dee, Fludd, Scott...

Before I grow too tedious on this front, may I also mention that Hunt and I are working on a comic version of Dante's Inferno? It should be done by about 2012. We hope. About 84 pages. Funnier than the original.

Funniest playwright? Among the living, Alan Bennett. Among the dead...hmmm...well, I once saw a production of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist that made me weep. Contemporary Britush comedians I admire include Bill Bailey, Ricky Gervais with Karl Pilkington, Ross Noble and Paul Merton...oh, lots. I'm not all that up to speed with American stand-ups, but like the rest of the planet I am genuinely awed by the unflaggingly high quality of The Simpsons, and I try to see Family Guy (Brian the dog is eerily like me, as my wife likes to point out) and South Park whenever I can.

London Orbital

KMF: You've worked as a freelance writer, journalist, broadcaster, and historian, in the process treating many biographical subjects. However, you—or some composite, fictionalized version of you, la the "Peter Whitehead" who is the subject of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit's film The Falconer (1998)—feature prominently in Sinclair's much-lauded book London Orbital (2002). Though Sinclair writes somewhere between friendly affection and barbed lampoon, you undoubtedly come across as a comic foil in his larger, strangely serious journey around London's circular outskirts. Do you have any particular anecdotes from the trek not featured in the book? Do you recall your response upon reading the essays?

KJ: Mainly, relief: I was dreading something much more harsh and crushing. But anyone who knows Sinclair's ways as a scathingly comic author and still agrees to go a-wandering with him has no right to complain when they find he's taken the piss; he's a fercious caricaturist and, well, just shut up and bite the bullet. Off-hand I cant recall anything of any great moment that he left out of the reportage, except maybe for one detail at the very end of the last walk. We crawled to the nearest pub, and I took my boots off: they were full of blood. I bought a couple of large brandies, swallowed one and (was this some memory from a Western?) poured the other over my bleeding toes as disinfectant. About four days later all my toenails dropped out, and took several months to grow back. Ick. On balance, though, I felt that the portrait of me and some of my friends (Martin Wallen, Pete Carpenter) was strongly tempered with charity: no complaints. And Iain is a terrific writer, maybe the best British prose stylist of our generation. Still, it's a melancholy thought for me that my best claim to the attention of posterity may well be my bad feet.

KMF: On that note, what prompted your conversational book on Sinclair, The Verbals (2003)? Now that there is something of an emerging body of academic scholarship on Sinclair and his writing, I find that it serves an important niche as probably the most comprehensive non-fully-autobiographical telling of his life.

KJ: Thanks again! It came about very simply, because the above-mentioned Pete Carpenter, who is a school teacher by day and a poet (very good too) by evening, also runs a small imprint, Worple Press, which is mainly devoted to poetry but has published a handful of prose books, too. Pete was so excited and inspired by a long day rambling with Sinclair around the former lunatic asylums of Epsom that he asked us if we would collaborate on a book of interviews. We had long discussions about whether it should be called The Verbals or The Verbal or just Verbal, as in: "He came into the pub drunk out of his mind and gave us some verbal", i.e. verbal abuse. I'm still not sure we chose correctly. We are all quietly pleased with the way it turned out, but it hardly sold at all; I'm a bit surprised you managed to track it down. Plenty left in the stock-room, Pete tells me.

KMF: I managed to get a competitively priced copy, signed by Sinclair to boot, off eBay. Sold by a store based out of Maryland, I think, complete with somewhat comical certificate of "authenticity."

KJ: Pete is also trying to persuade Sinclair and me to join him on a strange pilgrimage next year, re-tracing the route that Pip takes to London in Great Expectations. We'll see.

KMF: Something else which becomes apparent upon surveying your books is your interest in the lives of "polymath" figures. You are even described as "the last living polymath" on the dust-jacket to your recent book Bite: A Vampire Handbook (2009)! In general terms, what interests you about nearly uncategorizable subjects like Sinclair, John Ruskin and, perhaps most importantly, Humphrey Jennings? Do you see similarities between your own arts/cultural career and the diverse arenas in which they work/worked?

KJ: Oh, heck. Seems to me that calling yourself a polymath is like walking into a tough pub and offering to fight anyone who thinks they're hard enough. Just asking for trouble. So let me just make a few comments in this general area that might take away that curse. (a) Like most people, I have more than one interest. A lot of my friends in the academic world bemoan the fact that they have to know so much about their specialist area that they eventually wind up neglecting most if not all of their other obsessions in order to become brand leaders. This happens in journalism too, of course, but the other side of that specislist coin us that it's useful to be known to editors as someone who doesnt just write about, say, silent movies or baroque operas but can turn their hand to a dozen or more subjects. (b) That said, and to paraphrase Willie Nelson, my heroes HAVE always been polymaths, starting with T.E. Lawrence and—this might not be so obvious—Ed Ricketts, who was the real-life orginal of "Doc" in Steinbeck's novels. When I read Steinbeck's memoir about Ed Ricketts at the age of about 12, I knew at once the kind of life I wanted to lead: no bosses, not much money, but lots and lots of pasionate hobbies. To bend Steinbecks's words, I wanted to be interested in everything, and try not to limit myself unduly. (c) I don't have the book readily to hand, but somewhere in John Berger's study of a country doctor, A Fortunate Man, he says something to the effect of how everyone with an education secretly hankers to be Paracelsus—to know something about everything. But then the price of wideness is often shallowness...

Humphrey Jennings Film Reader

KMF: You have done a tremendous amount to increase the visibility of Jennings and his work, both in Britain and abroad. In fact, it was through your two books on the filmmaker that I first encountered your work. The first, The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader (1993, later reprinted in the 2000s) appeared at a time when he was almost totally absent from the public stage. Though some writing on him had appeared in the 1980s, including an ambitious printing of his dream-book, Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (a long-term project of juxtaposed quotations, in-progress upon his untimely death in 1950), you have probably worked the most tirelessly of any scholar to preserve his accomplishments over the last 15+ years. How did you become interested in Jennings? Which of his films (or poems, or projects) do you admire most?

Humphrey Jennings

KJ: I think I can date my broad awareness of Jennings to the age of about 17 or 18, when I listened to a BBC radio documentary about Jacob Bronowski, who had just made the TV series The Ascent of Man. Bronowski had been with Jennings at Cambridge, and he said that, remarkable as some of his other contemporaries had been, it was Jennings who stood out as the truly exceptional figure. I literally made a note (in my big blue notebook) to find out more, then shelved the whole matter for about a decade, when I went to see a triple bill of Jennings documentaries at the National Film Theatre. To my immense embarrassment, I found that tears were gushing down my face and there was a lump the size of an orange in my throat. I did all my subsequent work on Jennings partly to explain to myself what all that was about, partly to bang the drum for his reputation. If I had to pick a single work to represent why he matters, it would probably be Listen To Britain (1942). My work on Jennings continues, by the way: for years and years now, I've been trying to persuade a publisher to bring out the complete Pandaemonium, which is about three times longer that the version we have at the moment. Pulisher after publisher has refused: Yale, Tate Britain, Carcanet, Cambridge UP...but I still have hopes. There is a sculptor, Emily Young, who has promised to help subsidise the project if we can find the right imprint.. so, lotta continua.

KMF: Before publishing your Jennings biography (Humphrey Jennings: The Definite Biography of One of Britain's Most Important Filmmakers [2004]), you collaborated on a television film called Humphrey Jennings: The Man Who Listened to Britain (2000), which was directed by Kevin Macdonald, soon to be famous for narrative films like The Last King of Scotland (2006). How did this project get off the ground? What challenges come about as a result of making a broadcast feature on a marginalized figure?

KJ: Well, rather as with the so-far-fruitless attempt to bring out the complete Pandaemonium, this was really a matter of banging my head on the doors of commissioning editors for year after year after year until finally someone gave in. The crucial figure here was a man called Tim Gardam, who at the time was head of programming at Channel 4. At some conference or other, a delegate asked him to name his favourite documentary, and he said Fires Were Started (1943). This threw the room into a frenzy, since hardly anyone else there knew what he was talking about. When I heard this, I decided to give up on the BBC—for whom I have done most of my documentary work—and pitch it straight to Channel 4. It worked! but on one provison: that I collaborate with the film production company of their choice. This was bad news, as I had already agreed with Kevin Macdonald, who was and is a friend, that he ought to direct. Stalemate for a couple of weeks, or was it months? And then Kevin won the Oscar for One Day in September (1999). Suddenly it was "...and when can Kevin start work?" The answer was: almost at once. We made it over about a four month period in the summer and it was shown, to our amazement, at prime-time (eight or nine, I cant recall which) at the start of the Christmas holiday period, on 23 December. I haven't a clue about the viewing figures: not all that high, I suspect. But the reviews were good.

KMF: You co-wrote, with Jonathan Stamp, a book called Building the Great Pyramid (2003), a companion to a BBC series on the iconic landmarks. I particularly enjoyed the section on cranks and occultists who have "used" the pyramids to their own ends, as well as the sections on the prominent Egyptologists who have spread more plausibly, historically sensitive takes on what the buildings meant. Did you have a hand in the broadcast series? Was the book largely determined by the already-planned structure of that series? If not, how did you become interested in the fascinatingly speculative pyramidologists?

KJ: As Jonathan would be the first, or anyway the second to admit, his actual contribution to the business of putting the words in that book on the page was precisely nil. What happened was this: one night, I received a panicky phone-call from Egypt: Jonathan (with whom I'd worked on other television projects) was under contract to file a 65,000-ish word text for a book to accompany the documentary he was shooting. It had become terrifyingly obvious to him that there was no way he could complete the film AND write the book.. so could I? It seemed like a challenge, so I said OK, and then rather wished I hadn't when it turned out that I had 28 days in which to do the whole thing. Jonathan's research assisstant handed over all the notes for the film, and I gutted those, but they weren't nearly adequate for my purposes, so I began to blitz the Cambridge University Library. (Incidentally, I was technically homeless at the time: a flash-flood wrecked my house and my wife and I were migrants for nine months. Another yarn). The idea for the cranks and occultists was, if I recall correctly, entirely my idea, largely because the history of occultism interests me greatly, as you would soon notice if you read any of those Fortean Times comics.

Mild coincidence: a couple of years earlier, I had attended a summer school to do a crash course in Middle Kingdom Ancient Egyptian, taught by a first rate lecturer called Dr. Manley. By the time it came to writing the Pyramid book I had forgotten eighty percent of what I had learned, but it made the chapter about the historical race to decipher heiroglyphics a good deal easier to compose.

KMF: I understand that your media career also includes some collaboration with director/historian/critic Paul Schrader. Could you explain how you came to work with him?

KJ: Again, quite simply, I was asked. Faber books were setting up a series of books of interviews with leading directors - some of them cut-and-paste jobs from existing texts, some, like the Schrader book, based on wholly original question and answer sessions. The editor at Faber, Walter Donohue, happened to know that I was a fan of Schrader's work; Schrader met me and concluded I wasn't too much of an idiot; the rest went swimmingly. Paul is still a friend; I once wrote a screenplay for him, which for a heady period of about three or four months looked promising, but then died. Just as well: it was rubbish, really.

KMF: You've recently directed a short film designed to promote your timely book on vampires (Bite). That film, Diary of a Vampire Housewife (2009), plays to the seductive allure that these fanged creatures seem to hold over audiences. Did you enjoy directing? Do you see yourself making any films—amateur, commissioned, or otherwise—in the near-future?

KJ: I absolutely LOVE directing and, if I could, would spend the rest of my few active years doing just that. I would dearly love to make a commissioned film, but if not, the way forward is this: (a) a few more very short films, starting with another vampire quickie, which I hope to polish off in late August/early September. (b) Then, in 2012 or so, a zero-budget feature—probably a haunted house story, or at any rate something set in one large building. The plan is to write a book about "how I tried to make a feature," and use the book advance to finance the shooting. (It's been done before, of course, but I think I can bring some new wrinkles). If the film falls apart, I'll still have written the book; if not, well—excelsior...


KMF: On the subject of vampires, your book manages to treat the divisive Twilight phenomenon with a good deal of respect (contrary to the outright dismissal I see from many trusted critics), and the topics you cover in such a short text are impressive, from historical musings on global vampire yarns through Dracula A.D. 1972. Do you seen the figure of the vampire as allowing for a truly democratic kind of wish-fulfillment? Was the tolerance for some of the ridiculous deployments of the vampire—Count Duckula, for example—an attempt at not alienating the (disturbingly fervent) fandom that surrounds these creatures?

KJ: I'm interested in your word "democratic", and I agree with it heartily, because I also agree with Nina Auerbach in her book Our Vampires, Ourselves (one of the best and most sensible books ever written by a cultural critic on the subject) that one of the dirty little secrets about liking vampires of the Dracula kind is that it is, at least in part, a hankering to be the opposite of democratic: special, elite, lonely, disdainful, aloof... in a word, Aristocratic. Most people would sooner own up to being sexually aroused by bicycle seats than to nursing fantasies of living in castles and murdering servants...but surely our fantasy lives are liberated zones where we can safely indulge in pretty much anything that gives us pleasure? Which is one reason why I am so powerfully disinclined to mock Twlight. If you've enjoyed vampire fantasies in your youth, it would be the rankest hypocrisy to dump on today's young people who are still enjoying them. So I wasn't so much concerned, if that's what your last line intends, to avoid putting off potential readers as admitting that there is, in essence, nothing much to choose between my adolescent dreams of Dracula and theirs of Bella and Edward. Mes semblables, mes soeurs et freres...

KMF: Can you talk about some of your current/upcoming projects? I hardly know what to expect from someone who has recently written on the moose (Moose [2008]), vampires, and John Ruskin. I say that with both respect and trepidation!


KJ: To write these replies, I've had to poach some time from my overdue work-in-progress, a book about 1922 with the highly imaginatuve title of 1922. That year because it is the year both of Ulysses and of "The Waste Land," though Joyce and Eliot are only two among a cast of hundreds, from Proust to Einstein, Prokofiev to Louis Armstrong, Aleister Crowley to Picasso, Garcia Lorca to Hitler, Charlie Chaplin to Kandinsky...And, of course, Nosferatu...

KMF: Thanks again for your time!

KJ: It was a guilty pleasure, which is often the best kind. Thank YOU.

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