Mark Thwaite Your abcedary Letters of Introduction shows astonishing wide reading: you seem to have picked up nuggets of information from just about everywhere. How do you approach research or are you/have you always been "researching"?
Kevin Jackson "Twenty-odd years of knocking around the mass media have made me, like most shameless hacks, a fairly quick study, and I can usually work up a new topic in a few days. But you're spot-on with the remark about "researching all the time" - I'm a chronic and gluttonous, rather than systematic or tasteful reader, and I tend to find myself most absorbed in the things I've encountered by serendipity, browsing in second-hand bookshops and so on. This creates shameful, gaping holes in my knowledge of the things that most literate Britons know plenty about - I've never so much as opened a novel by Walter Scott or Zola, I can't tell you anything about Tom Wolfe's latest, and in general my awareness of contemporary fiction, from any nation you care to name, is probably second to everybody's. I've not even read all of Dickens, which is potty as well as philistine, since I revere him.
But it does mean that I know and am sometimes very keen on all sorts of writers (and other interesting creative folk) who are often ignored or forgotten. My ramshackle bedside reading at the moment, for example, includes: biographies of Bram Stoker and Michael Ayrton, Stoker's own book Snowbound, a collection of short stories by Rene Clair (better known as a film director?), Pablo Neruda's Canto General, two general histories of the Cynics (Diogenes and co), the new BFI monographs on Groundhog Day (by Ryan Gilbey: excellent) and the Herzog Nosferatu, David Ferry's translation of Gilgamesh, Freud's book on the memoirs of Schreber, a strange novel about alchemy by one Patrick Harpur, entitled Mercurius, an epic poem, Penniless Politics by the late Douglas Oliver (R.I.P.), Mick Farren's autobiography Give the Anarchist a Cigarette and James Webb's The Occult Establishment - which, by the way, is one of the best books of its kind I've ever read, admirably scholarly and unusually non-bonkers. Plus an old favourite, George Melly's Owning Up trilogy; I've lost count of the number of times I've read it, especially the parts about his time on the road with a jazz band.
As for researching Letters of Introduction: about two-thirds of the subjects were very much home turf and didn't require much more additional reading than was needed to play the alphabetical game; a couple needed a week or so of fairly hard library-bashing; and a couple were worked up almost completely from scratch. I'll leave it to you to guess which."
MT You mention Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave a few times in Letters - should I be rushing out to buy a copy!?
KJ "This book, I'd hazard, divides people into those who want to hurl it across the room in exasperation and those who are utterly seduced. It's a very short work, which Cyril Connolly originally published towards the end of the Second World War under the easily penetrated pseudonym of Palinurus - the helmsman in the Aeneid who loses the plot, and consciousness, and ends up washed overboard: he palinurinates. Connolly wallows in lush self-pity throughout (incidentally, UG is the source of the well-known phrase about inside every fat man there's a thin man frantically signalling to be let out: CC, famously, never met a calorie he didn't like) about all manner of plights and gripes, but particularly a failed love affair - a side of the book that leaves many readers cold. What's most seductive about it is that it also takes the form of a fairly erudite miniature anthology of gloom and misanthropy, and is crammed to the gills with the morbid likes of Leopardi, Pascal, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard and company, as well as less celebrated but equally fascinating types like Chamfort, the man who suggested that you should eat a live toad first thing every morning to make sure that you'll not encounter anything quite so disgusting in the course of your day. I haven't looked at UG much in the last ten years, but in my melancholic youth I probably consumed it cover-to-cover about eight times, and dipped into it on literally hundreds of occasions. If you have a penchant for orotund misery, you really should buy it now."
MT Will do! You are a "Fellow of the London Institute of 'Pataphysics" Kevin, do tell me more?
KJ "London Institute of 'Pataphysics is quite young, barely four years old, but is afflilated to and in regular contact with the much more venerable College de 'Pataphysique in France, which was founded in the late 1940s, and has a damned impressive roll-call of members, including the likes of Jacques Prevert, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Raymond Queneau, Boris Vian, Eugene Ionesco... and, more recently, Umberto Eco and Dario Fo. 'Pataphysics is usually defined as "the science of imaginary solutions", and takes its cues from the work of Alfred Jarry, who coined the word, and elaborated the concept, notably in his novel Dr Faustroll. (If you want more on the broader theory, you could do worse than check out a small volume entitled 'Pataphysics - Definitions and Citations, co-edited by Alastair Brotchie, Stanley Chapman, Thieri Foulc, and me: it's available from the Book Art Bookshop at 17 Pitfield Street, London N1.) The LIP's exploits to date have included a painstakingly accurate reconstruction of all the paintings, drawings, sculpture and conceptual works executed by Tony Hancock in The Rebel, which was exhibited at the Foundry Gallery and will be on tour to various venues around the UK in late 2004/early 2005. LIP work in progress includes an erotic film, Prayer Cushions of the Flesh, and an investigation of subliminal images in the paintings of the National Gallery. Future projects may well include an exhibition of wands, and a multi-faceted exploration of ghost photography, the latter being my pigeon.
The members of LIP are a wonderful, talented, amusing mob, and I consider it a privilege to work and drink with them."
MT Your book on Withnail & I is great. Is it your favourite film? Are you a big film/cinema fan?
KJ "I haven't been going to the pictures so much since I moved out of London to semi-rural Cambridgeshire, but, yup, like most of my undergraduate generation I was, and to some extent remain, an unreconstructed film nut. The first slivers of writing I ever got paid for were reviews and articles about movies for the likes of Time Out and Richard Branson's short-lived listings magazine Event, way back in the early eighties, but I'd already written acres of non-paid film reviews for student mags and the like: prolix, vehement and ill-informed, probably. My first published book took the form of a long interview with Paul Schrader - who wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc., and directed American Gigolo, Mishima, Affliction and so on. Faber brought that out as Schrader on Schrader in 1990, and have just, in the last few weeks, issued the revised edition, which is about 100 pages longer, and brings the story of his career up to the making of the ill-fated Exorcist: The Beginning. The book of mine which cost me most effort, and sometimes drove me up the wall with the sheer tedium of the eytmological drudgery it involved, was The Language of Cinema, published by Carcanet in 1997.
As to favourite film: I really do love Withnail, but it's probably not in my absolute top ten. If forced at sabre-point to settle for just one, it would probably have to be Listen to Britain by Humphrey Jennings. God knows how many times I've watched it (50 is not impossible), but it never bores me and usually thrills and moves me."
MT How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?
KJ "If you'd ever seen my handwriting, you'd know why I always, always, always, write straight on my trusty and beloved laptop. A pox, a proletarian pox on all those ingrates and Luddites who say that word-processing makes for sloppy writing: on the contrary, it opens the door to endless and almost effortless revisions. The laptop is one of the best reasons for writers, anyway, to enjoy living in these greatly maligned times."
MT What is coming next?
KJ "Picador should be publishing my biography of Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950; and see above) in late October - I actually handed the ms in two and a half years ago, but that's another saga. I honestly think he is the greatest British film director, and I hope that the biography will help make him at least a little more widely known.
Carcanet will be bringing out a paperback edition of my Humphrey Jennings Film Reader (first published in 1993) to coincide; and Picador will be paperbacking my book of odd essays on paratexts and the like, Invisible Forms (1999) in about September, I think. (Invisible Forms sold zilch, as per usual with my stuff, but I think it's the least disappointing thing I've written to date.) Meanwhile, I'm writing a cultural history of Moose - yes, the large, antlered ungulates - for Reaktion Books, and a sequel to Invisible Forms, provisonally entitled Outriders: the Supreme Being willing, they should both be in discerning bookshops some time in 2005.
I'm slightly superstitious about mentioning the other books that are bubbling under, but if the Fates are kind, the next two-three years or so should see me at work on, inter alia: another alphabet-based book about the themes and materials of modern art (to be co-written with Richard Humphreys of Tate Britain, for Tate Publishing); another BFI monograph - on Lawrence of Arabia; a selection of writings by the great anthopologist and psychologist WHR Rivers (now mainly remembered as a major character in Pat Barker's fine Regeneration trilogy; OK, so I do read some modern fiction...) for Worple Press; an edition of poems and writings on cinema by Vachel Lindsay; a collection of some random odds and sods from my jumbo journo's cuttings book (these last two both with Carcanet); and maybe some other things, too.
Chief among the last category: a slightly odd, wholly fervent book about Samuel Johnson, and a book provisionally entitled Cold Pastoral, which is about photography from Fox Talbot till now, and elaborates some of the topics I've been writing about as occasional photographic critic for The Independentand other publications. Inshallah, inshallah. We know not the hour nor the day."
MT What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer?
KJ "Oh gawd. Fave writers: Anna Akhmatova, W.H. Auden, Joseph Addison, Aristotle, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gilbert Adair, Paul Auster... [dissolve for rest of alphabet]... and Louis Zukovsky, especially his Bottom - a fascinating and neglected book on Shakespeare. Who - utterly boring as the answer is - is probably the only really sensible choice for favourite writer. (I assume almost everyone nominates him?) As a kiddie I was entranced by the tragedies; now that I am a trainee old fart, it is the comedies and late plays that most beguile. A couple of years ago, I was sent off by the Indy to hang out with a young theatre company who were taking Hamlet and Twelfth Night to audiences in Dubai; I ducked out of most of the Hamlet rehearsals and shows, but watched Twelfth Night again and again with undiminished pleasure. It's just about perfect.
Impossible questions, of course. Let's just say that, of all the canonical writers in English, the one I feel is most crassly misunderstood and ignored these days is Samuel Johnson (again, see above); people who claim he is boring, pompous or what have you ought to be flayed, at the very least. And if Sue Lawley ever invites me on to that mythical desert island, I think that my supplement to WS and King James would probably be the Compleet Molesworth by G.Willans and R.Searle, possibly the funniest work of English prose ever, and with some of the most dazzlingly funny cartoons. I sincerely consider it a work of genius. The Penguin Classics edition, which has a very sound & sensible intro by a chap I don't know called Philip Hensher, would do nicely."
MT What book do you wish you had written?
KJ "I take it I can't say The Divine Comedy, or The Tempest, or The Phenomenology of Spirit or Ulysses? OK.
Restricting the choice to books that have been written in the last ten years or so, by people I know as friends or colleagues, and which often make me growl "Bastard! Wish I'd thought of that!", I'd probably pick Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory, which does something genuinely new under the sun with the essay form, and manages to give the semblance of organic unity - maybe even the reality? - to a wildly diverse olla podrida of autobiography, history, farce, polemic, reportage, myth, hyperbole, criticism (art, film, literature), sociology, criminology, nonsense, libel, travel writing, politics and occultism. It's inexhaustibly entertaining & stimulating and the prose is incomparably toothsome. "Masterpiece" does not seem overstated.
Otherwise, I think I'd quite fancy swelling my CV with one of Robert Irwin's novels, such as Exquisite Corpse or Satan Wants Me... or even with his Companion to the Arabian Nights (which includes the fantasy of knowing Classical Arabic as well as Robert does...)"
MT Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer!?
KJ "What an invitation to pomposity!
I will resist it as much as I can, and say just two things:
(A) Best advice I have ever had about writing is just six words long: "Slap it down, tart it up". I think the author of this magnificent piece of wisdom is the poet and critic Mark Ford; if he was simply passing it on, my apologies to the actual sage. Paying attention to it has helped me in all sorts of ways, from out-witting writer's block (happens to the most callous of us, but it's worse if your income relies on keeping up a steady weekly flow) to managing to resist the temptation to do just one more day of (pointless) research before I start writing, or to talk about the article/review/book at hand down the pub instead of actually tackling it.
(B) Everyone I know who has ever taught a Creative Writing course invariably reports back, in wonder and exasperation, at the astounding number of would-be poets who seldom if ever read any poetry, or would-be novelists who seldom if ever... You get the drift. These people are inevitably crap, if they actually manage to produce anything at all. Conversely, the best aspiring writers are almost always ardent readers - they don't necessarily read widely, but they do read with enthusiasm and, usually, sharp focus. I don't think the point needs labouring. "
MT Anything else you'd like to say?
KJ "Mainly to say thanks very much indeed for your kind support and enthusiasm, which I appreciate more than you probably realise, and for asking me to do this Q&A - it's been fun (well, a lot more fun than writing the thing I was supposed to be writing this morning) and made me ponder a bit. But also to say that, if any tasteful and spirited publisher who happens to be reading this fancies having a go at a selection of my travel articles (working title: "To Hull and Back"), or anything else, come to that, then please contact me; my rates are very reasonable ..."
MT Thank you so much for your time Kevin - all the best!