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Saturday, 22 March 2014


Shoreditch Town Hall, 21 March 2014

Sometime in March 1965, when I was almost 13, I attended a birthday party held by my school friend Hugh Watkins. After attending a showing of the latest James Bond film Goldfinger at our local Odeon cinema in Temple Fortune in northwest London, we had afternoon tea at Hugh’s home. It was at that tea party that I first met the brothers Francis and Michael Jacobs. They lived next door to Hugh. Michael, who shared his birthday with my mother, 15th of October, was a few months younger than me. It is curious that his mother shares the same birthday, 8th of May, with me.

Michael Jacobs (in pink shirt) with Adam Yamey (in white robes and holding a coconut) in India, 1994

Yesterday, 21st of March 2014, I attended a large gathering to celebrate the tragically short life of Michael Jacobs. This moving occasion was beautifully organised by his wife Jackie along with his good friend Erica Davies. His death on the 11th January 2014 came as a complete shock and surprise to me as I had not known of his illness. A number of people who had known him for varying numbers of years shared their memories of this remarkable person at the gathering yesterday. In this essay, I wish to share some of mine, a few of which derive from an era before which some of yesterday’s speakers knew him.

Michael was very musical. During his school years, he became an accomplished clarinettist. He told me that whenever he went on holiday, he had to carry a mouthpiece with him so as not to lose his lips' embrasure. His grandmother Sophie was friendly with John Beckett (1927-2007), a close relative of the writer Samuel Beckett. John was one of the people who began to re-introduce early music, and its ‘authentic’ performance into the concert repertoire. Sophie gave Michael and Francis a number of records that his ensemble Musica Riservata had recorded. We loved listening to these on the Jacob’s gramophone, and Michael learnt how to sing some of the renaissance songs. His renderings of these were superb, and continued to bring joy to his friends during the rest of his life. One of these, which he sang often, was called El Grillo.

During his later years at Westminster school, both Michael and I developed an interest in the Gothic and neo-Gothic eras. We were both interested, for example, in the novels of Walpole and Beckford. He carried this further by organising a ‘Gothic’ event at Westminster School. I was invited to attend this curious occasion, of which I recall little except that Michael had persuaded a number of his school mates to dress up in monk’s habits and wander around the cloisters whilst ‘Gothic’ music from his and also my collection of early music LPs was played over loudspeakers. The school authorities must have thought highly of him to allow him to put on this extraordinary event.

Michael enrolled at the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in about 1971. Very soon, he became recognised as one of the Institute’s better students. This caused him to be selected to join a group of academics on the Institute’s highly exclusive annual overseas excursion. He had to join the tour somewhere, which I cannot recall, in Europe. It might have been Bavaria. He asked me whether I would like to join him on a trip through the Low Countries and West Germany on his way to wherever it was that he was joining the art historical elite. I was on my university vacation, and it sounded like a good idea. We decided to camp to save money. I provided the tent, and we set off from London to Dover, where we crossed the English Channel.

I was carrying a rucksack with my belongings and the tent. Michael’s baggage was heavy and unwieldy. He was carrying not only the clothes and the sleeping bag that he needed for our camping trip but also things that he needed for his forthcoming trip with the academics. As this was to be a smart affair with formal dinners, he had to carry a dinner jacket and its accompaniments including smart shirts, shoes, and ties. He also lugged an enormous bag filled with huge hard-backed art books that he felt that he might need for that event. We camped somewhere near Lille in northern France on the first night. All went well until the following night, which we spent at Grimbergen just outside Brussels. We awoke the next morning to discover that the rain was falling heavily. Our tent was soaked, as were our sleeping bags. The rain managed to get into our baggage. Michael’s books got wet, and his formal clothes became dishevelled. We decided not to continue with camping, but instead to spend the rest of our trip sleeping in youth hostels.

Michael guided us to fascinating museums on our trip. He was somewhat short-sighted, and often went up close to paintings in order to - as he explained to me - examine artists’ brush-strokes. This often caused the men and women guarding the works of art to become anxious. They had nothing to fear from this young man, who was destined to become a significant art historian and a well-known writer.

When we reached the West German city of Marburg, I told Michael that I had run out of money. The £60 or so that I had budgeted had almost been spent. There was just enough to pay for my railway ticket back to London. On my way back, I had to spend the night in Liége. With nothing in my pocket except my ticket, I slept on a bench in the railway station. Michael continued on his way to meet up with the Courtauld party. Despite having had to cut it short, I enjoyed the journey and Michael introduced me to a lot of art which was unfamiliar to me. For example, had we not visited the art gallery in Dortmund, it might have been many years before I might have finally, if ever, learnt of the existence of the Blaue Reiter Group and the marvellous expressionist paintings produced by its members.

Some years later in 1982 when I qualified as a dental surgeon, I learnt to drive and acquired a car. Michael, who never learnt to drive a car, was grateful to his many friends who were happy to enjoy his company and drive him around. I was one of them.

In 1984, Michael along with Paul Stirton published The Traveller’s Guide to Art: Great Britain & Ireland. The research for this involved a great deal of travelling around the British Isles. One holiday, I drove Michael along the south coast of England and around Wales so that he could visit museums and galleries in these parts. I had a cassette player in the car, and played many of the tapes that I had recorded from my large collection of Central European and Balkan music LPs. Michael enjoyed the exotic music, and once remarked to me that listening to it whilst travelling through the British countryside, made the somewhat familiar landscape seem a little less familiar, even a bit foreign and hence more interesting.

We began our journey along the south coast at Eastbourne. We arrived there in the late afternoon. Michael was dismayed to find that its art gallery was already closed. He suggested that we walk up to the building, and then try to peer in through its windows. This was unsuccessful; we could not see much inside it. Undaunted, he approached two young lads walking in the street close by. He began asking them whether they had ever visited the gallery. I thought that he was being a little over optimistic; the lads were skin-heads. And, in those days they were the least likely people to have been interested in art, and were potentially violent. Fortunately, we escaped unscathed.

During that trip, we celebrated Michael’s birthday by staying at a better than average bed and breakfast (‘B&B’) near to Newport in South Wales. He had chosen a beautiful place to stay. The breakfast that we were served was one of the best that I have ever eaten in a B&B. Apart from being offered a selection of different kinds of teas we were served perfectly prepared fish as well as the usual English breakfast items.

After visiting fine art galleries in Cardiff, Swansea, and Llanelli, we made a detour to Laugharne, where the writer Dylan Thomas lived and worked. It was a lovely spot.

The west coast of Wales was devoid of places that were deemed suitable for his forthcoming book, but we drove along it one Sunday. We stopped for the night at an isolated village at the western end of the Lleyn Peninsula. The sole place to stay in this Welsh speaking village, which resembled the Scottish village that starred in the 1984 film Local Hero, was the place’s only pub. The village was teetotal on Sundays. So, we sat in the deserted bar eating an unsatisfactory evening meal without being able to wash it down with something alcoholic. As we were eating we could hear the thudding of loud pop music coming from somewhere in the building, but we thought nothing of it. After dinner, we decided to go for a late night stroll; Michael was a keen walker with an abundance of energy. When we left the bar and entered the lobby, some doors burst open, and a couple of young girls burst out. Seeing us, they asked us (in English rather than in their usual Welsh) whether we would like to join their party. We followed them into a room where a party was in full swing. There, we were offered beer and other alcoholic drinks; and were made to feel most welcome.

Llandudno, which we visited on the next day, had the most curious museum on our trip. It housed a collection of carved wooden Love Spoons. I can not remember whether Michael and Paul included this in their book eventually.

Throughout the trip, and others that I made with Michael, he was supposed to be our navigator. This was a good arrangement. He was a good map reader.  The only problem was that Michael had a tendency to fall asleep in moving vehicles. Whilst investigating the art treasures of southern England, he was asleep as usual when we speeded through Cheltenham and had continued beyond it. Suddenly, he woke and asked me where we were. I told him that we were almost at Gloucester. Somewhat panicked, he charmingly persuaded me that we should turn around and head back to Cheltenham which we had overshot by almost 10 miles. He had forgotten to tell me that it was supposed to be one of his stopping places before he had drifted off.

In 1986, Michael published another book, The Good and Simple Life. This book about the artist colonies of Europe at the end of the 19th century also required several chauffeurs during its research phase. I drove him to the West Country so that he could carry out field research in the Cornish towns of Newlyn and St Ives. We stayed in Newlyn, where he was allowed to bring the hand-written diaries of the artist Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947) from a local library to our bedroom in the B&B. He read them during the night, and the next morning we sat together for breakfast. We were the only two guests in the B&B, and we were confronted with a vast spread of greasy fried breakfast fare. I ate a little of it. Michael ate his share. Then, he looked at what was left on the table - a substantial amount of food - and said that we would have to finish it. I told him not to be ridiculous, but he replied that he did not want to hurt our landlady’s feelings by leaving it. He was genuinely concerned not to upset her. So, he finished it off. During the rest of the day, he kept clutching his stomach; his kind-heartedness and thoughtfulness for others was making him suffer.

I have to thank Michael for introducing me to St Ives. I have visited this beautiful little port many times since. Apart from visiting the Barbara Hepworth Museum there, Michael and I also visited places associated with the artists who worked together in the town’s artist colony. This involved visiting the St Ives Art Club which was founded in 1890 and the archives of the town’s library.

At some stage during this trip, we stopped, and spent the night at, at Worth Matravers near to Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck. He took me to a pub where the artist Augustus John (1868-1961) used to drink. When we entered, Michael asked the barman whether there were any traces of this artist in the pub, maybe some graffiti or something scratched into the woodwork of the bar. The barman, whose cultural knowledge was a microscopic fraction of Michael’s, looked at him blankly and said nothing. So, we ordered a pint or two, just as the great artist would have done many years before our arrival.

At yesterday’s memorial event, the renowned cookery writer Claudia Roden praised Michael’s culinary skills. This praise was well-deserved. Long before Roden sampled his cooking, I had been fortunate to have enjoyed many dishes prepared by him in the kitchen that he had constructed with his own hands in his home in Hackney.  His mother was an excellent cook, but he surpassed her by being both excellent and also successfully ambitious. Few people could prepare a coulibiak (кулебя́ка) - in essence, a pastry filled with fish - as delicately as he did for me on at least 2 occasions.

His food was worth waiting for, and indeed one had to do just that. He would generously invite guests for dinner, but would arrive full of apologies long after them. The dishes that he would prepare for us as we sipped aperitifs never disappointed; and that was not just because we had all becomes so hungry waiting for them. As a cook, he was a genius. However, occasionally he was a little over ambitious.

This was the case when he decided to make home-made fresh pasta for a large number of people who were going to celebrate his 40th birthday at his home. He had decided to make enough fresh tagliatelle for at least 30 people. I arrived early at his house, and found him in the kitchen cranking his hand operated pasta machine. Layer after layer of strips of tagliatelle were accumulating on his kitchen table. To his dismay, he realised that they were beginning to stick to each other. I suggested to him that fresh pasta needed to be hung up to dry a bit. So, we separated the ribbons of pasta and hung them over the backs of the assortment of wooden chairs in his kitchen and anywhere else that seemed suitable. When that was complete, he had to face the problem of cooking this vast amount of pasta, and then serve it with his home-made ragu.

On another occasion, my wife and I turned up at his home the day after he had had a dinner party, at which he had served his home-made filled pasta. Not only had he made the pasta himself, but also the delicious filling.  The few leftovers that he cooked for us matched the best tortellini that we hade ever eaten anywhere - and my wife had lived in Italy for 4 years.

Michael was blessed with a great sense of humour. He was very witty. When his brother got married in Ireland, I drove Michael and Jackie to Avoca in Eire, where the wedding was being held. At the reception after the ceremony, Michael began his best man’s speech by saying something like: “Unaccustomed as I am to speaking in public…” then pausing for a few seconds before continuing, “… without being paid.” This had everyone present roaring with laughter. A few moments later, he continued: “I had originally thought of projecting a few slides showing Francis’s development from infancy to adulthood, but then I decided against it. After all, this is a family show…

Michael’s death has left a gap in many people’s lives. As the memorial event at Shoreditch Town Hall demonstrated so vividly, he meant many different things to many people. But all of us, who attended the event, were united in at least one thing: we all felt his great affection for us. Overall, he was one of the most life-enhancing people I have ever met. 

Michael Jacobs with Lopa and Adam Yamey at their wedding reception in Bangalore, 1994

I feel privileged to have been his friend and that he was one of the few people who made the long journey from Europe to India in order to celebrate my marriage to Lopa in Bangalore.

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