Michael Jacobs: obituary
Published in The Independent, February 5, 2014
Michael Jacobs was Britain’s foremost living writer on Spain. He has now joined that pantheon of British Hispano-philes, that includes Gerald Brenan, George Borrow and Richard Ford, saluted by his contemporary rivals, such as Chris Stewart, Hugh Thomson and Jason Webster, and lauded in his adopted literary homelands of Spain and Latin America. He died on 9th January 2014, aged 61, having been diagnosed just three months ago with kidney cancer, on the very day his book was up for the Dolman Travel prize, after which he once again drank his friends and casual acquaintances of that night under the table of a Soho basement club. He never suffered from a hang-over or owned a car and completed 24 books in a 34 year long writing career.
For Michael was both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, part of that rare breed of scholar-gypsies that these islands have incubated, like Walter Starkie and Paddy Leigh-Fermor. For on one hand, he was a well-travelled, Courtauld-trained art-historian, fluent in four languages and a favourite student of Antony Blunt. On the other he was a Rabelaisian party-goer, a man who needed four hours to lunch, who charmed his way round the world and was easily the most accomplished and joyful literary-lyger of his generation. His written work, can be divided into two halves; the hard-working young art-scholar ferociously busy producing book in the 20 years between 1979 to 1999 who was then seemingly transformed in his mid-forties into the profane lover of Spanish street life, after which he created half a dozen travel books. And although he could at times dismiss his art and architectural guide- books as no more than an apprenticeship to travel writing, it was never that simple. I remember him confessing with a bemused smile, at the workings of the publishing industry, that it was a coffee-table book on the most beautiful villages of Provence, which had been by far his most impressive earner. He also learned early on that the word ‘no’ should never be articulated by a free-scholar to a publisher. He certainly wrote for an impressive range of publishing Houses before finding his spiritual home at Granta. So at the end of his life, he was once more passionately at work on an appealing narrow slice of art history, Velazquez’s Las Meninas.
Michael was always a brilliant communicator, which he could do perched at a bar, in a university lecture hall, slumped across a sofa after midnight or at an international literary festival. He was also passionate about food, not only the proper dignity of the table as the arena for creativity and friendship but that culinary traditions were the beating heart and visible proof of human culture. He was a kind man and a supportive friend, who freely took on the unpaid spade-work of literary life, contributing articles to journals and charities, volunteering to review, interview, translate and make introductions as well as speak at festivals, schools and on local radios. For the share love of good books, he also advised Hispanic and English publishers which books might be worth translating. He was also an enthusiastic friend to the Hay literary team, helping them develop their Hispanic festivals at Segovia, Cartagena and Bogota. He was also the trusted muse of Sam and Sam Clarke, whose influential restaurant Moro (a forum of modern London life) also produced a series of bestselling Hispanic-Maghrebi cookbooks. I only heard he complain once about Moro, grumbling in mock severity that they never let him pay. Like all real travelers, he had friendships scattered across the globe, though he made occasional attempts to gather together all these different strands under one roof, through the living theatre of a Michael Jacobs book launch. The last one, hosted in Moro on Sunday (the chefs-night off) had Michael apparently cooking for his closest two hundred friends of that particular city and night, with a Columbian band playing, cocktails and wine flowing, ambassadors, psycho-therapists and poets dancing whilst the emotional bedrock of his life, Jackie Rae (his lifelong girlfriend since he was sixteen who had turned herself into a history teacher with a razor sharp wit) sold piles of his books at a round table for cash.
What Michael could not do very well, was to be convincingly British. I never heard him talk about any of our national obsessions, be it gardening, horses, children’s education, cars or sports. But as he explained to me, though educated at Westminster and at home in both Hackney and the Andalucian village of Frailes he was actually a Jewish-Irish-Italian boy born in Genoa with not a drop of Spanish or English blood in him. To further complicate the back picture further, his Jewish grand-father had emigrated from Hull to work on the railways in Chile and Bolivia while his mother, Maria Grazia Paltrineri was not the archetypal Italian mother of the English imagination. Though she had been an actress in Sicily (when his father courted her, whilst he was working for military intelligence) she upheld a rigorously intellectual household in which Michael and his brother Francis (a civil servant) were expected to speak Latin on Thursday evening, on Fridays they accompanied her to the theatre and on Saturday they had guests for dinner and conversation. It always amused and bemused Michael that his father, who had the same war experiences that p
One of my strongest memories of Michael is as a judge, but one who literally danced in the centre of a stage with a glass in one hand while he addressed a forbiddingly literary audience. Without notes he succeeded in praising, analysing and dissecting half a dozen books of the short list before presenting an award. This he did three years running, and created an impossible act to follow.
I believe his own works were at their best when both Sancho Panza and Don Quixote were both allowed on the stage, allowing Michael to craft books with a scrupulously moral backbone of inquiry camouflaged beneath his fleshy burlesque adventures, his learning worn feather-light and combined with a relentless self-deprecation. To my mind his three most idiosyncratic, funny and endearing books are In The Glow of the Phantom Palace (a Rabelaisian romp amongst Moorish themes and ruins), The Factory of Light (an inversion of Arcadian-myth hunting in the bewildering-enough reality of modern Spanish life) and The Robber of Memories, which was Michael’s last book. This is a haunting, half-confessional journey up the river Magdalena into his parents disintegrating minds and his own mortality, interwoven with the literary stars and political scars of Colombia including an astonishing denouement with the FARC guerillas in the mountains. We, his readers, wanted and expected much more from him, but the latter work is surely a fitting swansong. His body was cremated at Golders Green on Friday 24th January and his ashes will be scattered into the winds of the Sierra Sur a month later.
Michael Jacobs was born in Genoa 1952 and educated in London, at Westminster, followed by an Art-history degree at the Courtauld from 1971-1974 and a Phd from 1974-1982. He was a much published, freelance writer from 1979 until his death, aged 61 on 9th January 2013.
Art, Architectural History and Guide Books: Mythological Painting (1979), Nude Painting in the History of Art (1979), Guide to European Painting (1980), Companion to Art and Artists in the British Isles (1980), The Knopf Traveler's Guides to Art: France (1984), Traveller's Guide to Art: Great Britain and Ireland (1984), Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America (1985), A Guide to Provence (1988), A Guide to Andalucia (1990), The Road to Santiago de Compostela (1991), Barcelona Blue Guide (1992), Czechoslovakia Blue Guide (1992), The Most Beautiful Villages of Provence (1994), Madrid: Architecture, History, Art (Philip's City Guide (1992), The Painted Voyage: Art, Travel and Exploration, 1564-1875 (1995), Andalucia Pallas Guide (2003), Madrid for Pleasure (2003), Alhambra (2005)
Hispanic Travel Writing: Between Hopes and Memories: Spanish Journey (1994), In The Glow Of The Phantom Palace (2003), The Factory of Light: Tales From My Andalucian Village (2004), Ghost Train Through the Andes: On My Grandfather's Trail in Chile and Bolivia (2006), The Andes (2010), The Robber of Memories (2012)
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by Barnaby Rogerson