The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993
Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)
Born: Glasgow, Scotland, April 1st 1960.
Died: Phuket, Thailand, December 26, 2005
‘The reason I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer,’ Jacko Macpherson told me in his soft Glaswegian accent, ‘is because I’m a fork. I’m a fucking fork, man.’ It was the last time I saw this remarkable, infuriating man – part flawed genius, part 20th century street urchin. It’s hard to think it was only a few weeks ago. We were drinking pints of Belhaven in the Doric Tavern overlooking Edinburgh’s Waverley station. It was his favourite place to wait for the London train. Ten minutes before it was due to leave he’d order up a Grouse whisky – ‘dinnae like malts, they’re over-rated. Can’t beat a good blend, man’ - knock it back, and then race like a shoplifter down Market Street to Platform 14 and the quiet cocoon of the First Class carriage bound for King’s Cross. He never once missed it. Jacko had always been a chancer. ‘Being a fork,’ he continued philosophically, getting back to the point he’d been trying to make for ten minutes, with more passion than clarity, ‘that’s what gives me the advantage over sharp knives, y’know? Ever tried eating spaghetti with a sharp knife?’ And he laughed that wild, choked throat laugh that was immediately recognised by his new cronies on Sunset Boulevard and his old ones on Leith Walk. He kept in touch with all of them through a steady flow of postcards mailed, as often as not, from the poolside of a Pacific hotel or an Indian Ocean surf beach. They were always decorated with exotic stamps that framed the recipient’s address like a Renaissance predella and left barely enough room for the Air Mail sticker.
Jacko had many friends and few acquaintances, and most, in bars, brothels, pool-halls and beach resorts around the world will remember him for just such on-the-money remarks. But for most, even those who have never read his one novel The Art Fair Murders, Jacko Macpherson will always be remembered as the only author to win the Europa Fiction Prize one month and then to have it taken away from him the next. His short life was full of such glorious contradictions, and we loved him for it. At least I did.
Jacko Macpherson was a liar and a cheat, a vagabond and a spiv, a procrastinator and a pimp, a coke-head and a lapsed Buddhist, a conceptual artist and a dime store hustler, a failed cavity-wall insulation salesman and a friend to the poor and the disadvantaged (especially street vendors of The Big Issue), a criminal, a teller of tales, and – to a few special people – a Saint. He was the Celtic Arthur Daly of the thirty-second film pitch and the internet gambling scam, but he was also Rob Roy MacGregor, Robin Hood, and Ned Kelly rolled in to one, never happier than when he was seducing a Flora Macdonald or making a Maid Marion blush. He was a bagman and a baker, a voyeur and a paid-up member of the Transport Union (Dalkeith Branch). He’d been accused of many things including fraud, paedophilia, grand larceny and petty theft. None stuck, and rightly so. Mostly. He bought his clothes from jumble sales, thrift shops, Chelsea boutiques and Milan couturiers depending on how the good Lord was providing on individual days. Had he been born in the 17th century he would have been a gypsy, a tooth-puller, a rum-runner, a pirate, a charcoal burner, a turn-coat, or rag-picker. He could have been the wayward second son of an Earl, a merchant banker spavined by piles and gout, or an imbiber of laudanum at the outer edges of a purple gaming table. But what did he actually do? Who was Jacko Macpherson?
Jacko wasn’t so much an abused child as a confused child. His parents lived in a prefab – those home-in-a-kit solutions to post-war housing shortages - in Partick, a working class Glasgow suburb that recently had attracted aspiring yuppies by the Toyota-load. Jacko lived in a caravan squeezed, against council regulations, into the bottom of the garden with his much older sister, Emily. Except she was really his mother. He didn’t find this out until he was thirteen. Suddenly, stomach-crampingly, he became an only child. Overnight, his elderly parents turned into weird but doting grandparents. And he always blamed such discoveries on being born on April Fool’s Day. ‘D’you ken what it’s like being born on the first of April? Your birthday becomes the most anxious day of the year. Never safe till after noon,’ he once told me, this time in the VIP Lounge at Heathrow waiting for the last New York Concorde of the day, Gauloise in one hand, brandy glass in the other, sweating inside his latest expensive overcoat. ‘Had everyone – even your family,’ he asked plaintively, ‘forgotten your birthday and it was just another wet April day? Or did they think they were being funny, yet again, holding out till the stroke of noon? Then it’s all laughter and presents and ‘Caught you out again, Jacko!’ No thank you fucking very much. And it was on my fourteenth birthday – a year later, if you’re paying attention - that my father, who twelve months ago had anointed himself as my grandfather, told me that my real father – some bampot called Hector Fergusson - had been in the Queen’s Own Highlanders before he did a runner in Cyprus. He leapfrogged to Africa with a false passport and some stolen medals, and ended up as the last hangman in Ghana. I mean, come on. You’re fourteen and its April Fool’s Day, who do you believe? My father a hangman? But apparently it’s true,’ he rubbed his neck anxiously. ‘Weird things gallop in my family. We have the DNA of immoral contortionists. We take synapse leaps the like of which others would stand in front of and quail. I tell you, I was damaged goods as soon as I landed on this strange fucking planet.’ But it didn’t stop him constructing a most remarkable life. Born in 1960, Beatles music filled his early childhood and, he later claimed, gave him a love for the playfulness of language and characterisation. The beautiful lady he still thought of as his sister played the Fab Four’s albums and singles pretty much continuously on the little blue record player in their caravan. Eleanor Rigby, Lady Madonna, Sergeant Pepper, Mr Kite, Desmond, Lucy and Jude all became playmates in his strange, internal world. He escaped from school as often as he could, and when he did, he escaped in to books. Byres Road cafes and Partick libraries were where he educated himself. His artistic flair – when he wasn’t reading he was drawing – also gave him the useful ability to forge the signatures of parents and doctors. He once told me that close study of a couple of classmates who did have asthma taught him how to fake an attack which was always good for a few extra days off school every month. Days filled with reading and day-dreaming. Day-dream believer, yes even the Monkees produced the odd memorable song that would hang-glide around your head all day.
With gloriously imperfect timing Jacko went to Glasgow School of Art just after the neo-expressionist painters – the Glasgow Pups as they have become known – had stormed the international art citadels and were now becoming a bit passé. He then completed a Masters degree at Goldsmiths two years before Damien Hirst, and thus failed by a small but significant margin to earn the stripes of young British artist. ‘Should’ve stayed in Glasgow and got more involved in Transmission Gallery. Some things you cannae pick,’ he grumbled. ‘Mind you, I always liked writing as much as making art. If they’d had those creative writing courses in the late seventies, I’d probably have done that.’ Like many aspiring rock musicians and writers before him, art school was Jacko’s only chance of a creative education. University, with its deep fear of the imagination, would have scuppered all his dreams in the first week.
And art school, more than anything else, gave Jacko a chance to read. He devoured Foucault’s The Order of Things as eagerly as Elmore Leonard’s Mr Majestyk. He was voracious. In his reading he was as indiscriminate as a sailor on shore leave in Marseilles. Amis, father and son, were absorbed as totally as Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. A bit of Borges, a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson, and every single word ever penned by Flann O’Brien. And the beauty of art school, as far as Jacko was concerned, was that you didn’t have to write essays on any of this, or sit exams. Jacko always hated exams. You just read, and thought, and at some point turned those thoughts in to art works. The problem was, in the mid-eighties, no one in Britain wanted to buy art works.
And so it was that Jacko ended up over-qualified and broke, which was the lot of most graduate art students in Britain before Charles Saatchi turned into the London art world’s Father Christmas. ‘I ended up living in Brondsbury Road, Queens Park, and signing on in Kilburn. Saved up my dole for a few pints in Biddy Mulligan’s on Kilburn High Road of a Friday and Saturday night. Dark days of Thatcherism, ken,’ and he laughed as he unpacked his early life for me. It was for a profile I was writing at the time for GQ magazine. As we spoke, the long thin nose of the Concorde taxied past the VIP window. At the far end of the lounge we could see Elton John eating popcorn from a gold bucket and watching Sesame Street on a large plasma screen. He looked lonely, in his big furry coat, like a caricature of himself auditioning for a part in The Simpsons. ‘Supplemented the dole by hanging shows in London galleries,’ Jacko reminisced with some warmth and affection for his past life on Struggle Street. ‘Still trying to pay off my overdraft from my degree show. I mean, how the Hell do today’s students do that and pay off a fucking loan?’ He accepted a bowl of miso soup and some sashimi from a drift-by waitress. ‘Anyway, got to know all the London art transporters and they seemed to be earning a lot more than I was earning hanging pictures. They had this great rhyming slang they’d developed, like “George Braque” for “sore back” or “Donatello” for “mellow”. I liked that. They also travelled the world, those with degrees, delivering works to art fairs and museums. I kind of edged my way in, as you do. Once they heard I had an HGV license from a summer job I did with Christian Salveson and they heard I was an artist with a first class honours degree – a “Damien Hirst” as they called it - I was in big demand. See they want people who know how to handle art works. So I was off to Cologne, Basle, Paris, even a few trips as a courier to Boston and Philadelphia. Then the fucking Berlin Wall came down.’
Jacko always blamed the Wall’s fall for his years in the wilderness, or Aberdeen to be precise. I never did find out the full story, but it involved a small Lucian Freud drawing going missing while his co-driver – who I only ever heard Jacko refer to as ‘Migraine’ - was helping to demolish the Wall instead of guarding the artworks. They both lost their jobs. Unable to face the Kilburn dole office yet again, Jacko ended up driving a taxi in Aberdeen and made a heroic effort to write his novel The Art Fair Murders between fares. With his famous optimism he thought it would take him six months. ‘Cannae put up with this dreadful weather for longer than that,’ he is reported to have said. But it was six cold years before he finally saw it published. That was when the next phase of his life began. He won a lot of support from Aberdeen’s best-known science fiction writer Zoran Mohar, whose parents had been émigrés from the former Yugoslavia, fleeing after the Second World War first to Paris and then, city by city northwards to Aberdeen. Mohar encouraged him to keep on writing and eventually introduced him to his London agent.
Finally, after eighteen months of painful re-writes, The Art Fair Murders was published. Everyone hated the title, especially his publishers, but Jacko, even in the depths of his poverty, was determined it should stay. “I’m dealing in clichés, man. That’s what it’s all about. Taking a tired cliché like a serial killer loose in the art world, and the over-use of mannequins in contemporary art. The overuse of the colour orange in contemporary life. Trying to make something bizarrely fresh out of it. Like cheap romanticism taken to the grand level. You see that in the posters of Toulouse Lautrec and in the paintings of Stevcn Campbell.”
Sales were ticking over at a respectable rate, but really took off when – totally out of the blue - he was nominated for the Europa Fiction Prize. Sales did a cardiac leap when he won it. His slurred acceptance speech at EC Headquarters in Brussels, when he called on his fellow Scots to rise up and embrace Republicanism, will long be remembered. But the real shock came a month later when The News of the World revealed he’d had a co-writer that he’d never credited, a Canadian journalist called Skye Forrest who specialised in environmental issues. In Aberdeen to write an exposé of the oil industry’s cover-up over the pollution of a cold water coral reef west of Shetland, it turned out that she had written as much of the final book as Jacko. It all began when she hired him as her regular taxi driver to research her story and as Jacko later confessed, ‘I let her read my manuscript. She gave me a few pointers, like on plot development and characterisation. We were both spending many hours sitting in the taxi at the oil company’s expense watching her suspects. As a journalist she’d worked right across the Condé Nast stable in the States so she knew how to build a story man. She seemed right in to it, and one thing just lead to another, as it does…’ Soon they were an item, in a literary and a physical sense. But neither lasted the distance.
Exactly one month to the day after winning the prize, which had been followed by a chartered flight across the channel with his new mates and a forty-eight hour bash at the Groucho Club, Jacko was struck off the Europa prize-winners’ list with all the ignominy of a Jesuit priest hauled up for kiddie-diddling. Apparently the real problem was not the collaboration but the fact that Skye Forrest was Canadian and thus ineligible for Europe’s biggest literary award. “It’s only a hundred grand,” Jacko was heard to mutter under his hangover. “We’ll get time times that for the film rights, you wait and see.”
Emily Richardson’s safer, some would say soporific, Teatime in Tuscany, became the winner by default. After the brouhaha had predictably melted like a pool-side bucket of ice, I re-read the novel and it seemed obvious second time around that in the construction of the text Jacko had ‘the knowledge’ while Skye had ‘the voice’. No matter. But there were significant, tantalising overlaps that made you wish they’d stayed together and continued writing as a team. But Jacko had always worshipped at the Church of Life, and this ‘wee stushy with the literati’ did his sales no harm. In fact it moved along the film negotiations at double the pace. By years end it was evident that Jacko would never have to write again, or drive a cab. By all accounts, he did neither.
It was fortunate for Jacko that when the broken body of Skye Forrest was found at the foot of some cliffs outside Aberdeen that he was in Las Vegas and the blame, correctly, shifted to a couple of ex-paramilitaries from Belfast hired by the oil industry. Over a five year period Forrest had been a thorn in their sensitive flesh, filing damning story after damning story, but not any more. At the time of her death she’d been preparing a court action to claim half of Jacko’s royalties. That was now dropped. In the Monopoly game of life Jacko had, yet again, been dealt a ‘Get out of jail free’ card and he was about to enjoy his liberty.
On his long haul to overnight successdom Jacko infuriated a lot of people, not least his agent and his publishers in, at the last count, thirty-five countries. Jacko came from the ‘if you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose’ school of hard knocks. He enjoyed winding people up. He positively relished pricking pomposity. There was the time he gatecrashed The Spectator’s Christmas party and threw up over the tuna vol-au-vents before exiting through the kitchen window, shouting a trail of obscenities in his wake. And there were his recent ‘unfortunate remarks’ about Guantanamo Bay at immigration in Los Angeles that, but for his agent calling in the British Ambassador (on a Harley Davidson, racing down the airport freeway), could have seen him led out of the terminal in an orange boiler suit and leg irons. But it was the little things that niggled the professionals around him, such as his insistence that every edition of the book, no matter what language it was printed in, should be exactly 666 pages as, to quote him, ‘It’s a beast of a book’. His German publisher, torn between refusal and a tiny font size, was eventually admitted to a home for the bewildered in a leafy suburb outside Munich. Then there was the way he began The Art Fair Murders with Chapter Twelve, a simple device to get some of the back story upfront. Later, he admitted that had been Skye’s idea. More worrying, to his legion of critics, he didn’t like apostrophes – ‘Let’s kill off the little fuckers once and for all. They’re a waste of space. Certainly in the possessive sense. We’ll keep them as dividers for abbreviating two words into one, ken. That makes sense.’ But what the reviews really crucified him for was his insistence, his conceit, of putting question marks and exclamation marks at the beginning of sentences. ‘That way you know up front whether you are preparing your brain for a cry or a query. You don’t have to re-read the sentence to get the right tone. It’s fucking logic man.’ Not surprisingly, purists and pedants hated him for this, and for many this newspaper’s cover story on its Culture magazine, ‘!Shit Lit’ said it all.
Despite all that, Jacko was a diamond geezer. Top of the range. Whether poor or rich he lived life to the full. Over the next few years he appeared to his acquaintances to spend as much time in the air as on the ground, jetting between beaches in Brazil, Australia, California, and Thailand in pursuit of the latest love of his life. Like Toad of Toad Hall Jacko changed fads quicker than the seasons, segueing between late night poker schools with London gallery dealers, scuba diving trips and cocaine parties in African hunting lodges. With one exception. Surfing. At the age of thirty-nine, after a New Millennium party in Jamaica, Jacko learned to surf. He might have been freebasing crack judging by the speed with which it hooked him. In the end it killed him. Or let us say contributed to his death.
There have been rumours for a while that he kept a studio in Scotland and as a hilarious profile in The Big Issue revealed, was ‘doing a bit of a Duchamp’ on the side, still making art but well out of the spotlight. However, I can vouch that a laddish, playboy lifestyle did serve as a smokescreen that allowed him to indulge his real passions: reading; collecting art; and talking long in to the night – wherever he was - with philosophers, artists, conmen; authors; film stars and rock musicians. Especially rock musicians, he spent a lot of time with them, farewelling the odd brain cell. His life had become something of a Situationist dérive and his drift took him on strange journeys around the planet. The same article that mentioned Duchamp, also spoke of a second novel, but there was never any proof of either of these things. And Jacko, being the great fantasist that he was, was more likely to fan the flames of speculation than douse them. But it was not fire that took him, it was the sea, the sea…
Last month, after our final meeting in The Doric Tavern, he was about to jet off from Heathrow for his now traditional Christmas surf break in Thailand. He was last reported to be on a private beach on a tiny and extremely exclusive resort island off Phuket in the company of Aaron Spiegelmann, who had produced the film of The Art Fair Murders, and Aaron’s extended family that included a host of nubile personal assistants as well as blood relatives with impressive underworld connections. When the tsunami struck it swept away many who were more innocent and, perhaps, more deserving of life than Jacko: school teachers, newly born babies, Buddhist monks, starving street dogs, nurses, the elderly, and holidaying honeymooners. Hundreds of thousands, as we now know, died within a few hours in an arc that swept across one fifth of the globe. The big wave took Jacko too, and the world is a far less interesting place now that he is gone. I raise my glass of Grouse – a fine wee blend – to his memory.