Michael Jackson

Best-selling beer writer


Michael Jackson, writer and journalist: born Leeds 27 March 1942; married Maggie O'Connor (deceased); died London 30 August 2007.

Michael Jackson was a pioneer in writing about beer the way people have written for more than a generation about wine – with respect for how it is made, and with seriousness, discrimination and knowledge. Most of his audience and many of his colleagues regarded him as the foremost authority and leading writer on beer in the English language.

Large, of shaggy appearance, ebullient and witty, Jackson became a cult figure in America, where he was credited with firing the interest in micro-breweries. His six-part 1990 Channel 4 documentary series The Beer Hunter was a big success in the US – where the punning title probably played better on the West Coast than it did at his home in west London – and was eventually seen in a dozen countries.

He was a fine and supple writer. The last column he wrote, for the American publication All About Beer Magazine, was entitled, "Did I Cheat Mort Subite?" – a glorious bit of wordplay, as the "sudden death" here is also the delicious Belgian beer and the historic Brussels pub where it is brewed. In the piece, Jackson, who had blacked out a year earlier at Denver airport, finally went public about his illness.

I am hoping that my next book will be an account of my dealings with Parkinson's disease. I have lived with Parkinson for many years, but I have only recently allowed him out of the closet. I find myself referring to "my Parkinson's". We do this, don't we? We refer to our ailments possessively, as though we are staking a claim. Perhaps we are. Perhaps I am. I would rather him inside the tent, pissing out, than the reverse. Pissing, with excessive frequency and desperate urgency is one of his annoying habits.

His biggest worry – and reason for "coming out" – was that people might take some of the symptoms for that great occupational hazard, A Drink Problem, something he had never had. Other bits of the column are worthy of S.J. Perelman when he wrote for the Marx brothers.

When I woke up, I was in a hospital bed. It was just like it is in the movies. I was surrounded by people in white coats, one of whom asked me: "What is your name?" When I replied, "Michael Jackson," there was none of the usual sniggering. People in Denver know who Michael Jackson is. Nonetheless, he asked again. My voice sounded a little crackly. I later learned that I had had a tube down my throat. It had been removed before they brought me out of a coma. That's where I'd been? Coma? Where is that? Iowa, perhaps? Oklahoma? North Dakota? I have heard of Hygiene, Colorado. Been there, in fact. Likewise, Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Now I have been to Coma, Iowa. "Tell us your name again," said the doctor. "The Artist formerly known as Prince." He looked across at another of the white coats whom I later came to know as a neurologist. "I guess he's OK," he said.

Jackson was an unlikely petit maître of English prose, from a Lithuanian Jewish background in working-class Leeds. A clearly autobiographical story he wrote, "The Colour Purple," begins with the journey to England from Kowno (Kaunas) of his then 15-year-old grandfather, smuggled by traffickers to Hull, and thence to the cheapest Jewish destination, which was Leeds (New York was the most expensive). There he prospered, and married Rachel, his landlord's daughter.

Their middle son, Isaac Jacovitch, (called Jack by his family and John by his wife Margaret) joined the "Army, defending Britain's shores against Hitlers flying bombs," anglicised his name to Jackson, and became the manager of a television shop. A good deal of the remainder of the story is about food, with some priceless memories of meals with the grandparents. Jackson talks of himself as a "pale-faced kid, whose gloomy Slavic features were not wholly softened by my bubbly dark curls. The lugubrious countenance disguised a child happy in his inner world, which had grown greatly since I learned to read."

Jackson went to grammar school, King James's School, Almondbury, Huddersfield, but left at 16 in 1958 to work as a trainee on the Huddersfield Examiner, to which he had already submitted news stories and jazz reviews; there he developed a distinctive style and succeeded as a reporter. By the time he moved south to Fleet Street, he was already curious about beer and writing a bit about it. Eventually he wrote for several national papers, including The Independent. He participated in the launch of Campaign magazine, and, in the early 1970s, the relaunch of the Evening Standard.

When the Campaign for Real Ale began in the 1970s and kindled the interest in traditional, local beers, Jackson's interest was reignited. In an interview he gave in 1996, he said

I had nothing to do with the starting of Camra, but I joined early on. I'd already travelled quite a bit as a journalist, and I'd tasted interesting beers in other countries. Particularly, I was very aware of the Belgian traditions and to some extent the German tradition. I thought, it's very good that Camra is fighting for British tradition, but what about the tradition of these other countries?

I think the motivation was almost like the motivation of some of those musicologists like

Alan Lomax who went down to the Mississippi Delta in the '50s and recorded old blues men before they died. I wanted to kind of record Belgian beer before those breweries didn't exist anymore. I certainly didn't see it as a career possibility, but I think all, or many, journalists have in them a sort of element of being an advocate.

His first book was The English Pub (1976). The next year his World Guide to Beer made him known to younger beer drinkers in the United States, who were instrumental in making what turned out to be the micro-brew revolution of small-scale, local breweries that often sold their entire output on their own premises. Jackson became an evangelist for this kind of brewing, and wrote a number of guides to the beers of the world.

He was in the vanguard of the movement to encourage the drinking of beer with food, by his careful and serious classifications of the looks, scents and tastes of various beers and the cuisines that they best matched. In 1991 he published the book so close to his heart, The Great Beers of Belgium. His work has been published in 18 languages, and his total sales were more than three million.

He had a parallel passion for whisky (and said about wine that, though a day might pass without his drinking wine, a week never did). In 2001 he wrote Scotland and its Whiskies. In 1989 he had published the world's best-selling book on the subject, Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion, now in its fifth edition. Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium in 1994 gave Jackson the Mercurius Award, for services to the country's brewing industry, and he won many other international prizes, including a James Beard Award.

A huge draw as a lecturer, Jackson sometimes had crowds as large as a thousand – though he often said he thought some of them must have come by mistake, expecting his namesake. Like the other Michael Jackson, though, he travelled so frequently that he always seemed to be on a world tour. Ben and Emily, the grandchildren of his partner of 26 years, Paddy Gunningham, who regarded Jackson as their grandfather, called him "Michael Gatwick".

Paul Levy

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