Farewell to 2011, a year of farewells

By Gerald Jacobs, December 29, 2011
A typical Harry Jacobs family portrait, complete with his famous backdrop

A typical Harry Jacobs family portrait, complete with his famous backdrop

It's that time again, the candle-maker's moment, when rival faiths strike festive lights to ward off winter. When an assemblage of "old" dates in the diary gives way to a fresh "new year". A secular, inverted Yom Kippur, a stocktaking accompanied by feasting instead of fasting, replenishing rather than repentance.

On this occasion, though, for me it carries some weight. Two holes were blown into my life at opposite ends of 2011 when two men - one a decade senior to me, the other a generation older - handed in their life membership.

I hadn't known John Gross, who died in January, for more than a few years, though I had of course known of him - who could not, in my business? He was one of the great judges of literature and culture of our age, an exemplar of an endangered species: the "man of letters". And the fact that we became close friends in a relatively short time is principally a reflection of John's character. For just about any friend of his would feel a closeness, emanating from the sheer good humour of a man whose astonishing erudition was of a rare, inclusive kind.

John Gross wore his learning lighter than anybody I have met. You could come away from an engaging dinner with him knowing much more than you ever did about some author or actress, poet, politician, editor, or even waiter. And John would make you feel that you had somehow contributed equally to the conversation.

Unfailingly entertaining, witty and full of gossip, he was completely without malice. Nor did I ever see a trace of resentment when lesser lights than he bathed in brighter beams of limelight.

Attendant to - and attended by - art and knowledge to the end, he told his doctors a little of the history of their own hospital where he lay dying and where almost the last words he heard were those of his daughter Susanna reading a Shakespeare sonnet to him. Perceptive, kind and wise, John Gross has left a sadly empty place at the restaurant tables where we once dined.

A still more significant loss occurred last month, with the death of my father, Harry Jacobs. By contrast with John Gross, who seemed to have read almost every published book of worth (and the odd worthless one), the extent of my father's lifetime book-reading could be calculated on one hand with a couple of fingers to spare. His interests lay in pictures rather than words, interests that he successfully put to professional use but not before he'd exhausted a procession of other occupations after leaving school at 14. Then, in the early 1960s, he tried his hand at photography, beginning by knocking on doors in south London.

A good camera was then a luxury. My father would offer young mothers low-cost portraits of their children but, having returned with the developed photos, he'd typically receive a thanks-but-no-thanks response. However, his sales technique owed much to King Solomon. He would face the mum's rebuff with a shrug, hold up her darling's photo and go to tear it in half. This almost invariably prompted a quick change of heart. On such emotive foundations did he build a business that saw him become the unofficial photographer to the growing West Indian community of Brixton. His legendary studio felt at times as if bathed in Caribbean sunshine.

Eventually, Harry Jacobs became a snapper to be reckoned with. A solo exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery in Covent Garden was followed by a rash of media attention, a place in various archives and events such as Black History Month and, most notably, the inclusion of his work in the Tate Gallery's major How We Are show in 2007, with a couple of his images gracing the brochure. He spent his last few months in residential care, often cantankerous and confused but, memorably, pleasant and content in our final family visits to him.

Neither John Gross nor Harry Jacobs had much time for rabbis or synagogues but both fitted firmly on the spectrum of Jewishness. Both grew up in London's East End, one a doctor's son, the other the child of a cobbler. One embodied the spirit of learning, the other that of imaginative graft. And now the year that saw their departure is itself departing.

Sometimes these turning points are useful. Happy new year.

Last updated: 11:26am, December 29 2011