I Just Read Different Books


I have to say I was more than slightly appalled to receive the news from
Paul Sieveking last Monday that Ken Campbell had died suddenly the
day before at only 66 and seeming so full of vigor and inventiveness
that he looked like he would go on forever, I'd only just been
hearing about how good he'd been in Edinburgh and was about to ring
his agent to book him for my science festival.

There have been many fulsome obituaries - the Guardian gave him a whole
page and you usually have to be an ex-prime minister or something to
warrant that, but Ken being Ken, none more than touched the surface,
no one, for example, really picked up to any extent on his abiding
fortean interests, which were very much at the core of what he did -
to loosen up before going on stage he'd always recite some Fort "A
naked man in a city street, the mystery of the reindeers ears......"
and so on. I first heard him recite this at the Fortean Times 20th
birthday bash at a Portobello Road pub called, I think, The Heart of
Gold, run by a fortean, although I knew of his Warp and Illuminatus
and various other unlikely exploits, and that he nearly became Doctor
Who, being pipped to the post by his pal Sylvester McCoy. Apparently
his interpretation was "too dark" but perfect for the current
incarnation I bet, although now we'll never have the chance to see
those eyebrows poking round a Tardis door. He completely embodied the
Fortean archetype of the trickster spirit, his mind really did run on
a different track, making connections no one else could, and coming
up with the most extraordinary ideas which most people, even if
they'd manage to think of them would discard as nice but
impractical, but Ken actually did them. I recall having a curry with him once when he was talking about
his unruly pack of dogs and asked me if I knew where you could get
one of those wheeled sledges they use to train for husky races when
there's no snow (I didn't, but was flattered that he thought I
might!) as he had a notion to get one to exercise the beasts round
Walthamstow Marshes - the next thing I know, he's done it, and
his various motley Labrador crosses are hammering round the marshes
in it - I have a fond vision of an unwary walker being surprised as
this apparition crests a rise, a wheeled sled towed at high speed by
four straining mongrels and carrying a small man with a leather pork
pie hat, and an excited expression, eyebrows trailing in the breeze
yelling "mush!" in a broad Ilford accent - their life would
never be quite the same again. In fact no-one's life was ever the
same again after a Ken encounter, even if they were simply audience
members, his solo shows being masterpieces of perception overturning
brilliance. He did a science comedy show for me in Norwich once -
two and a half hours with no props bar a face painted on his stomach
and a shopping trolley to represent Stephen Hawking and while he was
explaining Newton's montinist tendencies he went off into a lengthy
aside about how he's not been allowed to go into all this on telly
(he'd recently done Newton in Six Experiments that Changed the World) and a small boy in the audience put up his hand and said "you mean - they don't tell us everything on TV?". On that occasion he'd
arrived in a Bedford Rascal van full of his dogs, who bounced off the
sides so enthusiastically that they left dents and made the thing
sway violently - his dog sitter had let him down, and I was advised
to keep my distance as he walked them in my churchyard because they
were "a bit unruly". A little later one of them bit a neighbour,
an apparently rather unpleasant policeman, occasioning a full-on Ken
scheme to save him (the dog, Max) from being put down, culminating in
him joining the All-Essex Dog Agility Team and winning cups - he
was duly saved and Ken later managed to create a show about science
communication for a conference I ran that used this event as its main
theme and co-starred Max himself, on stage in his basket - one of
the things that became clear with Ken was that there was no real
demarcation between life and shows, a show was just Ken being Ken on
stage, indeed Bob Rickard once missed a Ken show and on telling him,
Ken offered to come round and do a personal performance.

Ken's intrinsic being was Fortean in nature, as anyone who saw him at an
UnConvention would realize (especially the 2002 one featuring his
friend Mouse and her extraordinary muscle control - now available
on DVD ) and indeed he had a significant influence on early FT,
having, if memory serves me well introduced Bob to the legendary Ion
Will, who, if you hadn't met him, you would suspect Ken had made up
(they actually went to school together - now that class must have
made teachers quake in their boots....) but who contributed a
significant strand of surrealism to the proceedings in the early
years before going to Africa and marrying into a tribe of Jehovah's
Witnesses (he is now back in London and apparently runs some sort of
voodoo temple in Streatham or the like, or so I've been told). Ion
Will also introduced Paul Sieveking to Bob Rickard, so without the
Ken link, FT would likely have been a very different beast indeed.

Ken was very knowledgeable about Fort and had all the FTs back to very early
issues and was always able to give a fascinating slant on any new
phenomenon - when I did the Fortean exhibition in Croydon in '95,
Ken was the voice of Fort, looming out of digital clouds on the
CD-ROM to utter appropriate Fort quotes if you clicked on him, and
lent three very strange chalk statues that had apparently teleported
into his garden one day (the Dog-Dragon, the Screaming Monk and the
Draped Legs). He also taught me to speak Vanuatuuan pidgin over a
hilarious weekend under a Camden bookshop in early 2000 - his
personal millennium project was to try and teach it to the world as
it is a very simple language you can learn in two days - Ken
reasoned that if everyone spoke the same language there would be
fewer wars. He did it largely through the medium of getting us to do
bits of Macbeth "narrafelladay, mo narrafelladya, mo narafelladay
wokabout snelspid, day long day...." (we later plotted to teach
every schoolchild in Norfolk the language, and nearly managed to pull
it off, except the funding fell through) The title of this piece
comes from the pidgin, apparently if you just say someone is "ded"
in pidgin it means they've just fallen over or are unconscious or
something, to be actually dead it has to be "Buggarup ded finis
yeah" where buggarup is just a general term for something going
wrong. And only last year he came up to Newcastle to train my science
communication staff in theatre skills, with, it has to be said, mixed
results. Not all were ready to have their performance styles analysed
so skillfully, but Ken, as ever was genius, rethinking activities on
the fly to account for his student's vaguaries and foibles, and
even among those who didn't take to it, the effect of his work was
very clear.

There are many, many other tales, I once brokered a bizarre connection in
which Ken resolved William Gibson's bafflement at the Japanese
obsession with Anne of Green Gables, another subject on which Ken had
far more knowledge than seemed possible. Then there was Damanhur,
Newfies, trepanning, ventriloquism, Philip K Dick, all things on
which Ken could be erudite and amazing, he's actually impossible to
sum up in words, I will deeply miss his puckish demeanour, his
permanent enthusiasm for everything, his general good nature, I don't
think I've ever heard him be unpleasant about anything - he was
not only one of the most knowledgeable people I will ever know, but
by far and away the funniest. It's kind of unexpectedly weird
adapting to a post-Ken world (I'll never now get to ask him if his
amazing recitation of a London Gastromancer's cant, involving Bamsie
Strings a Labonza, Beef-tea Blowouts and a suspiciously early use of
"upload" was actually made up - I can't find it in Mayhew,
Ken's alleged source), it did me good, just knowing he was there
doing all this stuff and would come up with something magic whenever
our paths next crossed, so now there's no Ken, no Ivor Cutler and
no Viv Stanshall, proof enough for me there's definitely no God.

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