Alumni Remembered - Jak Kissell
This obituary summarises the life and work of James Alistair Kissell, known affectionately to his friends as 'Jak'. Jak studied English at Queen Mary College and graduated in 1961.
When Jak Kissell died in January he left a remarkable legacy; over 5,000 teachers who qualified under his tutelage during a 40-year career are now in their turn passing on his passion for English language and literature as far afield as China and Saudi Arabia. That passion was stoked by his own lifelong fascination with his subject and with his conviction that classroom practice should be lively, apposite and memorable.
James Alistair Kissell (always ‘Jak’) joined the English Department at Queen Mary College (as it then was) in 1958 and it was certainly here that his particular – and unfashionable – love of Linguistics was sparked. We met at a stilted sherry party for Freshers in the departmental seminar room, and were friends from the first, and ever after. The Arts Faculty was relatively small at that time, compared to the much larger number of Science and Engineering students. The English Department at QMC was headed by Professor Jacob Isaacs, a figure so very old and so very formidable that I always suspected he kept a pet dinosaur at home. The London University degree course included a language component, as well as Eng. Lit. We had a distinguished tutor in Anglo Saxon in Dr Benno Timmer, read works in Old and Middle English and also looked, though in less depth, at the history and development of the language. If you chose ‘Syllabus B’ you could even acquire a grounding in Old Norse. It was obvious to us fellow students (though not, I think, to Jak) that he was heading for a First. His scholarship and his sheer pleasure in learning were underpinned by a capacity for concentration and hard work (which also served him well as Minutes Secretary on the Student Council).
Student life was not all swotting, of course. The Swinging Sixties were yet to hit their stride, but we knew how to party, oh yes. When the QMC Women’s Hall of Residence threw a pyjama party Jak, simultaneously droll and subversive, turned up - my sources say - in a pair of immaculately pressed pyjamas, worn over a white shirt and tie.
Jak then graduated in 1961. First under his belt, Jak went on to Pembroke College, Oxford to study for a B.Lit (his thesis on Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’), and a decade later he acquired his MSc in Linguistics from Reading University.
The academic life was not, though, Jak’s first choice. He was born in 1940 in (then semi-rural) Buckhurst Hill, son of Scottish parents who had migrated from Glasgow. His father, George Kissell, had machined the oscilloscopes for Spitfire aircraft navigation systems; according to his sons, Jak’s inherited interest initially led him to consider a flying career – he went so far as to gain his Pilot Officer commission before concluding that recruitment opportunities were limited.
But once embarked upon an academic career, Jak was flying high almost from the first. After a spell at La Sainte Union College of Higher Education, he joined what was then Bognor Regis Teacher Training College, where he developed innovative methods of using drama in primary school classrooms. Another of Jak’s friends from QMC days is convinced that Jak was inspired by a visit to the first West End performance of Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’. (You had to pay two-and-sixpence for ‘club membership’ to see it; the Lord Chamberlain was affronted by men kissing on stage…) It was during this time that Jak instigated exchange visits to Kassel in Germany; his involvement in links with colleagues in Germany, especially, and Poland remained strong all through his working life.
In 1977 Bognor Regis became part of a new West Sussex Institution of Higher Education, which in turn (after further upgradings of name and status) became the University of Chichester in 1995. Lecturing extensively, Jak was also instrumental in shaping and developing courses that built its expanding reputation, attracting many overseas students. He also taught at Open University summer schools and was invigilator and marker for the Cambridge Examination Board until well into his seventies.
Jak had married and was the father of two young sons by the time the family had moved west. Much later he became effectively sole parent of James and Robert while his wife Roslyn was away for long spells training as a probation officer. The boys fondly remember him playing baroque guitar concertos at bath times. He also held the fort at home as conscientiously as he applied himself in his working life when Roslyn became active in local politics, and later, after her health worryingly deteriorated.
As I’ve already suggested, Jak was self-deprecating to a fault. (He could have vaulted into most prestigious posts, but chose to remain in a pleasant but relatively ordinary house driving the same middle-of-the-range car for years on end. Laughing at himself, he admitted once that whenever ambitious flights of fancy tempted, he could see his redoubtable Scottish mother shaking her head and tutting. From similar parentage, I knew exactly what he meant.)
His extra-curricular talents and his achievements, however, were exceptional. I’m told his languages included German, Ancient Greek, Anglo-Saxon and French (reading and re-reading Proust in the original was his great joy in retirement); he both produced and acted in summer Shakespeare at West Dean Gardens, at the foot of the South Downs; played the violin in the Hayling Island Orchestra, and sang with Felpham Community Singers. Besides all this, he was a steadfast husband for over half a century, a supportive father to James and Robert and a very proud and devoted grandfather to Matthew, Alexander and Alexa.
The most unassuming of men, Jak’s genial wit, his intellect and warmth won him lifelong friendships. If you were his friend, you knew he had your back. When, for example, my small son died, Jak would call me every two or three weeks for a chat (this, when I was living abroad, in the days before email, WhatsApp, Skype or cheap phone tariffs). Up until dementia took him, one person would telephone without fail every year on my boy’s birthday and the anniversary of his death; Jak.
His zest for learning, for language and for life was finally smothered by the cruel progress of dementia and supranuclear palsy. It’s typical of Jak Kissell that almost until the very end, he could still take pleasure in his carers reading Proust to him. He died just shy of his 81st birthday on January 21.
- This obituary is written by Kirsten Cubitt who similarly studied at Queen Mary College from 1958-61 and who kick-started a career in journalism by writing profiles for the college and university newspapers. A first professional appointment on the Times Educational Supplement led to reporting and feature-writing on national newspapers and magazines, authorship of a handbook for parents on schools, and later print and broadcast journalism in Germany. In the course of a long career she has interviewed subjects as diverse as Dennis Thatcher, Angela Carter, Dave Brubeck, Richard Hoggart and Wayne Sleep. Returning to the UK to work in radio and finally as Communications and Media Officer for Nottingham City Council, in retirement she keeps out of mischief by singing with Sheffield Oratorio Chorus, learning Italian and making fused glass.