The novelist and academic Mark Blacklock has died in a freak hiking accident. His agent has described the loss of a friend, as well as an unusual talent, and colleagues at Birkbeck College are in mourning, while celebrating an unconventional scholar and inspiring teacher with a creative approach to research.
Blacklock was born in Sunderland in 1974 to Ralph Blacklock, the scion of a family jewellery business, and Rosalinde, a nurse.
As a young man he was an able student, an academic scholar at Sedbergh, the Cumbrian boarding school known as the alma mater of the speechwriter Brendan Bracken and the England rugby captain Will Carling. A fearless rugby player himself, he was the captain of his age-group team and represented Durham County as a schoolboy in the same team as the future England lock Garath Archer, who described Blacklock as the finest openside flanker he’d ever played alongside.
He won a place at Oxford to study Japanese and in 1991 matriculated alongside the future US senator Corey Brooker. He attended Sheffield University for the first year of that degree course and while in a Sheffield nightclub was scouted by a modelling agency to represent the North East region in a “Brylcream Boy of the Year” competition, an experience which culminated with a fashion show on stage at London nightclub Heaven before an audience of baying men. In a way that was typical of his character, he thought the experience amusing, absurd and superficial.
At Oxford he immersed himself in the thriving rave music scene, organising and DJing house parties and running a weekly nightclub event. He spent a year living in Tokyo as the private tutor for the Ishikawa family, owners of the Kajima corporation, who would later be embroiled in a global corruption scandal. On his return to Oxford for his final year, he began a relationship with his future wife Katherine Lundy: he would say that meeting Katie was the most life-enhancing aspect of his Oxford career. Having neglected his studies in favour of recreational drug use, he graduated with a third class degree, presenting an incomplete but original translation of a Yukio Mishima short story for his dissertation.
In 1996 he moved to Tooting in South West London and began working for the magazine publisher John Brown. Starting out as a production assistant he worked his way up to the Associate Editor’s role on Bizarre magazine, a title which at its peak achieved a monthly circulation of 120,000. He edited a lively review section, interviewing a host of fascinating alternative cultural figures, among them Terry Gilliam, Matt Parker and Trey Stone, Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett and British underground novelist Stewart Home. He wrote a series of first-person adventure articles, for which he was a human cannonball, and an ungainly male stripper, and rode rodeo bulls, unsuccessfully. He travelled across the globe, reporting from Scandinavia, the United States and Australia. John Brown, a great supporter of his talents who once counselled Blacklock to seek therapy, insured his life for ten million pounds.
Blacklock would go on to remark that he’d been unfortunate to land his dream job so early in his career, making it impossible ever to replicate such contented employment: he left fulltime work in 2001 to go freelance. For the next few years he worked for numerous publications and for a sustained period at the website of the Telegraph. Throughout this time he maintained his interest in electronic music, teaming up with his friends the social entrepreneur Gavin Weale and the magazine editor Rod Stanley to produce a series of cabaret events combining comedy and “clowncore” music under the banner Wack.
He and Katie married in 2002 and had three daughters together: Molly, 17, Eve, 15, and Constance, 12. Blacklock took a large role in parenting, to allow his wife to continue with her career. He returned to university, determined to prove to himself that he could improve upon his Oxford degree. In 2007 he graduated with a distinction in a Masters in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, an institution at which he felt his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity was welcomed, and began a PhD under the supervision of Steven Connor.
At the same time, he had been writing fiction as part of an anonynous collective of writers, subsequently revealed to include his friend Gavin Weale. Blacklock, Weale, and others peformed in masks at literary events as Neither Am I, reading frequently obscene and shocking short fiction to bemused audiences, and publishing two anthologies and a selection of audio stories. Neither Am I were invited to appear at a Literary Death Match event, but before they could perform the group disbanded in mysterious circumstances. Blacklock could never be drawn to comment on the matter.
In 2015, his first novel I’m Jack was published to highly positive reviews. An ingenious noir that mimicked the voice of Wearside Jack, the hoaxer whose letters and tape derailed the police investigation into the murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, it allowed Blacklock to inhabit the dialect and cadences of his birthplace, Sunderland. It was described as intelligent and dangerous, and was optioned for film. Blacklock himself co-wrote two drafts of an unfilmed script.
The award of his doctorate in the same year required him to choose between a career as a fulltime writer or as a junior academic. He took what he saw as the conservative career choice, accepting the lecturer’s post and running the MA programme in Cultural and Critical Theory at Birkbeck. His research was published as a monograph by Oxford University Press in 2018: The Emergence of the Fourth Dimension won rave reviews in a number of academic journals, and an essay excerpted from it was shortlisted for the SFRA Pioneer Award in the same year. The MA programme flourished under his stewardship.
The loss of his father to cancer in 2017 led to Blacklock and his wife moving their family back to the North of England, to York, and he became a part-time employee of Birkbeck, where he continued to teach creative writing as a Senior Lecturer. He spent more time with his teenaged children, a source of great to him, and focussed on writing projects, publishing to his website strange snippets of verse and occasional pieces of journalism. He became a generous supporter of the work of those he respected, particularly unconventional talents, and took great pleasure in ushering a number of new writers into print.
His second novel Hinton, an experimental re-invention of historical fiction, was published in 2020 to universally glowing reviews. Decribed by Charles Pallisser as “dazzling,” Adam Mars-Jones as “exquisite” and Nina Allen as “a singular achievement”, it was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2021. Sales were disappointing, however, and Blacklock decided to change tack for his third novel, a contemporary espionage thriller.
At the time of his death he was rumoured to be disheartened at the industry reception of this book, which his agent described as typically brilliant. He had completed an edited non-fiction of J. G. Ballard, whose work he had long admired, which will be published posthumously. The breadth of his interests and failure to specialise or to market himself had, perhaps, hampered recognition of his work.
Tributes to Blacklock have been many, describing a much-loved and modest man. There are reported to be further almost-completed manuscripts: an experimental story cycle titled ‘Recipes for Longpig’ and a handful of novels in a variiety of styles. His close friend Gavin Weale has been appointed literary executor of his estate and has spoken animatedly of exciting plans for honouring the Blacklock name.