Born in Holland in 1931, Johannes Kerkhoven spent his adult life in Australia and the United Kingdom. As a young man he trained as a compositor. That was his first role in Australia where he worked on a Dutch-Australian weekly newspaper. From there he went on to work for McGraw Hill.
After 25 years in Australia, he moved to London in 1979. “[it] was the preferred place to live and work. After retirement, Hove seemed ideal.” He lives there with his wife Cristina. They have been together for 30 years.
In the UK he worked in publishing, ending up as Manager Art Studio for The Financial Times Business Publishing. This “entailed layouts, cover design and photography.”
He is also a talented writer, painter and photographer and it is these aspects of his life that I discussed with him in a recent exchange of emails.
His first published writing was “a verse which was published in the company magazine” when he was eighteen.
He has been writing short stories since 1960. His most recent publication is a collection of stories spanning the sixty years since. His stories are largely character based: “I am interested in characters in situations, often from real life. But then I ask ‘What if . . . ?’ and let them run.”
This principle is exemplified in his novel, “State of Guilt”, which begins with an incident in a town in occupied Holland as the country is liberated. What happens to the two people involved over the following decades, demonstrates how guilt, and a need for redemption, can shape a life.
Alongside his writing, Johannes studies life drawing and landscape photography. “I did a photography course at the Printing College in London and took many travel photographs for placing in various photo libraries.”
His love of art, and of the patterns created by words as he composed them on the pages of newspapers, led him to a niche art form called ‘visual poetry’. “I studied art in Hobart in the 1960s while working the night shift on the Hobart Mercury Newspaper as a compositor. . . As a typographer I am interested in printed letters and the, sometimes subliminal, messages they give us.”
He uses this skill to expose the deceit so often found in political writing. “When you read any story, there are always words that the brain will take in without you being aware of their hidden agenda,” he told Frances Singer in a 2006 interview for the Morning Star, about his visual poetry exhibition at Torriano Meeting House, adding, “I would like to encourage my audience to be aware of this potential in whatever they read. This level of textual analysis is what I want people to look out for and to perceive as the real intention behind a speech by Tony Blair or George W Bush for instance.”
He became a member of ‘Poets for Peace’, also based at Torriano House, where “I read occasionally and designed small posters.”
He was featured on the mast head of The Morning Star , July 19th, 2006, with the interview on Pg 9. He says (in the same interview) “I don’t have a political agenda and I don’t want to preach, I just want to comment on things to make people think.”
His visual poems were published in a volume called “Mixed Concrete: Visual Poetry” in 2006 by Hearing Eye. There are examples, too, on Kerkhoven’s website. He is proud of the fact that they have been translated into both German and Romanian, and that the book has been used as a teaching aid as well as forming the basis for a doctoral thesis in Romania. All of this is a consequence of the support he has received from http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/
Also on his website are a number of his drawings and paintings. Kerkhoven explains: “All my life I have, with interruptions, been part of a life class. It’s a life-long love, as is painting. I see something and think. ‘Hey, I’ll paint that.’ Views, landscape; just yesterday I saw a picture of a butterfly. I’m thinking ‘I wonder what it would look like 90 cm wide.’ It’s all just for fun.”
The paintings you find on his website certainly illustrate his sense of fun. But they are also expressions of the life and humanity to be found beneath the skin of a conventional portrait.
He settles down to write “Whenever I feel like it, unless I’m on a project, then I keep at it until it’s finished.” His writing space is “a room in our apartment where I write and paint, although if I get an idea when I’m in bed, I jot it down.”
He enjoys research and when I ask if he outlines a plot before he commences, or allows the characters and their interaction to take over the story he replies: “The characters do their job, I trust.”
“State of Guilt” and “Stuffed: Short Stories 1960-2021” are published by TSL Books.
“Mixed Concrete: Visual Poetry” can be purchased here