UNESCO City of Literature: Graham Joyce

Tuesday 19 May 2015
reading time: min, words
"Writers don't have a life, they sit in a room making up other people's lives and it's bloody hard work"
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When Graham Joyce died of aggressive lymphoma in September 2014, we lost a great writer, inspiring teacher and committed, lifelong socialist. Joyce took bold decisions in his life and work: in the dark days of Thatcherism, he quit his career in youth work and set off for Greece with the intention of writing a novel. He went on to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel six times, the O. Henry Award for short fiction and the World Fantasy Award.

In autumn 2001, I interviewed him for a magazine called The Third Alternative. I recorded the conversation using my daughter’s red and yellow Fisher Price tape recorder (ages three and above) with chunky colour-coded buttons and a handheld karaoke microphone. Once he stopped laughing at my technology, the conversation drifted onto the London-centric nature of publishing, and the challenge this presents to writers based in the provinces. Joyce was deeply annoyed with a publisher’s reader who suggested his latest book, Smoking Poppy, would struggle to find an audience because it was about “fat people from the industrial Midlands”.

“Oh fuck,” I told him, “I’m a chubby object of limited appeal.” At that point he took a copy of his book from a shelf, wrote something on the title page and set it aside.         

There are many writers I admire, but a mere handful I nag people to read. Joyce is one of those. His stories are clever, inspiring, strange and easy to read. They lurch from profound to playful and back again. So did his conversation: one minute he’d talk about fantasy as a para-rational approach to mapping the human psyche, then he’d treat you to impressively accurate impersonations of famous football managers.

I first met him in spring 1998, just before the publication of his sixth novel, The Stormwatcher. We talked about socialism, liminal experience and Bion’s work on the psychology of group dynamics. Then we drifted onto Keresley Newlands Primary School’s victory in the final of the 1965 Coventry and District Football Shield. Joyce was the team’s goalkeeper. Later, at the age of 52, he became goalkeeper for England Writers, an experience captured in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular (2009), runner-up for William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Football mattered: Joyce had a blistering row with Louis de Bernières about its historical role in bringing artistry, passion and “a bolt of electricity” into the lives of working class people.

The shift from complex contemplation to earthy observation is a defining characteristic of Joyce’s work. So is his ability to find sympathetic qualities in the most obnoxious characters. In The Stormwatcher, James is obsessed with status and consumption. “He was a real pain in the arse,” said Joyce. “I got fed up of the guy, but I wanted to take the readers with me, to do more for him. I wanted him to be a shit, but everyone has something to redeem them.”

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Joyce’s writing explores places, feelings and experiences most literature tends to overlook: “I’ve taken a conscious decision to explore the lives of people who are still ignored by a majority of writers,” he said. In Smoking Poppy (2001) a pub quiz aficionado’s daughter is arrested for drug smuggling in Thailand. He sets off on a strange journey with his Christian fundamentalist son and self-styled best mate, a down-at-heel wideboy. The story tackles personal growth through crisis, the way myth shapes behaviour, class as a barrier to communication, and the distancing impact of age and education. That last point is important. Joyce enjoyed success, but felt educated out of the culture into which he was born. The sense of erasure that comes with the getting of wisdom is a theme of The Tooth Fairy (1996). One of his most popular books, it blends
a sharply observed rites of passage story with a supernatural narrative.

Joycean fiction of the Midlands kind melds accessible storytelling with philosophical speculation. Early books such as Dreamside, Dark Sister and The Tooth Fairy rework the traditions of popular fantasy and horror. As his writing became more sophisticated, in books such as The Stormwatcher and Indigo, the supernatural elements are subtler and the symbolism more ambiguous. Set during the postwar rebuilding of Coventry, and layered with meticulously detailed period background, The Facts of Life (2002) is often described as Joyce’s masterpiece. It can be read as a literary novel but the supernatural powers of the key protagonist, conceived during a bombing raid, mean it can be interpreted as an understated, dark fantasy.

Joyce’s final novel, The Year of the Ladybird, is a picaresque adventure and love story set in an era of discontent. Like his narrator David, Joyce worked as a ‘Greencoat’ at a miner’s holiday camp in Skegness in the mid-seventies. He often shared anecdotes about the experience – none of them as unsettling as the events in the book. The haunting of the narrator, David, by a glass-eyed child with a face of smoke, may be real or a product of psychological disturbance. It doesn’t matter which interpretation the reader allows, the book is an exhilarating exploration of a period that played a formative part in Joyce’s life and shaped the psychic landscape of contemporary Britain.

Joyce was never sure where the ritual of storytelling would take him or his characters, but the essential ingredients were emotional engagement and passion. He believed the deep structure of stories must mirror the rhythm of life: birth, partnering and death. Stories could be experimental, but they had to capture the psychological pulse at the heart of existence.

No-one doubted the intensity of Joyce’s commitment to his craft. He told students: “Writers don’t have a life, they sit in a room making up other people’s lives and it’s bloody hard work.” Behind the graft was a belief that fiction is a form of magic that opens up new understanding of human experience and potential. The Stormwatcher explores the absurdity and insignificance of society’s obsession with hierarchy, authority and acquisition by setting human affairs against the backdrop of a “nine mile high theatre of weather.” The satirical elements of the book are subtle: Joyce’s lifelong socialism informed all his work but he never bored his readers by bolting preachy messages into his narratives.

Politics isn’t mentioned in the publicity material for Joyce’s books, but he was a politically engaged novelist. He was suspicious of social engineering but believed in an instinctive brand of socialism, based on a “largely unconscious will towards the general good.”

At the end of our Third Alternative interview in 2001, Joyce and I said goodbye at his front door. As we did so, he shoved the personalised copy of Smoking Poppy into my hand. I opened it as I walked back to the car. The inscription on the title page read, “For Andy, a good Midlands chubster.” It’s one of my most treasured possessions.  

Graham Joyce website

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