The last time I saw Graham Joyce was at the wake for Joel Lane – another Midlands writer taken from us at a ridiculously early age – and he was jokingly calling himself ‘Graham the Grey’. He was a little thinner after the cancer treatments and his hair had greyed – hence the nickname – but it was still the same old Graham. Tall and lean, with that craggy face, at once roguish and fatherly, that steady resonant voice with its hint of a Coventry accent, and, as always, a twinkle of pure mischief in his eye.
This was, after all, the man who’d come up to me at a mass signing at Fantasycon the year before to ask me to sign a sheet of paper for a very shy female friend. It was only after I’d done so that he unfolded it to show a host of other writers’ signatures… and, at the top, in Graham’s own handwriting, the words ‘LIST OF CUNTS’. I was just one of a bunch of authors he got with that one.
And now here he was, introducing me to his lovely wife Sue and sporting a wispy grey beard and moustache combo that made him look as if he should be warding off an angry Balrog – although he was rather more handsome and swashbuckling than Gandalf; you could easily imagine him heading down to the tavern with you afterwards to try his luck with the serving girls. Probably with some success.
Graham was like that. I didn’t know him anywhere near as well as I did Joel, but you only had to meet him to pick up the extraordinary vitality of the man. Great energy, but a kind of steadiness and calm, too. Serenity, even. I always found not only the work, but the man himself, an inspiration: I loved the story of how at the age of thirty he and Sue had said ‘fuck it’, quit their jobs, sold their house, got married and then set off on a rambling tour of Europe that culminated in a year-long stay on Lesbos where they wrote, painted, drank wine and swam in the sea – all of which turns up in House Of Lost Dreams, the first of Graham’s novels that I read and still one of my favourites. He sold his first novel, Dreamside, just as they were about to come home skint. It financed some further continental wanderings before they returned home to Leicester, where Graham spent the remainder of his life.
Graham’s books, time and again, are about a numinous beauty underlying the grimy and gritty surfaces of everyday life and those of the natural world – few contemporary authors, if any, write about nature as beguilingly as he did. In that respect, he’s rather like Arthur Machen, but Graham’s was an altogether more benign vision of existence. Absolutes of good or evil were rare; the world was a world of human beings in all their flawed beauty, and what they took from that other world had much to do with what they brought to it. Often, his protagonists reach a deeper level of reality, one that heals their spiritual malaise and allows them to return to the world stronger, clearer-sighted, knowing who they are – ready to shoulder the challenges of their lives with renewed strength and understanding.
That was often how Graham appeared to me. I wish I could say I knew him as a close personal friend, but I didn’t – that honour belongs more to writers like Nick Royle, Conrad Williams, Chris Kenworthy and Mark Morris, who made up, with Graham and Joel, the informal grouping known as the ‘Chisellers’. Or to Sarah Pinborough, with whom he formed, online and at conventions, what was almost a bantering double act. He was, however, like most authors, always kindly and approachable and down to earth.
‘Graham Joyce,’ his Twitter account used to say, ‘Author. Read my website and become wise.’ That was probably tongue-in-cheek, but it was hard not to think that it mightn’t actually happen if you read enough of his posts, often enough. Of course, he was one of the eldest of the new writers to appear in Nick Royle’s Darklands anthologies; born in the 1950s, less than a decade after the end of the Second World War and the Clement Attlee government that established the NHS and the Welfare State, he’d seen Britain, and specifically the corner of it in which he grew up and made his home – go through immense changes. He had a foot in that modern world and the opportunities it gave his generation, but also a sense of connection to the folklore and traditions of an older world that was passing away – which compels me to mention two other favourites among his novels, The Facts Of Life, a richly autobiographical novel about a boy, born out of wedlock, who is raised by the various sisters of his mother’s extended family in post-war Coventry, and The Limits Of Enchantment, set in the 1960s, in which a young girl raised as the apprentice to a local ‘wise woman’ collides with a changed and changing world.
He was a natural storyteller, both on paper and in the flesh, and brought his everyday characters and settings to a vivid life that made the subsequent flights into the surreal and magical all the more stunning. And at his best – as in Smoking Poppy, another of my favourites, revolving around a British father’s journey into the mysterious depths of Thailand’s jungles in search of a daughter lost to him not only in space, but emotionally too – the line between the two blurs into invisibility.
All of this may sound as if I have a lot of favourite Graham Joyce novels, and you’d be right to think so. The only one of his books I didn’t fall immediately in love with was The Stormwatcher, perhaps because it’s a different beast to his other books, a story of the shifting dynamics, pressures and conflicts within a group of people one hot summer, rather than the personal odysseys of one or two characters. Not surprisingly, I’ve scheduled it for a reread. I want to have been wrong about it, and to get it this time: it’ll be the next best thing to reading a new Graham Joyce novel, which is something none of us will do again now.
2013 was an annus horribilis for lovers of the fantastic and the strange in literature. It was the year that took Iain Banks, Richard Matheson and Joel Lane, to name but three of the seemingly limitless toll. It was also the year that Graham was diagnosed with aggressive lymphoma. He bore it with his customary grace, intelligence and gentleness and, typically, treated it as an experience to learn from, and to share with others. Only a few weeks before his death, he broadcast a programme on Radio 4, with his friend and fellow author Peter Crowther, on cancer and the language we use to deal with it.
I nearly wrote ‘fellow author and cancer survivor’ there, and I wish I could. Lymphoma, I’ve read, is an unpredictable disease, never wholly to be driven off, always coming back, that can carry you off abruptly and without warning or allow you to live out a normal life span. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to doubt that Graham would fall into the second category; he was so vital, so alive, it was impossible to believe the cancer could be anything to him other than an inconvenience.
Even when ill-health prevented his attending last week’s Fantasycon, at which he was to have been Master of Ceremonies, it was inconceivable that it could be more than a temporary setback. Surely there were many more years to come; more laughter, more anecdotes like the LIST OF CUNTS, and more of those incomparable books.
But there weren’t.
The nearest thing we have to last words from Graham is the final entry on his blog, entitled ‘A Perfect Day And The Shocking Clarity Of Cancer.’ It’s quintessential Graham: a piece where he stops to take stock of a still, small moment of beauty not far from his home, one of those moments that are right under all our noses if we can just shut up, look and listen for a few minutes instead of talking and rushing blindly on to the next appointment – and to weigh that against the news from the Ukraine that a civilian airliner had been destroyed by thugs of one faction or another on the ground below, in an act of brutality shocking in its casualness.
But at the last, Graham returned to the dragonfly that had woken him from his doze: ‘I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years,’ he imagined it saying, ‘and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.’ He asked, finally: ‘Why can’t our purpose in life just be to inspire each other?’
As last words go, those aren’t bad. It isn’t much: I still feel numbed and shaken by the news of his death, and that can only be a shadow of what the friends and family who knew and loved him best are feeling now. But it’s something, and Graham’s writing is so often about treasuring those small, precious things in life, while we have them.
Rest in peace, Graham. We’re going to bloody miss you.