Joe Hyam, still listed among Tone Deaf’s followers by his earlier blogonym, Plutarch, died last night following heart surgery. I find myself needing a single detail that summarises our friendship dating back to 1963; one that Joe would have approved of. That would do him justice. I don’t have far to look.
His last email to me, only a few days ago, was a generous comment on a short story I’d written. Stated baldly that hardly seems enough but there is a sub-text. For well over a year Joe and I have been at daggers drawn over short stories, arguing the toss about their nature and the way they might be written. Some of this argument has spilled over into our blogs but given that both of us are proto-typical Englishmen – he a gentleman, me far less so – the passion has been under control. To the point where Joe, ravaged by illness, was able to take time off and make the gesture he did. Now, during this moment where a little evident passion is permissible, I offer him this heartfelt tribute: I hope to Hell that had the situation been reversed I’d have done the same for him. Suspecting, of course, that I wouldn’t; I lack his sense of grace.
And already a dialogue – alas, finally reduced to a monologue – is rattling round in my mind. Above, I’ve used the present tense about Joe and he, more than anyone else, would have urged me to resolve this discrepancy. It isn’t that I’m unaware of the problem, I’m wilfully avoiding it. There’s enough awkwardness in managing the subject of this post; I’d just as soon not wrestle with the niceties of grammar as well. Turning “is” into “was” would introduce further imperfections into prose I am trying desperately to render as clearly as possible. Only that, no purple passages. Joe, I tell myself, would understand.
In 1963 I moved to a new job as sub-editor of two magazines dealing with logistics. One edited by Joe. Thus, part of my work was to ensure Joe’s written stuff had syntactical virtue. Word processors were aeons away and corrections to the typescript were by pen. Joe’s writing was terrible and he favoured black felt-tips. We clashed. I got angry; he endured my anger calmly. Within weeks we were talking about George Eliot.
When I returned from the USA he was by then in charge of both magazines and offered me a writing job. Twice our two families shared villa holidays in Brittany and both Joe and I developed what I can only describe as an infatuation with the French language. Eventually I became an editor and for a time geography reduced us mainly to the telephone but we still kept in touch. Joe had always lived in the south-east and when I moved to Hereford it seemed as if our friendship would shrink to the exchange of Christmas cards. In fact it became more intense and, for me, more fruitful.
Joe did a blog; fascinated, I did one too. Joe wrote poetry and I – lumbering in his wake – started writing verse. When I resumed novel writing he read and re-read my MS, made many important and informed suggestions virtually all of which I adopted. Soon it wasn’t enough merely to exchange emails we had to talk face to face; there was so much to say. We started having lunch together in London at an incredibly scruffy curry house. Joe regularly apologised about the long rail trip I had to make but a moment’s reflection would have told him I was making it because I wanted to. Needed to. Our conversations were dense, noisy, wide-ranging and – I think I can say – mutually profitable. And great fun.
All that is at an end. But it was a sort of Indian Summer which I had not expected and I have Joe to thank for that. I sometimes reflect on how others must have seen us as we gabbled like traders in the souk – Joe’s incredibly posh accent, mine an unpleasant melange of the West Riding, London and America. An odd couple, shabbily dressed, oblivious to our surroundings or so it seemed. Because Joe’s eye was always alert and what he saw cropped up time after time in his blog.
It’s perhaps significant that I don’t have a photo of Joe for this post. In my defence I have to say it wasn’t a relationship defined by photos. Just nattering. It taught me one thing – that conversation, at its best, beats booze, haute cuisine and pretty scenery. Those lunches and afternoons didn’t slide by, they passed in what seemed like a conflagration.
Friend and wordsmith extraordinaire.