My friend, Joe Hyam (previously Plutarch) died a couple of days ago. Inevitably my valedictory post was as much about me as it was about him; I needed to explain how he affected me for good. I fear I also figure in most of these vignettes but not, I hope, to his detriment.
● Our first encounter. He'd written a piece about a complex materials handling system; I was supposed to edit it but one sentence was beyond me. I asked him to explain. He read it aloud and the word "plenum" cropped up. He re-read it, relishing "plenum" each time. A wordsmith, you see.
● At a formal dinner-jacket affair I noticed he wore a made-up bow tie. I pointed out the snobby potential of the self-tied bow adding "but never tie it too well; people might think it's made-up". He took my advice and bought a self-tied bow. I was there to see its first outing. He struggled in front of the mirror, ending up with a sort of grannie knot. "Nobody," he said sighing, "will think this is made-up."
● We were accosted in central London by an urban hobbledehoy who asked if we were interested in poetry. Joe said yes, whereupon the hobbledehoy sold him a poem, perhaps for 50 p. Joe immediately read the poem and - in a not unkindly tone - pointed out some metrical solecism. This angered the hobbledehoy who handed back the 50 p and snatched the poem. Joe approved of this.
● Until I eventually grew up (ie, say age 45) I was prone to incapacitating attacks of embarrassment, especially in social encounters with women. Joe with his magnificently hoity-toity accent, public school education and Oxbridge was not only impervious but liked to prolong embarrassing situations in the spirit of curiosity.
The launch of the Lamb's Navy Rum calendar took place in a Soho cellar where I found myself terrified by an elegant, if louche, woman who wore brilliant green contact lenses which made her look like a werewolf. Joe immediately interrogated her about this startling effect and she revealed, quite unnecessarily, she was a lesbian. Noticing we seemed to be together she recommended homosexual experience as a way of "feeling freer". Joe roared with laughter while I looked around for a refill.
● During a shared villa holiday at Concarneau in Brittany the main toilet became blocked. Joe, whose confidence in his spoken French greatly outstripped his competence, announced he would ring the agence and complain. Joe's technique with French natives was to keep on talking to avoid having to understand any of their responses. Unfortunately the woman at the agence was called Lavalou and this undermined any of Joe's pretentions to seriousness.
● During that same holiday Joe read Le Grand Meaulnes in French (his grasp of written French was excellent). I repeatedly asked for progress reports but his responses were atypically vague. Such was his dominance over my bookish tastes that I have never dared tackle this masterpiece - in English or French. I have the feeling that I profited and that his vagueness was deliberate.
● Joe's language (other than about Jonathan Meades) was never extreme. I remember asking him about a restaurant meal and he described it as "indifferent". It was an object lesson about the usefulness and power of temperate words; that adjective is among my most treasured.
NOTE I see most of these memories are trivial. But I can't bring myself to celebrate Joe as a solemnity. He was kind and generous, true, but most of all he was fun. That must survive.