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.
Sorry to hear that.ReplyDelete
Replied by email.ReplyDelete
Oh, I am so sorry for your loss, Robbie!ReplyDelete
I am so stunned and saddened too! He was a dear man. I still remember the day we spent with him and his lovely wife a few years ago.
Brief memory from Brittany - I was 6?ReplyDelete
He have me dinner - a piece of buttered baguette with a whole barbecued sardine in it. He'd sprinkled salt and squeezed lemon on it.
All I saw was a sandwich of eyes, skin, head and bones. But I was polite then (You often recall my recent encounter with an unasked for fish..)
I closed my eyes and bit thinking 'Just swallow it quick!'
I ate it all of course and remember that taste right now. I didn't even do it to show off as you were all far too busy enjoying the same with possibly some wine?
I've enjoyed his photos over the few years I've been visiting his blog. Great crow pics (naturally), but my favorites are of feet and upside down shadows. His way, perhaps, of turning the world right side up.ReplyDelete
Will miss reading his views of everything.
A most moving piece of writing Roderick, simple and yet clearly straight from the heart. I'll wager you did not correct and correct again this time.ReplyDelete
I cannot imagine the loss of a friendship of that many year's. My sympathies.
Replied by email.ReplyDelete
Dropped in to Joe's blog to see he hadn't posted today, then on to yours. A bad shock. Your tribute is most appropriate and you will miss your friend, and I shall miss your friend too.ReplyDelete
This is a shock and a sadness. I'm very sorry, Robbie, and thank you for what you've written here. You were good friends and the loss must hurt a lot.ReplyDelete
A memory of racing up the stairs at that scruffy curry house from the loos downstairs so as not to miss a moment more than I had to.ReplyDelete
Really will try to e-mail again a little more coherently than I managed last night.
Thanks for this.
All: Dear friends, dear friends. Thank you for your kindness. But would it be thought just a little too West Riding if I questioned the word "sadness"?ReplyDelete
Of course I hated the random cruelties Joe was forced to endure during his final year - Heidi's poignant decline and death overlapping with Joe's peculiarly malign ailment which prevented him taking walks (from which we all profited) and then kept him away from gardening. But beyond that is it wrong for me not to feel sad? Is my inability the product of self-centredness, perhaps selfishness? Or lack of sensitivity?
Since I find it hard to believe in "a better place" - though I have no argument with those who find comfort in that idea - I am forced to accept the only verifiable alternative, that we live on only in the consciousness of others. A rickety proposition but it can work depending one one's state of mind. My reaction to the email from Joe's brother Ken was no doubt self-centred - shock (because the cause of Joe's death was unexpected), deprivation and some kind of guess about how my life would be affected. No merit in any of that.
Then, quite quickly, I knew I would need to write something because writing is my default state. And it would have to be truthful because otherwise there would be no point. It would also have to reflect my real feelings, however imappropriate these might turn out to be. I roamed over my memories of Joe and one after another they flicked past; I saw myself laughing, absorbed, pushed into new explorations, thrilled by discovery, occasionally regretful. If sadness was there it had been overruled.
Which doesn't mean to say I'm not thankful for your wishes. And after all sadness is a reasonable assumption. However, if I had to choose one word it would be gratitude.
Two personal re-comments:
Blonde2: I fear I must disappoint you. I used a whole tin of Brasso.
Occasional Speeder: That's a fantastic story, it says so much about Joe. And you've sat on it all these years.
Sorry to hear of Joe's disappearance from the real and the virtual worlds. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, unfortunately, but I knew he was important to you, Robbie, and to your friends. Your tribute to him is one he would no doubt have appreciated and approved of.ReplyDelete
Bon voyage, Joe, dans l'éspace inconnu.
Natalie: In a sense he helped me write it.ReplyDelete
Well I'm bloody sad anyway. Which is almost certainly a product of self-centredness, but so what?ReplyDelete
But I'm grateful too.ReplyDelete