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Wednesday 12 March 2014

Joe: Goodbye exhilaration 2

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.


  1. I would love to have known this man better, much better. Thank you Robbie for that.

  2. You've filled out the picture I had of Joe. My regret at not meeting him is lessened by your recollections. Thank you for sharing your friend with the rest of us.

  3. Robbie, I recall the lavalou moment and the long distance swims (well they felt long to me)we all went for on those French holidays. Can you give me your email address mine is pippa@goodpartnership.co.uk

  4. I can feel how sorely Mr. Hyam is missed by many of us - the blessed ones who knew him personally and all of us who read his daily posts.
    Humility, passion, humour, compassion & empathy, decency - are some of the parts of this man that spoke to me when reading his posts and part of his poem exchange with Lucy. His passing has provoked a deep reflection on what traces I myself will leave behind.
    May our traces be as worthy as Mr.Hyam's and the memories as precious.

  5. I love all these stories, but the one about the hobbledehoy poet givng him a refund is especially precious.

  6. As Joe's younger brother I probably have a completely different perspective on Joe which I will eventually be able to define, I hope, in words. For the time being I am extremely grateful for these two posts - I found myself laughing at anecdotes that are new to me and smiling to see so many nails hit firmly on the head.
    Thank you, Robbie!

  7. In August of 2009, Joe left a comment on one of my posts in which I described the Cosmos flowers in my garden:

    "Touching the cosmos awake" has a nice resonance. We have a white cosmos in flower in a pot to match yours.

    Such is the respect I have for Joe's writing (I recall his piece on the angel with rusty wings) that I lept around telling everyone "Joe left a comment!"

    I would love to have sat in a pub over a pint of quality ale and conversed with Joe. I miss his daily posts so much already.

  8. Tom: One of the ways to Joe's heart was - metaphorically - via his stomach. By which I mean food preparation. It seemed to me you were getting on famously in this area. Zola and Balzac (in French of course) just around the corner.

    The Crow: I worried they might seem a little too self-serving.

    HCP: You're too modest, you were a fantastic swimmer. Do you remember when we overdid it and were turned back by the lifeguard? Just as well; we were both stationary relative to a powerful current.

    Ellena: I will saying a few words at Joe's funeral. Whether you like it or not I will be including your graceful words.

    Lucy: There were at least two Joes. The indoors one: gentlemanly, attentive, non-assertively witty. Outdoors he was far more rambunctious frequently setting my rambunctiousness at nought. This was one of the latter occasions; he hailed the poet rather like the king hailed the French herald in the opening scenes of Henry V. Notice: I play to an invisible gallery with much of what I write at the moment. But for rather more obvious reasons.

    Lucas: Ah, a consummation devoutly to be desired; hitting nails firmly on the head. I never managed it in DIY and your observation is an enormous solace to me. But then Joe's a good subject to work on.

    RW (zS): A telling memory that touches on several of Joe's major qualities: his love of horticulture, his love of words, his love of poetry and his ability to pull out memorable quotes.

    That's a nicely put compliment you provide. But I can go one further. Joe's conversation was good enough to make you forget the taste of a pint of horrible ale.

  9. Robbie
    It belatedly occurs to me that hitting nails on the heads is an appalling cliché. I am trying to paraphrase it as - insights made with brevity, wit and the ring of truth. Now I'll need to start working on "ring of truth..." Joe could spot minor clichés at a hundred yards, such major ones he would probably have ignored altogether!