Literary Leicester: Graham Joyce 

Graham Joyce press picture. Design by James Walker.

The following article is a rough outline of a talk I gave at Literary Leicester on how writers inspire us to make a difference. My chosen writer was Graham Joyce.

Graham Joyce was born in Keresley, Coventry on 22 October 1954. But Leicester was his adopted home.

I first encountered Graham at The Writing Industries Conference in 2010 where he delivered the keynote speech, warning writers that the days of a hefty advance for their novels were over. Anyone serious about becoming a professional writer needed to diversify their output. Digital technology and social media were transforming the literary landscape. Best get involved than be left behind.

Graham was good to his word. He helped develop storylines for computer games, scripted the short film Black Dust, and cowrote song lyrics with Emilie Simon. He was eclectic with genre, writing horror, ghost stories and a form of speculative fiction which defied classification. Some see this as magical realism; I prefer to think of his words plucked straight out of the hedgerow. He described his work as having ‘the flavour of dreams’ but his novels are also grounded in family, relationships, and an infectious zest for life.

Despite his reservations about the financial rewards of novelists, he was incredibly successful. As well as winning the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for The Facts of Life, and collecting an O’ Henry Award in 2009 for the short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen, he was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times. If he was a football team, his dominance of the genre would make him a Man City. A Pep Guardiola. Graham would appreciate this metaphor, but not the team. He was a Coventry City fan, occasionally writing for fanzines. He also played in net for the England Writer’s Football Team which he detailed in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular.

Talk at Literary Leicester on 26 March. Photo: Aly Stoneman

So, why was he such a successful writer?

To answer this, you need to look at his life. He grew up in a mining village, worked at Butlins in Skegness, and spent ten years as a youth worker in Leicester where he believed the three R’s would get anyone back on track: Respect, recognition, responsibility. Each of these jobs and environments required an ability to connect with people. It’s this humanity which greets you on the page.

Graham was very much a writer who you could enjoy a pint with. He loved the energy of people and enjoyed sharing tales. He had courage and charisma about him. It’s this that led him to start an arts magazine in Leicester in 1980 with Sue Townsend who published a short diary entry about a certain ‘Nigel’ Mole. It was this that led him to quit his job as a Youth Worker in 1988 and drive to Lesbos with his girlfriend Sue, later to be his wife. They lived on a shack on the beach with no water or electric. But what he did have was the freedom to think and the time to write. One year later, his first novel, Dreamscape, was accepted for publication. Aspiring writers out there take note…   

Graham was awarded a PhD by publication from Nottingham Trent University where he taught creative writing from 1996 up until his death. As fate would have it, I now teach parttime at NTU and occupy his former office.

In 2013 I began work on Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel series celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. Graham was one of the commissioned writers but soon afterwards was diagnosed with lymphoma and unable to complete the work. He passed away on 9 September 2014.

The following year I was in Leicester with Lydia Towsey who I had commissioned to host some writing workshops. During the break I popped outside for a fag and got chatting to a young woman and her mother about the project. When I explained that Dawn of the Unread was a celebration of dead writers and aimed to bring them back to life by encouraging people to read their books, the young girl, then seventeen, said, ‘My dad was a writer, his name was Graham Joyce, have you heard of him?’

To cut a rather lovely and long story short, it turned out that Ella Joyce – the seventeen year-old women I was talking to – was about to start a Foundation in Art. I asked to see an example of her work and was absolutely blown away. I gave Ella her first commission and she illustrated the ‘Shelves’ comic in Dawn of the Unread.

I know that Graham would love the symmetry and peculiarity of this story. But he would also appreciate that youth had been given an opportunity. The commission gave his daughter respect, recognition, responsibility. We have since gone on to collaborate on Whatever People Say I Am, a series of comics challenging stereotypes.     

Ella’s artwork in Dawn of the Unread issue 14.

I’ve not read all of Graham’s nineteen or so novels. And this is deliberate. Books are precious. You can’t binge watch them like the latest series on Netflix. They need time to settle. I treat myself every three years or so to a new one. This year I will be reading The Year of the Ladybird.

In the last blog published on his website, Graham writes about the Anglo Saxon heritage of Wistow and how Charles Ist once galloped past here seeking refuge in Leicester. As he courts ghosts of the past, the Sence gently bubbles away on its way to meet the River Soar. He talks about his own mortality and ‘the shocking clarity that cancer brings’ only to discover later that a missile has randomly downed a plane in Ukraine and killed 300 people. This has more resonance today, given the current political climate. He then asks, ‘why anyone would want to die?’

It’s at this point a dragonfly whispers in his ear, ‘I have inhabited this earth for 3 million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries. Just cherish it all.’

And then his old friend, the heron, appears, and asks: ‘Why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?’

Let’s make this our mantra today. To inspire each other as Graham Joyce and other writers have inspired us.

Literary Leicester is an arts council funded festival that ran from Wednesday 25 March to Saturday 26 March. The above talk was given during the festival closing event, Mi Duck: Writers Changing Leicester

Final Fantasy: The Enchantment of Graham Joyce

Artwork: Ella Joyce
Artwork: Ella Joyce

Graham Joyce was originally a commissioned writer for Dawn of the Unread but when he passed away his daughter Ella stepped in and created the artwork for our current issue Shelves. Here Andrew Hedgecock,  the co-editor of Interzone, appraises the life and work of a truly great writer.

When Graham Joyce died of aggressive lymphoma in September 2014 we lost a great writer, inspiring teacher and committed, lifelong socialist. Joyce took bold decisions in his life and work: in the dark days of Thatcherism he quit his career in youth work and set of for Greece with the intention of writing a novel. He went on to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel six times, the O Henry Award for short fiction and the World Fantasy Award.

In autumn 2001, I interviewed him for a magazine called The Third Alternative. I recorded the conversation using my daughter’s red and yellow Fisher-Price tape recorder (ages three and above) with chunky colour coded buttons and hand held karaoke microphone Once he stopped laughing at my technology, the conversation drifted onto the London-centric nature of publishing and the challenge this presents to writers based in the provinces. Joyce was deeply annoyed with a publisher’s reader who suggested his latest book, Smoking Poppy, would struggle to find an audience because it was about “fat people from the industrial Midlands”.

“Oh fuck,” I told him, “I’m a chubby object of limited appeal.” At that point he took a copy of his book from a shelf, wrote something I couldn’t read on the title page and set it aside.

Graham Joyce, with son Joe and wife Sue. Photograph: Sue Joyce
Graham Joyce, with son Joe and wife Sue. Photograph: Sue Joyce

There are many writers I admire, but a mere handful I nag people to read. Joyce is one of those. His stories are clever, inspiring, strange and easy to read. They lurch from profound to playful and back again. So did his conversation: one minute he’d talk about fantasy as a para-rational approach to mapping the human psyche then he’d treat you to impressively accurate impersonations of famous football managers.

I first met him in spring 1998, just before the publication of his sixth novel, The Stormwatcher. We talked about socialism, liminal experience and Bion’s work on the psychology of group dynamics. Then we drifted onto Keresley Newlands Primary School’s victory in the final of the 1965 Coventry and District Football Shield. Joyce was the team’s goalkeeper. Later, at the age of 52, he became goalkeeper for England Writers, an experience captured in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular (2009), runner-up for William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Football mattered: Joyce had a blistering row with Louis de Bernières about its historical role in bringing artistry, passion and “a bolt of electricity” into the lives of working class people.

The shift from complex contemplation to earthy observation is a defining characteristic of Joyce’s work. So is his ability to find sympathetic qualities in the most obnoxious characters. In The Stormwatcher, James is obsessed with status and consumption. “He was a real pain in the arse,” said Joyce. “I got fed up of the guy, but I wanted to take the readers with me, to do more for him. I wanted him to be a shit, but everyone has something to redeem them.”

Joyce’s writing explores places, feelings and experiences most literature tends to overlook: “I’ve taken a conscious decision to explore the lives of people who are still ignored by a majority of writers,” he said. In Smoking Poppy (2001) a pub quiz aficionado’s daughter is arrested for drug smuggling in Thailand. He sets off on a strange journey with his Christian fundamentalist son and self-styled best mate, a down-at-heel wideboy. The story tackles personal growth through crisis; the way myth shapes behaviour; class as a barrier to communication; and the distancing impact of age and education. That last point is important. Joyce enjoyed success, but felt educated out of the culture into which he was born. The sense of erasure that comes with the getting of wisdom is a theme of The Tooth Fairy (1996). One of his most popular books, it blends a sharply observed rites of passage story with a supernatural narrative.

Graham and his wife
Graham and his wife Sue. Photo from Sue Joyce.

Joycean fiction of the Midlands kind melds accessible storytelling with philosophical speculation. Early books such as Dreamside, Dark Sister and the Tooth Fairy rework the traditions of popular fantasy and horror. As his writing became more sophisticated, in books such as The Stormwatcher and Indigo, the supernatural elements are subtler and the symbolism more ambiguous. Set during the postwar rebuilding of Coventry, and layered with meticulously detailed period background, The Facts of Life (2002) is often described as Joyce’s masterpiece. It can be read as a literary novel but the supernatural powers of the key protagonist, conceived during a bombing raid, mean it can be interpreted as an understated dark fantasy.

Joyce’s final novel, The Year of the Ladybird, is a picaresque adventure and love story set in an era of discontent. Like his narrator David, Joyce worked as a ‘Greencoat’ at a miner’s holiday camp in Skegness in the mid-1970s. He often shared anecdotes about the experience – none of them as unsettling as the events in the book.

The haunting of the narrator, David, by a glass-eyed child and with a face of smoke, may be real or a product of psychological disturbance. It doesn’t matter which interpretation the reader allows, the book is an exhilarating exploration of a period that played a formative part in Joyce’s life and shaped the psychic landscape of contemporary Britain.

Joyce was never sure where the ritual of storytelling would take him or his characters, but the essential ingredients were emotional engagement and passion. He believed the deep structure of stories must mirror the rhythm of life: birth, partnering and death. Stories could be experimental, but they had to capture the psychological pulse at the heart of existence.

joyce quote
Design James Walker.

No-one doubted the intensity of Joyce’s commitment to his craft. He told students: “Writers don’t have a life, they sit in a room making up other people’s lives and it’s bloody hard work.” Behind the graft was a belief fiction is a form of magic that opens up new understanding of human experience and potential. The Stormwatcher explores the absurdity and insignificance of society’s obsession with hierarchy, authority and acquisition by setting human affairs against the backdrop of a “nine mile high theatre of weather”. The satirical elements of the book are subtle: Joyce’s lifelong socialism informed all his work but he never bored his readers by bolting preachy messages into his narratives.

Politics isn’t mentioned in the publicity material for Joyce’s books but he was a politically engaged novelist. He was suspicious of social engineering but believed in an instinctive brand of socialism, based on a “largely unconscious will towards the general good.”

At the end of our Third Alternative interview in 2001, Joyce and I said goodbye at his front door. As we did so he shoved the copy of Smoking Poppy into my hand. I opened it as I walked back to the car. The inscription on the title page read: “For Andy, a good Midlands chubster.” It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.


#MondayBlogs David Belbin and Stanley Middleton

David Belbin and Ella Joyce at Bromley House Library

David Belbin and Ella Joyce at Bromley House Library

David Belbin is the author of forty-something novels since 1990. Here he chats about his friendship with Booker-winning author Stanley Middleton, the focus of issue 14: Shelves
When did you first start reading comics?
My grandparents used to post us comics when I was very young. The Beano for me, TV Comic for my kid brother, Paul. Plus The Victor and Hotspur, because my grandad liked to read them… I got heavily into superhero comics when I was 8 or so – at first Batman and Superman, but then the golden age of Marvel. I had loads of Spiderman, Daredevil, Dr Strange and The Silver Surfer. Sadly, after I went to Grammar School, my mum threw them all out without consulting me. I got back into comics at university, as satirical classic Howard the Duck came around. My interest heightened when my youngest brother, Richard, introduced me to the Hernandez Brothers’ ‘Love and Rockets’ series, which I still collect. I used to buy ‘Akira’ and ‘Watchmen’ as they came out from the original Forbidden Planet store below Virgin on Wheelergate, whose workers went on to start Page 45.

Artwork: Ella Joyce from our 'Shelves' comic.

Artwork: Ella Joyce from our ‘Shelves’ comic.

You are the only writer in our series not to have used thought bubbles in your comic…  
I’ve written a few comics, mainly ones about social issues for Unicef, though not as many as I would have liked had I had the opportunity. I quickly realised that I don’t like thought bubbles – they’re like voice-over in movies, a cheat that interferes with the visual story telling. I’m interested in writer/artists who push the boundaries in how graphic fiction is laid out, like Chris Ware. But for ‘Shelves’, as soon as I started writing the script, I realised that I wanted it to feel like a picture book, or the ‘Rupert’ stories (originally a strip in the Daily Express) which I used to be given annuals of when I was a child. Once you (James Walker) introduced me to Ella, and I saw her style and resourcefulness, I knew that she’d be able to make this approach work. Instead of my putting words into the characters’ mouths, what you get is my speaking directly to the reader  (with a couple of quotations, from Cecil Roberts and Graham Greene, thrown in) with Ella’s wonderful illustrations to help bring my story to life. This makes it feel very personal, probably the most personal thing I’ve written, outside my blog.
You’re best known as a novelist. How does writing for a comic differ to writing a book?
Writing comics is completely different from writing short stories or novels. It’s much more like writing a screenplay. Only, the images are still…

Cecil Roberts Room at Nottingham Central Library

Cecil Roberts Room at Nottingham Central Library

We discussed many potential Nottingham writers for your story but really it was always going to be Stanley Middleton… 
I originally proposed to write a story about Nottingham’s forgotten writers, people like Cecil Roberts and the great Philip Callow (who I knew through Stanley), partly because, after editing two books and organising a day long memorial event at Lakeside, I felt I’d done my duty by Stan. But I found I couldn’t not write about him. He was a near neighbour and we we were good friends for thirteen years, until his death in 2009. It’s all in the story and the memoir that can be found in one of the embeds (click on the starred buttons!). Once I’d started, the happenstance of six of his best novels being reissued and our being given several of Stanley’s bookcases fed into the story. I was really delighted when I could persuade my friend John Lucas, who’s a literary legend, to contribute an essay.
And John is also a legendary jazz musician…
Yes, John and I run a monthly poetry and jazz night. It’s every second Wednesday of the month at the Guitar Bar, on Clumber Avenue, off Sherwood Rise, from 8 until late, and it’s free. On the 13th of May we have great poetry from my old friends Jane Bluett and Mike Blackburn, plus my newish friend Rory Waterman, along with loads of classic jazz. Should be a great evening.

Stanlet shared the Booker prize with Nadine Gordimer

Stanley shared the Booker prize with Nadine Gordimer

Despite winning the Booker, not many people have heard of Stanley Middleton…
Stanley was never a big seller and didn’t aspire to be. He didn’t play the game by moving to London or even getting an agent. He was Nottingham through and through and liked being a schoolteacher. Until Holiday, I don’t think he ever had a print run exceeding a thousand copies. He’s a very fine writer and his work does get steadily better, with early peaks like Harris’s Requiem and late ones like Married Past Redemption (both recently reissued). I think his work tends to get overlooked because of the ‘provincial’ tag and because there’s so much of it: too much for academics who want to ‘discover’ a writer to read and extensively discuss. Also, let’s be frank, he kept writing until his late 80’s and the books do go downhill from his mid 70’s. So there’s a lot of late, not so good novels. I think he knew that, and didn’t care much. He just wanted to keep writing. It kept him alive.

Another thing that makes your comic very personal is the artist is Ella Joyce, daughter of novelist Graham Joyce. How was it? 
I worked with Ella’s dad, Graham, for twelve years and had signed a couple of books for her, but we’d not met until she visited Nottingham to discuss ‘Shelves’. I gave her a bit of a tour of the city, including The Nottingham Writers’ Studio, which didn’t make it into the story, and Bromley House, which features heavily. She was great to work with and already knew a lot about how comics work, even though she hadn’t done one before. Perhaps being new to the form made it easier for her to adapt to my deliberately old-fashioned approach, I don’t know. What I do know is that she brought great style and intelligence to the piece, tactfully improving some of my image suggestions and proposed lay-out. She also managed to get away with making the story three pages longer than usual! She’s a terrific artist and I wasn’t at all surprised when, while in the middle of doing the comic, she got in to Ruskin to study Fine Art. Her dad, I’m sure, would have been very, very proud of her. I hope she works in comics again but she’s a terrific artist, and so young, she ought to be able to do whatever she wants.
As well as helping us promote Nottingham’s literary heritage through Dawn of the Unread you’re also chairing our UNESCO City of Literature bid… 
The bid call for the Unesco City of Literature bid has finally come out, four and a half months later than we were originally told it would. This has delayed the next Bone and Cane novel somewhat and messed with our budget, but does mean we’ve had more time to prepare, to set up projects like the Big City Read and Write, which we’ve just got a big grant for, and to get the company making the bid registered as a charity. We have a team primarily drawn from the city’s two universities working on the bid, which has to be delivered by July 15th. The forms we have to fill in require some tough answers. It’s like the city’s being asked to take an exam and we don’t know how high the pass mark is. Regardless of the outcome, the city of literature project has already done a lot of good, celebrating, coordinating and enabling literature related events in Nottingham, and it will continue to do so. I’m proud to chair it. The bid has brought together all sorts of people, highlighting the diversity and grassroots genius that this city should be shouting from the rooftops about. We punch way above our economic weight.
Now the hardest question of all: Please recommend three books for readers from your own shelves…
Only three? I have to mention Moon At The Park and Ride by Sue Dymoke, who’s been my partner for 31 years. It’s her second collection of poetry from Nottingham’s Shoestring Press. Yes, the title refers to the Forest Park & Ride, where we launched the Sillitoe tram back in November. I was with Sue when she took the great photo on the cover, which, in turn, inspired the title poem. We’d just come out of one of many visits to Christian Marclay’s wonderful ‘The Clock‘ at New Art Exchange. The book’s launch in 2012 was at The Guitar Bar, with Four in the Bar playing, and led to the monthly Jazz and Poetry event starting that autumn.
In Shelves, I say how Stanley and I had a lot of the same books on our shelves. One writer we agreed about was Brian Moore, not so well known now, who I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on at the University of Nottingham. Moore, from Belfast, is probably the novelist who has influenced me the most. Hard to pick one novel, but I’ll go for No Other Life, about Haiti. I bought a copy of that one for Stan and we both loved it. The story’s inspired by the thwarted presidency of a former Catholic priest, Jean Baptiste Aristide, a radical leftist whose return the US is still trying to block. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Graham Greene, who I love, and who was a big fan of Moore’s. Just thinking about the novel now makes me want to read it for a third time. I think I will.
Only one more? I’m tempted to pick a crime novel by Ed McBain, Lawrence Block or Walter Mosley. Or there’s The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations, two of the greatest novels ever written. But I have to go for Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, which I reread every few years. It’s hard to sum up what it’s about without giving too much away – let’s call it a mystery thriller, which is how my first novel was labelled, but it’s much more than that. 31 years ago it introduced me to Young Adult novels and showed me that they could be as ambitious and involving as any adult or ‘literary’ work. I’ve never written anything half as good. But I keep trying…
DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale: The Magic of Graham Joyce Lives on…

Ella Joyce and David Belbin discussing their forthcoming chapter at Bromley House Library
Ella Joyce and David Belbin discussing their forthcoming chapter. Picture taken in the attic at Bromley House Library by James Walker.

I’ve got some good news that I’ve been desperate to share. But it starts with some sad news first.

Graham Joyce was originally commissioned to be one of the writers for Dawn of the Unread. There were many reasons for his inclusion, not least the ridiculous amount of times he won the World Fantasy Award, but because of his keynote speech at the 2010 Writing Industries Conference when he talked about writers having to become more adaptable and writing across mediums if they wanted to make a living as a writer. Dawn of the Unread is a combination of videos, social media, and essays all held together through a graphic novel, made available across media platforms. This made him perfect for the project, in addition to being one of my all-time favourite writers.

Graham passed away from cancer earlier this year and a packed memorial was held for him on Saturday 22 November in Leicester. There wasn’t a dry eye in the building. But now I’m smiling because I can share my happy story, one which I know would make Graham very proud.

A few months ago I was in Leicester for the launch of a poetry collection and a mini graphic novel that was created in collaboration between ourselves, NHS, Bright Sparks and Everybody’s Reading. We took the format of Dawn of the Unread and expanded it to Leicester.

During the break I was stood outside and a woman came up and asked me what Dawn of the Unread was all about. I explained how we were bringing dead writers back to life in support of libraries and bookshops and celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. A young lady overheard the conversation and said ‘my father has just passed away and he was a writer from Leicester. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him but his name was Graham Joyce’. I said ‘of course I’ve heard of Graham Joyce!!!!’ and then told her about how he had been one of the commissioned writers. Her name was Ella.

The lyrics in the above song by Emilie Simon were edits that didn’t make it into Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

We got talking and Ella said she was an artist about to embark on a Foundation Course in Art. At this point my brain started going mad with possibilities. ‘Can I have a look at some of your work?’ I said, and she showed me a book cover she had drawn for one of her dad’s short story collections. It was outstanding. Ella then explained how Graham had submitted the drawing to his publisher but hadn’t said who drew it. They were blown away and accepted it.

Artwork by Ella Joyce
Artwork by Ella Joyce

I then asked Ella if she would like to be an artist for Dawn of the Unread as this would be a fitting legacy to her father and mean that Graham still had a presence in the project. She burst out crying, we had a quick cuddle, and then began devising a plan.

Ella will be working with David Belbin, who used to share an office with Graham at NTU, to help illustrate the life of Stanley Middleton, the only writer from Nottingham to have won the Booker prize. It is a beautiful, symbolic gesture that has absolutely made this project for me, and the kind of layering of meaning that is so essential to us editors.

We met up again this Monday and David and I took Ella around Nottingham, showed her some key locations in the script, and discussed how to approach illustrating Stanley’s Middleton’s life given that Ella has never worked on a graphic novel before. I’m not going to give anything away here, but Graham will feature in the story.

There was always something special about Graham Joyce. He was one of the most charismatic writers I’ve ever met and someone who absolutely loved life. It is, perhaps, not such a coincidence that his last three books should have been dedicated to his immediate family; this was a man who would leave candles out in his back garden for the fairies before going on holiday, while his wife Sue sorted out the passports and luggage! Graham adored his children and was always very proud that they had turned out to be so creative (his other son plays classical music), not bad for the son of a miner. Graham’s writing always suggested that things weren’t quite as they seem and I like to think that Ella’s commission is testament to this (as well as her immense talent) Like his magical stories, this is turning out to be some kind of fairy tale…


Graham Joyce (22 October 1954 – 9 September 2014)

Graham Joyce passed away on the 9 September aged 59. Graham was one of the first writers we approached for Dawn of the Unread and was originally scheduled to write our Gotham Fool chapter. When he became ill we agreed to see how things went and pencil him in for our penultimate chapter if his situation improved.

During his career Graham produced twenty-one novels, numerous short stories and was awarded the British Fantasy Award an incredible seven times. He also won an O. Henry Award for An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen.

Graham was an incredibly charismatic individual and a master at holding court, as entertaining in real life as he was on the page, making him that very rare commodity – a very human writer with a personality! I fondly remember a panel talk he did for LeftLion as part of the British Art Show as well as his key note speech at the Writing Industries Conference in 2010 which talked about how the days of living off one fat commission were over and writers had to adapt to different markets in order to survive. At the time, that included his recent foray into writing for computer games such as Doom. I remember joking with him afterwards that ‘jump, duck, left, right’ shouldn’t be too difficult to master.

In this sense he offered a more practical guide to making a living as a writer than say Will Self’s recent lament for the death of the literary novel. This may partly be due to him coming to writing later on his career after working as a youth officer for the National Association of Youth Clubs until 1988.

One of my many literary pilgrimages - reading Some Kind Of Fairy Tale in woods on holiday
One of my many literary pilgrimages – reading Some Kind Of Fairy Tale in woods on holiday. Photo Aly Stoneman.

The thing I love most about his writing is the sense of life and joy on every page and the magical environments that whisper to characters. He made fantasy seem real. It’s hard to pick a favourite but I think I would plump for The Silent Land, winner of the Inspiration Award. It opens with “It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve” In this a young couple are on a skiing holiday: “Everywhere was snow and silence. Snow and silence; the complete arrest of life; a rehearsal for and a pre-echo of death. But her breath was warm and it said no to any premature thought of death. She pointed her skis down the hill. The tips of her skis looked like weird talons of brilliant red and gold in the powder snow as she waited, ready to swoop.”

It’s a beautiful story that I interpreted as a love letter to Graham’s family, a request for forgiveness as well as a celebration of life. The couple are trapped in a liminal space (I won’t ruin it – just read it) but it is classic Joyce in that a tragic situation is rendered beautiful and fate something that cannot be avoided.

Goodbye, you crazy diamond.