Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the Rain, Babel, Dreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.
I was on the M6 within twenty minutes. The motorway was uncommonly quiet, just a smattering of lorries and cars, maybe a dozen or so in total. It was getting on for seven o’clock. Clouds were piled like wet grey towels.
My dad died when I was twelve years old. He dropped dead in a car park in Southampton while he was attending a conference, some work-related training course; he was an office manager for a stationery business based in Penrith. Aneurysm. The technical name for it – subarachnoid haemorrhage – gave me nightmares. I thought his head had split open under the weight of a skull filled with spiders. I bore the fear of that for years; a time bomb in the brain he had carried from birth.
I remember little things about him, although I suspect I’ve also dreamed some of them into perceived reality. The way he drank instant coffee exclusively with hot milk and lots of sugar; his penchant for big coats with big pockets so he could line up his pens in a row; a love of Dylan and Mitchell (I remember singing along to Blue in a Christmas living room smelling of vinyl seat covers and tangerines and Harveys Bristol Cream). I remember going to the swimming baths with him, and clinging on to his shoulders in the deep end, where the water was always colder. He would buy me crisps and chemical-green pop from the vending machines afterwards, and we’d sit on plastic chairs while I ate and he tied my shoelaces.
What’s the difference between a duck?
I don’t know, Dad.
One leg’s both the same.
My foot on the parapet. The crack of stone. The drop.
How fast you’d go. A sense of freedom, of flight. Shackles off. A release for ever from worry and fear and responsibility.
I bore down on the accelerator.
70… 80… 90…
I lifted my hands from the steering wheel and closed my eyes.
Joni is 72 today. I grew up on her music. My dad was (still is, let’s be honest) besotted with her. He’d take a walk out to Ames record shop in town to buy every new LP of hers on the day of release. Last time I asked him, he reckoned Blue was his favourite album of hers, and why not? It’s a classic. It’s up there for me too. But there are one or two other albums that vie for top spot: Hejira, for example. And The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Here are six songs of hers from those three albums I’d happily take to a desert island with me (ask me again next week and I might choose a different six…):
Little Green (Blue)
Heart-rending song about the girl Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1965.
Edith and the Kingpin (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
A lush song about a gangster and his squeeze. I remember being hypnotised by the economy and beauty of the simple line: His eyes hold Edith/His left hand holds his right.
Shades of Scarlett Conquering (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
Another effortlessly gorgeous couplet: Out in the wind in crinolines/Chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn.
Joni’s guitar. Jaco’s fretless bass. Amelia Earhart. I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms…
Refuge of the Roads (Hejira)
Joni’s guitar. Jaco’s fretless bass. Wanderlust. These are the clouds of Michelangelo/Muscular with gods and sungold/Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads
Acid, booze and ass, needles guns and grass, lots of laughs…
Happy birthday, Joni. Get well soon.
There’s some good can come from waking at 5.30 am with a full bladder, or an accidental kick in the shins, or the cat deciding that your head is the place where it wants to sit. This morning I drifted in and out of consciousness, now eyeing the LCD of the clock radio, now fending off a cat tail like a supersize feather duster, and ideas accumulated. Swathes of dialogue, scenes, plot points, possibilities. I opened my mind and sucked it all down. The drawback, of course, is that you then have to get up and write it all down, or risk dropping back into sleep and forgetting the lot. I usually have a notebook and a pen by the bed. This morning? Of course not.
Two recent short stories, originally published by the good people at This is Horror and Nightjar Press, are available to buy online. The Fox was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award and was well received by Starburst: “As events unfold, a knot appears in your stomach, twisting tighter and tighter until you reach the denouement.” Adam Nevill said of The Jungle: “In a Conrad Williams story you always see the very texture of the world’s simplest wonders and sudden horrors, but through eyes you thought had closed in your past.”
Priced at £1.99 each ($2.99 in the States). Cheap as chips. Or fries.
I stayed at Graham Joyce’s house on the 1st March last year. We were reading at an event at Warwick University. He wasn’t feeling too good. I was hoping he’d be up for a monumental Leicester curry afterwards, but his appetite was shot. His lovely wife Sue made me ham sandwiches instead. I slept in his study at the top of the house, the room where he spun gold.
Howz yer guts? I emailed him, a few days later.
Not great. Just had to cancel talk I was doing tonight. Doc thinks it muscular, so I’m on strong painkillers. Hope it goes away. Enjoyed seeing you the other night. Bright light in a dull evening.
It was a Graham Joyce sort of day, yesterday. The sun was out and the clouds were high and light. There was a touch of autumn in the air. I was out all day, working. By the time I got round to thinking of heading home, I received a phone call. Graham had died.
For some reason I thought of him at my wedding in 2002. At the time, Graham was adapting his novel The Tooth Fairy for a Hollywood production company. After the ceremony, after lunch, he stood with me and my dad. Dad was in the police force for 25 years, and then for seven after that he ran pubs. He’s no stranger to industrial language, but he has no truck with those who speak it. I dare not utter an oath within earshot of him, even now. In the past I’ve seen him harangue gangs of teenagers on street corners for trading four-letter insults.
‘Dad, this is Graham. Graham’s a writer. He’s doing stuff over in Tinsel Town.’
‘Really?’ Dad asked. ‘How are you finding it?’
Graham (normal talking voice, ie. loud): ‘They’re a bunch of fucking cunts, Grenville. Bunch of fucking cunts.’
It says something about Graham that he charmed the bristles smooth on my dad within seconds. To this day my parents still talk about that meeting. ‘He had a way of telling a story, didn’t he?’ my dad says. Too true.
I don’t remember getting back to my tram stop, but I remember walking through the park. I was expecting to see a ladybird. I was trying to see Graham in something. If anybody could reach through, it was him, this amazing writer who wrote so beguilingly about nature, who sometimes seemed so very close to the liminal, the numinous, that he was also somehow of it. I was looking for a sign.
The last time I saw him was on Boxing Day. My wife’s parents live in Leicestershire and we’d often take advantage of that to drop in on Graham, Sue, Ella and Joe. We all went on the walk in Wistow he describes in his final, stunning blog post. It was a glorious day. He was in good spirits. There was much laughter and we talked about writing and guitars and football and family. When we got back to his house he got the karate gloves out and sparred with my boys.
Yesterday I cried and my kids hugged me and I smelled their gorgeous heads and thought of Smoking Poppy. I hadn’t seen a ladybird. Or a heron. And there are no hares in Didsbury that I’m aware of. Later, my wife said: ‘Have you seen the moon?’
I went outside and there was a breathtaking, swollen supermoon rising over the village. Of course Graham would die on a day such as this. How could he not?
But he isn’t gone. He’s in the words of the extraordinary books he wrote, of course. And he’s larger than life (if that is at all possible) in the memories we have of him. He was a man of laughter and mischief and generosity. He was one of my very best friends and I’ll miss him enormously. But I felt self-conscious about my grief yesterday, and I imagined him with that twinkle in his eye, pressing a pint into my chest, telling me to cheer up, you soft bugger.
I’m not interested in why. I don’t care if there were clues there for all to see. So he was a drug user. So he couldn’t handle fame. Twenty years have sanded away my opinions about that, if I even really had any. Outside of family and friends, his death shocked me like no other. He was only 27 years old. There was pain and rage and screaming, but there was melody too.
When I first heard the song… that song… in 1991, I was a second-year student sharing a house in Bristol. Too young to have appreciated punk in 1976, I suddenly understood – as those power chords kicked in – how people hungry, primed, for musical change (here we are now, entertain us) must have felt. I listen to Nirvana and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. The music is still relevant, in my eyes. It is timeless, visceral, raw and beautiful.