Dr Graham Joyce (1954-2014)
Nottingham Trent University
This posting is about a working-class writer who won’t be listed on our Database of Labouring-class Poets any time soon, even though he was a coalminer’s son and an immensely successful and popular writer (and even had an interesting link to our project). He would of course be ‘OP’, or ‘out of our period’. But more importantly my friend and colleague Graham Joyce, who died on September 9th aged 59, loudly disdained what he saw as the pretentiousness and self-absorption of poets, and indeed art writers of all sorts. (His antipathy towards poets though, like the music-loathing of the Chief Blue Meanie in Yellow Submarine, evidently masked suppressed longings, because according to the long memory of our mutual friend the poet Mahendra Solanki, Graham began his writing career as a poet long ago.) Graham’s attitude to mainstream fiction was similarly iconoclastic, as may be seen in his funny, moving memoir of his career as the goalkeeper for the England Writers’ football team, Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular (2009). He describes one of his team-mates as someone who could never win the Booker, the major UK literary prize for fiction, ‘because he’s not depressed or depressing enough’. Graham’s own field was the marginalised, democratic, popular form of fantasy fiction—or if you prefer, dark fantasy, horror, slipstream or science fiction—but he didn’t care all that much about genre labels really, and when his agent asked which one his latest novel was to be sold as, was wont to reply ‘whichever one is selling best at the moment’.
Genre certainly cared about him though: he won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award (an amazing five times) and the O. Henry Prize for short fiction, along with high praise from Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem and other notables. If I wanted to extract a common element in all Graham’s novels and short stories I would say that they put the spectral, the fantastic, the science fictional into—well, into the styles and settings that readers might perhaps expect from a coalminer’s son: realism, common life, family relationships, everyday conversations, concerns and interactions. His characters talk like ordinary, real people: in fact his most successful short story, the one that was published in the Paris Review, was simply called ‘An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen’. But extraordinary things always seem to happen to his characters. If we encourage our kids to put their fallen milk teeth under the pillow for the tooth fairy to take in exchange for silver coins, we don’t really expect her to show up in the middle of the night, as she does in Graham’s best-known novel, The Tooth Fairy (1996). In Some Kind of a Fairy Tale (2012), an ordinary young woman disappears for 20 years, captured by some offbeat fairies who live in a Narnian time-scheme. But does anyone believe her? In The Silent Land (2010), an ordinary couple on a ski-ing holiday get caught in an avalanche, after which the world seems to have changed in increasingly odd ways. Are they in fact alive or dead? As in William Golding’s Pincher Martin or J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, we are not sure and nor are they, though you can be certain they will try their best to keep their ‘normal’ lives ticking along for as long as they possibly can.
Normalcy under unexpected pressure from the unfathomable, then, was perhaps Graham’s great theme, and his gift for describing and analysing it served him well when cancer came along last year—a particularly virulent and difficult strain which overwhelmed him in the end. His last publications were about its presence in his life: a programme about the language in which cancer is discussed, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 shortly before he died (‘Talking about Cancer’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dm87k), and a beautiful and moving final posting on his personal blog, in which he learns wisdom from a 300-million-year-old dragonfly, and compares the NHS surgeons who were by then trying every way they could to save his life, with the men who had recently blown a passenger plane out of the Ukrainian sky, snuffing out 300 innocent lives in a moment (see ‘A Perfect Day and the Shocking Clarity of Cancer’, http://www.grahamjoyce.co.uk/).
That sense of right and wrong, of the selfless versus the selfish, was a powerful instinct in Graham’s writing. He hated the way that Thatcherism in the 1980s had destroyed not only the coalmining and manufacturing communities in which he had grown up, but also the spirit of social and voluntary activities that went with them, for example (from the goalkeeping book) the tradition of schoolteachers giving up their free time to coach boys’ football teams:
I know that there are many hundreds of teachers who still do give up their time in this way, but it’s nothing like the organised, regular, full-on commitment that was offered back then. All that has gone the way of the colliery bands, cricket teams, apprenticeships in industry, first-aid teams, church groups, young trade-union groups, and the hundred other ways in which a boy might see how mature men deport themselves. (p. 101)
Memory and loss never tip over into the sentimental, but fire Graham’s writings with a powerful and deeply personal political impulse.
And his link with Labouring-Class Poets Online? Graham Joyce honoured our research resource with its first parody. He had a fine, levelling, earthy sense of humour (as evident in the footballing memoir as the sense of nostalgia). His 2008 novel Memoirs of a Master Forger, first published under the suspiciously poetical and plainly forged name of William Heaney, is about demons, and begins with the information that ‘There are one thousand five hundred and sixty-seven known demons’. That is precisely the number of poets we had at that point gathered for the Database of Labouring-Class Poets, which I had been telling Graham about some months earlier. So when, further down the page, he begins mock-pedantically discussing some of the finer points of demonic categorisation, I should not have been surprised to find him referring to ‘Goodridge’s original study and his much stricter categories’ for demon typologies, with a scholarly footnote referencing this—it hardly needs saying—non-existent work on the subject. Graham was shrewd at reading the dysfunctions beneath our ‘normal’ exteriors, and his parodic slippage from ‘poets’ to ‘demons’ might suggest that the obsessive gathering of poets’ biographies is a neurotic displacement activity. (What if the collector’s own ‘inner demons’ are not so easily counted and pinned down?) Or perhaps Graham wanted to say something about what it is to be ‘demonised’, or even indeed defined as a working-class writer.
There is a postscript. I thought I had the perfect opportunity to turn the joke back on Graham some months later, when by chance I was allotted as research mentor at the university. Not that he really needed a mentor, except perhaps to countersign Hollywood contracts from time to time. But we obediently went through the ritual of the ‘mentoring meeting’. Putting on as serious a face as I could, I told him that I had some important advice for him. In his next novel he could develop this ‘Professor Goodridge’ character further. I saw him as—you know, maybe an Indiana Jones type of figure. I could see him searching out new demons to catalogue in his next book, in some romantic and dangerous location…that kind of thing. Quick as a flash an admonitory finger was up and pointing at me as he leaned forward, equally mock-serious: ‘You just be bloody careful what you wish for, mate!’
I know I am far from being alone in saying I shall miss Graham very much. It is a consolation that he has generously left us so many of his great books to read and re-read.
In an effort to get to know more about the technical side of this Laboring-Class Poets project, Charlotte and I recently attended a series of Digital Jumpstart workshops hosted by the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at Kansas University. It was an informative and surprisingly fun two days in which we learned more about Omeka and gained a greater appreciation for the work Cole has been doing.
The first session we attended was titled “Creating online collections and exhibits” and led by Melissa Fisher Isaacs & Wade Garrison from Kansas University’s digital humanities department. A more apt title for the session might have been “Omeka 101.” We were given step-by-step instructions for beginning an Omeka collection. To my surprise, the platform was pretty straightforward, provided the user understands the vocabulary being used. Once the user has uploaded a file to be included in the online collection, Omeka then prompts the user for certain pertinent information which includes the following: title, subject, description, creator, source, publisher, date, contributor, rights, relation, format, language, type, identifier, coverage and image metadata. If your collection is relatively small and you have an infinite amount of time on your hands, you may easily enter this information yourself using Omeka. If your project is large, like ours is, you also have the option to upload a spreadsheet full of that data. Once that spreadsheet has been uploaded, Omeka allows you to map the fields with your spreadsheet, then Omeka fills in the rest. I’m sure Cole could provide you with a more technical explanation for how that works, but this is Omeka 101, remember? Here’s my very, very basic Omeka test site in case you’re curious.
The second session we attended was titled “Creating a Digital Scholarly Edition” and was led by Andrew Jewell from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. This workshop was excellent, providing us with a basic introduction to the process of creating a digital scholarly edition while also making us feel that it was an absolutely attainable goal. Charlotte and I were inspired by Jewell and the scholarly examples he showed us, excitedly talking about it on our journey home.
Jewell’s main point was to plan, plan, plan to ensure that the digital edition being created always leads to the creator’s goal. What is included and what is marked-up should always contribute to the overall goal of the project. Jewell provided four basic mark-up categories: 1) Textual structures – noting paragraphs, lists, chapters, headings, etc. 2) Conceptual – noting people named, places references, metaphors and allusions used, etc. 3) Bibliographic features – explaining to the reader the paper type of the textual artifact, the binding used, the pages themselves, the writing instrument, etc. 4) Other – this category is the catch-all but may include linguistic structures and the relationships between documents being digitized.
Jewell then walked us through XML, extensile markup language, which he recommends we use to code our digital editions. XML separates intellectual content being coded from the design coding, whereas HTML does not provide this separation. This process of coding in XML involves categorizing information in the transcription of each document in order to make it a searchable and usable. This coding can be very basic or very detailed depending on the creator’s intentions. Here are a few examples, starting with the most basic and working towards the more detailed:
<name>Roz Parr</name> indicates that “Roz Parr” is a name, plain and simple. If the user of the edition is interested in the names referenced, “Roz Parr” will be on that list.
<name type=”person”>Roz Parr</name> specifies that “Roz Parr” is the name of a person, not a place or a thing. This allows for discerning between the names of people and the names of places and things.
<name type=”person”> <forename>Roz</forename> <surname>Parr</surname> gives even more specificity, discerning a first name from a last name and gives the user of the edition even more searchable fields.
It’s amazing how detailed these can be,
As much as I enjoyed learning all of this information, I think my favorite part of the two days was the friendly atmosphere of the workshops. Though most of the attendees were from KU, Charlotte and I were welcomed with open arms. It was clearly an environment in which we were all there to learn from each other’s experiences. Because the digital humanities is a relatively new scholarly field, those scholars interested are all very happy to help one another carve out the digital humanities niche in the academic world.