I’ve just read a book that resonated with me so much that I now think it is going to be a major part of my life from now on. It was written by a writer of my acquaintance, Graham Joyce, who died in 2014 and who I’ve mentioned in these blog posts before. The book is called The Facts of Life and I have written a review for the book social media website LibraryThing. That review is cross-posted to my own reviews blog, Deep Waters Reading, but the book made such an impact on me that I’m also cross-posting to this blog, because although Graham was writing from his own experience and his own family history, so much of that history was similar to my own that I felt Graham was writing about my own experience. Each page of that book was filled with characters that I identified with, that spoke to me in the voices of my own family, friends and relatives.
I don’t normally cross-post my reviews, but in this case, I’m making an exception. I think you’ll see why.
Without trying too much to sound as though I’m dropping names, I want to tell you about my relationship with Graham Joyce, because without knowing that, you might not understand why this book means so much to me.
I first met Graham when we were working on an educational resources project in Derby in 1978. He had been studying in Derby, and was already becoming involved in the artistic world and the craft of writing. So when I mentioned that I had connections with the somewhat esoteric world of science fiction fandom and science fiction fanzines – something that in the popular imagination was only connected with punk rock or football – Graham was fascinated. I can honestly claim that I introduced Graham Joyce to the science fiction and fantasy community via fanzines. Little did I know at the time that this was going to be a major part of his professional life.
Our backgrounds were very similar. I was born in Nottingham in 1957 to parents who were progressing up the social ladder; my father was the son of a tenant farmer, whilst my mother was the daughter of a mineworker who was invalided out of Bolsover Colliery in the 1930s through a pit accident. I grew up in Derbyshire, in the semi-rural outskirts of Belper, a small mill town; was educated in a grammar school that was created by a philanthropic mill owner for the children of his workers (even though in later years it aped the manners of more prestigious public schools). I then worked in Derby; later, I moved for my job to Birmingham, and lived in the Warwickshire village of Fillongley, six miles outside Coventry. In more recent years, I have changed job again and now live and work in and about Leicester.
Graham was born in 1954 in the Warwickshire pit village of Keresley, the village next door but one to Fillongley. He came from a mining family. After working in Derby (and a brief period spent developing his writing in Greece), he moved to Leicester, where he settled down with a family and taught creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.
In other words, we moved in the same environment, the English East Midlands; our backgrounds were similar; our families were similar; and we moved in the same sort of social, employment and political circles. And that is why, when I opened this book, I was immediately in amongst people, situations and family histories that were familiar to me. Graham wrote this book about the sort of people he lived with, and grew up with, and worked with; and the people I lived with, grew up with and worked with were the same sort of people.
The Facts of Life concerns an extended matriarchal family, making their way in Coventry over a fifteen-year period from 1940 to the mid-1950s. From the outset, I had a vivid picture of the Vine family, their surroundings, the places they lived and the places they went to. Into this commonplace setting, Graham injected an element of the fantastic. The family matriarch, Martha Vine, experiences uncanny messengers who knock on her door and deliver messages that are pregnant with meaning. her daughter Cassie, youngest of seven sisters, seems to have her own conduit to other realms, other realities; and her son, Frank, conceived on the night of the Coventry Blitz, seems to have inherited that sensibility.
The fantastical elements of the novel are an organic part of the whole; the reader only realises how fantastical they are after they have occurred. Graham drew on his own family experience here; again, I can corroborate this, as my own relatives and friends of my parents would sometimes recount experiences that defied explanation; Graham’s examples seem a little more extreme, but only a little. My grandmother would speak of having lost a brother on the Somme in the First World War, and she always lived in hope of a knock on the door that would bring that brother back to her. It never came, but the hope was there, and if it had happened, it would have been a fantastical encounter wholly in line with those that Graham describes happening to Martha.
Other characters in the book have a similar immediacy and full-fleshed out nature. Cassie Vine moves between her sisters and their own growing families in the years of austerity immediately after the Second World War, and these scenes – a bohemian commune in Oxford, or a farm in the North Warwickshire countryside – are equally well-drawn with characters and situiations that i identified with. Whilst at the farm, Cassie;s son Frank encounters a mystical presence, the Man-Behind-the-Glass, which becomes a central part of his life. When the true nature of the Man-Behind-the-Glass is revealed, that revelation rings true and links back to themes of the war, and the land, and yet it is both fantastical and real at the same time. The answer to that identity had, of course, been there all along in the story, and yet Graham hid it from us, the readers, until the time was right for it to be revealed; and I gasped in amazement at how ingenious it was, and yet how obvious from what had gone before; yet it was something that only someone from that area would have really known about.
At other times in this book, I laughed out loud; and at the end, I wept. Throughout, I identified with the characters and the places in the book. Graham Joyce was writing about my people. I am only sad that I never got around to reading it whilst he was still alive, so that I could tell him these things and tell him how well he captured the lives, loves and experiences, both real and mystical, of a generation and a class so very little recognised in English literature