Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Jim and Joslin, by Dennis Hamley

First, something very sad.  Jan Needle and I had a mutual friend, the children’s writer, Pompey FC supporter and Russian expert Jim Riordan.   Sadly, Jim died on Saturday, February 11th.  He had been diagnosed with a brain tumour six months ago.  Many Electric Authors will know Jim, if not personally then certainly by reputation.  He wrote some brilliant books for OUP when Ron Heapy was in charge, including The Gift, When the Guns Fell Silent, The Cello and Match of Death and edited three Young Oxford short story anthologies, Football Stories, Sports Stories and War Stories.   His last two books were published by Frances Lincoln in their new young adult list: Rebel Cargo, about the slave trade, and Sniper, about a girl sniper at Stalingrad.   As a young man he was a Communist and spent from 1961 to 1965 in
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Moscow  as a guest of the Party, met Burgess, Maclean and Philby and became the first (and only) Englishman to play for Spartak Moscow  (as this was strictly illegal his name had to appear in the programme as Jakob Riordanov) and came home - in fact, virtually had to escape - very disillusioned by everything he had seen.   You can read his full account in his marvellous Comrade Jim (Fourth Estate).  I really recommend this book.  It's very funny, atmospheric, full of amazing critical insights  and will be a major source for historians for years to come.  It captures the time, the place, the atmosphere, the psychology and the way  totalitarian regimes actually think in a way that nothing else that I am aware of ever has.  It's almost required reading if we're to make sense of how the post-war world has developed.  And it's on Kindle, so you really have no excuse!
After he had extricated himself from the USSR he taught in universities and became professor of Russian Studies at two of them, Bradford and then Surrey.  He was a superb writer and yarnspinner.  What a man.   If he hadn’t picked up that tumour, you can bet your life he would have been an Electric Author.
Jan and I were able to see him in Portsmouth before Christmas.  We all went to the Royal Oak overlooking Langstone Harbour.  He had a great day and so did we.  And that’s how we’ll remember him.
Jan blogs tomorrow and he's going to give some of his own  memories of Jim.  We'll miss him very much and so will many other people.
Second.  Before I heard that Jim had died I was going to devote this blog entirely to more about Of Dooms and Death and A Pact with Death.  I was even going to upload the covers yet again but then decided that in the context of this blog they weren't quite suitable.  But I'm definitely going to upload other covers later on.
I really care for these books.   The whole sequence took me five years to write.  It was a labour of love.   I'm still angry with Scholastic about they treated the books.  I was commissioned to write them by Julia Moffatt, editor of the old Point Horror and Point Crime lists.  I had always told her that I wanted to write a medieval thriller.  I'd written two Point Crimes already but she was very doubtful about the normal Point Crime's readership's possible relationship with the Middle Ages.   Finally, we made a bargain.   If I wrote her a Point Crime about horse racing then she would let me do my Cadfael for kids.  Knowing nothing about the Sport of Kings and caring less, but armed with a copy of The Racegoers Encyclopedia which I bought on the way home, I wrote Dead Ringer (and was complimented by a reviewer on my 'profound knowledge of the sport"!) 
'Now can I write my medieval mysatery?' I asked.  Then Julia sprang a real surprise.  'I don't want just one,' she said.  'I want a series.'  I was horrified.   I knew about series.  I'd met authors who were screaming to stop writing them but readers and editors insisted they carried on.  I saw a long, weary treadmill in front of me.  And that's when I realised what the overall structure would be.   'I won't write a series,' I said.  'I'll write a sequence.'   Six separate, standalone books but with a single overarching theme.   Six self-contained stories, one mega-story.  And thus Joslin de Lay was born.
The first two, Dooms and Pact, were published together in 1998 - and published together this week on Kindle.   They had a good reception then and sold pretty well.  I was doing the third, Hell's Kitchen (I think the best) when the bombshell burst.   Julia was leaving.  Nobody would be put in charge of Point Crime.  The series would die a natural death.  And it did.  David Fickling left not long afterwards.  The old guard who had nurtured me - except one, the great Pam Royds, who sadly didn't call the shots any more -had gone.  I was glad of my six-book contract because if I hadn't got it then Joslin would never have found his real destiny.   But I knew the sequence was dead on its feet: it was only continued because I'd got a contract and they didn't want the aggro of reneging on it.  But I knew they were just going through the motions.  The False Father was the very last Point Crime.   I suggested a farewell party.   They looked at me as if I was mad and put all the Joslins of print within a year.  I was very, very upset.   But now the book can live again and I can even think, if they do well enough on Kindle to justify it (and even if they don't) of publishing them myself as good quality paper books, limited edition,  probably boxed.  An indulgence perhaps.  But it wouldn't half make me feel good.
Why the Middle Ages?  They have always held a fascination for me.   I met them properly at school when I first read the Miracle Plays and read a marvellous book, English Drama from the Earliest Times to the Elizabethans by AP Rossiter, fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.  'I want him to teach me,' I said and applied.   He interviewed me, I was given a place, endured national service and finally arrived.   But meanwhile he'd managed to kill himself by wrapping his 1000cc Norton motorbike round a telegraph pole on the A1 and the next I saw of him was his coffin in the college chapel.
Nothing daunted, I carried on my interest in the great Miracle Cycles.  Rossiter had coined a phrase for the medieval mind which seemd to fit the plays: its 'facing-both-ways-ness', how both people and plays could be sacred and profane actually at the same time.   Piety wasn't a marked feature of the medieval mind, though belief, fear and mockery certainly were.  My first book in 1962 was an adaptation into modern English for schools of three Wakefield plays: my first novel, Pageants of Despair, was the fruit of years of thinking further about them.
This is the cover of the original 1974 edition, published by the long-lost Andre Deutsch.  It looks a bit faded after all these years but in its full glory, by Gavin Rowe, really striking..
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And here is the latest reincarnation, the cover for the 2006 edition published in the USA by Paul Dry Books (Philadelphia) as the first, along with Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, in their Nautilus series of reissued young adult novels.

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I was surprised when it was republished after so many years because I think that, as a book, it's pretty amateurish.   I was learning my craft.  But I still have an affection for it.  Even so, I thought that was me finished with the Middle Ages.   Until I read my first Brother Cadfael novel by Ellis Peters.   And then I met Candice Robb's Apothecary of York.  And then I read Michael Jecks.  And I realised I hadn't even started with the Middle Ages - here was a whole new way of thinking and writing about them.  So my ambition was born.

Joslin was the result.   A minstrel, who can enter into any level of society and be welcomed - but French and adrift in England with his own urgent quest, surrounded by hostility, evil, danger and death: castles in Suffolk, painters in London, forbidden knowledge in (of course) Oxford (Hell's Kitchen: my own attempt at a Name of the Rose for young adults) Miracle Plays again in Coventry, masons and a cathedral in Hereford and finally, in Wales, finding his true story.  Dead bodies everywhere, some killed in very enterprising ways.  Some really hairy situations to get out of.   But all the time, the attempt to reconstruct the Middle Ages as they really were because I still didn't understand them the way I wanted to.  And still don't, so who knows, one day I may resurrect Joslin.

My labour of love.  I hope people like following the long journey of Joslin de Lay to its close.




7 comments:

Linda Newbery said...

Dennis, I'm so sorry to hear that James Riordan has died and that you have lost a friend. What an amazing life!

And congratulations on the Joslin books.

Jan Needle said...

thanks for that tribute, dennis. i'll just add a little bit to give people a flavour of the man. when we went to the pub in december, it took jim about twenty minutes to get downstairs from his top floor flat (no lift, no stanner), laboriously, hand over hand on the iron rail. then dennis drove us the five or six miles to the pub, and jim took only about ten minutes to get to the bar. we'd gone for lunch, but there was a notice on the window - kitchen closed for one day only for refurbishments. jim thought this was hilarious, and lunched on bitter and crisps in the good old-fashioned way. we had a lovely time, but by now jim was tired, so it took more than twenty minutes to get back into the car. at home again, nearly half an hour for him to haul himself hand over hand up the iron railings to the flat. no help was accepted, and the smile never, ever, left his face. then he slept for a short while, elena made us coffee, then the chatting went on for another hour. jim was a happy man. honestly, please read comrade jim. it is amazing.

madwippitt said...

Good luck with Joslin - I thoroughly enjoyed the first and am looking forward to reading the rest.

Kathleen Jones said...

What a wonderful story Dennis - I hope Joslin does really well. And a lovely tribute to your friend. Sounds like someone I would have loved to have known! The books live on.

Jennie Walters said...

A bittersweet post but what a lovely memory of Jim to treasure. He sounds an extraordinary man. Congrats on reclaiming your books, Dennis!

Linda Newbery said...

Dennis and Jan, so glad you were able to have that last meeting, and those memories.

Dan Holloway said...

I can only concur - what an extraordinary life. I am sorry not to have known him