Driving through the pretty village of Coldingham yesterday, I found myself thinking of one of its former residents, the late journalist, Ian Bell. This in turn led me to remembering a friend’s comment: “You write so well about dead people!” It was meant (I hope) as a compliment, and it is true that the words flow more easily when they come directly from the heart in praising someone lost who has been loved or respected.
However, I thought today I would write about a pal who is still very much alive, but who has just retired from his position as lecturer in journalism at Fife College. It’s surely better, or at least more rewarding, to share affection while the recipient is still in a state to accept it!
I’ve known Pat Joyce since I was eighteen when I returned to my hometown of Edinburgh to start university.
Having lived in England for a dozen years, it was perhaps symptomatic of my naivity that I was surprised to be a little overwhelmed when I arrived back in the Capital. “My” city was obviously not the one I remembered from when I was six, and the university place, which school had guided us unthinkingly towards for six years, was proving a little more complicated than I had ever considered.
In addition, I had lived in a prosperous seaside resort in the north west of England which had the highest rate of university students in the country. Though my mother was a housekeeper, rather than one of the wealthy residents of the town, it was fair to say that my upbringing had been pretty sheltered.
They did exist in Southport – but we all knew what to do if you saw one: run!
So, settled in the post hippy trendiness of the university’s Pollock Halls of Residence, it came as a huge shock to spot a couple of lads in the corridor who exhibited all the warning signs to instigate a rapid retreat.
Pat Joyce and his pal, Tom, stood out very obviously, and were, to me, threatening figures: from their big boots, their short jeans, their Ben Sherman shirts, and all the way up to the suede tops of their heads. The corridors in Fraser House were long, narrow, and dark – but, luckily, had exits at both ends. Tom’s room, where they were most often to be spotted, was to the right, so I quickly developed a habit of turning left whenever I left my room.
Just in case.
Retrospection provides some kind of cover for our innocence, I suppose.
What I saw in my limited view as ‘threatening’, was, in fact, two working class Dundee lads making a statement which said: “This is who we are, and we’re not going to change to suit this effete student establishment!” A sentence which could well serve as Pat’s motto to this day.
To be fair to myself, by second year I was not so blinkered in my judgements.
At the opposite end of the basement corridor where I was now staying, was a student who was almost a complete opposite to me in political views, but we had discovered a mutual love of Irish folk music, and become good friends.
One night, a music event had been organised and we were playing a few songs at it.
All of a sudden, Pat Joyce loomed up out of the audience and joined us on stage. He was now more Mod in appearance than skinhead, but I still had a couple of moments of doubt.
It was the beginning of a life long connection.
What we quickly discovered were the unspoken similarities which come from a shared background – working class Irish immigrants, Catholic Faith, love of sport, music, politics, and literature. It felt as if we had known each other all our lives – despite the many obvious differences between the city of Jam, Jute and Journalism and the home of the Royal Birkdale Golf Club!
Pat had been studying Law originally – and would have made an iconic member of that profession, but his talents and proclivities were far too wide to be tied down by such a discipline. When he graduated, he became an actor: I remember spotting him as a ‘troubled youth’ in ‘Sutherland’s Law’, starring the redoubtable Iain Cuthbertson, and then later he gained a regular role in STV’s serial, “Garnock Way”. One of my last sightings of him as a thespian was when he sported a tee shirt with the slogan “Save Garnock Way – Act Now!”
(Incidentally, as a side note, the cast list for that series is redolent of the huge amount of acting talent we produced in Scotland in the late twentieth century: Eileen McCallum, Bill Armour, John Stahl, Bill Henderson, Terri Cavers, Dorothy Paul, Gerald Slevin, Harriet Buchan, Jackie Farrell, Jan Wilson)
His love for Dundee Utd was a friendly counterpart to my devotion to Hibernian and whereas I played cricket, he played hockey. We both loved the Who, Fairport Convention and Irish folk rockers, Horslips.
As happens, we lost contact for a number of years due to family, career, and the business of getting on with it, but Facebook provided the source of a renewed connection some years ago.
It was great to recognise that nothing had changed, we still connected on all levels, still described ourselves as Socialist Republicans for Independence, and whilst I had clung on grimly to my Faith, he had managed to retain the message while no longer acknowledging the institution.
I was now a depute head in a secondary school, promoting guidance and pupil support; Pat was lecturing in journalism in Further Education. I knew he would be good at that because his natural demeanour lends itself to communication and engagement – but it wasn’t long till there was independent confirmation of this, as I kept on coming across excellent journalists who had all been taught by Pat.
They say you can judge a teacher by his pupils. All of these graduates of the “Joyce school” of journalism had “Pat Joyce” written through them as if they were sticks of rock. The words were ‘integrity, professionalism, empathy, curiosity, persistence and flair’.
You would never come out of a Pat Joyce session believing that anything less than three double checked sources were sufficient, or that ‘cut and paste’ was ever something of which to be proud. You would, however, have come to understand, that your job was to ask awkward questions, refuse to be fobbed off, and write pieces which were clear, accurate, well written and engaging. And if that bar wasn’t set high enough, he’d be expecting a judicious use of mischievous humour where appropriate.
As an English graduate, and teacher, words, reading, and writing are staple parts of my existence. Many of my university pals became journalists or writers. I had always wanted to teach, and by the end of my degree course I thankfully had the self awareness to understand that I had neither the brass neck, nor the forensic attention to detail, to apply myself to journalism. Indeed, though I dabbled in poetry and song writing in my twenties, it would take a couple of decades before I gained the confidence to really launch myself at writing, with short story writing and a column in the Times Ed.
What I have always possessed, however, is an admiration and a respect for good journalism and its purveyors. My entire education in writing, politics and current affairs came from constant reading of the work of top class journalists like Neal Ascherson, Hugh McIlvanney, Keith Waterhouse, Cyril Connolly, (‘Better write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self’ ‘Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.’) And later, Tom Nairn, Ian Bell, Clive James and now Dani Garavelli and Peter Ross.
Good writing and journalism roots itself in your brain and soul, and becomes a life companion. So I wander through life continually carrying the memory of Peter Ross on the murmurations of starlings, or the family whose job was to pick dead bodies from the Clyde; Ian Bell’s piece on the place of railways in our growing up is summoned every time I hear a train pass, Clive James’ peerless television critiques still resonate (‘like a man in the latter stages of the hully gully’), and Dani Garavelli’s ability to convert her fury at injustice into measured, effective, and sharply balanced writing, shadows every feature I read.
Everybody knows the current state of the media, but to blame journalists for this is akin to blaming a waiter for an undercooked piece of meat. Journalists can only deliver what they are resourced to deliver, they can only write on topics or angles which the marketing department, far away in every sense, have calibrated in terms of online hits. The best of writers, like, for instance, Marina Hyde, often have the clout to overcome this approach, but for most working journalists they work on thin gruel, with the means to finding stories, researching them adequately, and presenting them in full, severely limited by financial considerations and changing media trends.
It is surely no coincidence that the current parlous state of politics and democracy has coincided with the demeaning of the fourth estate by those moguls and politicians with most to gain from an ill informed public.
That’s why the work that Pat, and others, have done, in continuing to educate tomorrow’s journalists in the ethics and public service elements of their craft, is invaluable, and it’s one of the many reasons I continue to be proud of our friendship.
Our generation were brought up to believe that it was important, in whatever way you were able, to make a difference, to care for others – particularly the most vulnerable, and to enjoy and promote the good things around us – be it nature, family, music, sport, literature, history, or integrity.
I’ve always tried to do that in teaching, and Pat in journalism.
Hopefully we have both done it in a manner that was kind to others and was prepared to listen. Most importantly, I don’t think it has caused either of us to take ourselves too seriously.
The proof of that particular pudding, of course, is in the eating. But I’m pretty sure that once he has read this, Pat will accept my affectionate take on his approach to journalism and life, and respond succinctly and with a twinkle in his eye, using a short word starting in P and ending in H, with an ‘i’ and an ‘s’ in the middle.
We wouldn’t have it any other way!
On ye go, chum!