Going to My Father’s House: A History of my Times, by Patrick Joyce, Verso, 368 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1839763243
Patrick Joyce is a historian who has kept a watchful eye on the predilections of his discipline, self-conscious about how particular methods produce or automate certain conclusions, deeply engaged with historiographical and larger theoretical debates. Born to Irish parents in London, university education was never imagined as part of his future, but he studied as a mature student first at Keele and then Oxford before taking a post at Manchester, where he has spent his working life. He appears to have surprised even himself with his new book, which began as a post-retirement project, a way of explaining and passing on inherited knowledge to his own children and extended family.
Going to My Father’s House begins with a striking image, something Joyce spotted at a gallery show in Manchester in 1984, a photograph taken by the Czech artist Josef Koudelka of three men on the side of Croagh Patrick, braced and patient, each of them kneeling and leaning on his pilgrim’s stick. One, he sees, is his cousin, Sean Joyce, another a relation by marriage and the third a Mayo neighbour of theirs. Seeing familiar faces in this unusual, but iconic context pleases and puzzles him, “pleased because my kin had become ‘high art’, unsure as to what this translation meant, for my kin had become symbolically possessed by others”. He goes further, as he looks at the image, identifying with the men’s features, their black hair and big hands, but seeing them as somehow “in time, and of this place, but also outside of time”.
Joyce’s book meditates on this gap in unusual ways, drawing on his reading of WG Sebald (another writer whose work was shaped by his arrival as a lecturer in Manchester, as Joyce shows) and Walter Benjamin, but also on his historian’s discipline. The book looks back, at another life and way of life, and there is much that he records that is valuable and affecting as he unlocks his visits to his father’s Mayo family as a child, mixed in with further memories of visits to his Wexford mother’s place. What is most fascinating though is the way that he tracks his own life’s movement and the development of twenty-first century cities as part of the past’s dreams for him and his generation. “We were hoped for,” he writes and, quoting Walter Benjamin, he asks: “Is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today?”
Joyce uses the idea of “home” to recover and think about his parents’ lives in London, where they met and married. How to bring the homes in which they grew up into the life of labour they knew? He describes the internal structure of their flat, occupying one floor of a house originally built for a single family:
The kitchen was at the back, a large bedroom to the front, a smaller one in the middle, a passage, “the hall”, to the side, running between the front door and the kitchen at the back. Half way from the front door to the stairs the first part of the hall led to a separate flat upstairs, the remaining part bending on its way to the kitchen. This meant that access to the two bedrooms was through the semi-public no man’s land of the hall. The bedroom doors were locked, so that to enter we had to bring the key with us each time.
Joyce itemises with great, painstaking intensity the key markers of the Paddington home, so that it seems, even decades later, as if “the place inhabits me”. The Church, the welfare state, and especially the company of visitors, gathered by the hearth – “we lived our life in the kitchen” – are the home’s cardinal points. In the talking, led by his mother, “the old places in Ireland were always at its centre. The physical form of the London house was magicked into something else despite all the defeats.”
The house may have been in a deprived area, but he remembers how important it was to have an even more deprived street, Southam Street, nearby against which they could set themselves. His book unfolds the life of those and other nearby streets and, like Clair Wills in Lovers and Strangers, sets different immigrant community experiences enlighteningly alongside his own. He draws on oral histories, interviewees he credits with being social historians “without knowing it”, singling out Doreen Grainger, who speaks of West Indian families and knowing it is unlikely “someone will write a history book about me”. Later he returns to the area, to the school he left at sixteen, and an area now best known for the burnt-out memorial to deprivation and lack of care, Grenfell Tower, seen as a consequence of the civic (lack of) planning and care which led to its destruction.
The book expands further when it considers his father’s injury during a bombing raid in Portsmouth, an injury which ended his usefulness as a labourer and led to his early death. The air war, as experienced in English cities, and in Germany, strikes Joyce as one of those unremembered silences whose echoes are still shaping our cultures. He remembers his own exposure to a pictorial history, The War in Pictures, and its images of devastation, even as his father lay in bed suffering down the hall. Ciaran Carson’s poem “Dresden” becomes a key text, something he uses to navigate his way through this territory (Eavan Boland and John Montague poems likewise orient his explorations of immigrant communites’ gapped networks and allegiances).
As Joyce documents his adult life, in cities likewise shaped, as he sees it, by war and silence, he returns to places he knew professionally, the industrial and now post-industrial cities of Burnley, Stoke and the boroughs of East Manchester, with a detour to Derry, all places where the heritage industry is at work to rebuild our relationship with the past and to present a story of progressive modernity, mostly in ways that Joyce either deplores or finds partial and wanting. His picture of these forgetful, “utterly oblivious” places is bleak, and has something in common with the England of Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, whose protagonist tours these derelict places as a medium, mostly inventing pasts for communities which have been completely cut off from their antecedent generations. To get “off the estates”, as Joyce escaped Paddington himself a generation ago, is too rare an occurrence. But his sense of connection to larger communities, and to a hope for better things, is harder for him to locate in these places, where the absence of history is a nightmare into which they have woken.
Some of Joyce’s peers have criticised his book’s use of the word “peasant” to describe these places’ origins elsewhere, which seems to misunderstand the force with which he insists on not just the heroic images of Koudelka and the strength of custom, but also the shame with which he remembers poverty and deprivation. To name the world his parents came from, and to acknowledge the homes they made in England, is to confront difference as well as continuity. He is moved by Peter Donnellan’s 1965 documentary, The Irishmen, pulled by the BBC because it was “formless”, because it discloses the sheer urban shock of English cities, focusing on one older man’s account of his time, with his children quiet around him, in a kitchen whose set-up Joyce remembers. He sees a tiny detail in this very poor household which cuts him to the quick, near the sink a “curtained space for the ‘slop’ bucket, with at times the leavings of us children, absolved as we were from the journey below to the outside lavatory”. It is a detail, a “tiny injury” from the past which still shakes and shapes Joyce’s writing of history, and which informs the trajectories of this remarkable, searching memoir.
John McAuliffe’s Selected Poems is just out from the Gallery Press. He is Professor of Poetry at the University of Manchester, where he has worked since 2004.