Dreams of a Life

Last week I took advantage of something rare and wonderful – a ‘cheap’, nearly empty, quiet, viewing of a quality film in London’s West End.

I’ve recently discovered that if you go to a screening at one of the Curzon chain of cinemas before 2pm, then it’s much cheaper than is usual in London-town. [i.e. £7 at the Soho Curzon, which is a veritable bargain.] I resent paying through the nose to watch films, especially when the quality of the experience is so dependent upon total strangers. Going to screenings at 11.30am means that the audience is sparse and basically consists of students (who must be responsible as they’re actually awake), freelancers and others who exist in a world where a morning film is a viable activity. The other good thing about Curzon is that they show films at the more art house end of the spectrum – like semi-obscure documentaries…

Dreams of a Life had first come to my attention thanks to an article in the Observer last October, but it wasn’t the first time I’d come across its subject – Joyce Carol Vincent died in 2003, but her body wasn’t discovered until 2006. Carole Morley’s film was the result of her determination to find out who Joyce was and how it could be possible that her death went undiscovered for so long.

The story rang a bell. Joyce died in a bedsit in Wood Green. For most of the nearly three years that her body lay there, I lived just up the road in Muswell Hill. Wood Green was where I went shopping or to the cinema. I would have walked through the Shopping City complex (where her home was) countless times, passing just metres from her front door. When her body was discovered (by the housing association representatives sent to repossess the flat), news of the grim discovery rocked the community.

And so it should. Joyce was discovered with the TV still on and wrapped Christmas presents by her side. How come the recipients of the gifts didn’t look for her? Her family refused to participate in the film, but it was evident that they’d been estranged for some time. Didn’t she have friends or colleagues who would notice her absence? What the film revealed was that she’d always been secretive, and seemed to have spent much of the previous three or four years cutting herself off from what friends she’d had and moving into a job where she was pretty much anonymous.

But this was a woman who had had friends. In the 80s she dated someone who was Isaac Hayes’ agent; she recorded songs; she’d even met Nelson Mandela! Time and again the friends interviewed in the film despaired as to how she could have become so cut off from the world that her death went unnoticed.

It’s not a cheery film to watch, and it made me ponder two things:
1. How long would it take people to notice that I was missing?
2. Who in my circle of friends might disappear without someone noticing?

In answer to the first question – not very long. I have colleagues and flatmates who would ask questions. True, it takes a gap of more than a week between phone calls to attract parental concern, but if this was combined with no tweeting or blogging, then I think concern would arise sooner. Basically, I’m very lucky to have lots of people around me and great relationships.

The second question is an interesting one. In an age of virtual relationships, how soon do you notice if someone stops tweeting or updating their Facebook status? Does it get lost in a mire of pointless information? When do you remember to look at their profile, or phone them up? After a week, or a month, or a year? Or, do you think of them sporadically, intend to get in touch, and then never quite manage it – until it’s too late?

There are friends of mine whose way of dealing with stress or uncertainty is to take themselves out of life for a while – whether it’s travelling around the globe, or disappearing into a retreat centre. It wouldn’t be easy to tell with them if they were simply off-grid, or whether something was seriously wrong. What about people whose way of dealing with pain and anxiety is to cut themselves off from others? This is what Joyce seemed to do after a series of abusive relationships resulted in her living in a refuge. Was she too ashamed of what had happened to face her one-time friends? Can we ever stop people from having that reflex?

The bottom line is that little could have stopped Joyce from dying, but that as a whole, society failed her. After she had cut herself off from her support network, she was left with no one. (On a recent visit to hospital, she’d listed her next of kin as her bank manager.) But surely someone should have realised something was wrong? The neighbour who noticed an odd smell? The council tax that was never paid? The staff member that never turned up? It’s a damning reflection on our world…


  1. wow. that is tragic.
    Made me think that since my dad died this summer… it would only take my mom to out of commission for my family to never notice. My brother and I aren’t close, maybe my sister’s (deceased) would call, but I realize I don’t always answer his calls/ texts because he’s very difficult to engage with.
    I live 10 hours away from my family. Extended relatives don’t contact me beyond facebook.

    A few of my friends here might notice that I’m unreachable but it would take a week or two.
    My best friend in San Francisco would be the most concerned.
    But of course, work would notice.

    Makes me very sad to think about it!

  2. Oh, you know what… my blog friends would notice!

  3. Yes they would!
    I’m sure that more people would notice than you’d think.

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