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When housing association officials forced their way into Joyce Vincent’s flat in January, 2006, they made a horrifying discovery.

Mail was heaped high inside the front door and the food in the refrigerator bore long-past expiry dates. And there, in the middle of a pile of unopened Christmas presents, were Vincent’s skeletal remains. The lifelong Londoner, 38 when she died, had lain undiscovered for more than two years, her body decomposing in her Wood Green bedsit. A new film, Dreams Of A Life, pieces together Vincent’s life and attempts to explain how someone could simply disappear without the alarm being raised. It is both a touching eulogy to Vincent, who emerges as vivacious but troubled woman, and an unsettling portrait of urban isolation, of loneliness in a crowded place.

“When I first saw the headlines, Joyce was so anonymous in the story and I couldn’t accept that someone could be so forgotten for so long, and that we just never think it of it again,” director Carol Morley recalls. “The story was so lacking in details, but then it started to appear on the internet, people questioning whether it was an urban myth. I thought we had to do better than that. I felt driven to find out who she was and how it could happen.

“In the old days, you’d have the milkman delivering bottles of milk. If they mounted up outside the door, people would know something was wrong. Now, there aren’t those physical signs quite as much. It says something about our age, and I didn’t want her to be forgotten.”

Morley tracked down people who knew Vincent but had lost touch – friends, lovers, housemates, work colleagues – and it is their recollections that form the film’s docu-drama narrative, presenting a composite sketch of a woman many of them felt they never truly knew.

“It took a couple of years or so,” Morley says. “I put adverts in newspapers and did lots of public record searches to find addresses Joyce had lived at and found people that way and then put ads on the side of a London cab and in
the Evening Standard. People started to come forward.”

One of the most unsettling aspects of the film is that Vincent did not fit within any easy categorisation of someone ‘at risk’. She was not unemployed or elderly or addicted. She was, from all reports, an attractive, popular woman.

“I think it is really surprising – if you hear her story, you might tend to think she was a drug addict or she must have been so miserable and had no friends,” Morley says. “But by finding out who she was, you start to learn that her story wasn’t as far away from your own life as you thought. It was interesting – it wasn’t what you might expect. And it becomes even more powerful because it happened to someone that no one thought would be forgotten.”

Morley also tracked down Vincent’s family, who, she says, were devastated. They had lost touch with their relative, assuming she had cut herself off from them but had, at one point, enlisted a private detective to find her. Vincent, though, had moved around so frequently that their attempts were unsuccessful. That is not to say she had no friends, though. Indeed, that she was surrounded by gifts is particularly haunting, a suggestion there were, in fact, people who would miss her.

“It implies she was ready to go out and reconnect with people,” Morley says. “I always read it as a hopeful sign – we’ll never know how she died – that it meant that she hadn’t completely withdrawn. People all said that Joyce
was very generous and that they weren’t surprised.”

Morley’s film only partly resolves its central mystery – the question of how, in a city like London, Vincent could lie dead for more than two years before being found. If it offers any explanation, it is that Vincent had a tendency toward secretiveness – many of those interviewed described her as a “chameleon”, as someone who seemed to keep parts of herself hidden or compartmentalised. There was also a transience about her life – she would bounce from one set of friends to another, the various groups rarely intersecting, before dropping off the radar for months at a time. In the end, Morley concludes, she simply slipped through the cracks.

“It’s weird – as the film went on, it became clear that it was precisely the things that what most attracted people meant that she was forgotten,” Morley explains. “People who talk about how immaculate she was in her appearance. Everyone thought she had stopped seeing them, they thought she was off having a better life than they were. Ultimately, people thought she didn’t want to see them rather than wondering if anything was wrong with her.”

As much as Dreams Of A Life is about one woman – one sad, lonely death, remarkable only because nobody noticed – it is also about the strange disconnection peculiar to big cities. In London, people live in such stifling proximity to one another, yet seem perversely capable of ignoring those who share their space. It is as though, in their constantly overlapping orbits, people become increasingly blinkered and unaware.

“You’re on the Tube stuck together but no one’s talking – it’s a way to keep boundaries but you don’t want to go to the other extreme,” Morley says. “The beauty of a city is that you can be anonymous, you can do things that, if you were in a village, everyone would know your business. But that’s also the downside – you can disappear. It does talk about urban life; we can be speeding along and not notice certain things happening.

“London can be tough to survive and that obscures some of the need people have to look at what’s going on. You’d hate to think you’d missed somebody next door.”

Words: Tom Sturrock

Dreams Of A Life is in cinemas from December 16. See dreamsofalife.com


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Dreams Of A Life: new film explores the tragic death of Joyce Vincent
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