BOOK REVIEW / Few chips off the old block: Richard Hughes by Richard Perceval Graves: Deutsch pounds 20

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In a recent edition of BBC2's Late Show, Writer's Block was discussed as an existential disease, a sclerosis of the imagination worthy of deep sympathy. At the time, the condition seemed to me hardly more tragic than a clogged drain, whose unblocking merely required motivation. This biography has forced me to revise my opinion.

Richard Hughes, the author of A High Wind in Jamaica, who died 18 years ago in his mid-seventies, was the blocked writer par excellence. His pen was chronically constipated. Some weeks he progressed by no more than a sentence or two, and the published work was painfully sparse: adolescent poems, four slight plays, 30 short children's stories, a defining novel about childhood, a Conradian sea story and a huge (but naturally unfinished) epic 'of his times'.

With A High Wind in Jamaica Hughes had become world famous at 30. The ensuing invitations to review, write screenplays, lecture and travel not only distracted from his real business of fiction, they provided income; his wife, the painter Frances Hughes (nee Bazley), also had money of her own. So Hughes did not need to write novels full-time.

This qualified freedom compounded the problem of his variable self-

esteem. His brother and sister had both died when he was a toddler and his father when he was six. The consequent psychological insecurity bothered him all his life. His personality was chameleon-like. In his twenties he was a libertarian (though sexually repressed) atheist with a love of macho overseas adventures. Once married, he was a progressive 'child-centred' father until, working for the wartime Admiralty, he was transformed into a bowler-hatted stickler for professional duty who neglected his wife and family. After the war he changed personae compulsively: he was an anti-communist intellectual, a mystical Christian, an apolitical bohemian, a tweedy countryman, a war historian, a Welsh nationalist, a monarchist, a sea-dog. Hughes was an impressionable man who couldn't help adapting himself to the expectations of others. Yet he could not function in this way as an artist - hence the agonising, the rewriting, the grinding effort to produce something in his own voice.

It was his fiction that mattered most to him, and that, of all his literary work, survives. A High Wind in Jamaica, In Hazard, The Human Predicament and his masterly children's stories were based on three principles: they were not premeditated, but grew organically out of the effort of composition; they were deceptively simple in style; and they made plentiful use of stark metaphoric contrasts. This last point reflects Hughes's modern yet romantic sensibility; his work wholly fulfills the condition laid down by Victor Hugo for artistic truth - the 'entirely natural combination of the sublime and the grotesque, overlapping'. For Hughes, fiction was truth, 'our only way of experiencing the identity of others', and so offered an escape-route from the hell of solipsism. He also thought it the only path into his own identity, and once called writing his 'life sentence'.

The idea of his vocation as punishment derived from his guilt at being the only surviving child and from his behaviour on the morning after his father's death: 'I wanted to ask Father something . . . scampered up to his bedroom, burst open the door . . . Under the stiff folds of the sheet lay what looked like a not very skilful wax copy of him. How on earth had I forgotten, who loved him so much?' This traumatic lapse finds echoes throughout his work, especially in A High Wind in Jamaica, in which the pirate-abducted children are bizarrely amnesiac about death and horror.

Graves's biography is strong on narrative but short on analysis. There is not much about Hughes's reading, reviews or lectures or about his crucial relations with children - Graves suggests the possibility of a Lewis Carroll- like attraction, but does not examine the idea. But at least the ice of neglect that had formed around Hughes - the final chapters of The Human Predicament still, shamefully, remain unpublished - has begun to melt.

(Photograph omitted)