Forgotten authors No 43: Richard Hughes
Sunday 22 November 2009
Richard Hughes first came to public attention in 1917, at the age of 17, when his schoolmaster sent one of his essays to The Spectator. He wrote the world's first radio play, called Danger, broadcast in 1924. He became a journalist, travelled extensively, married the painter Frances Bazley, and spent a decade as a scriptwriter at Ealing Studios – but he only managed to write four adult novels, two of which have ostensibly similar plots.
This is odd, because one of the quartet has such timeless power that it should probably be on every school curriculum. A High Wind in Jamaica was published to great acclaim in 1929, and is unique. It is an adventure about children, but is not aimed at them. The prose sweeps away a century of Victorian sentimentality and replaces it with something darker, more clear-eyed and modern.
What starts as merely masterful storytelling becomes something dreamlike and haunting; it's not a book you easily forget. The first page sets the tone when it casually mentions that twin sisters were starved and fed ground glass until they died. Some British children living in Jamaica survive a hurricane and are sent back to England, but are captured by pirates. The description of the storm is filled with bizarre incident – a pack of wildcats is blown through the windows, and the shutters bulge "as if tired elephants were leaning against them". It's a book about growing up and recognising the cruelties that allow the young to survive. Nothing fazes the children, whose amoral attitude to their parents should be a warning that the pirates are not psychologically matched to defeat them. The plot turns on a casually shocking death that underlines the loss of innocence they suffer. Hughes is brilliant at pinning down the interior lives of children, and it would be interesting to know how today's kids would react to it.
Hughes' other seabound novel, In Hazard (1938), feels like a spin-off, as it follows the crew of a British ship facing death in a hurricane. It's thrilling, but less memorable. Two further books outline a virtual history of the early 20th century, but are patchy. Hughes was given the OBE, and then died 50 pages into the last volume of his sea-faring trilogy. Vintage Classics is to be commended for its current editions of A High Wind in Jamaica and In Hazard, but the others – and his excellent children's stories – are out of print.
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