David Hughes

Author of 'The Pork Butcher' and a writer of courage, luminous skill and stylistic elegance
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The Independent Online

'On a summer Saturday afternoon at home in London I ran upstairs for a pee and blood streamed out. It was the hue of the 1982 Domaine de l'Amarine I had drunk at lunch . . . Today would not turn out as planned." So begins David Hughes's The Little Book, perhaps his most autobiographical work, published nine years ago. Phrased in characteristic tones of detachment, honesty and mockery of his self-indulgence, its opening pages mirror the predicament he found himself in over Easter this year when his liver and kidneys again rebelled, to end his life yesterday at the age of 74.

David John Hughes, writer: born Alton, Hampshire 27 July 1930; Editor, Town 1960-61; FRSL 1986; Editor, Letters 1992-96; married 1958 Mai Zetterling (died 1994; marriage dissolved 1976), 1980 Elizabeth Booth (née Westoll; one son, one daughter); died London 11 April 2005.

'On a summer Saturday afternoon at home in London I ran upstairs for a pee and blood streamed out. It was the hue of the 1982 Domaine de l'Amarine I had drunk at lunch . . . Today would not turn out as planned." So begins David Hughes's The Little Book, perhaps his most autobiographical work, published nine years ago. Phrased in characteristic tones of detachment, honesty and mockery of his self-indulgence, its opening pages mirror the predicament he found himself in over Easter this year when his liver and kidneys again rebelled, to end his life yesterday at the age of 74.

The author of 11 novels, he was a writer of prodigious gifts deservedly recognised by critics who would shower frameable epithets on nearly every one: unforgettable, extraordinary elegance, intelligent, powerful, taut, shapely, stylish, bony, assured and lucid, haunting, a master of narrative.

The Major (1964), a story with disturbing implications about man's thirst for violence, The Pork Butcher (1984, winner of the W.H. Smith Award, also filmed as Souvenir in 1989), in which a German officer finds redemption on his peacetime return to Oradour-sur-Glane, the scene of a Nazi massacre, and But for Bunter (1985) which imbues Frank Richards's "Famous Five" with new life - these are the novels for which he will be remembered.

But there were other books, some unclassifiable: The Rosewater Revolution (1971), subtitled "Notes on a Change of Attitude", described thus by Hughes in his first paragraph:

This book is a private search for the revolution within. It is about a late-20th-century man, who happens to be a writer, trying to arouse his own well-kept feelings on the state of his country, his world, himself, and to arouse those feelings even at the risk of inner violence, before he gives up the struggle and chooses comfort. It is an essay in self-destruction with a view to creating a better man.

Literary editors were flummoxed; they ignored the book. In publishing terms another marketing problem (which shelf to put it on?) was The Little Book (1996), which begins with "the narrator's diagnosis of cancer [and] grows into an extraordinary meditation on mortality, a celebration of the power and magic of fiction, and an exploration of the shaping force and resonance of memory" (Vintage's cover blurb).

A.N. Wilson called it "a feast of brilliant writing and superb observation . . . tender, funny, original and strange". An appreciation of J.B. Priestley (J.B. Priestley: an informal study of his work, 1958) and, nearly 40 years later, a portrait of his friend Gerald Durrell, Himself & Other Animals (1997), whom he met while working at the publishers Rupert Hart-Davis in the 1950s, show his ease with the biographical form.

Although Bunter proved to be his last novel he was to maintain his interest in the short story with the editing of Winter's Tales (1985) and, with his late friend and literary agent, Giles Gordon, Best Short Stories (1986-94) and The Best of Best Short Stories (1995). From 1975 to 1978 and from 1981 to 1982 he was Editor and Manager of the book club known as the New Fiction Society.

David Hughes was born in Alton, Hampshire, and grew up there - he was an only child - and in Wimbledon, south London, where he attended King's College School. After National Service in the RAF between 1949 and 1951 (he became a pilot officer), he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read English. While there he edited The Isis, and it was in this capacity that he met John Lehmann, with whom he was friendly until the latter's death in 1992. After Hughes graduated, Lehmann gave him his first job as an assistant on the London Magazine, where for two years he met the leading literati of the day and would "butler" the drinks at Lehmann's many soirées.

His twin, bar a few weeks, I shared these duties, having been introduced earlier to Lehmann with a view to working in his publishing house. Hughes and I became friends, meeting several times a week after work in a dismal South Kensington hotel bar to talk about books, writing and girls. When his first novel, A Feeling in the Air (1957), was published, he gave me a copy inscribed, "Something to lose when you next move house", and in his second, Sealed with a Loving Kiss (1959), he wrote, "Take no notice of this - you come in the next one."

A year after moving to Rupert Hart-Davis as a reader and editor he met, through the agency of their mutual friend Dr Patrick Woodcock, the Swedish actress and director Mai Zetterling. Their rapport was instant and they married in 1958. Older than Hughes by five years, she was impulsive, intelligent and fiercely independent, with enormous blue eyes - and electrifyingly attractive. With Zetterling's daughter and son by her first husband - and two cats and a dog - they moved into a sizeable house, Berry Grove near Liss in Hampshire, where Hughes built himself a shed in which to write with a deliberately undistracting view. In 1960 he became editor for a year of the magazine Town.

Restless and ambitious to direct, Zetterling took her children and her new husband off to Sweden a year later and they were to live there for seven years. While publishing three novels during this period, The Horsehair Sofa (1961), described by its author in the jacket blurb as "a book for those who are interested in marriage and like laughing", The Major and The Man Who Invented Tomorrow (1968), a humorous and irreverent view of H.G. Wells, Hughes also developed a second career, that of script-writer and stills photographer of documentaries and feature films directed by his celebrated wife.

During the Swedish years he also published two books of non-fiction: a travel book, The Road to Stockholm (1964), and The Seven Ages of England (1966), a guide to English arts and civilisation from the beginning to the present day, published by Sveriges Radio.

Hughes and Zetterling returned to London for a brief period to live in a converted veterinary establishment not far from Guy's Hospital, before moving permanently to France in 1970. They bought the wreck of a mas near Uzès in the Gard just north of Nîmes and slowly over the months and years transformed the remote and romantic edifice into a comfortable if eccentric home. Visitors came, were elaborately fed and entertained, and went, David installed a church organ, enlarged the house further - and upwards - by adding a tower in which to write, while Mai gardened, busied herself with film projects and a donkey which, she claimed, tried to rape her.

But, apart from their collaboration over films such as one on Vincent Van Gogh (Vincent the Dutchman, 1972, with Michael Gough as the painter), David Hughes appeared to have dried up as a novelist. Needing to reconnect with his roots in England and also in Wales, his Welshness being an essential part of him, he returned to London and in the year he and Zetterling divorced published his sixth novel, Memories of Dying (1976), a story in which two men's lives interweave in ironic counterpoint, love and murder merging, failure mingling with treachery, hope triumphing over despair.

With the publication of A Genoese Fancy in 1979, about the problems of sex and friendship in a 1940s suburban childhood, the renewal of his powers of invention was fuelled by sojourns in Hampstead and Wales, where he was to meet his second wife, Elizabeth Westoll, a young divorcee from a land-owning family in Cumbria. They were married in 1980 and subsequently had two children, Anna Rose and Merlin.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Fielden, a writer and headmaster, in the 1970s and 1980s Hughes accepted the post of an Assistant Visiting Professor in the Writers' Workshops of the universities of Iowa, Alabama and Houston, taking his family with him. Back at home in London he published his eighth novel, The Imperial German Dinner Service (1983), a story of the search for the dispersed remains of a sumptuous Wedgwood dinner service, while also completing a series of stints, some at length, as film, fiction and theatre critic for the Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday.

Nineteen eighty-four was to see the triumph of his life as a novelist: The Pork Butcher, the inspiration for which he obtained when visiting the tragic, ghost village of Oradour, now a national shrine, on a drive back to London from Provence. He completed the novel in three months. But for Bunter would follow a year later. In 1986 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; from 1989 he served for seven years on its council, and he was elected a Life Vice-President in 1998.

There were two more books, however, to follow those winners. The Lent Jewels (2002) has an opening sentence ("Almighty God, who has created man in thine own image, it so happened in April that our Saab had to be serviced at a garage a few miles west of Carlisle") that gives a mere taste of the delight to follow in the exploration of the themes of love and loss - intermingled with the author's own experience, both as child and father - in the story of Archibald Campbell Tait, Dean of Carlisle, in 1856, who with his wife suffered the loss, from an epidemic of scarlet fever, of five daughters aged between two and ten.

The other, his painfully ill-received swan-song, The Hack's Tale (2004), begins with the belief that newspapers and magazines are swamping his mind, telling him how or what to think, obliging him to loose his grip on direct experience. In a very personal narrative, he sets out on a pilgrimage, which takes him across Europe to track down the ancient culprits who started the rot: Chaucer, Froissart, Boccaccio. Witty - and wearing its erudition lightly - it is a last and not entirely unsurprising display of asperity.

In his twenties a tall, slender figure of striking good looks with immense charm, a man's man but also irresistible to many women, David Hughes never lost those qualities which were attractive to his fellow creatures. Warm, with a confidential manner, he was a very private person who was happy in his own company, though sometimes prone to dark moods, and in later years described with fondness as a curmudgeon.

Yet he was also gregarious, and particularly partial to lunches, where his love and knowledge of food and wine would only be equalled by his delight in the gossip of the day. His light, self-effacing touch, and gentle wit, never selfish in conversation, will be remembered with profound affection by many. As a writer of courage, luminous skill and stylistic elegance, and undriven by fashion, posterity can but accord him his due.

Miles Huddleston



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