BOOK OF A LIFETIME: The Human Predicament by Richard Hughes

For a maverick adolescent at a North Wales boarding school, books were both an escape and a salvation. My reading was defined by the dictates of the syllabus, the established literary canon and self-important borrowings from my mother’s shelves.

While the world of fiction was vivid to me, that of writing was remote (although I was vaguely aware that an old woman who lived close to my uncle in France had kept house for a famous novelist called Proust). Then, one day, my form master announced that, as a change from the usual run of mountaineers and sportsmen, he had invited the novelist, Richard Hughes, to come to talk.

The audience was shamefully small, but Hughes seemed to be unconcerned. We knew him solely from A High Wind in Jamaica, but any hope that he would resemble one of his pirates was dashed by the soft-spoken, silver-haired, clerical-looking gentleman in our midst.

Rather than regaling us with tales of adventure on the high seas, he read from a work in progress, The Wooden Shepherdess, the second of a proposed three or four volume novel of the 1920s and 30s that mixed fictional and historical characters under the collective title, The Human Predicament.

The reading was spell-binding, but what impressed me most were Hughes’ acceptance that, as a painfully slow writer in his seventies, he would never live to complete his project (thus giving me the first intimation that the process of writing could be as meaningful as the product) and the extraordinary humility with which he asked his callow audience to criticise the extract.

He put forward the view, which I’ve sought to embody in my own work, that the novel should be a vehicle for moral and philosophical exploration. As I read and re-read The Wooden Shepherdess and its precursor, The Fox in the Attic, I delight in the mixture of richly drawn characters from across the social scale (Hughes’s ear for the speech of country-house servants is matched only by Henry Green), the delicate painting of the English, Welsh, Bavarian and American landscape, and the nuanced social comedy (Gladstone’s glazed face at the bottom of a Tory landowner’s commode).

Above all, however, I relish Hughes’ ambition in grappling with what he described as ‘the pattern of man’s relationships with man… the one thing specifically human in humanity’ by setting the aimless young Anglo-Welsh squire, Augustine, and the emerging demagogue, Hitler, as the twin poles of the work.

I had the privilege of meeting Hughes and reading his books at a decisive moment of my life. Other writers may have influenced me more (that famous French novelist for one), but none has so inspired me with his vision of a writer’s calling. ‘Do your bit to save humanity from lapsing back into barbarity by reading all the novels you can,’ he advised on his 75 th birthday. There can be few finer starting points than with his.