Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dave Hughes, In Memoriam

In Praise of English Teachers

At the end of last year my old English teacher, Dave Hughes, died. I saw him last in the summer, when he came to my book signing in York, and admonished me for repeating words in the opening scenes of Shieldwall.

'It's meant to be poetic repetition,' I told him, but he wasn't convinced, and I think he was still marking me down.

We were supposed to go for a coffee, but he seemed distracted, and hurried off. I only found out later that he was suffering from bowel cancer, and that in five months he would be dead.

I meant to write personally to him, but in the end, his death came quicker than my letter, and all that arrived in time was a Facebook message. Less than I had intended, but then so much in life is so. But fitting perhaps, that it was on Facebook that he chronicled his decline.

His Facebook page is still there. I wonder how long it'll be before Facebook decide his account has been inactive for too long, and they clear away his account.

I was 13, in grade 3 at St Peter's School, York, when Dave became my English teacher, and he remained it, and I kept the same seat in the same class until I left school at 18. We went through 'O' levels and 'A' levels together: namely, the Miller's Tale, Auden's poetry, Macbeth, Hamlet, Douglas Dunn, and Rosencrantz and Guildernstern and Dead.

Dave was the kind of teacher who had something of the Dead Poet's Society about him, before the film or the concept came out. We called him Dave, rather than Sir. He had a curriculum in mini lessons that he gave to you at the beginning of term, and included his and other student's writings. He liked to recite chunks of the Canterbury Tales in middle English, and invited us to write modern versions: the Tax Collector's Tale; the Hairdresser's Tale; the Policeman's Tale. Before we were old enough to pass as 18, he used to invite me and a few friends over to his house on a Saturday night, and we sat in his living room, like juvenile Inklings, with our cans of John Smiths by our feet, and he talked to us as if we had something interesting worth saying.

That first lesson he taught us about speed reading, and let us ask him any questions we liked: and he answered them all. Though letting a class of 13 year old boys come up with questions was always inviting a degree of silliness.

There was a lot of distinctive things about Dave. He handed back your work with a sheet of footnotes on your work. These could run into 30s little numbered stars, with comments on a separate sheet. I remember the day he gave a short story I wrote, 36/40. Anything about 34 was great, 35 fabulous, and that 36 earned me a distinction in English, and a little early confirmation that I might have a gift.

I told him, or perhaps my parents did at parents night, that I both loved Tolkien and wanted to be an author. Both seemed embarrassing details at the time. But Dave was kind and considerate, and I think he shared my love of Northern literature. He was of course, drawn to mountains, and tragically to Norway, where his friend, and my chemistry teacher, died in a climbing accident on the Svartisen Icecap, in Arctic Norway in 1986. And he had poems published in a journal called Giant Steps, alongside names now well known, like Simon Armitage and Helen Dunmore. My first signed book: and knowing an author seemed such an important step towards becoming one myself.

Even though I now have many other signed copies - from more renowned authors - Dave's collection of poems keeps it's prized place.

And this morning as I brought it down, I found tucked inside a bundle of his curriculum, with the distinctive typeface he used.

It was odd reading his Facebook posts. He had a gift for language of course, but the most poignant thing Dave wrote on his Facebook account, was 26th October.

NOT a good week so far... Felt terribly weak - and had to abandon a stay with Mum and Dad when reflections of each other other simply made us aware of what each side was losing. I rode the stair-lift and Dad could only say, this was meant for me, not for you.
But feeling better: if I can have another transfusion, it could make all the difference. Do call soon if you plan to call at all....

And when a friend promised to visit after Christmas, he wrote:

David Hughes: won't be here till then, Sorry

But rather than these as his last words, perhaps better would be his poem Valediction, for his friend Barry Daniels, who died attempting to save a student who had fallen into a crevasse. I think much of this would apply equally well to Dave:

You'd much prefer a place where gods might hike
on sponsored walks that you could organise -
to build a climbing wall, or something like.

Your sort of heaven should have lowering skies
that always look like rain, but never quite
make up their minds - then soak you by surprise

and leave you squelching in your tent all night
with sodden sleeping bag and wrinkled feet,
damp boots, wet breeches, shrinking till they're tight.

When morning hammers in with wind and sleet,
disgusting though it seems, your flapping tent
must feel a bit like heaven: twelve square feet

comparatively dry, where you're content
to fester till they call you. Then in haste
you'll shudder into clothes: it's time you went.

I hope your lunch is always Lion Bar waste
or greenfruit pastilles - nowhere near a stream
to swill away their sickly after-taste

It don't take much of those to make it seem
that reindeer pate, marmalade and bread
are things you've never eaten, just a dream.

But dreams aren't thinks confined to food or bed:
your waking, walking dreams inspired us all
to want to follow paths you chose and led -

and led us safely till your own one fall,
your fatal stumble where our paths all fork.
I mostly hope your heaven holds lands that call

where all their better bits are three months walk
through glaciated valleys, peak on peak,
that shadow, loom, and avalanche; and talk

must always plan in detail, week by week,
the many first ascents that wait for you:
those marvellous, untrod summits you still seek.

After posting this I went in search of some of Dave's poems, but came across this instead, which says a lot about what a distinctive man Dave was.


John Jacobs said...

Lovely post, made me cry.
Such a wonderful person, now scampering in pastures new...
I saw him near the end, struggling to get to the toilet in time.
He wanted to go, but I selfishly asked him to stay a little longer... least long enough to finish the four poems he was working on.
But he was too tired...
I made sure I reminded him just how many lives he had touched, careers he created, and we talked about you, and how proud he was of you...
He may be gone, but will never be forgotten.
God Bless.

Justin Hill said...

Thanks John: good to know he had people visiting right up to the end. And a shame he didn't get those poems finished.

Carol McGrath said...

Justin, This is just so moving and what an inspiration he was, an inspiration that I am sure is reflected in your writing.

Jen T said...

What a lovely tribute. I had to comment as I was the friend he told he would no longer be around after Christmas. I phoned him and arranged a visit for later in the week. Unfortunately I was a day too late. I think I may have also been the person he came to see the afteroon of the book reading (was it around the 6th June ish?) that was the last time I saw Dave alive and yes he was distracted. I think he just wanted to be able to see everyone. I'm sure he knew then he would not be around much longer. Such a proud man and I'm proud to have known him.

Justin Clark said...

Hello Justin,

It has been a year since Dave died and it has been a very difficult year to have that rattling around my head. More so because we had a falling out over the company he was keeping a couple of years before he died. He often got empassioned and irritated that I never turned my attentions to serious writing. I'd receive emails and letters nipping me to turn scripts and ideas into something more valiant and always in the most deftly managed way. He was a wonderful man in terms of his humility and his subtle power of suggestion. Nobody was flaty 'wrong' but some were 'less right' than others. He extended my reading circle and influenced my outdoor pursuits. He made me think and often made me laugh. He referred to me as 'Youth' without it being a patronising label but at the same time gently reminding me I had a lot to learn and would do so with the naive energy I had.

Sadly he was taken for granted that he would be around forever and petty arguments could be patched up at a later date. The later date sadly never came.

He is and will be very much missed.

I hope you are keeping well.

Kind regards,


Darley said...

Today I bought a book from Fossgate Books in York - it's 'Reflections of the Dawntester' by Graham Sykes, and it's signed "David Hughes York 4/87." The name rang a bell, so I Googled his name and arrived here. I'm sad to hear the news - one does not need to know very much about David Hughes to understand that he was a great man. I write as a young poet that he sounds like a true inspiration.

I must add that he had an excellent taste in poetry.

Best regards,

Babek Saber said...

Great posts.
I knew him 1975-80 (School House). He was a lively young english teacher.
Him and Mr Daniels use to take us climbing, Wales mostly. He was also assistant house master at my house for a short while.
Although we didnt really get on, I felt very sad when I saw this reference on the web.

God Bless you

Justin Hill said...

Thanks for all your thoughts guys: pleased that we've all stumbled here, one way or another, and commemorated Dave. Hard to believe it's been over a year since he died.

I wonder what mountain he's climbing...

Becky said...

It seems David Hughes left a trail of poetry crumbs far and wide. I visited York a few years ago and purchased a used copy of Berryman's poems. On the flyleaf is "David Hughes 5/84" and on the title page the stamp of a figure of a mountain climber in blue just under the title. Tonight I googled the name and ended up here at your blog Good to know who he was. I'll confirm what's already been said, he had excellent taste in poetry. Leaving this crumb from near St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.

Justin Hill said...

Becky: thanks so much for this. Crumbs indeed!
I know the picture well: it is one he took of his friend Barry Daniels on one of their climbing trips.

Curious about the date though. My impression was that he had the stamp made after Barry's death, but the date in the book - May,1994 - would be two years before Barry's death.

I wonder...? Maybe he added the stamp later...

ulloguvna said...

I was in Manor House 1978-1982 and I knew Dave Hughes well; i'm sad to hear of his passing.

He was the kindest, softest, most generous, most caring and most encouraging person I knew all the time I was there.
I counted him as a friend. He saw me through English, D of E hikes, rowing and school plays. After prep his door was always open.

Lovely tribute Justin. Thank you

Alexander Packer said...

Dave was an amazing inspiration to all of us, I think, Jus, not simply the D&D club, but everyone lucky enough to have had him. I kind of hope Paul Thompson over in California knows, as, whatever their differences of technique, I think they had a lot in common, in a focused passion for what they did. Barry Daniel's loss was, as you said, something from which he never truly recovered, and I think those of us with the good fortune to be taught by him before as well as after felt the difference, even though it took time to take its toll. It's great to see him commemorated.
Alexander Packer

Justin Hill said...

Thanks Alex: the number of comments here is testament to his work. What you up to now?

Clare said...

Just happened upon this after chatting to a friend recently about Norway.
Dave used to send me poems after the accident and I am sad to say I found them too intense at the time - I wish I had kept them to read when I was older...and wiser.
An inspiring man and a sad loss.
Lovely words Justin.