Saturday, 4 June 2011
Glyn Hughes RIP
Acclaimed artist, poet and novelist rooted in the natural world
Thursday 2 June 2011
In February this year, Glyn Hughes, who has died of cancer aged 75, published a book of poems and had an exhibition of his paintings at the South Square Gallery in Thornton, West Yorkshire – every one of which sold. All of the work, both in word and paint, was new and fresh. Only four months earlier, his 5,000-word autobiographical poem, Life Class, had been published by Shoestring Press. While he was in hospital during his final illness, Glyn was writing poems. Had he the means to paint there too, he would have done so.
His first novel, Where I Used to Play On the Green, was published in 1982 and won the Guardian fiction prize. It was based on the career of the notoriously cruel and dogmatic William Grimshaw, an 18th-century parson of Haworth, in West Yorkshire. The novel was reprinted with an introduction by Ted Hughes, who wrote that "the total effect is convincing, alarming and memorable". This can be said of Glyn's trio of novels on the theme of the blighting of natural beauty and human happiness by the powers of dogma, commerce and the class structure: The Hawthorn Goddess (1984), The Rape of the Rose (1987) and Brontë (1996).
Although a skilled, expressive novelist, Glyn was a poet in essence. His fiction carries that extra sensitivity, perceptive and coloured beyond the needs of narrative. Over 40 years, he published eight collections of poetry, from a slim volume, Love On the Moor (1969), to A Year in the Bull Pen (2011). His talent was quickly recognised and consistently praised by critics for its lyrical but penetrative quality. There were also excursions into drama: Mary Hepton's Heaven at the Coliseum, Oldham, in 1984, and three radio plays based on the lives of the artists JMW Turner, LS Lowry and Augustus John.
Glyn was born in Altrincham, Greater Manchester. His father, a bus inspector, was a warm-hearted man in a cold, unhappy marriage – a story his son sympathetically, but unsentimentally, explored. Glyn went to Altrincham grammar school for boys, where he did well. He then attended a local art college and trained as a teacher. He taught for 10 years in secondary schools, further education colleges and schools of art, evolving into a full-time writer by 1968.
His terraced house at Mill Bank, near Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, was Glyn's anchor in a landscape he wrote about over and over again. It features prominently in Millstone Grit, his account of moving to Calderdale and engaging with that steep-sided valley and moorland and its history of Methodism. Bought as a ruin for £50 (which he had to borrow), in 1971, the house had to be rebuilt, and he did it with his own hands. But it lacked one thing essential to his life – a garden.
During his first marriage, while living in a rented cottage with half an acre of garden, he had tried to live entirely from organic horticulture. In Life Class, he confessed that the love he had for that patch of land and its generative power came to dominate his emotional life more than Wendy, his wife. He found inspiration in Mill Bank, with its industrial relics deep in the woods. The failure of his marriage, which ended in divorce, was both a source of grief and an inspiration running through all his poems, novels and paintings.
Glyn identified closely with the natural world. A few lines from his poem Homage (included in A Year in the Bull Pen) illustrate this poignantly:
I am plain and plebeian amongst the robed ones.
Plumaged souls they are,
weightless voices in the trees
at dawn and dusk especially.
Being bound emotionally and intellectually to the environment in all its strangeness, beauty and moods, and being secure in the solid house he had saved, gave Glyn strength throughout his creative life. A widely read man, a northern working-class autodidact in spirit, he had many heroes, with the writers Wordsworth, Blake, John Clare and DH Lawrence foremost among them. Equipped with a serious and gifted intelligence in the English tradition of nature writing, he invested every subject he chose with that aura, even when the setting was Greek politics under the Colonels – his second wife, Roya, was from Athens – or Blackpool's transvestite demi-monde (in the books Fair Prospects and The Antique Collector respectively).
Always a man to keep up with the times, Glyn was an enthusiastic blogger. He held, at various times, creative fellowships at Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln; Farnborough Library, Hampshire; and the DH Lawrence Centenary festival, which included a residence in Lawrence's family home in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. There, Glyn met his third wife, Jane, his marriage to Roya having ended in divorce.
The lives of artists of all kinds fascinated Glyn. The number of painters and writers he reached out to in his generous, brotherly way meant that he accumulated a lot of friends. Anyone who walked the moors with him will know how much this man loved to share. He is survived by his partner, Liz; a son, Gwilym, from his first marriage; and a grandson, Tom.
• Glyn Hughes, poet, novelist and artist, born 25 May 1935; died 24 May 2011
Tonight the brittle trees
rattled and snapped in wind and the stars broke
trembling, like shattered ice.
Logs and frozen heather creaked
and starlight shook under our feet.
My son and I went onto the moor,
walking under drapes of a low room.
A skull cracked underfoot;
a tarred roof winked; a snowball fell;
then quiet, that seemed to glow.
We came indoors when we had stared at snow.
Now we change our places at the hearth,
like penguins on an ice-floe. Draughts
enter through wall and roof: the swords
of cold sneak through our warmth
like poison threading liquid in a glass.