After my first reading of The Tree of Man, by Patrick White, about twenty years ago, I put it back on my bookshelves uncertain whether or not I had enjoyed it. It was so rough-textured and densely written that it demanded more effort on my part than I was happy to give. But I never forgot the novel, and later when I travelled in Australia I found myself thinking of Patrick White, the great poet of the Australian landscape.
A few months ago I read The Tree of Man again and at last came to terms with it. Certain passages required re-reading, some several times. The Tree of Man is a long book which deals with the daily lives of truly ordinary people who establish a smallholding in the bush which, by the end, the suburbs of a city have almost reached – not the stuff of great literature one would think. Yet White looks at it all through eyes that see so much more than most of us can. He holds up a lens so that his readers can share his vision, but often his meanings are so complex, or deceptively simple, that we must stretch ourselves mentally to share them.
After close on forty years I have just re-read three novels by Richard Hughes: “A High Wind in Jamaica”, “The Fox In the Attic” and “The Wooden Shepherdess”.
I can remember how much I enjoyed them in the 1970s but the stories themselves had blurred and faded in my memory. Re-reading them has confirmed my view of Hughes as a remarkable novelist.
Although Richard Hughes is not a name much heard today, he had a tremendous reputation a generation or two ago and counted among his friends Masefield, Yeats, T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas and Augustus John.
His reputation was built on a slender output of novels – only four over a period of forty-four years.
“A High Wind in Jamaica”, published in 1929, broke new ground in the depiction of children and paved the way for Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”.
“The Fox in the Attic” was the first volume of an intended trilogy which was to document the lives of British and German branches of a single family against the background of the ominous political and social developments between the two world wars.
The second volume, “The Wooden Shepherdess”, appeared in 1973 but Hughes died in 1976 before completing the final volume.
Although the story is incomplete, the two volumes stand by themselves and I recommend them highly.
As one critic said at the time: “England has found her Tolstoy”.
One day, when I was a young teenager in the 1950s, my parents and I were introduced to a man who had met Lawrence of Arabia in Damascus in 1917. Lawrence had been wearing Arab dress, but his blue eyes had revealed his identity.
T E Lawrence became one of the most famous men of the 20th century. Many people today know of him mainly through the superb 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia”, directed by David Lean, with Peter o’Toole in the starring role. But that was still several years in the future for us.
After we had heard the story of this personal meeting, the subject of Lawrence was much discussed in our household. It was my father’s birthday soon afterwards, and my mother bought him a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s amazing autobiographical book about the Arab Revolt. We all read it and I have it beside me now as I write this post.
Winston Churchill, himself a gifted writer, said of the book: “It ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language. As a narrative of war and adventure … it is unsurpassable.”
Lawrence was a complex and enigmatic person. He was born illegitimate in Wales in 1888 to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, a governess who was herself illegitimate. Chapman left his wife and first family to live with Sarah, and they called themselves Mr and Mrs Lawrence. The Lawrences moved to Oxford where young TE studied history at Jesus College and graduated with First Class Honours. He became an archaeologist and worked at various excavations in the Middle East.
While at Oxford he joined the university officers’ training corps; in 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence was coopted by the British Army to undertake a military survey of the Negev Desert. After the outbreak of war he was commissioned and posted to the army intelligence staff in Cairo. He became involved in an internal Arab insurgency against the Ottoman Empire, allies of Germany. Lawrence’s major contribution was persuading the Arab leaders to coordinate their actions in support of British strategy. He fought beside them till the end of the war, rising in rank eventually to full colonel, and subsequently told the story in Seven Pillars.
His commanding general gave him a free hand, saying later: “He was the mainspring of the Arab movement and knew their language, their manners and their mentality.”
In 1919 and 1920 a photo exhibition in London and New York entitled “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia” turned the previously-obscure Lawrence into a major celebrity.
But fame did not sit comfortably on his shoulders. He resigned his commission and joined the RAF as an enlisted man until his discharge in 1935. Seven Pillars of Wisdom was published in 1926, but the present full, unexpurgated edition did not appear until after his death in a motorcycle accident two months after he left the RAF, at the age of 46.