We had all probably agreed by now that the whole memoir thing was getting out of hand, and a UN-negotiated ceasefire between memoirists and suffering readers was urgently needed. We have had more than enough, surely, of whiny books about alcoholism, rape, criminal pasts, drug addiction, all of which culminate, for some reason, in a scene where the narrator sits alone in a hotel room and ‘considers committing suicide’. Enough already, as they say.
But, hey, what do you know? Take the form away from juvenile American solipsists and give it back to a wily old English fox with some interests in life, and see how enchanting it instantly becomes. Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries is one of the funniest books I have ever read in my life; no less excellent, in its very different way, is David Hughes’s The Hack’s Tale, which gives us an idiosyncratic, personal voyage of great elegance and feline cunning. It is not a conspicuously confessional work, and in the end I think I disagree with its case, but, like Hughes’s other books, it has such vivid character and considered music, it proves richly satisfying.
It is an unusual, complicated idea. It springs from a sort of irrational disgust with the all-enveloping atmosphere of the media today. Hughes — himself a long-standing contributor to print media, as he openly admits — suddenly sees how tele- vision, the image, the fabulising news story, the internet, all control and infuse our lives. It begins with a telling little fable. The street where Hughes left his parked car is sealed off by the police after a crime has been committed there. A television news team is filming the scene. Hughes is prevented from moving his car not by the requirements of forensics but by the camera crew. If the car is moved, that will ruin their continuity.
It’s a comic, suggestive incident of modern absurdity, and the book delves back into the origins of such strange behaviour. Hughes traces the beginnings of the modern media, rather contentiously, to just before the Western discovery of printing, in three 14th-century figures. The book locates a change of behaviour in the careers of Chaucer, Froissart, the French chronicler, and Boccaccio. The approach it takes is recording Hughes’s voyage of exploration around Europe, tracking the travels of the three writers.
The argument is most convincing in the case of Froissart. Recording wars, and placing an unexpected emphasis on eyewitness accounts, he can, just about, be seen as a founder of the journalist’s trade; his manipulation of the truth and emphasis on authentic reportage is a characteristic and rather modern mix. It is noticeable, too, that Froissart is the least likeable of the three, and the easiest to blame for his media descendants.
But I am not at all sure about Chaucer and Boccaccio. It seems ingenious rather than convincing to say that their passion for narrative and their commitment to demotic language place them in a line of descent which ultimately leads to EastEnders. For a start, they both have ancestors themselves — Boccaccio was surely aware of The Thousand and One Nights — and the connection between them and the worst modern excesses is so slim as to suggest that the passion for narrative and the pressure towards the demotic are urges so basic as not to require influence or invention. In any case, although there are ugly features of Froissart, the elements of Chaucer and Boccaccio which feed, in this account, the modern media are so fundamental to their merit that it is impossible to deplore them. Of course, Hughes is much more subtle and tentative than this account suggests, but it is very hard to make this a convincing case on any level.
Which makes it more impressive that the book is so enjoyable. Much of the pleasure is in Hughes’s vivid, solid and earthy style. He loves those terrifically English words, obscure in etymology, which hover on the edge of slang — tizzy, hoity-toity, dicky, smutty — and his descriptions are as brisk and hoarse as Auden or Chaucer — ‘country shaggy with scrub’, ‘jackdaws clack and gurgle’. His eye is exact and original: Santa Maria Novella in Florence is ‘massively constructed in blocks of mint humbug’. An Italian train, more elegantly, has ‘rolling- stock half a century old, redolent of rivieras’ — that phrase has the deep-rooted English structure of a line in Beowulf or Auden. He can be an immensely suave stylist, but there is always that unmistakably English thump in the sentences; I bet his favourite word is something like ‘oblong’.
There is a little digression on words and spelling at one point, and Hughes reveals a, to me, surprising antiquarian streak, and I wonder if he really means what he says. In Chaucer, he writes, ‘the words shine new-forged off the page, yelwe outyellows the modern, col-blak outdoes coal black, dyamaunt is brighter than diamond, citryn sharper than lemony’. I see what he means, but in reality the unfamiliar shape of yelwe returns an awareness of the oddity and individuality to the modern word ‘yellow’, as any word does, looked at for long enough. And certainly Hughes’s own style, with its relish for the jaw-cracking vernacular, gives the reader back a lot of pleasure in quite ordinary words.
The Hack’s Tale is not exactly a memoir, and Hughes is more of a quiet, thinking eye than a buttonholing raconteur. He appears to travel on his own, and holds none of those contrived conversations with colourful locals so beloved of the Bill Bryson school of travel writers. Still, personal details have a knack of creeping in tantalisingly; we have a boyhood reminiscence of a sexy widow in wartime, a ‘great big blonde beast’, oddly associated with Chaucer’s wife Philippa, complaints about a dicky ankle and fragments of family history. And no one could fault Hughes’s dedication to his subject: at one point, he buys a woman’s smock from a charity shop and tries it on with tights in the privacy of his own home, just to see what it felt like to dress in the ordinary styles of Chaucer’s day. Alas, he drew the line at wearing it in the streets of Kennington; too aware already, perhaps, of what he calls ‘the idiocy of myself’.
It is a pleasant, thoughtful, expertly flavoured book, most admirable for its honest willingness to enjoy the richly experienced journey rather than hammer some complex and vaguely floating ideas into a few dubious propositions. The journey is full of interesting sights, a close, attentive enjoyment of food and books and atmosphere, told by an expert, honest, sophisticated teller. At the end of the journey, it is true, we find ourselves pretty well back where we started, but all the same the journey was worthwhile.