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Everything I Have Always Forgotten

Owain Hughes
ISBN-13: 
9781781720998
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
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"Read it for its vivid portrait of a childhood characterised by parental 'benign neglect', its flow of bravura anecdotes, and its entertaining glimpses of the Hughes family, their relatives and famous friends." - Richard Poole

Everything I Have Always Forgotten is the story of Owain Hughes’ childhood in the 40s and 50s. He spent it in boarding schools, in the family’s large but dilapidated house, and on the banks and waters of the Dyfi estuary, across from the Italianate folly village of Portmeirion. The north Wales landscape – Snowdonia in the near distance – dominated Owain’s young life, and his stories of boating, horse-riding and walking culminate in the three day hike through Snowdonia by the 12 year old Owain and a friend which culminated in being marooned for two weeks on Bardsey Island, of the north Wales coast.

The ‘Swallows and Amazons’ aspect of Owain’s childhood was made possible by his parents’ policy of “benign neglect” intended to encourage independence and self-reliance. His father was the acclaimed novelist Richard Hughes and his mother, the artist Frances Bazley, a cousin of the Duke of Norfolk, a pairing which added further exoticism to Owain’s childhood. There were visits to cousins who lived in castles, meetings with spies, a circle of friends which included Bertrand Russell and Clough Williams-Ellis, broadcasts on the Third Programme and visits from “the men from Disney”.

Owain Hughes catches a period of life in post-war Britain which looks back to ‘Brideshead Revisited’ but also forward to angry young men and kitchen sink drama. It includes fascinating information and insight into Richard Hughes, and is packed with vivid anecdotes, making an engaging book about memory and what makes us.

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‘I was raised under Father’s principle of “plenty of benign neglect”,’ writes Owain Hughes near the beginning of this memoir of a 1940s and 50s childhood spent on and off at his family’s home on the banks of the Dwyrys estuary, opposite the village of Portmeirion. It’s a statement that’s difficult not to read in the light of his father’s most famous book.
Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica is one of the most startling and original portrayals of childhood in fiction. Cast adrift in various exotic locales – from colonial Jamaica to a pirate ship – the Bas-Thornton children prove themselves to be supremely adaptable, inhabiting mental worlds that are deply private, and unsettlingly separate, from the adult world around them. For benign neglect, read independence and imaginative space: cut off from parental oversight, Richard Hughes’ fictional children thrive.
And so, in many ways, does his actual son. Under the minimal supervision of Richard and his wife, the artist, Frances Bazely, Owain Hughes explores the mountains and seascapes of Snowdonia and the Llyn Peninšula, falling in love with sailing and hiking, and revelling, along with his siblings, in ‘the unstructured, barefoot chaos of our lives.’ He rubs shoulders with his parent’s artistic and intellectual friends: there’s a goo story about Arthur Kroestler coming to dinner; Bertrand Russell and Clough Williams-Ellis are neighbours; Dylan Thomas stories abound. There is an arc of sots running through these recollections, leading – by way of many colourful meanders and detours – towards a journey to Bardsey Ilsand. This is figured as a pointing towards the author’s later travels in the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America. childhood freedom becomes adult wanderlust. Hughes’ affection for the Welsh landscapes of his youth shines through these sections; delicately and acutely observes, they contain the most vivid passages of writing in the book.
It’s a memoir rich in anecdote, which is no surprise considering the author’s background. There are some lovely evocations of Richard Hughes – ‘his voice low and growly with pipe tobacco’- spinning yarns in front of the fireside, conjuring his exotic travels while surrounded by a lion skin rug and a stuffed crocodile (there’s a particularly fine tale of him guiding two donkeys laden with silver coins through the Kasbah to pay for his house in Tangiers). This is a family that obviously shared a passion for storytelling. Like his father, Owain is a good raconteur.
But it isn’t all swallows and amazons .One gets the feeling that beyond that fireside circle it could get a little chilly. Away from the hearth, Richard often comes across as remote and unapproachable; locked away in his writing room he is ‘distant, untouchable, not to be disturbed’. His parents are happy to farm Owain and the other children out to various neighbours, relatives, and even hotels, while Owain himself is sent away to school in England as a young boy.
Some of this is down to the particular cultural/social mileu to which Hughes belonged (and often felt he didn’t belong). His parents were part of an aristo-bohemian set whose alternative lifestyle was secured and enabled through inherited wealth and status. His mother (a member of the Howard family) dislikes conventionality and valorises ‘originality’. And yet the taboos and strictures of a privileged class are always lurking in the bohemian garden: money is ‘a forbidden subject’; ‘emotions were not encouraged’; decent wine is a must but there are de Chirico paintings on the walls. Hughes is admirably clear-sighted about these contradictions but they nevertheless cast a shadow over his recollections. Between the whimsy and anecdote there’s a pervading undercurrent of loneliness (‘my memories are of solitude, endless solitude’) and cultural disorientation. The local boys consider him an outsider, a child of the Plas, while in his English public school he is a ‘Taff’ (‘I was accepted by neither,’ he says). Amongst other things is a story of a dislocated childhood, one where Wales can only ever be a beautiful landscape and never quite a proper home.
I’m sure fans and scholars of Richard Hughes will find this a fascinating portrait of the writer, casting light on his working habits and some of the origins of his storytelling. The world it evoked in its early chapters – country piles in various stages of dilapidation, rooms full of curios, aristocrats in slow decline – echoes the 1920s settings of the first chapters of The Fox in the Attic (there’s actually a chapter called ‘Leftovers of the 1920s’), which I assume Hughes Snr must have been working on during part of the time covered here. But this is in no way to underplay what is an engaging memoir in its own right.

Tristan Hughes

22/05/2014 - 11:18