The registrar at Chelsea Town Hall on the King’s Road said that anything I told him would be assumed to be true: a notice on the desk next to his computer monitor explained the dangers of perjuring yourself. Then we began to go through the details of the death certificate. Name: Hugh Swynnerton Thomas. Date of death: 7 May 2017. Your relation to him? Son.
A few years ago, when I asked my father why he wasn’t going to the house in south-west France where he had for several summers spent a few weeks, his answer sounded straightforward. ‘Too far from Figeac,’ he said. Too far from Figeac? I asked. The house was a distance from the town in the Lot with its baker and café, this was true, but in his phrasing there was, as there could be, an element of self-parody. A profile of him when he was president of the Cambridge Union in 1953, which he must have had a hand in writing himself, said: ‘It is far from the flash of photographers’ bulbs that you will find the real Hugh.’ Next to that remark is a large photograph of him with a squash racquet in his hand. The caption says. ‘In this magnificent study the camera catches the enigma of the real man in a rare moment of relaxation. Ever since childhood – and his schooldays at Sherborne – he has had a passion for competitive games. “Squash runs in my veins,” he says. But even amongst these signs of a misspent youth, the responsibilities of office crowd in upon him, and cloud the open brow with worry lines.’ I don’t remember Hugh playing squash.
Too far from Figeac? I asked again. What he could have said was that he was too far from Paris, and too far from the Brasserie Lipp, too far from those tables near the bar where politicians and intellectuals liked to sit.
From a letter written by Hugh on the notepaper of the Hotel Crillon, Santiago de Chile, in April 1971:
Dear Inigo, I have taken this letter paper from Santiago, but I am now writing to you from high above the coast of Brazil. I am in an aeroplane, a Boeing 727, belonging to a Brazilian company called Cruceiro del Sur. The sea below looks beautiful, the coastline is empty. I can see some mines. I shall see you in less than two weeks now. The time has gone quite fast. I have been so busy.
Hugh once showed me the journal he kept of that journey to Chile, Argentina and Brazil. He had been busy. He’d been invited to visit the country by an institute at the University of Chile and asked to give a series of lectures about the Spanish Civil War and about Cuba – he was teaching at Reading University at the time. Chile in 1971, under Allende, was on the brink of something, but no one was sure of what: another Spain or a second Cuba, Franco or Castro. ‘The anxiety, or fear, on the part of the bourgeoisie itself is a factor in the situation,’ Hugh wrote in his journal. ‘For instance, they say that telephones are tapped: I wonder if that is really so.’
27 March. My father’s birthday. He would have been 85 this year, and very surprised to find me sitting here in Santiago de Chile. The furtherest he ever got, I remember, into a Spanish country was Burgos. But why did he go there, was it alone, and did he like it. Unanswerable questions. I now remember, of course, that he went to Spain for the Christmas of 1955 with my mother on the way back from the Gold Coast, and there I joined him, thereby taking the first step towards being a hispanist and therefore the first move to being here.
Hugh described where he was staying. ‘My hotel the Crillon, in the middle of the city, has a seedy charm. Built after the turn of the century, it is old-fashioned, grand with decaying French tapestries, endless public rooms, English & French prints, marble statuary, and very dirty carpets.’ The hotel’s notepaper, which Hugh had used to write to me (I have that letter), had photographs of the Crillon’s interior. I can see what he described, except for the dirty carpets.
From the journal, dated 4 April, two days after the regional elections: ‘The political balance in Chile is very delicate, and it will not be very easy to imagine that Allende can go much further without running up against his parliamentary opposition, who are in the majority. I would doubt whether he would go ahead with a plebiscite to wind up the legislature, which was one of his ideas.’ A week later, on Easter Sunday, Hugh was 400 miles south of the Chilean capital, in the town of Temuco, where he hoped to speak to members of the MIR, the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria – the Revolutionary Left Movement. He drove out into the hills with a taxi driver called Erasmos. They stopped at some gates, and he walked down on his own to a farm that had been taken over from an absentee landlord; the occupying students had turned it into a co-operative. Who are you? Hugh was asked, and what did he want. ‘To see the revolution,’ he replied. It is not hard to imagine him saying those words – the insolence and the bravado, the beaming expression.
Hugh explained that he was looking into the problems of the Chilean countryside; sugar, and its production by slaves, was a substantial part of the early chapters of his book on the history of Cuba. Two men, Ramón and Eduardo, asked him further questions and a discussion began. They asked how Allende was written about in the European press, and what would happen after Franco died. What about Uruguay, where there was a terrible dictatorship and no public spirit? The talking had been stilted to begin with; it became a conversation. ‘We were walking up a hill quite slowly, much more like gentlemen walking in a Berkshire beechwood after a heavy Sunday lunch.’ With Erasmos, he drove on to Concepción and then to Los Angeles, in Bío Bío, where he saw a railway bridge built by Gustave Eiffel.
Hugh flew to Buenos Aires some days later. At the Royal Hotel, he met Johannes Bernhardt, a German living in exile in Argentina who’d been a businessman working in Morocco and Spain in the 1930s. He had met Franco in July 1936, and several days later went to meet Hitler with a list of the Generalissimo’s requests. Bernhardt said he met the Führer at Bayreuth – he’d seen Siegfried that night. ‘Hitler immediately asked: who is Franco? What does he stand for? How will he pay us, how will he pay his men? How will he get his men across the straits of Gibraltar? Is he sure of the fleet?’ The conversation at the Royal Hotel about Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War carried on until two in the morning.
On 27 April 2017, I spoke to Hugh on the phone at the beginning of the day. I was in the courtyard of the British Library, he was at home, in his own library, which looked over the wild garden that pleased him – the cow parsley, bluebells, hogweed, mallow that had taken over from the snowdrops and the crocuses earlier in the year. He loved books, he loved reading, he loved flowers; pressed inside that Chilean journal are countless flowers and leaves, their pigment mostly gone. In the glass veranda at the back of my parents’ house were three varieties of bougainvillea and a plumbago.
There was nothing unusual about the conversation we had that morning: we spoke almost every day, wherever he or I were, and I doubt there was a day when he didn’t speak to me or to Bella and Isambard, my sister and brother. News, articles, books, people and what they had said – these were the subjects. Inside the rough red leather cover of his address book was an enormous list of people, restaurants, embassies, hotels, doctors, publishers, political parties. ‘Friends and Relations’ were the words he had stamped on it. There was no shortage of people to turn to when he wanted to find out what was going on wherever that was. The leather cover of the address book was made in the Mugello, a valley north of Florence that my parents had visited every year since the mid-1960s. The aspect of the writer’s life that perhaps meant most to him was that time was his own, so he could go to the Apennines for two months every year if he chose to. And so he did: and so did we all. There was the walk to the top of Monte Falterona, which had been an Etruscan burial place. From the summit, Dante said he saw the Adriatic and the Mediterranean at the same time, but we never did. When we first went, towns in the valley were small, many more people lived and worked in the country and the mezzadria remained familiar, the churches were full on Sundays; twenty years later, the towns had grown larger, the country was depopulated, the rural churches were often closed.
That morning, we spoke about general elections in France and in Britain. He said he didn’t think he’d been born to live in this Britain. He had voted Labour in the 1960s, he turned Conservative in the 1970s; he was a very early Thatcherite, one of her speechwriters in the lead-up to the general election of 1979, and he ran the thinktank she founded with Keith Joseph, the Centre for Policy Studies. He formed a strong dislike for Theresa May because of her caving in to the Brexiters. He had never sounded so gloomy about politics, and it was unusual for him to be adamantly against a political leader: he said he was going to oppose her whatever she did.
The conversation that morning was also about the next book he hoped to write; a history of Seville. By coincidence, I had recently come across two chapters of an unfinished book by Kim Philby in the National Archives; it was written in 1954 and the first chapter was about Philby’s journey to Seville in the spring of 1937. That journey, and the article that resulted from it, led to Philby being taken on by the Times later that year.
Then we spoke about a Spaniard whom I’d recently come across – an uncle of the man whose Life I am working on, Tomás Harris. Antonio Rodríguez de León was the civilian governor of Córdoba at the beginning of the Civil War; in the 1920s, he had worked with Lorca to revive flamenco in Andalusia; and he was one of the poets and actors known as the Generación del 27 – the first meeting was held in Seville in 1927. Hugh said he would pull out some books from his shelves; we would talk about all of that when we next met. When would that be? I thought for a second. Lunch on Sunday? When we said goodbye, Hugh would have rung my mother upstairs to tell her when I was coming to Ladbroke Grove. My mother would then ring me to confirm the arrangements. My mother did ring me on 27 April, but she rang later in the day. She rang in the afternoon. Hugh had had a stroke during his siesta. The ambulance men had arrived. They were considering which hospital to take him to: he would be going to the Charing Cross Hospital on Fulham Palace Road.
There had always been many problems with my father’s health; he had a bad heart, a consequence of the rheumatic disease he had as a child; he suffered from atrial fibrillation, he had one kidney, he had high blood pressure, he had gout. A year or two ago, his handwriting began to shrink; this, it turned out, was symptomatic of the early stages of Parkinson’s; it seemed in keeping with his writer’s life that the illness would manifest itself in the formation of words on paper. There was, at least for now, medication for that, as there was for everything else. He kept his pills in a plastic box, where he also kept the small, buttonhole rosettes and decorations of the Spanish, Mexican and French orders he was a member of. The Apixaban, a strong blood thinner he took twice a day, was next to the Mexican order of the Aztec Eagle.
His way with life was to make sure no one defined him by his health; modern medicine allowed him to pull off that feat. In the late 1980s, he asked me whether I’d like to go to the open-air opera in Holland Park: he said he had some news to tell me, and as we walked into the park from my parents’ house, he said that when he was ill as a boy with rheumatic disease a doctor had told him he would be dead before he was thirty. He had told the story to his new heart doctor earlier that day, who said it was a myth even then.
Black’s Medical Dictionary was now no longer the volume much consulted over breakfast that it had once been. He owned two editions – the 28th (1968) and the 40th (2002). In the first, a stroke is defined as ‘a popular name for apoplexy (q.v.)’: ‘Apoplexy is a term introduced by Hippocrates, meaning a stroke of sudden insensibility or of bodily disablement connected with some diseased condition of the brain.’ The recent edition’s definition is more helpful: ‘Stroke or cerebrovascular accident (CVA) is sudden damage to the brain tissue caused either by lack of blood oxygen or rupture of a blood vessel. The affected brain cells die and the parts of the body they control or receive messages from cease to function.’
The word ‘stroke’ implies unexpectedness, though it can mean the opposite: it can express tenderness itself. For all the known preconditions, Hugh’s stroke was a surprise. Dr Kar at Charing Cross explained the following morning that a tiny blood clot had formed somewhere within Hugh’s heart: it had then lodged in an artery entering the brain. The darkened areas of the X-rays revealed the stroke to have been serious. He recognised us, but he couldn’t speak.
Hugh was reading J.G. Lockhart’s Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott; a straw bookmark showed that he was halfway into Volume II. He had read Lockhart before: he had read all of Scott several times since he was a child. The lives of writers were one of his major preoccupations: this biography, written by Scott’s son-in-law, absorbed him enormously. The first chapter of the book was Scott’s own short account of his early life. I took the volume to the hospital – something to read aloud. Certain passages in that first chapter seemed uncanny in their relation to Hugh’s life. ‘It is not difficult for a youth with a real desire to please and be pleased to make his way into good society in Edinburgh – or indeed anywhere – and my family connections, if they did not greatly further, had nothing to embarrass my progress.’ Hugh’s family was interesting, and they never embarrassed his progress, nor did they further it either. The connections he made with people were his own even though he was often difficult and when he was younger had a temper.
Hugh’s reason for travel was Scott’s: ‘My principal object in these excursions was the pleasure of seeing romantic scenery,’ Scott wrote, ‘or what afforded me at least equal pleasure, the places which had been distinguished by remarkable historical events.’ In the days before his stroke, Hugh had been planning a journey to the north to visit Scott’s house at Abbotsford. He would have been in Belarus that week visiting the birthplace of a Spanish entrepreneur who played an important political role after Franco’s death, Max Mazin, about whom he had written a book, but the journey had been cancelled at the last minute.
Oral biography is more familiar in the US than it is in Britain: George Plimpton and Studs Terkel were two of its best-known exponents. In these books, the life of, say, Truman Capote, is told through the words of those who knew him: the author is editor and orchestrator. Lockhart’s Life of Scott is similar: much of the book is made up of letters from Scott and from his many correspondents, but he adds his own connecting commentary. Hugh wrote thousands of letters, he kept many diaries. Four years after his journey to Chile, he was travelling through Spain. Franco looked as if he would soon die, but what government would follow? A British diplomat told Hugh that Spain would be lucky to get away without another civil war, but many outcomes seemed possible. Hugh met Juan Carlos in Madrid, who told him Franco’s procrastination and inability to reform was only making things worse. They talked about the ban Franco imposed on Hugh’s book on the Civil War after it was published in 1961.
J-C: What I don’t know is why they didn’t let it be published here. It is essential for Spaniards to know these things happened.
HT: I could understand it in 1961-62.
J-C: But that would have been the best time for an opening. That was Franco’s mistake – not to have tried more in ’62 or ’63 or earlier. Now it seems ridiculous not to be able to do so.
Hugh wrote an autobiography; it remains unfinished. He wrote it from memory without consulting his journals. I don’t know why.
In 1982, I went to India for three months. It was my gap year between school and university and Hugh wrote more letters to me while I was there than I did to him. I brought them all back with me. That they got to India at all seems unbelievable – they were written to postes restantes in Delhi, Simla and Jaipur. ‘Dear Inigo, I do not feel absolutely confident you will get this but on the other hand we now can assume that you are in the sub-continent since it is about 24 hours since you left Ladbroke Grove.’
He was working for Mrs Thatcher. The Falklands War had begun. ‘Here the situation has become slightly tougher,’ he wrote in that letter: ‘the government has declared a complete air and sea blockade around the Falklands as from 12 tomorrow.’ There was no doubt about his allegiances, he loathed the Argentine Junta, but the sinking of the Belgrano was for him no reason for celebration, as he wrote in another letter:
4 May 1982, My dear Inigo, On Sunday we had the rather grim news of the sinking of the Argentine battleship. It is bound to cause a row in Latin America. It is, as we perhaps don’t realise, the first battleship of that size – 500 to 1000 men – that the Latin Americans have ever lost in a conflict. It is bound to be remembered against us for a long time, I fear.
I don’t remember where I first read the letters, I have lost the envelopes, but I always remembered I had them – and hundreds of others.
Hugh survived the stroke, yet he soon developed pneumonia – an unsurprising consequence in stroke patients, as I now know. The doctors on the acute stroke ward at Charing Cross do rounds of their patients in the mornings. Despite all the machinery, or because of it, the constant measurement – heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturation – makes the atmosphere in hospital wards enervating. When Hugh was asleep, as he often was, I stared out of the window. On the ninth floor of Charing Cross Hospital, you are high up enough to see London surrounded by its hills. Harrow and Hampstead, Crystal Palace and Richmond. Hugh’s bed was by an east-looking window; Westminster in the distance, to the north the two unmistakable tower blocks of Notting Hill. The Trellick Tower to the north, the Campden Hill Towers at the Gate itself. I thought of my father and his house on Ladbroke Grove.
I picked up a friend at Heathrow a few years ago. He had lived in the area as a child, as I had, and as we drove into London I asked him: which way do you want to go? Up the Grove, he said. The Gate and the Grove – those were always the two ways to describe the area. The Grove runs from Holland Park Avenue in the south to the Harrow Road in the north. At the southern end, it passes Punjani’s, the newsagent, and a police station and heads through an avenue of plane trees beside a row of houses once painted so brightly a magazine described it as Pyjama Row. Everyone’s topography is different: at the top of the hill was the flat of Nicola Six in Amis’s London Fields; over the road at No 40 was the home of a schoolfriend, whose large record collection a group of us sometimes listened to until dawn. At the end of the 1830s, spectators standing on the hill could look down at the horse racing in the Kensington Hippodrome; in a print series, which Hugh owned, depicting a race at the course, with horses leaping over fences, Notting Hill is green, wooded and unrecognisable – the chimney of the kiln on what would become Pottery Lane is the only identifiable landmark. The studio of the photographer played by David Hemmings in Antonioni’s Blow-Up is on Pottery Lane.
The Grove sweeps down into Notting Dale, and passes several of the large communal gardens that are a feature of the Ladbroke Estate, and which appear in the novels of Alan Hollinghurst. People tell me that one of the characters in The Line of Beauty is based on Hugh. I don’t see it. Many people tell me many things about Hugh, not always kindly. I haven’t always asked them why they wanted to tell me. This central stretch of the Grove forms part of the route of the Carnival parade. Beyond the tube station and the Westway, at 290, was the house where Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, once lived. Hugh befriended her: he helped her get a British pension. The Grove then crosses the Great Western Railway and the Paddington branch of the Grand Union Canal, and passes the eastern wall of Kensal Green and its Dissenters’ Chapel and ends at the junction with the Harrow Road.
My parents moved to Ladbroke Grove in 1964, soon after they married: they never moved away. One reason they bought the house was that it was large enough for the library my father already had, and for the library he hoped to have. But it was also a good house to buy. A successful book could buy one in 1961; houses were relatively cheap because North Kensington was a slum at the beginning of the 1960s. It was London’s version of New York’s West Side, Peter Hall wrote in his book London 2000 (1963). ‘The first problem with London is to define it,’ Hall said, but he had no trouble defining Notting Hill. ‘These are the big Victorian houses in multi-occupation which represent London’s most unfortunate inheritance from the 19th century.’ Poor and rundown; Irish and Barbadian. Some urban planners were so convinced that destruction alone could improve the fabric of Notting Hill that they had the idea of turning Ladbroke Grove into the first few miles of a new motorway linking London to the North. Houses would be razed, trees cut down, Notting Hill ploughed through. Nothing came of it; Notting Hill became a lot more vibrant than many other parts of London. When the 37th volume of the Survey of London was published in 1973, many of the buildings Peter Hall thought obsolete had been listed as architecturally important.
In the aftermath of Hugh’s death, a dinner for Mrs Thatcher that he had had at Ladbroke Grove was written about as if it was the only dinner he gave – Anthony Powell got fussy about the Rioja. There were many others. Gabriel García Márquez came to one, and when Hugh went to get more wine from the cupboard downstairs, an after-dinner guest arrived. It was V.S. Naipaul. My father found him looking through the keyhole of the closed dining room door to see who else was at the table.
We’re all looking through a keyhole of some kind now that Hugh is no longer alive. He kept the guest lists of all the people he and my mother invited to their parties and dinners; he drew diagrams of where people sat at their table and elsewhere. A writer’s pride, playing the part he wrote for himself, was one way he kept himself going. He seems never to have thrown away any scrap of paper that might one day become interesting. Some Talk of Angels was a play he wrote at Cambridge in 1952. He got an enigmatic telegram when it was about to open. ‘Terribly Terribly Flat Cambridge Beware Too Much Local Colour All Success=Noel Coward.’
Hugh was moved to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on 4 May, now that he was out of danger of a second stroke; only the pneumonia remained. On Friday morning, to everyone’s amazement, he was in the stroke ward’s gym with two physiotherapists. Was he going to make an implausible recovery?
The final ward he was in, where he had a room of his own, looked out onto Limerston Street, and the back garden of the man who had been best man at his wedding: Karl Miller. Karl and Jane, his wife, had been Cambridge contemporaries of Hugh’s, and Hugh and Karl both wrote for Granta. They contributed to a 1952 issue, edited and illustrated by Mark Boxer; so did Thom Gunn and Eric Hobsbawm. Hugh wrote a story about Monsieur Alphonse, a maître d’hôtel at a place called The Panache, and an appreciation of Benjamin Constant.
The contributor’s note for Hugh says:
A prominent Union Speaker. Has contributed to Granta regularly for the last two years. Latest articles have all been about the Continent. Recently seen on Rome Station in khaki shorts. His play (about Venice) won the Young Writers’ Group Prize last year. Trying to write a novel (‘about a Riviera’). He once thought of starting a magazine called ‘Peter’. Likes dining with judges. Not interested in jazz.
‘Always do your own research if you can’ was the advice my father gave me. You don’t know what else you might find. Before Hugh’s funeral, I looked for two ornamental sashes that we had decided to put on the coffin. In the box I thought they were in, I instead found a rough canvas bag with purple piping wrapped in tissue paper, along with a book on the fall of Singapore and a note written by Hugh explaining the box’s content. It turned out to be the bag given to Hugh’s aunt by Japanese soldiers when she was imprisoned in Singapore in 1942. I knew nothing about it. Her husband, Shenton Thomas, the governor of the Straits Settlements, was imprisoned in Taiwan. The canvas bag is embroidered with black cotton; ‘Changi Jail, Spring 1942’ it says on the top corner. I eventually found the sashes. Beneath their boxes, I saw several large envelopes lying flat at the bottom of the drawer. These turned out to be X-rays taken over the years of Hugh’s heart and of his head. As with the pill box he carried with him, honours and medicine went together.
On the first leg of the journey from Heathrow to Santiago in 1971 Hugh wrote:
There was a long delay leaving the ground since only [one] of the runways was in use. I had one of those terrible mauvais quarts d’heure of extreme anxiety and depression which I have come to recognise as a part of my reaction to air travel. Instead of flying tonight, I will stay in Madrid at the Reina Victoria. I will stay there for ever, I will sit there and write a novel and to hell with Claudio and Chile. At one moment I thought of flying back – immediately I got to Madrid. What is the explanation for this?
For someone who disliked flying he flew a lot. What sometimes stopped him from travelling was his ability to lose his passport. There are several of them somewhere in his library at Ladbroke Grove.
On the green sofa by the library window, where he sat when he made phone calls, was a sheaf of papers, an in-tray, stamps, chequebooks, his address book and his diary. On the morning of 27 April before he had his stroke, he had written a cryptic note: ‘We all knew that it was going to be a difficult year since Easter was very late and there was a bad storm in May. The constitution seemed threatened, too, by a long dispute about the place of Ireland in the union.’ I found the books which he said he would pull out when we last spoke; they were opened at the pages that referred to Antonio Rodríguez de León, ready for that talk we were going to have before lunch.
A few nights before he had his stroke, Hugh dreamed there was a white rat beneath his bed; at the funeral at St Mary Abbots, a cat stalked the church and went under his coffin during the service. After the funeral and the burial in Kensal Green, I walked south down Ladbroke Grove to my parents’ house, where much of the life Hugh made for himself remains.