When Richard Hughes looked back at how he wrote his first and most successful novel, he described the process rather beguilingly. In 1926, when he was 26, he retired for the winter ‘to the little Adriatic island town of Capodistria, where the exchange was then so favourable that I could live on next to nothing – which is all I had – and where the only language spoken was Italian, of which (at first at any rate) I knew not a word, so that I could work all day in the Café della Loggia undisturbed by the chatter’. He wrote in this semi-operatic self-exile with such meticulous care that just one chapter was completed before his winter was over. ‘This may seem slow going but I had decided my book was to be a short one and it is always what a writer leaves out of his book, not what he puts in, that takes the time.’
The book was A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and it is indeed a short book, but one that grips and fizzes with ideas, images and energy. Thirty-five years ago, as an inexperienced schoolteacher, I had the task of interesting a class of 16-year-olds in it, and I thought it would be ideal fare for them. Set around the middle of the nineteenth century, the novel takes the outward form of an adventure story. The ingredients are a group of children and their life on a decayed plantation, then an earthquake, a hurricane, a sailing ship, the high seas, the capture of the children by pirates and a final rescue and return to normality in England. The passing incidents include some farcical goings-on with pirates dressed as women, a ludicrous quayside auction of the pirates’ booty, some uproarious banqueting, a fight between a goat and a pig, another between a tiger and a lion – or an attempt to stage one – and a chase after a drunken monkey in the ship’s rigging. So far, so Pirates of the Caribbean; but there is also a dark side: the shocking accidental death of a child, a murder, a fatal betrayal and a hanging.
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