Anyone who has read – or started to read – The Human Predicament by Richard Hughes probably shares my frustration that it remained unfinished on his death in 1976. Hughes had planned a trilogy, tracing the origins of the Second World War through a clever amalgam of fact and fiction. Hitler’s rise to power, including his early failures, is faithfully documented, and interwoven with this impressively researched truth is the fictitious story of a family with both German and English branches. The first in the trilogy, The Fox in the Attic, was published in 1961 to resounding acclaim – an Italian critic declared, ‘England has found her Tolstoy’ – and the second, The Wooden Shepherdess, followed in 1973. Sadly, Hughes only completed twelve chapters of the third and final volume and twentieth-century literature is the poorer for it.
Consolingly, I recently discovered Hughes’s In Hazard, published in 1938. (A High Wind in Jamaica, his best-known novel, appeared even earlier, in 1929.) The dust jacket didn’t immediately appeal, promising ‘high suspense on the high seas . . . [an] unremitting struggle for survival . . . [an] eerie fascination with the hurricane . . . [a] wrenching tale of humanity at its limits’. To a non-sailor it sounded both exhausting and forbiddingly nautical. However, recalling how much I’d enjoyed his other books I decided to try it (thinking, shamefully, that at 160 pages it wouldn’t be too arduous).
I loved it. In Hazard is an extraordinary read. It resembles The Human Predicament in mixing fiction with fact, but here the ‘fact’ is not a devastating political movement which took years to grow, but a devastating meteorological event which took place within a week. In November 1932 the steamship Phemius was sucked into a Caribbean hurricane and tested to the limits, yet somehow she and all her crew survived. The owner of the shipping line to which Phemius belonged approached Hughes and suggested he record the dramatic story. Hughes agreed to describe the storm and its effects on the ship as accurately as he could, with the proviso that he would invent a fictitious captain and crew. He researched the project rigorously, interviewed the crew, sailed with the Phemius’s captain and became familiar with every inch of a ‘single-screw turbine steamer of a little over 9,000 tons’.
From the outset Hughes takes t
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