Le Carré, Richard Hughes, and the 'Old Firm'
Monday 21 December 2020
Thanks to Pierre Tran for awaking some memories of John Le Carré's great books and some of the characters therein. He chose wisely when he took on Michela Wrong as his adviser on the Congo for his book The Mission Song. The detail of the Congo and the three rival warlords shows a huge depth of research and veracity for a book which, ultimately, is set mainly in London and peace negotiations in an unidentified site in Scandinavia.
Clearly he sought out the best sources, as was the case with Richard Hughes, who Pierre points out was his inspiration for Old Craw in The Honourable Schoolboy.
He had taken on Dick Hughes as his adviser in Hong Kong when researching that book in the late 1970s, later describing Dick as "a sort of journalistic Eiffel Tower". Dick, a larger than life Australian, was the doyen of the Far East foreign press corps, having been in the region virtually unbroken from 1940 to the 1980s. Any journalist based in Hong Kong - or passing through - in those years knew of Dick Hughes. A stalwart of the HK Foreign Correspondents Club, he was known to friends as "Monsignor" from his habit of addressing others as "Your Grace".
Through Dick we gain the memorable scenes in The Honourable Schoolboy of the FCC, then housed in the penthouse of Sutherland House, such as its view from the gents urinals of Hong Kong harbour. He also captured the atmosphere in the club of a few years earlier, when the Vietnam war and China's Cultural Revolution dominated the news, describing "a score of journalists, mainly from the former British Colonies … who fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero”.
For much of his career, Dick worked for the British Sunday Times, where his first foreign editor was Ian Fleming. He was a good friend to many Reuter correspondents. On my first Sunday in Hong Kong in 1968, newly elevated from traineeship, I was introduced to Dick in the FCC as the new boy at Reuters. He ordered some drinks and took me to a verandah, where he spent an afternoon filling me in the region, drinking Mateus rosé (Dick was off gin on doctor's orders) and occasionally looking out at the Bank of China building and a match on a cricket field below.
My copy of his memoirs, Foreign Devil, is inscribed "To Peter Gregson of Reuters. Up the Old Firm!" ■