Observer review: The Hack's Tale by David Hughes

David Hughes thinks he's found the source of the modern media. He tracks down the guilty parties in The Hack's Tale

The Hack's Tale
by David Hughes
Bloomsbury £16.99, pp205

This is an engaging, exasperating, baffling, but memorable book. David Hughes is that wonderful thing, a professional writer. A novelist of more distinction than popularity, winner of the WH Smith Literary Award in 1985, he has augmented the thin rations of literature with the coarser but richer fare of journalism.

Long stints as a fiction and film reviewer on other Sunday papers turned him into a hack. It was a words-for-cash scandal. He became a slave to the news rather than the muse.

When you ply this trade it is not difficult to become disenchanted with the media. Television, for instance, trivialises the serious while solemnifying the frivolous, churning the cosmos of word, image and sound into an unmediated audio-visual glop to support advertisements for tampons and pet food.

And the sort of journalism you are reading this minute, while finer, I think, has its own corrosive effect. When you get habituated to the 1,000-word newspaper sprint with the nearly immediate gratification of seeing it in print next week and getting paid for it the week after, your capacity to make a long-term commitment to the research and planning necessary for that elusive masterpiece is undermined.

All this got to Hughes, although he was by no means first to note the inclination of the media to consume its own children.

Hughes says: 'I no longer wanted the media swamping my mind, telling me how or what to think, forcing me by their urgency to spend so much time on the vicarious that I was losing my grip on the direct.'

So he hunted the source of his woes and found them, oddly, in Chaucer, Froissart and Boccaccio.

And this is where the plot began to run away from me. Hughes says this medieval trinity was singly and collectively the source of the modern media because they wrote in the vernacular. But this is nonsense because Geoffrey, Jean and Giovanni wrote before Gutenberg, Caxton and the beginnings of the distribution of print. Since 'mass' must forever be connected with 'media' the Canterbury Tales, the Chronicles and The Decameron were as exclusive and privileged a source of literary delight then as they are now.

Yet Hughes goes on jolly japes to attempt 'encounters' with the three. It does not seem to strike him that this conceited exercise has more in common with the intellectual priorities of the Evening Standard than with, say, the Paris Review.

He does not sit down and read Troilus and Criseyde. Instead, he photocopies a few pages and takes them on low-cost airlines in pursuit of rendezvous where he may confront the ghosts of those accused, in his wacky view, of being the media's founding fathers.

He goes to a waxworks in Canterbury to embrace Chaucer. He looks at a statue of Froissart in Valenciennes and in Santa Maria Novella in Florence he imagines Bocaccio salaciously undressing a crocodile of tourists. He pops down the Old Kent Road in search of pilgrymes as if he's on the News at Ten. This is verilye a hack's tale. It is exactly what he criticises as 'vicarious'.

Hughes tells us nothing new about Chaucer, Froissart and Bocaccio. In fact, he tells us very little about them. Corrupted as he is by the fragile, trashy immediacy of the media he says he deplores, Hughes shows no great inclination to engage with his subject: there is a faint revulsion against the notion of spending time with books and libraries.

Instead, a dreamy sort of speculation is rife. The Hack's Tales fails in its declared objectives to expose the corruption of quality by popularity: our medievals remain unviolate. The dedication says a 'former' (this may be significant) director of its publisher promised to commission the book 'if I could boil down its point to one sentence'. Well, I have read 205 pages of it and have still not found that explanation. No reader could be persuaded of any connection between Chaucer and Richard Desmond. In so very odd a book it is hard to be sure what is actually going on, but Hughes achieves, perhaps unconsciously, something else, something curiously fine.

This is a book about David Hughes, not about fourteenth-century literature. In it, he achieves an epic lugubriousness: 'For once life plays into my hands.'

We read of his budget flights, his rental cars, his picnics and his bowels. His descriptions of food and wine are specially good, if downbeat. He interrogates himself in a surreal and solitary travelogue that is more of an inward journey than the literary safari it purports to be: Hughes has written a fine account of the small agonies of a professional writer. There is the displacement activity of a party in Sweden, an account of a writer's residency south of Florence. We are treated, at a length some might find extreme, to details of a medical problem concerning an ankle. Eventually hospitalised, he fears for his mobility... and spends his time watching TV and reading the papers.

The Hack's Tale may, perhaps, be explained as a byproduct of post-operative delirium. Few things are certain in this confusing curio except its publisher is the online begetter of Harry Potter.


Stephen Bayley

The GuardianTramp

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