Tuesday 26 November 2013

John Hughes, an appreciation of a fine man

I have just discovered that John Hughes, the Principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, during my time there from 1983-85 has died at the good age of 84. His wife Violet, known to everyone as Vi died two weeks before him, which may suggest that he just gave up the ghost when she went. On the other hand, such was their obvious devotion to each other that the romantic in me prefers to think that Vi left John in the house whilst she went on to get things ready for both of them. You can read John's obituary at this link and the one for Vi is here. I don't want to repeat what others have already written so what follows is my personal appreciation of a fine man.

Ruskin College, Oxford, when I went there had strong links with the Trades' Union movement and most of the forty of fifty students who started there every year had links to that movement and many got into their college via union sponsorship and back scratching. On the first night of our two year courses, all the new intake were invited to attend a rather inedible dinner which was followed by a speech from John.

He welcomed us in that gentle voice of his to our new home and then in a very quiet, sad voice told us that since the college was founded in 1899 a ritual had taken place at that dinner at which each new Ruskin man or woman had been invited to stand up, to give their name and  their union to the rest. John said that it was like a roll call of British working class pride as miners, engineers, dockers and the rest all got to their feet one by one. As the roll call went on the voices became more and more defiant as the union names were given out.

I remember John saying that by 1981 it had all got too much to bear because by that year the students were saying which union they had formerly belonged to before going on the dole. John told us that he had dropped the ritual, and he did not say if it was ever going to start again. Most of use assumed that it would, but I suspect that the prescient John Hughes knew that the days of working class pride were over for many years to come.

Jumping forward almost two years to Trinity Term 1985 and I remember taking a rather lovely girl on to the river in a Ruskin College punt. I cannot remember her name but she had delightful Pre-Raphaelite hair and even more delightful breasts that moved of their own accord under her dress. I was supposed to be studying for finals, but the day was as lovely as the girl so I spent that afternoon on the river.

The next morning I was wandering back to my own college when I met John on a staircase and we paused to chat about that gorgeous weather. John told me that when he was studying for his finals he decided that if the weather was bad then he would dedicate the whole day to his books, but if the sun was shining he would go on the river. Looking me up and down, still wearing the same clothes that he had seen me in the day before, he then remarked blithely: "That strategy is not recommended, by the way."

It was during that time, Trinity Term 1985, that a Ruskin don  named David Selbourne decided to break the college apart if he could. Selbourne had been the great Marxist poster boy who decided to break with his past during the Wapping print workers strike by writing a piece lambasting the strikers and selling it to one of the Murdoch titles that was on strike. Needless to say all hell broke loose in the college.

John used all his skills as a negotiator as well as letting his basic humanity shine forth to ensure that the students agreed to sit finals. How he did it I have no idea, but at least one tutor told me that only John Hughes could have got everyone to agree to everything just long enough to ensure that we all sat our exams and got our diplomas.

To John Denis Hughes, 1927-2013, thank you for everything.


  1. Dear Ken, I have just seen this and want to thank you for it. I am his eldest daughter and went on to work as a tutor at Ruskin for 20 years.

    best wishes

    Katherine Hughes

    1. I am sorry that your comment got caught by the spam trap, Katherine, but I released it as soon as I found out. All comments to posts over two weeks old have to be moderated to try and keep the spam adverts under control.

      Your dad was quite a man, wasn't he? In his long life he did more for ordinary people than most politicians, that's for sure.


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