Harry Hoff, who died in September 2002 aged 92, was a Fellow of the RSL for 31 years and served for five years as an occasionally provocative, always lively, member of Council. He was best known, however, as William Cooper, author of Scenes from Provincial Life and some twenty other novels, as well as two plays, a memoir, a biographical study and another work of non-fiction. He also had a more-or-less full career as a civil servant. I am in debt to him, I believe, for my own Fellowship, as well as for one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard, an engaging friendship and, I fear, dinner.
Born in Cheshire, where his parents were teachers, he won a scholarship to read science at Cambridge. There his supervisor was C.P. Snow, under whose encouragement he later began writing novels while teaching science at Snow’s former school in Leicester. Three were published under his own name during the Thirties, with a fourth in 1946. He and Snow remained lifelong friends (the tracks of this friendship are easily traceable in Harry’s subsequent novels) and his British Council study of his mentor is still a useful introduction. After wartime service in the RAF he was appointed to the Civil Service Commission, in which he served with Snow, and thereafter in a variety of Civil Service appointments culminating with the Crown Agents.
He never lost his interest in science nor his respect for those who practise it. Indeed, he liked to remind the many writers he knew (he was active not only in what he liked to call the R. Soc. Lit. and the Soc. of A. but in PEN) that scientists were generally more intelligent than most writers realised, or were.
Scenes from Provincial Life, the book that made his name, was published in 1950. He wrote its successor, Scenes from Metropolitan Life, soon after but held it back until 1982 because of his publisher’s (possibly needless) fear of libel. This hiatus may have inhibited the natural development of his literary career, in that the Scenes from novels did not become quite the cohesive series he intended. The first was something of a literary albatross; he became known as one who had written a great first novel, and then some others.
Although they lack the energy and immediacy of Provincial, his subsequent Scenes from novels are in some ways more mature works. However, they also lacked the accident of timing that favoured Provincial and launched Harry as one of the radical new post-War novelists and playwrights. Writers such as Harry, Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, David Storey and – on the stage – John Osborne and Arnold Wesker naturally and independently chose settings, subjects and treatments illustrative of the egalitarian current of the times. In that sense, perhaps, the timing of Provincial was no accident; nor was Harry the only one to be dogged by the great-first-book albatross.
His views on the novel were trenchant: narrative novels Good, impressionist, modernist, post-modernist novels Bad. executed across a Surrey lane in his late seventies was impressive. Surrey, because I was visiting him at Mount Pleasant, a large 1930 house that functions as a remarkably cheap and comfortable retreat for (male) writers, artists and musicians seeking to rest or work in peace. Harry did much of his writing there.
In London he frequented the Savile Club, where he enjoyed the cut and thrust of conversation. Conservative in many ways, he continued the left-leaning con¬ventions typical of many of his age and background, and was often intolerant of things American. He was very upset, however, when many of his young American students were murdered over Lockerbie on their way home.
He was also deeply upset when predeceased by his wife, Joyce, who was fifteen years his junior. This prompted Scenes from Life and Death (1999), a touching and candid account which helped accommodate him to his grief, in which he was also greatly helped by his two daughters.
As for that piece of advice, it was fittingly imparted over dinner in the Garrick Club just after my second novel had come out. I was regretting that I had never made good a weakness I had been aware of but reluctant to confront all along – I had failed to make the hero’s girlfriend as interesting or significant as she should have been. ‘You should have made her want something,’ he said.
How right he was. Any character who wants something is immediately interesting – why, what will they do to get it, will they get it? I reminded him of it the last time we met, but he had forgotten. ‘Pretty good, though, wasn’t it?’ he said. ‘You may quote me some day.’