Death becomes him

The letters of Ted Hughes led David Hare to reflect on the uneasy question: do you have to die to be

I only met Ted Hughes a couple of times, once at the very end of his life, when he told me how much he regretted not having spent more time working in the theatre. He talked authoritatively about actors and dramatists. He seemed to me a very good judge - another way of saying we agreed immediately about the play we had just seen, and then some others.

But you had only to listen to Hughes and within 30 seconds you felt confused, because he was so utterly unlike his reputation. As you may well have discovered by now, the Letters of Ted Hughes are an incomparable read - plainly the most enduring publication of 2007. I picked them up in a cheerless branch of Borders one Thursday morning, and by surrendering more or less every waking hour and turning all conversation away, I had finished their 800 pages by Sunday afternoon. But I put them down with an uneasy thought. Do you have to die to be understood?

The last time I wrote a letter to a newspaper was in November 2002, to protest the obituary of somebody I didn't even know. Karel Reisz had died, and by chance I'd watched his film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning only a few weeks before. The knocking obituary is a comparatively new fashion in Fleet Street, providing an opportunity for British journalists to indulge their favourite pastime of demonstrating at someone else's expense just how brilliant they imagine themselves to be.

The purpose of journalism is reduction, and nowhere is reduction more inevitable than in an obituary. The writer sticks in the little plastic flag, as if the corpse were meat in the butcher's window. But choosing the occasion of someone's death to sound off about why they may have annoyed you in life seems to miss the whole point. Isn't the way in which people die - the moment, the manner - somewhat significant? Doesn't it tell you something about them?

And therefore isn't it just crass - no, worse, it's bad reporting - to wind back the clock to what you felt 20 years previously? If on the very day of Ted Hughes's funeral, you devote a full page, like the idiot in the London Evening Standard, to telling the reader how much you hated his poetry at school, then, frankly, you're a bad journalist. Another way of putting it: you're missing the story.

Death changes people. We have no idea who anyone is going to be until they die. In Hughes's case it was partly the nature of his ambition that made it difficult for his readership to deal with him when he was around. At the age of 18, Hughes clearly resolved to take only the very greatest poets as his models, to study a few names exclusively, and to spend his life in emulation. His astonishing project was thereby to redeem English poetry.

I'd always thought the most confident statement I'd ever read by any artist was when Seamus Heaney told the Guardian that it had always been clear to him that he was going to have a relationship with the public; it was just a question of what form that relationship would take. But even Heaney's self-certainty seems as nothing next to Hughes. However, now his work is done - and he has turned out not to be able to do what Shakespeare did - so the madness of what Hughes wanted, its reach, its scale, which seemed so preposterous in life, has suddenly come to appear rather moving, even heroic, precisely because the poet is dead. The light has been moved and the thing looks different. Today Hughes is valued as he seldom was when he was alive.

Of course, like most people of my age - I turned 60 earlier this year - I've lost an awful lot of friends and acquaintances. Sometimes it seems that's what life is: standing and watching other people go, then going yourself. But one of the oddest things about death is that you can never predict whose will reverberate and whose won't. It sounds callous, but it isn't always the people who've been closest to you who hit you the hardest. Often someone you barely knew nags at you daily by their absence. Because you can finally see the shape of their life, what you might call their destiny, so their death seems to acquire extraordinary power and suggestiveness - often linked to an elusive feeling that something about this person has escaped you.

Some people you can put away. You knew them, you felt you understood them and they're gone. But the disturbing ones are often the ones you never got the hang of, the ones whose actions and motives become more mysterious with time, not less. Small incidents acquire huge significance.

One evening in the mid-1990s I stupidly went to a party in the radio building in Portland Place. I was lost and didn't know anyone, and those few I did know were not bothering to disguise their hatred. (That TV arts presenter who looks like the Yorkshire Ripper was absolutely glaring.) I was on the edge of the room and planning to leave. Suddenly Jonathan James-Moore appeared. I'd known him a little at university, more than to say hello to, but less than well. For a long time he'd been a BBC comedy producer on Radio 2 and he came across the crowded room as a pure act of kindness, because he could see I was floundering. We hadn't spoken for 30 years but we chatted away for a while, he full of warmth and good humour.

In 2005, without having seen him again, I opened a paper and found he had died, at the ridiculous age of 59. I read the obituary with fascination, learning things I'd not known - two early motor accidents, a lot of pain, a terrible struggle with depression. I was devastated.

Later, a contemporary found some old black-and-white film of us all in the 1960s when we were students. Hyperactive in our polo-neck sweaters and drainpipe jeans, we looked like characters who'd just blown in from a Godard film, as photographed by Raoul Coutard. The boys looked neurotic, the girls unbelievably glamorous, because so unaware of their glamour.

But much the most startling figure was Jonathan: shock-haired and alive as if someone had just given him some bolts of electricity straight from the mains. I stared and stared, ashamed and disproportionately moved - moved almost to tears. Why had I never noticed how damned interesting Jonathan was? On scratchy 16mm film, did he seem the most alive precisely because he was the one who was dead?

A few years ago I was rung up by the BBC and asked if I could record an interview for a film they were preparing for the night the Queen dies. They told me that everyone they had chosen to speak to had unsurprisingly turned out to be an admirer, and, in the fabled interests of balance, they needed the opposing point of view. "Oh," I said, "you mean you want me to attack the Queen on the night of her death?"

I declined, not because it was the Queen, but because it was anyone. In fact, as it happens, they asked me again, this time for Margaret Thatcher and I said no a second time. Surely, the day someone dies is the day when the serious business begins of working out who on earth they were.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007