Historian uncovers a lost world of his own

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FROM local history, Peter Hunt has moved his authorial gaze to the personal in his latest book, Child of a Bygone Era.

Having written a short history of Jersey and a guide to the Island’s dolmens, and edited a collection of essays about the Island under the title A Crown Peculiar, Mr Hunt now writes about his own youth, positioning himself as the product of a lost world.

It is lost not only in the obvious sense that he must cast his memory back across more decades than he might wish to retrieve these childhood impressions but also because, brought up partly in Hong Kong, he evokes a colonial existence that many of us now associate terminally with Chris Patten and that rain-sodden handover ceremony almost of quarter of a century ago.

Mr Hunt describes a youth which was spent partly in Hong Kong, to which his parents moved just after the war, and partly at boarding school back in England, although he begins with an amusing cameo from the first weeks of his life as relayed to him by his mother.

Resident in Brighton, his father was disconcerted by the first Luftwaffe raids on the seaside town and determined to move further away from the vulnerable south coast for the safety of his young family – unwisely, he chose a flat in West London in which baby Peter was once inadvertently left in his pram one evening during an air raid, his parents each sure that he was in the care of the other.

But it is the contrast between a life in Hong Kong – which the author calls ‘vibrant, colourful and booming, which just seemed full of sunshine’ – and another back in England which is the focus of what may be the first in a series of autobiographical works.

Although a boy at the time, Mr Hunt picks up not only the sounds and images of the colony but also some of the deeper tensions which surface in the rumour that a rebellion is being planned by the local population.

Mr Hunt’s father confronts one of their loyal servants, who looks horrified and tells him that he could never countenance using violence on him or his dear family. ‘However, he went on to explain that he had come to an arrangement with the number one boy in the adjoining apartment that if such an event occurred, he would kill the inhabitants of that apartment and their boy would carry out this ghastly task in his place.’

Perhaps the one thing that positions the author in a bygone, rather than an extant, era is something of which we have all become more conscious in the past year or so when the phenomenon has all but disappeared – the wonder of modern travel.

When he first sets off for boarding school, he travels with his mother by sea from Hong Kong to America’s west coast before steaming south for the Panama Canal to reach New York and cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. A return air journey which he describes later seems barely less convoluted, involving stops in Rome, Beirut, Delhi, Calcutta, Rangoon and Bangkok. But then the BOAC Comet arrives to shrink his world to the one we know today.

There is a similar nostalgia associated with his education at Worth Priory primary school and Downside public school, from which he emerges none the worse for a few judicial beatings to return to Hong Kong to become a trainee journalist before he is set to take a place at Trinity College, Dublin. This is where we leave the author at the end of the book.

Those who think of Mr Hunt as a colourful presence today will be fascinated to read of these formative experiences and will be no less keen to discover just what comes next.

Child of a Bygone Era is published by Austin Macauley at £8.99 and is available from Amazon.

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