Philip Hobsbaum (1932-2005): Ghosts in the archive – Mary Gray Hughes

 history remains first and foremost an encounter with death

Arlette Farge, The Lure of the Archives (Yale Univ. Press, 2013), 8.

It might appear somewhat obvious to be talking about ghosts in the archive, as archival collections by their very nature are perhaps the natural residing places for ghosts and as Arlette Farage noted ‘an encounter with death’.  After all, the normal route of a collection into an archive often comes with the death of the author, although not always.  Yet, what struck me while cataloguing the series of papers MS Hobsbaum B: Writers was the various types of ghosts that flitted about the files and how their presence not only tracks Hobsbaum’s career, but also demonstrates the various roles and responsibilities that Philip adopted throughout his working life.

MS Hobsbaum BH/3: Mary Gray Hughes

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Mary Gray Hughes was a great friend to me when I was a young writer.  We met at the home of her friends, Anne Stevenson and Philip Hobsbaum.  This was the Spring of 1972 in Glasgow, Scotland and she was the main guest of the evening.  Others had been invited along to meet the visiting short story writer but they barely got a look in because I hogged her company.

James Kelman, Feb 2002 [MS Hobsbaum BH/3]

Hobsbaum left Belfast in 1966, when he took up the post of Lecturer at the University of Glasgow.  Life was quite difficult and challenging for Philip during this period and his transition to living in Scotland was not an overnight success.  However, in time, he again found the energy and inspiration to set up a literary reading group – the Glasgow Group, with contributors such as Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Anne Stevenson.

Hobsbaum later stated in a published conversation with Gerry Cambridge (The Dark Horse, Summer 2002) ‘I do think of all the groups I’ve run that the Glasgow group was the best.  For one thing, we had never made much headway in prose fiction, but in the Glasgow group: Alasdair Gray and Jim Kelman!  I regard these as two of the most prodigious talents in fiction.’ [p46]

Part of the dynamic of the literary reading groups was that of Hobsbaum opening up his house for the meetings, and Anne Stevenson noted that he ‘had a gift for focusing upon what an individual writer’s actual talents were and encouraging them in that direction.’   Through this medium Kelman and Hughes became acquainted and started up a correspondence that Kelman saw as ‘crucial’ to his early writing career.

Philip eventually settled in Glasgow and went on to become a Senior Lecturer (1972), Reader (1979), and then titular Professor of English Literature (1985) at the University, until his retirement in 1997.

Hobsbaum’s subject file on Mary Gray Hughes primarily includes original and photocopied short stories and poems by Hughes, some of which have clearly been published, while other pieces are draft typescripts, interspersed throughout by correspondence. We seldom find letters sent by Hobsbaum in his collection, as a rule he rarely kept copies of the letters he sent out.  However, in MS Hobsbaum BH/3, there is a very poignant letter from Philip dated 4 June 2000, which opens:

It seems an age and a half since I heard from you.  This suggests that we have quarrelled, or that you are very happy, or that you are very sad, or that you are very ill.  I hope not either of the last two.

Sadly, Hughes’s daughter had returned Philip’s letter with a card, informing Hobsbaum of her mother’s death the previous autumn.  Within this file, there is a clear sense of time passing, not just for the subject of Hobsbaum’s collection – Mary Gray Hughes, but also for Philip himself; he acknowledges in his letter to Mary that ‘The years are beginning to tell on me’.

In his conversation with Gerry Cambridge a couple of years later, Philip states:

I don’t think I’ve got ten more years, I may have five, probably less; but I’ll tell you this, a feeling that the tumbril is approaching makes one very well aware of one’s immediate whereabouts.  Also, my friends die.  I’m losing friends and acquaintances at the rate of roughly one every three weeks.  I’m not exaggerating, some are very serious bereavements, others are bits of one’s life going west, but I am going to too many funerals….  I’d like to write about my dead friends, but in such a way as to show that death is the mother of beauty…


Cataloguing of the Hobsbaum papers is ongoing. Please enquire in advance regarding access by emailing


MS Hobsbaum BH/3: Mary Gray Hughes (1971-2002) 1 box

Introduction by James Kelman for ‘memoir of Mary Gray, based on her early letters’ to Kelman, c2002, MS Hobsbaum BH/3

‘Philip Hobsbaum in Conversation’ with Gerry Cambridge, published in The Dark Horse Summer 2002, pp30-50







Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Special Collections

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