JOHN Hughes is ambling along Vincent Street but his memory is racing ahead.
"It's funny," he murmurs, as he gazes down Cessnock's main street.
"It's like all the years are collapsing on top of each other. These really fleeting glimpses or sensations of walking down this street at different times in my life, and none of them feeling like they're fully focused.
"It's almost like being overwhelmed by the past."
Hughes points out the changes to the shopfronts, and the ghosts that he sees. The library has moved into the main street, just near where there used to be a pool hall. As a kid, young John would ride his pushy from the high school to play a few games in the hall with his mates.
He gestures to an older building and says he thinks that's where the Cox Bros store once was, a haberdashery where his parents, Val and Bob, first met.
He remembers the little businesses he once shopped in and walked past. They're mostly gone now, consigned to history.
But not entirely. The Cessnock of John Hughes' childhood lives in his writing, from his first book, a collection of autobiographical essays titled The Idea of Home, to his latest novel, No One.
The past has not overwhelmed John Hughes. Rather, he has revisited it and shaped it into words that have won acclaim and awards.
Indeed, as we wander along Vincent Street, Hughes is waiting to hear if he is the 2020 recipient of Australia's most prestigious writing prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award. No One was among six novels shortlisted for the award.
But the Miles Franklin drifts into the background as we reach the intersection of Vincent and Cooper streets. Instead, Hughes is searching for a sign of recognition in his hometown.
And there it is, right outside the Lowes menswear store. A plaque honouring "John Hughes. Author". He was inducted into the City of Cessnock Hall of Fame in 2006. However, the plaque is partly obscured by racks of tracksuit pants and fleece tops, as if the clothing display is determinedly upholding the stereotype of Cessnock.
Not that John Hughes minds. For this plaque to be in a working class city, best known for producing coal and champion rugby league players, is a source of immense pride to this man of words.
"I must admit, I was really quite blown away by it, and, I think, more moved by it than perhaps I thought I would be," Hughes says. "This is my hometown, so it's nice to have some sort of memorial and recognition that what I do is something worthy of memorialising."
Alison Haynes, the store manager for Lowes, says she has sometimes noticed the plaque, "depending on how many racks we have out the front".
But now that she can put a face to the plaque, Alison Haynes says she will be drawing people's attention to it.
"I'll say, 'Look at that plaque. I know that man!'," she says.
As a result of Hughes' exploration in words of his past, it's not just other people who now know "that man". John Hughes has come to know more about himself as well.
FOR this story, John Hughes is guiding me around Cessnock, showing me the community that helped shape him and his writing. After all, this is the place that inspired and inhabits The Idea of Home.
Hughes has driven from Sydney, where he has lived and worked for almost 30 years.
We meet where life began for John Hughes 58 years ago. He is standing outside the neat house where he spent his first five or so years, with a younger brother and sister. Quite appropriately for an astute observer of life, his first home is in View Street.
It was not a long journey from the maternity ward to the Hughes family home; Cessnock Hospital is directly across the road. Apparently when John was born, the doctor walked to the front gate and called out, "Mr Hughes, you have a son!".
That proximity defined John Hughes' early life. His whole world was held within a couple of blocks. And he developed an early idea of what home meant.
"I think home was very much the family."
His maternal grandparents, John-Paul and Alexandra Mahl, lived around the corner. They also owned a block of flats in View Street, just a couple of doors from their daughter's house.
John, as he was known, was an electrical engineer, but he loved building things, especially houses. His workshop was at the back of the flats, and his grandson would totter there.
"This is a kind of magic place really," John Hughes says, as he looks at his grandparents' investment property and recalls watching his Pop work with other blokes in the shed.
"Just watching men concentrating on what seemed to be quite fine work. The quietness of the labour."
In The Idea of Home, Hughes notes, "The coalfields is a culture in which there resides a deep mistrust of words". In that shed, among working men, the future writer first learnt the value of words, and of what is left unspoken.
"If you're going to use words, it's almost like use them wisely," Hughes says of what he learnt. "Don't waste them, in a sense."
But it was through his grandfather's words that he learnt about the world beyond Cessnock's Hospital Hill.
For the Mahls were post-war migrants, originally from modern-day Ukraine. John would listen to his grandfather's stories about life during the Second World War, and how words helped keep him alive. John Mahl was multilingual and he could translate and talk his way out of tough situations.
The grandfather also recounted how he and his young family, including John's mother as a little girl, undertook a massive journey, usually on foot, from Kiev to Naples, during the war and in the years afterwards, before finally travelling to Australia in 1949.
The family arrived in Cessnock a couple of years later. As Hughes describes it in his book, his grandfather was like "a piece of Eastern Europe in Cessnock's own backyard, harmlessly exotic".
The stories told by his grandfather instilled in John a fascination with his heritage.
Those stories taught him the most valuable currency many a migrant brought with them from the Old World to the new was memory.
And those stories planted the seeds for a writer to reap. John Mahl may have come to Australia for a new life, but in his stories of what he left behind lay the future for his grandson.
"It was very much a relationship in which I was a very willing listener, and he was a very willing talker," John Hughes recalls of his grandfather.
Learning to be a listener, Hughes says, also provided the groundwork for him to be a writer. John Hughes would become, using a term by one of his favourite authors, Elias Canetti, an "ear witness".
"The writer is someone who listens in, I suppose," he says.
THE house in Ann Street is recognisable from the cover of The Idea of Home. It is a brick place with a white column on the front veranda.
This is the place John Hughes moved to when he was about five. It is little more than a stone's throw from the View Street house. His grandfather built it in the late 1950s. And his parents still live in it.
Bob Hughes is a Coalfields man. He has lived all of his 87 years in the area, and he worked for a mine, just as his father had done. And his father before him. He has an easy smile and a gleam in the eye, especially when he sees his eldest child back in his home environment.
His wife of 61 years, Valentina, or Val, as everyone knows her, is quietly spoken. Just like her mother, who learnt English by copying out recipes from the Australian Women's Weekly, Val is revered in the family for her cooking.
That food helped nourish John Hughes in ways he could not have imagined.
The aroma of dishes from a faraway place, the snippets of Ukrainian spoken between Val and her mother in the kitchen, and the wonder that would create in a young man have all helped feed Hughes' story telling and are deeply embedded in his soul.
Val offers a slice of orange cake. The recipe, written in her mother's hand, is also on the cover of her son's first book.
"A lot of friends who have read the book have asked, 'Could we have the recipe?'," explains Val Hughes.
What Val also does well is keep things. According to what her son has written, she doesn't like to throw anything out. Instead, just about everything is packed away and stored in the basement.
As he says in the book, "The basement is the memory of the house". What's more, John Hughes points out, the attitude is one of "waste nothing", because one day the saved item might be useful. It is part of a survival strategy, learnt in lean times.
I mention to John that as a writer, he is much the same. He packs away memories and impressions, storing them, because one day they might come in handy.
"When you say that, it seems so obvious to me, but I'd never thought about it in those terms," he replies. "But I think that's exactly right. You never know when something might be useful."
John takes me downstairs. On the other side of the wall from where his Mum stored everything from the past, the teenage John had his bedroom. The ceiling may be low, almost touching our heads, but down here, the kid could reach for the stars.
He would sit at the little school desk his mother had bought from the Catholics over at Convent Hill on the other side of town.
On the wall in front of him were posters of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and from the record player behind him, wafted the plaintive lyrics written by those artists, along with the voices of other singer-poets, such as Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen.
"My record player was my other major escape," he explains.
But as a high school student, John Hughes' big escape was writing, as he collected thoughts on paper at his little desk.
In effect, he was writing a journal, filling volumes and volumes. Some of those journals remain in the basement, in Val's vast collection.
"I just liked that process of trying to see, of trying to capture things in words, and always feeling I fell short," Hughes says.
"There was always something that eluded me, so I wanted to come back and do it again. I think it's that sense of unfulfillment, in a way, that feeling of, 'No, I still haven't quite got it'."
It is a feeling that still stalks, and propels, John Hughes as he writes.
Back upstairs, Bob and Val Hughes talk with pride about their writer son, who attended Cessnock High School.
"He was always a pretty brilliant student," says Bob.
They wanted John to study medicine or law. Later, while walking along Vincent Street, we pass the office of a lawyer, who Hughes went to school with.
"He's living the life I should have been living," Hughes says, referring to his parents' wishes.
Actually, John Hughes did study medicine at the University of Newcastle - for a whole week. He changed courses to Arts to follow his love of words.
It may have caused pain at the time, but 40 years on, Bob Hughes says of his son's decision, "I do think he was right, because he's done something he likes to do".
They have read all six of their son's books, but Bob reckons The Idea of Home is his best "so far".
"Actually, you've made us all cry," says Val of reading The Idea of Home, with its stories about his family. "It was so emotional."
When asked why, she replies with one word.
LIVING in a regional mining city and holding dreams of a career in the arts may have been rare, but John Hughes wasn't walking alone.
One of his good mates was Brian, who lived in View Street. Brian was not only a fantastic pianist but he loved opera and had a large collection of pianola rolls.
The pianola fascinated John, as "you could see the roll sort of winding through, and listening to this music coming out".
"Brian" is the internationally renowned pianist and conductor Brian Castles-Onion, who has worked with giants of opera, including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo.
"He was my first ever best friend," says Castles-Onion on the phone from the Southern Highlands.
"We'd listen to records. I'd take my old 78s and cylinders to his place. I remember his basement, and I was showing him a cylinder, which I dropped and it smashed into a million pieces!"
Hughes' memories of his mate's pianola has wound its way into No One. The novel's main character is shunted between foster homes, including in Cessnock. His foster brother in Cessnock has a pianola with a couple of hundred rolls.
"What I could never get my head around was how the music was somehow buried in the paper in all the tiny perforations that looked to me like a language, like bird prints or worm trails in the sand," the protagonist in No One recalls.
Castles-Onion is thrilled that a childhood moment has become part of Hughes' story: "That makes me feel really warm and lovely."
Another of John Hughes' high school mates was John, from the nearby village of Bellbird. The two Johns would watch the cricket on the tele and ride their bikes through the bush. But they also loved talking about books, music, and art.
"It was not a common interest in our peer group," recalls the other "John", the author and Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald.
"I remember having a long conversation about Bob Dylan lyrics."
Like Hughes, both Castles-Onion and McDonald have been inducted into the city's Hall of Fame.
But when they were kids, the three of them gravitated to each other because their interests were out of the ordinary in Cessnock.
Yet even then, McDonald recalls of Hughes, "He was obviously someone who was going to come up with something".
By the time Hughes was finishing high school, the comfortable containment of Cessnock was feeling like confinement.
As his father notes, "He was never going to stay in Cessnock. Because he had broader horizons."
"It's not that there was anything so bad about it, but it's more just there was this feeling there was more," explains John Hughes. "It began to feel a bit small. I wanted to get out into the world."
JOHN Hughes loves the Coalfields' pubs. Not so much for the beer but for the sense of community that lies in the shadows of the deep verandas and at the bars inside.
He takes me to the Neath Hotel and shows me the doorstep he used to sit on when he was a kid, sipping lemon squash and munching chips, while his Dad had a drink.
"It seems to have changed so little," he says. Although the Italian restaurant wasn't part of the pub then. "You might have been able to get a pie or a sausage roll at the counter."
His father is from Neath, about seven kilometres from Cessnock.
Bob Hughes' roots burrow deep into this earth, deeper even than the seams his forebears mined. But young John wasn't that interested.
"I think I sided very early on with what I saw as the 'exotic' side of the family, the Ukrainian side," he recalls.
"The mining side, with the Scottish-Welsh background,... that didn't capture me with the same romance as the eastern European, the Ukrainian side."
Just as his mother's family had done, John Hughes set off on a long journey. He won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study literature.
At last, he was much closer to the environment of those writers who had inspired him to pursue words for a living.
Rather than read the likes of Beckett and Coleridge in his basement, he could live a literary dream in Britain.
Only John Hughes was dreaming of "home".
Wherever that was.
"While I was here, I was obsessed by there," he says. "And the moment I got there, 'there' wasn't what had obsessed me when I was here. And then I started to begin thinking a lot more about here."
As Hughes came to realise, and it forms a strong thread in his first book, "You have to leave home to realise the significance of it in your life."
Hughes left Cambridge and travelled in Europe. He then returned to Newcastle for a few years, before heading to Sydney. He planned to be a full-time writer.
But Hughes found he procrastinated so much, he could get as much done by taking a job - he works at Sydney Grammar School - and writing in his spare time.
In his imagination and writing, Hughes keeps wandering back to Cessnock. And, with the perspective provided by the years and his journeys, he has come to see his hometown differently.
"I don't think I could live in Cessnock again," Hughes says, "but I certainly love coming back and visiting it again."
RATHER than cross the threshold to the past at the Neath pub, we head into the historic Hotel Cessnock at the end of Vincent Street. Although Hughes calls it "Tinkler's", the name of a publican many years ago.
In here was where Bob Hughes first saw his future father-in-law, playing the accordion in the corner of the bar. His grandson now sits in that corner, under a dartboard and TV screens.
He thinks about what John Mahl found in Cessnock, and what he lost in coming here.
"For him, even though he loved this place, and there was no greater patriot or lover of this country than him, it didn't stop him feeling the loss of something that he left behind," Hughes says.
"To me, that sense of 'home' is, in a way, almost being where we're not as much as where we're are.
And I don't think that's a bad thing. I think there's something rich and stimulating about that as well. That we're continually trying to get a handle on this thing we never quite can."
WE arrive back at Bob and Val's place in time to find out if their boy is the next Miles Franklin Literary Award winner.
Earlier, at the pub, Hughes had said while growing up in Cessnock, he had come to realise it was possible to be a published writer, but "getting some recognition for what I was doing, I never would have thought about that in my wildest dreams".
Unlike in a rugby league match, where performance determines a result, he said, "the idea of literary competitions still strikes me as a bit strange in a way". Still, Hughes is proud to have been shortlisted, "and obviously it will help us to sell books, but at the same time ... it doesn't really change how I feel about myself."
As Hughes sits with his parents in the lounge room, the announcement comes through. The 2020 winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award is Tara June Winch's The Yield.
"I think she's a fantastic winner," says John Hughes. "I'm really happy."
His mother nods and says, "That's lovely", then looks softly at her son.
"You've still done well. Congratulations."
AS we sat in the Hotel Cessnock, surrounded by footy memorabilia and the memory of a Ukrainian man playing the accordion, I had asked Hughes what he reckoned John Mahl would have thought about his grandson becoming an acclaimed author. After all, Mahl died in 1988, 16 years before The Idea of Home was published.
"I think in a way it would be a vindication for him of coming to Australia," Hughes replied.
"For many of those migrants, especially those immediate post-war migrants, your aspiration was for your children and grandchildren."
In his own way, John Hughes is a migrant. He has made his life elsewhere, but his memory and muse are seamed with Cessnock. Hughes doesn't really need a plaque in Vincent Street to tell him who he is and where he is from.
"Wherever I am, I'm still thinking that's the place where I grew up," he says. "It is still the reservoir, I think, from which I draw most of my material really."
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