When Clifford Hughes lost his voice to cancer his reaction was brutally frank: “Can’t speak, can’t communicate, might as well be dead.”
For a man whose career encompassed three voice-based professions – singing, teaching and preaching – it was devastating and drove him to the depths of despair. But, once he had run the gamut of bereavement responses, he bounced back with his own brand of self-deprecating humour, a trait that illustrated the joy he reaped throughout his life, no matter what he confronted.
Utilising his student nickname, bestowed as the result of sporting a rather bedraggled Gordon Highlanders’ kilt, he summed up his predicament in one of his customary limericks:
A tenor called Hairy McKnees
Used to soar to top Cs with
But his laryngeal op,
Caused his voice range to
To basso profondo low Ds.
When later diagnosed with prostate cancer, his attitude was “B****r it – cancer at both ends!” He laughed it off and got on with the business of living and raising awareness of the disease.
Having already discovered life could be rebuilt, he tackled it anew aided by his faith, humour and family.
It was a life that had taken him from boy soprano from South Wales to the world- renowned choir of King’s College, Cambridge, then on to become a tenor on the recital and opera circuit, which he combined for a while with teaching in Scotland, and finally to the ministry at St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington, a role he relished.
Music and religion had been constant threads: as a small boy in Newport he was introduced to singing by his mother, also an accomplished singer, who took him to concerts; at Cambridge he was born again after being persuaded to hear the Rev John Stott speak during his mission work on university campuses.
Hughes’ broadcast debut was as an 11-year-old soprano on the BBC’s Children’s Hour. He went on to win a choral scholarship to King’s College as an alto soprano before studying at Cambridge, where he enjoying a period of riotous living. However, after Rev Stott’s visit led to his conversion, he knuckled down and completed his degree.
Although he toyed then with the idea of making singing a full-time career, he felt his calling was teaching and took a job at Hurst Grange boys’ school in Stirling in 1959.
In the 1960s he passed auditions for the BBC and the Scottish Arts Council and was in great demand as a singer, travelling all over the country, from Inverness to Dumfries giving recitals, performing oratorios and often featuring on radio on television.
STV gave him a series, At Your Request, and he eventually had to decide between teaching and freelance singing. The latter won.
Once described as Scotland’s foremost lyrical tenor, he sang at an eclectic mix of venues including the Edinburgh Festival, Christian outreach events at little Baptist chapels and a Christian crusade at Butlins in Filey.
In 1971, at the European Congress on Evangelism in Amsterdam, he shared a platform with the American evangelist Billy Graham and pop star Cliff Richard. Hughes, who taught English, history and scripture, got the opportunity to return to teaching in the mid-1970s when he took on the job of creating Beaconhurst Grange School at Bridge of Allan, an independent co-educational boarding and day junior school, formed by the merger of Hurst Grange and Beacon Schools.
After that he moved to Loretto School Musselburgh as headmaster of the junior school.
But by the mid-1980s, after 11 years as a headmaster and following the deaths of his father, mother and one of his sisters from cancer, he decided on a change of course.
He became a fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Relief, helping to raise £1 million for the oncology unit at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital, where he would later become a patient. He also created a musical meditation programme of scriptural readings which he presented at churches all over Scotland until, within the space of a week, three friends independently suggested he might consider the ministry.
That propelled him on to his next career.
A few months later he was studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Edinburgh University’s New College and in 1993 he was ordained and inducted to St Mary’s in Haddington.
There he thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the children in the short, informal family services he developed and found getting out into the community most fulfilling. One of his huge pleasures was the creation of services which he described as like writing a symphony. It was after one of the family gatherings, around the Millennium, that a member of the congregation, a surgeon, raised concerns about his voice, which had degenerated into a coarse whisper. The diagnosis was cancer and in 2001 his voice box was removed. “I thought my useful life was over,” he said.
He retired early from the ministry and learned how to talk again, coincidentally at the same time as his two small grandchildren. They also helped him discover the therapeutic value of laughter in healing when, mischievously eyeing the plastic filter protecting his stoma, they would ask “Grandpa, can we press your button?”
From being terrified that his speech would resemble “a phantom burp”, he was heartened to find he still sounded like himself, albeit at a lower timbre, and delighted when a woman in his congregation described his voice as “rather sexy”.
Latterly he was a pioneering champion for people with communication difficulties, lecturing to speech and language therapists at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and Strathclyde University, Glasgow and appearing as a keynote speaker at numerous conventions and seminars.
He was awarded honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy for outstanding service to the college and to people with communication disabilities.
A leading contributor to the Scottish Government’s first ever civic participation project for people with communication support needs, he helped to develop and promote the Talk for Scotland toolkit and Principles of Inclusive Communication to hundreds of policy makers and public sector staff across the country. In June 2012 he led Time for Reflection at the Scottish Parliament.
Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer after successfully reclaiming his voice, he faced the disease for a third time when pancreatic cancer was diagnosed last autumn. He revealed his latest illness during a BBC Scotland interview with Cathy MacDonald days later.
He then joked that, having had cancer at both ends, “I’ve got one in the middle as well,” adding: “It does not worry me. I know I’m going to be well cared for.”
He died suddenly at his home in Kinross on Christmas Day and is survived by his wife Kathleen, children Rick and Clare and grandchildren Calum and Iona.
An enduring source of hope and inspiration, a service to celebrate his life is being held at St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington at 11.30am on 18 January.