Persistence of Light

I just finished reading John Hoyte’s memoir, Persistence of Light. As many of you know, I have been on a bandwagon urging people to write their memoirs—I am beginning to write my own–and John’s work gives me an excellent reason to carry on the crusade. The only problem is that the events of John’s life are so extraordinarily interesting, compared to anybody else’s, they may intimidate the rest of us.

At the risk of simplification I will divide Persistence of Light into three parts of interest: Japanese prison camp, Hannibal’s elephant, and everything else. First, Japanese prison camp.

John grew up in China as the child of missionary parents. His father, a medical doctor, seems to have been of that enterprising, open-minded, omni-capable type you still run into in far-off parts of the world. With such a parent, John and his five siblings lived lives of considerable adventure—sometimes self-initiated, as when the whole family spontaneously got into a rowboat and rowed out to a British cruiser that had anchored off the coast. Some of their adventures came unbidden, since China was at war with Japan, and Communists were fighting Nationalists. China was a dangerous place, though John’s parents insulated their children from most fears.

However, in 1940 John’s parents were called to an emergency hospital assignment 1,300 miles inland. They left their six children at the coastal boarding school they were attending at Chefoo. When war with Japan erupted in 1941, the students were put into a prison camp, along with other resident aliens, adults as well as children. This was the same prison camp where Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, was imprisoned and died of a brain tumor. John knew him well, for Liddell took a great interest in the camp’s children.

The prison camp inmates were not tormented or abused, but they suffered from hunger and cold and crowding. The worst deprivation for John was parental. He was eight years old when his mother and father left for inland China, and he was not to see them for five years. During the war, they had almost no communication. John’s older siblings were with him, but life in both boarding school and prison camp kept them mostly separated. Then, as the final blow, came news that his mother had died. It was unthinkably devastating. He would never see her again.

John’s telling of liberation at the hands of American soldiers is extraordinarily exhilarating. Then came the slow and confusing reestablishment of ordinary life—finding their father in turbulent, chaotic post-war China, returning to an England they hardly knew, and finding their way without the guiding light of their mother. John’s early years were both extraordinarily stimulating and joyful—with music and art and adventure—and horrifyingly traumatic. It is a hopeful reminder that trauma is not destiny. He emerged, somehow, as a bright, curious, open-minded and adventurous man, a leader who organized teams around his (sometimes) eccentric vision.

That brings us to Hannibal’s elephant. While at Cambridge University, John developed an interest in the controversies surrounding the route Hannibal took over the Alps with his elephants, invading Rome. Several possibilities were hotly debated. John, studying the ancient documents, got a small university grant to take a student team to climb the relevant passes and see for themselves. A few years later, when John was in the working world, he was inspired to borrow an elephant from the Turin zoo, and recreate (sort of) Hannibal’s epic journey. It was an inspired stunt that got him a seven-page feature in Life Magazine, and an appearance on the well-known TV show To Tell the Truth, where he won $500, more than doubling his life savings. He tells the whole adventure in great detail.

Such an expedition may be a lark, but it requires a lot of thoughtful organization and leadership. This is somewhat typical of John: he has quirky inspirations that require others’ participation, and the leadership skills to bring a team together.

Part three, “everything else,” centers on John’s career in Silicon Valley, where he joined Hewlett Packard in its generous early days, and later launched his own start-up. That business, though it never flew to the moon in the way that storied Silicon Valley start-ups did, survives to the present day. Leading a start-up is not altogether unlike taking an elephant over the Alps, it seems.

In the same period, John’s interest in philosophical  and religious questions, in art and literature and music, opened him up to the San Francisco cultural scene, from the Beats, to the hippies, to the Vietnam rebels. Mostly, it appears, he was inspired to listen and learn. His wife Alma had been to Francis Schaeffer’s l’Abri, a refuge for religious searchers in the Swiss Alps. Imitating that, she and John organized eclectic weekly gatherings in their home. They opened their lives to many diverse people, including, for one Christmas meal, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.

I am leaving out quite a number of interesting vignettes, including the tragic death of Alma to cancer, and John’s subsequent—and sudden!—marriage to the poet Luci Shaw. Very few people have so many interesting things to write about. That, truthfully, is what makes Persistence of Light attractive to people who don’t know John.

Given that most people have less fascinating material to work with, should they write a memoir? I believe so. I’m motivated by the fact that my maternal grandfather, William Sutherland, dictated a 20-page memoir late in life. I only wish he had left us ten times as much. My own parents wrote nothing, and I am left with questions that I now have no one to ask.

You don’t know exactly what may come out when you sit down with a blank sheet. Whatever appears, however, will have an audience. Your children and grandchildren may not immediately find your thoughts of interest, but sooner or later somebody will want to know what the old coot had to say. And what more important things are you doing, than passing on your memories, your thoughts, your values and your faith?

Persistence of Light by John Hoyte is available at


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3 Responses to “Persistence of Light”

  1. mindy anderson Says:

    Thanks for this, Tim. I forwarded it to my dad to encourage him as he finishes his own memoir.

    Love Mindy

  2. Dustin Ellington Says:

    I’m convinced. Great late-in-life project. And thanks for that line about people wanting to know what the old coot had to say.

  3. David Graham Says:

    If you have contact with John Hoyte, you should ask him what his impressions were on reading Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound, since that was where Hoyte was also interned. Did he find Gilkey’s portrait and conclusions synced with his own or not? That would make for a fascinating dialogue.

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