In a new memoir, Ted Hughes’s brother Gerald writes about their close bond and the time they spent growing up in Yorkshire. He talks to Chris Bond.
TED Hughes was one of the finest and most original poets of the last century. His powerful, muscular verse along with seemingly every morsel of his life, in particular the intense and ultimately doomed relationship with Sylvia Plath, have been picked apart and scrutinised.
In the 14 years since his death, he has continued to fascinate people, not only poetry lovers and academics but those interested in the natural world. There have been numerous books and a high-profile film, starring Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow, each offering its own interpretation of the man and the poet.
Now, his older brother Gerald has written a charming and moving portrait of the close bond between the two men. Ted And I, A Brother’s Memoir, which includes a foreword by Ted’s daughter Frieda Hughes, brings to life a period when the two brothers roamed the Calder Valley hills spending their time camping, fishing and hunting rabbits and stoats.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post from his home in Australia, Gerald, who is now 92, explains why he wrote his evocative memoir. “It had crossed my mind that I will be gone in a few years and I felt I should get down some of my thoughts before they are lost for good,” he says.
Gerald was nine when his brother Ted was born and he recalls with great clarity their idyllic days growing up in West Yorkshire. “As soon as Ted was able to run around he would accompany me on my rabbiting trips in the hills above Mytholmroyd. Each day and each week we would go a little further and finally we got to the edge of the moors,” he says.
It was on these early hunting expeditions that Ted first became interested in wildlife and nature.
“He was very serious about it, there was no joviality and when he joined me on a shooting expedition he was always very quiet. I remember him saying he felt like he was an Indian hunter.
“But it wasn’t just shooting, we were both interested in model aircraft and kites and we were always making new ones and taking them up on to the hills. We would also go fishing in the canal and catch lots of little fish and sometimes a trout. I made him a net with a long rod using some old curtain material I cut up and we would put the fish in jam jars in the kitchen,” he says.
“From very early on, he had an insatiable curiosity about everything. He would make notes about aspects of life that had escaped me. He wanted to know about certain birds, not only their names, but what their prey was and how far they flew and their breeding patterns. I would tell him as much as I could and what I didn’t know I would read about, so it was mutual education for us both.”
He says this innate curiosity with the world remained with him throughout his life. “He carried a notebook in his hip pocket wherever he went as well as several pens. I never saw him without a notebook. He wanted to know about the farms, who owned them and how they came about and in doing so he gained a sound knowledge of what was happening on the moors.
“I think it contributed greatly to his poetry and whenever I read some of his early poems they take me back to the hills of Mytholmroyd.” In the late 1930s, the Hughes family left the Calder Valley and relocated to Mexborough, an old mining town in South Yorkshire. “We quickly sussed it out and made acquaintance with several farmers to get permission to shoot rabbits on their land, we always did that.”
When war broke out, Gerald left his family and was sent to North Africa with the RAF where he was stationed with an Australian squadron working as an aircraft fitter. After the war, he returned home and worked for a short time as a policeman in Nottingham before emigrating to Australia. Despite having moved to other side of the world, the brothers remained close through Gerald’s visits to England and their open and regular correspondence.
By this time, Ted was honing his poetic skills and would discuss his work with his older brother. “He had read all the classics and he used to pass on his books to me, although he read 10 times the amount I did, and he would openly discuss his writing with me,” he says. “It really began to take shape and suddenly he started to write this wonderful poetry, his mastery of words and the ability to evoke such powerful images was in evidence very early on. I liked his accurate perceptions and the strength of his writing.”
Although Ted has become synonymous with the Pennine hills of West Yorkshire and the moors of Devon where he lived for most of his life, Gerald says he considered following him to Australia.
“He was initially very interested in coming to Australia, he said he could use his teaching diploma and made a point of saying he wouldn’t be a burden on me. He talked about buying a little farm and I told him that would be ideal. But in the event he met Sylvia [Plath] and his plans changed completely.”
He met Plath at the launch party for a literary magazine in Cambridge in 1956 and after a whirlwind romance were married within a matter of months. The following year, Ted burst on to the literary scene when his first book of poems, The Hawk in the Rain, was published to great critical acclaim.
But while their literary careers took off, their marriage started to flounder. “Sylvia had this full-blown enthusiasm about everything and at times I wondered where they would finish up,” says Gerald.
“In the end, whether it was down to anxieties I don’t know, she took her own life. I never met her but she wrote these incredibly warm, loving letters. I’ve never met anyone who wrote such detailed letters. She would have made a marvellous police inspector and been able to unravel the most evasive cases.”
He spoke to Ted following her death and felt his brother’s anguish. “He was terribly upset by what happened and I was worried about him, I think he really took some severe blows with that relationship. I often think could I have helped had I been there? But I couldn’t just leave, I had work commitments and my family in Australia.”
Tragedy continued to stalk Ted’s life, but in 1970 he married Carol Orchard, a nurse, with whom he remained for the rest of his life. In 1984, he was appointed Poet Laureate, taking over from another much-loved poet, John Betjeman. “He was incredibly proud to be Poet Laureate,” says Gerald. “He was surprised to be asked to take on the role but it’s one he took seriously and he kept writing good poetry, he never eased up.”
The last time the brothers saw each other was in 1990 when they went on a fishing trip to Scotland, along with some of Ted’s friends. It was “an emotional and truly happy reunion,” although Gerald says there was little in the way of salmon caught.
In 1997, Ted was diagnosed with cancer and in January the following year Birthday Letters was published, garnering widespread praise. “He wrote to us and said he had cancer and then I spoke to him and he told me that he was okay and if anything changed I would be the first to know. In that conversation we reverted back to what we did when we were boys, this was about a week before he died.”
Ted Hughes finally succumbed to cancer on October 28, 1998, and although his brother’s death came as a devastating blow, it was perhaps fitting that their final conversation should hark back to those precious days. “He was continually asking me to come back to England so that we could work together, ‘come over and play with a few bullocks’, he would say. I think his dreams involved me joining him and I think it did have something to do with trying to recreate those idyllic days when we were children.”
Ted And I, A Brother’s Memoir, by Gerald Hughes, published by The Robson Press, is out now priced £16.99.
The Ted Hughes Festival, organised by the Elmet Trust, runs from October 18-21. For details visit www.theelmettrust.co.uk
Ted Hughes: A life in verse
Ted Hughes was born at his family’s house in Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, in August, 1930.
He studied at Cambridge University and in 1956 he met and married the American poet Sylvia Plath.
His first volume of poems, Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957.
Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963.
In 1984 Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate, taking over from John Betjeman.
As well as being a poet, he wrote extensively for children, including the story The Iron Man.
He also wrote stories and plays and translated the work of, among others, Ovid, Aeschylus and Euripides.
He died in October, 1998.