Claas Kazzer: What is the Truth? Ted Hughes, Childhood, Memories and Stories (Part V)

Soon, Ted came to Crookhill regularly, often staying over night, sometimes camping out on the estate in a small tent in the summer.

He came on Fridays, from School. My mother used to say: 'Oh, you staying the weekend, then?' 'Yes please.' 'Right, put your things in the … ' – we had a big cupboard on the step – 'Put your things in there and go and do your homework.' And they boys used to: 'Oh well, you know, it's absolutely ideal for fishing at the moment!' They didn't want to do their homework. […] That was them. He fitted into the family."

John and Edna's father was always willing to share his knowledge of nature and animals with the children. He was a quiet, kind, but strict man. Edna remembers that he always made sure you saw things that happened around them: "If there were badgers about … It didn't matter if it was two o'clock in the morning, he would come and quietly wake you up: 'Get dressed, be very quiet,' and take us." She recounts that her father "used to be able to walk without any sound […] and he taught the boys to do it, and sit down and watch the badgers play." When they came back, they had a hot drink and went to bed. And "every year the frogs came from this pond in Edlington to our pond, and they crossed the drive at about, oh, ten or twelve yards, solid of frogs, and you could hear them, coming across the fields." And her father would make sure the children saw it, likewise the pheasants, and partridges, "when they got chicks, you know. He'd take … you weren't allowed to touch them or weren't allowed … he'd take you to watch them, and to see how they were and that sort of thing. He was very good in that way."

Moreover, Edna's and John's father seems to have reinforced a strong sense of responsibility for one's actions, as when Ted once brought an owl to The Lodge: "He had an owl, you know. It was on the road. And I think it had been injured, so he picked it up and brought it up, and dad had some outbuildings, not at The Lodge but at the top of the drive, and they put it in there." And Edna remembers her father saying: "'Right. You got this animal – you look after it.' Because that was his philosophy […] if you did anything like this. And so he had to feed it. Dad said: 'I'll do it while you're at school – when you're here, you …'" And then, Ted "used to sit and talk to it for hours! […] as if it was another person! Till John used to …: 'Oh, come on, let's go fishing!' […] But he had a great regard for animals, even as a youngster."

On the other hand, the boys tried out all sorts of things. Once they threw a hedgehog into the pond because they had heard that hedgehogs could swim. "I mean that was quite hilarious, really, […] for two boys to chuck a hedgehog in the lake and then see the poor thing trying to get back to land." Seeing the animal struggle for life, they got quite upset, "got it back and then he took his pullover off and wrapped it in it, took it up to The Lodge – it was an old house and it had a big range […] – there was this pullover with this very wet hedgehog on the path, being dried. Mum went mad …!" That was the sort of thing Edna remembers the boys doing.

And they used to catch frogs where the pond is and string them up on the barbed wire […] all the way round the pond. And if they shot rooks or anything, they got hung on the [wire] … But then they'd be sorry about it – quite normal, you know – that it wasn't quite the sort of thing to do. Then we used to have a funeral ….

It was in Mexborough at around the age of eleven that Ted had made his first attempts at writing, and Edna remembers his inclination to exaggerate in order to tell a good story. She also remembers walking with him, asking her opinion of what he'd just come up with: "At fifteen, he was quoting his own poetry." Sometimes, when John wasn't there, he used to say:

'Right. Come on, let's go round the fields.' And, I mean, we were so free and easy then, we were out all day, and […] we had a bottle of lemonade, and […] he'd say: 'Listen to this.' I couldn't make head or tail of it. And I used to: 'Ted, I don't know what you're talking about!' 'Arrgghh,' he'd shout, 'arrgghh!,' you see, and then he'd go off at a tangent, you wandering along, and then he'd say: 'Alright, listen to this!' […]" Sometimes she'd say: "'Oh yeah, well that sounds quite nice,' […] But some of it was … I could not understand. But he knew what he was … [after].

Edna also recounts that

once he got that owl he used to write all sorts of things about it. […] And he would leave them stuck in the […] post in the shed, in the barn where the owl was. And he used to […] write bits of poetry and put them in knotholes in trees. He always had a pencil and some paper in his pocket. Always. From being very young. And if he wrote something [I did not understand/like], as I say, he'd get one of my hairgrips out of my hair and stick it in the knothole in the tree.

 

Now, that I've sketched out parts of that 'ordinary' childhood and youth based on reconstructions from friends and visits to places, let me return to Ted's own writing – even though there are several other such stories worth telling. How did Ted go about writing autobiographical stories? Is it possible to trace the transition between biography and fiction there? Where does biography end and story begin?

Ted's first poem and the draft outline for a short story, "Harvesting," both appeared in the school magazine "The Don and Dearne" in June 1946. "Harvesting" is set on Manor Farm and based on Ted's experiences. In his notes on published works from 1992, he writes: "I often took part in those harvestings – in fact, I rarely missed a field."[25] The draft of 1946 outlines the sequence of events of a shooting at a harvest, very accurately observed, and exhibits Ted's gift at expressing action with powerful, gripping words. Yet, it merely contains the basic ingredients to a story, nothing more. Joe Chilton, Edna's husband, explains:

In those days, if […] you have a field of corn – […] you cut it, by machine if necessary, or they used to cut it by horse – you have to have or you should have, half a dozen men round, with guns. Because in the corn is perhaps, oh …, fifty rabbits! I've known eight foxes in a field of corn, and we got the lot! Or rather the men got the lot, cause I was a boy then.[26]

Of course, there were economic aspects behind it, with rabbits and hares to eat and to sell, and with the fur to be made into pieces of clothing.

In Ted's draft story, one hare gets away, and we learn that the keeper is secretly stashing away two rabbits. In 1959 Ted rewrote the story, as a spin-off of a series of autobiographical stories about his boyhood that never fully materialized. Now called "The Harvesting," it runs over several pages, much enhanced with detail and with a good pinch of magic to it. At the moment when the protagonist, who is exhibiting signs of sunstroke or heart attack during the story, shoots at the last hare, he turns into a hare himself, wounded, furiously and vainly trying to escape the hounds. This is quite a long stretch from the autobiographical experience – but as opposed to the draft, we suddenly have a good story full of excitement that leaves ample room for the reader to identify with individual characters and/or animals.

Another autobiographical piece set at Manor Farm is "The Rain Horse," written in 1958. Again Ted uses events from memory freely and imaginatively. In the notes that accompanied his sale of manuscripts to Emory University, Atlanta, he clearly differentiates between the biographical background and the fiction it becomes:

The story combines an experience of my Mother's, which was strangely repeated twice in my own life, and an exactly similar [sic] experience that my brother had with a mad cow. On each occasion, the animal kept pretending to attack, or really did attack but kept shying off at the last moment. The cow really did attack, demolished several walls, and had to be shot. None of these incidents happened at Manor Farm.[27]

[»Click here to read Part VI

Notes:

[25] Ted Hughes, Box 115-27. Notes on published Works, TS, March 1992. Ted Hughes papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[26] Joe Chilton, from an interview with Edna and Joe Chilton, 2 August 2002.

[27] Ted Hughes, Box 115-27. Notes on published Works, TS, March 1992. Ted Hughes papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

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About the Author

Claas Kazzer is a German independent scholar formerly associated with the University of Leipzig, Germany. He lives in Leipzig, where he works chiefly as translator and webworker.

His work on Ted Hughes includes "'Earth-Moon': Ted Hughes's Books For Children (And Adults)" (in Moulin (ed.) Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons) and several essays published on this site. Website: www.claas-kazzer.de.

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