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

Like many women of that era, Edith stayed at home while the children were little, occasionally helping out in the clothing factory of her brothers Tom and Walter when they were short of machinists. Ted's sister Olwyn remembers that she was a "good walker and a good swimmer" and "very good at many other things." She took the children on outings, showing them places such as the shallow pools and rocks in Cragg Vale, occasionally taking them as far as the "high roads" along the top of the valley with beautiful vistas all around.

Occasionally, the whole family would go on trips a little further afield, to Hardcastle Crags, for example, with its little restaurant where tea and coffee were served, and where Olwyn remembers Ted and herself fishing off the stepping-stones in the river with little nets. And she remembers that at Easter, they went up the hill, past Ewood, a Farrar residence in past centuries, to Midgley to watch the pace-eggers doing the mystery plays.[12]

The house in 1, Aspinall Street was a typical British end-of-terrace house with a narrow strip of garden in front[13], a living room downstairs and a small kitchen by the back door. The parents' and Olwyn's bedrooms were on the first floor and the boys' room was in the attic. It had a small roof window facing south, and you had to be quite tall or stand on a chair to look out of it as a child. If you looked left, past the towering shoulder of Mt Zion Chapel (now demolished) you could see parts of Scout Rock on the other side of the valley.

The imposing Mt Zion was a Methodist chapel looking on to the canal. Its side faced the side of the Hughes' house, and two downstairs windows and one on the first floor would look directly onto it. Olwyn remembers the road between "house and chapel was quite wide" so that "at least in summer at a fairly early hour, the chapel did not hide the sun."[14] And while Ted would later describe Mt Zion as dark and oppressive – a "Satanic Majesty,"[15] "a deadfall" mass,[16] – his sister chiefly remembers the chapel as a warm place, cheerful even, a place where the local children met, and a social place for the families who took part in chapel activities.

The Hugheses were no fervent chapel-goers, but Olwyn remembers that their mother "used to go and sing her heart out." William however, hardly "ever went except for funerals and things." She also mentioned: "We used to be in the choir, you know, on Easter Sunday, and it was great – it was a great place, that chapel, looking back. I think I didn't realise it until I went up there and saw it had gone. It was like the heart of the whole area gone." The people who looked after Sunday School were all middle-aged, "very good-natured Yorkshire people who knew one's parents," and "there was a lovely atmosphere there. It was very, very nice. And it was where all the children used to meet."

At Sunday School there was usually something in the offing, "like a concert that we would be trained to sing little songs for, or some days somebody would sit down and form a little group and tell us a biblical story, and that sort of thing." But what the children really liked, of course, were "the occasions": "They used to have evenings where they sat there and where all the local housewives would bake tarts, you know. It was a very nice centre." Olwyn also recalls that "there was a lot of kindness there. I do just think of it as a sort of very warm, sweet place to go."

Gerald though had had a very disappointing experience with the people running Mt Zion when he

and a group of friends, all around 14 or 15, in some noisy game when leaving the chapel, upset the people running Mount Zion and where barred from attendance. My mother urged the boys to go and apologise which they all did. But it was thought they had come to cause trouble and, their apologies unheard, they were sent away again.[17]

But Ted, even though he may not have liked chapel as much as Olwyn, "was always perfectly okay, he was always there. He used to like Sunday School."

In front of the house was a little square, called the 'Plot Dam', deriving its name from its use for the bonfire and celebrations on Guy Fawkes Night (5th November). Ted's best friend of the time, Derek, remembers that the local children would go "proggin'" in Redacre Wood and similar areas, collecting whatever dry wood they could come by, hauling logs with ropes, "anything that burned," to build the fire.[18] And they would always have "a massive plot!" 'Plot raiding' was a common sport, so the plot had to be guarded lest other gangs of children steal your wood or even light your plot before Plot Night. In spring, the children would go 'docking' – collecting the young 'dock' leaves (bistort) in the hard-to-get-to places by the bank of the canal for the valley's now famous Dock Pudding. And they sold the docks to buy 'spice' (sweets) or a cream bun from Toothill's Bakery. Derek remembers: "The grown-ups didn't use to go through that hedge [by the bank] and we could crawl in between and get all the best ones, you see." And: "We used to go sellin' them, these docks, in carrierbagful, for about sixpence for a carrierbagfull, and Teddy used to do that as well." Because, after all, "you could buy a little ship like a lollipop for a penny or a ha'penny or somethin', and we'd sell these docks all up Banksfields and everywhere."

There were several residents of Banksfields who, like Derek's father, had little allotments and hen pens at the top of the little estate where the children frequently played.

Teddy, as his friends then called him, and his best mate, Derek 'Bunny' Robertshaw, were the same age and lived just around the corner from each other. Other boys roughly their age included Brian Seymour who was a year older than Teddy and Derek, and Donald 'Croc' Crossley, who was about a year younger. Among the events that stand out in Derek's mind is building "ocean liners" of wood that they sailed on the brook at the far end of Redacre Wood near Broad Bottom Farm. Derek's was the "Queen Mary," and Teddy sailed the "Mauretania," "and nobody used to bother us." As Teddy wasn't into "footballin' or cricket," they played there quite often, hanging ropes from trees with a bit of stick at the end – "that were our swings" (something the children are still at today). They looked at birds' nests or rabbit holes and climbed in the little quarry above the wood. "We used to go up the moors as well. On the Midgley moors. There was the grouse and all the shootin' butts, and we were lookin' in there, and see what we could find, if there was anythin' different." They even ventured "right over to the reservoirs – there's some reservoirs further over – we'd go there. Anythin' like that. We used to make our own pleasures, you know." And he goes on: "I wouldn't say Teddy was a footballin' or cricket fan, because he wasn't. […] We used to do more in nature, you know. […] Up them moors it was the pheasants you see, and the curlews."

The moors were also where they'd go to collect sheep wool or gather bilberries. "We were always out, even if it rained," says Derek, though, of course, they played in each other's houses too. But that's a story told often before, so I won't repeat it here.

They were a lively bunch, no doubt, making their own adventure games, once torturing a member of their little gang in ill-perceived American Indian fashion, tying him to a tree and lighting a fire beneath him – with, as one version of this story has it, Olwyn coming to the rescue just in time. Some of the locals still tell of events such as Teddy putting a frog down a girl's back and banging on it, or a mouse. Ted in his turn remembered that the girl whom he gave the ‘frog treatment’ was once trying to stone him. Generally though "we didn't bother with girls much," says Derek.

[»Click here to read Part IV

Notes:

[12] Pace-egging is an old Easter custom, apparently once widespread throughout England and Europe, and probably pre-Christian in origin. The word 'pace' derives from the older English 'pask', 'paas' or 'pasch' meaning 'Easter.' Pace-eggs are specially decorated eggs, often wrapped in onion skins for colour and boiled. They were eaten for breakfast on Easter Sunday, used as ornaments or for games, and handed out to the pace-eggers – mummers with blackened faces and wearing animal skins who went through the streets, singing the traditional pace-eggers' song and extracting eggs or money as tribute.

The content of the pace-egging plays is similar to mumming plays that were traditionally performed around Christmas. At the centre is a death and rebirth cycle involving a fight between the hero (usually St George) and the villain (who usually goes by the name of Old Tosspot), who is often portrayed as a foreigner such as the Turkish Knight. The corpse is then revived by a doctor and there usually are appearances by other characters too.

[13] Letter by Olwyn Hughes, 17 January 2008.

[14] Ibid.

[15] "The Canal's Drowning Black," in Elmet (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 61.

[16] "Mount Zion," ibid., 73.

[17] Letter by Olwyn Hughes, 17 January 2008.

[18] This and the following quotes of Derek Robertshaw are taken from an interview with Derek and Phyllis Robertshaw in August 2002.

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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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