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

So, let me piece together here a summary of some events from Ted’s childhood and youth as told by his contemporaries and culled from his own comments – a sketch that will enrich and sometimes question the stories which his poems, stories, essays and interviews tell.

Ted Hughes remembered growing up in a small village at the bottom of a valley surrounded by moorland, rising gently but high up into the sky. In the story "The Rock" from a series of autobiographical pieces commissioned of authors by the BBC, he describes the village and its surroundings. He points out that on the opposite side from where he lived, the gentle slope of the moors broke off into a brooding cliff, "half-way up the sky."[8]

The cliff is called "Scout Rock," and he describes its powerful and threatening presence, watching him from his first day, "a towering gloom over my perambulator" and "infiltrating the very light of my room with its particular shadow." He also writes that the "oppression cast by that rock was a force in the minds of everyone there" and that "we valley-dwellers were stuck looking at the dark hairy wall […] and the final sensation was of having been trapped."

The name of the village where Ted grew up is Mytholmroyd (pron. /'maiðəmroid/). The valley is quite wide in most places around the village. There are several smaller valleys opening to both sides. Most of them have small streams coming down from the hills that can turn into raging torrents when it rains. In some places, the main valley's river Calder and the canal compete for space with the houses, roads and the railway line. A handful of mills survive along the canal, but their number has dwindled to a mere shadow of the valley's industrial past.

When I first went there, I was surprised how small and far off Scout Rock was, except when you where right beneath it: Even from the vantage point of a child it could not have been that much more impressive. I tried ducking down, cowering, crouching (How tall was he at seven or eight?), remembering how I saw things when I was little, but Scout Rock didn't get that much bigger. I looked at it in rain, fog and sunshine – all it did was look bleaker at times. I walked the path so accurately described in "The Rock," through the fields up to the moors, and Scout Rock became even less significant. In the end I gave up trying to see it as Ted described it – it was impossible for me.

Though I am inclined to read "The Rock" as quite an accurate 'memory snapshot,' a flash photograph of Ted's time in the valley taken from the vantage point of 1963, the story opens up to other possibilities too. "The Rock" makes a good story. It has drama, suspense and that eerie sense of unease that often comes creeping into Ted's early stories. It even seems to be leaning toward the reader a bit: Here is a 33-year-old writer who has just published two acclaimed collections, remembering his early childhood in a rain-sodden, dramatic environment. That natural drama and vitality played out it the poems must come from somewhere, mustn't it? How could it be otherwise! Is "The Rock" part of the answer? Reading the story as such it seems to be – though in the end, it is a story which could easily be clothed quite differently.

Over time I found out that, on the surface, Ted's was by all means quite an ordinary childhood in a Yorkshire country place in the 1930s. He was the youngest of three children – his sister Olwyn was two years and his brother Gerald ten years older than him – and their parents weren't that much different from their neighbours. But at the same time, it wasn't an ordinary childhood, and memory played its part in that. Memory kept it palpable, shifted, reordered, weighted, and on occasion brought it intensely alive with its inherent flashbeam clarity and persuasive highlighting.

When Ted grew up in Mytholmroyd, there was a tram-line connecting Hebden Bridge with Halifax (replaced by buses in 1936), which went through the village. The valley's main road was a major east-west connection (it still is), and countless mills along the valley bottoms and on the hillsides, provided employment. Work in most mills and other trades was Monday to Saturday lunchtime (one o'clock). Saturday afternoons were off. On Sundays, there was church (for those who went), and in the afternoon there was Sunday School for most children. It was a time when swings and seesaws in the recreation grounds got chained up on Sundays, so the children would respect the day of the Lord.

Ted's family lived on the south-facing slope of the valley in a small estate by the name of Banksfields. It lay at the bottom of fields coming down from the moors, next to the canal. At the top of the estate was a small path that led past what the children called "chicken pens" and little gardens to Redacre Wood – a steep strip of light oak forest by the side of the valley with old trees and a brook at the far end. Ted's sister once described it so vividly, with its bluebells and anemones and birdsong, that I could see the sun dancing through the leaves – something I was to witness there several times for myself. It was a favourite spot of the children when Ted was little.

Ted's father, William Hughes, was a very jovial man, one who liked the company of his friends. He worked as a carpenter in the town of Hebden Bridge, two miles down the road. He was a good footballer, playing centre field in his youth, and a bigger regional club had wanted him as a professional player. But those were times when professional football paid comparatively poorly, so he chose the carpenter's trade instead.

William was one of only 17 survivors of an entire battalion of the Battle of Gallipoli (1915), and Ted's sister Olwyn remembers climbing into his bed on Sunday mornings together with Ted and asking their dad to tell them about the war – which he did in grizzly detail. She also had a kind of "rosary in squarish mother-of-pearl beads, heavy and beautiful" given to her by her father, which, she always knew, was a string of prayer beads taken from a dead Turkish soldier.[9] Like many men, William Hughes returned home from the war much changed by what he had experienced and seen. Occasionally, he would shout in his sleep, dreaming of 'the Turks' coming over the trenches.

   William had family in and around Hebden, and his mother lived in Mytholm, down Todmorden way. When Ted was little, they went there for tea most Sundays. Mytholm was also where William once took Ted to a pub, called Stubbing Wharfe, by the canal, opposite the house where he was born and where his grandfather used to go. It is the place where the story "Sunday" is set, recounting an event from Ted's early childhood.

Ted's mother, Edith (née Farrar), had family in and around Mytholmroyd, several of them living just a few houses up or down the road. She first saw William in a photograph of the local football team in the window of a photographic studio in Hebden and 'took notice' – or so the story goes. Edith read, including poetry, and her Wordsworth was one of her favourite books. She also told the children stories "that she made up, mostly," and she brought in the occasional book, such as "a sort of children's encyclopedia" with folktales in it.[10]

Like her mother before her, Edith occasionally saw ghosts mainly at times when there were deaths in the family and she spoke openly about it – something which the children grew up as "just a normal part of life, like everything else."[11] Ted mentions several of these occasions from when he was a little older in "The Deadfall," all of which are supported by stories Olwyn told.

[»Click here to read Part III]

Notes:

[8] Ted Hughes, "The Rock," The Listener (19 September 1963), 421. The following quotes are from the same source.

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

[10] Ted Hughes and Drue Heinz, "The Art of Poetry: LXXI," The Paris Review, 37:134 [Spring 1995], 59.

[11] This and the following quotes of Olwyn Hughes from notes taken over several visits between 2002 and 2004, and other material kindly supplied by Olwyn Hughes between 2000 and 2005, unless noted.

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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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