“So we stood, alive in the river of light
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.” Ted Hughes
The artist Gerald Hughes is the poet Ted Hughes’ older brother, and his senior by ten years. I knew his name from “The Letters of Ted Hughes”, but I had never read anything about their relationship, or indeed any substantive description of Ted Hughes’ life “before Plath”. This, then, is Gerald’s description of his relationship with Ted; their shared childhood; his own time in the RAF during the second world war; and ultimately Ted’s premature death.
I approached the book with some trepidation. Every since stumbling across “The Birthday Letters” when I was sixteen, quite by chance and without knowing anything about the fraught context in which the collection had been written, Ted Hughes’ poetry has been a constant presence in my life. His unique voice, so infused as it is with mythology, growling energy, and scenes from a Britain which seems to be disappearing, was a formative discovery – as Seamus Heaney said, he was a “guardian spirit of the land and language”, and his poetry instilled in me an even greater love of words and of the ancient country I live in. It has therefore always been very important to me not to feel as though I am pawing over his remains, or sucking up any biographical detail that I can – sifting for clues as to Hughes and Plath’s relationship like some kind of cynical prospector. The assumptions some commentators have made, the condemnation a number of feminists heaped on Hughes for Plath’s death, and the mythologizing of their relationship is not something I wish to participate in. I am as interested in their personalities as I would be of any writer I hold dear, but they are poets, and people – not emblems in some kind of cruelly extrapolated narrative.
Climbing down from my soapbox, then, this is a jewel of a book. Even if the gentle, curious, sociable little boy Gerald was describing had not grown up to be one of the finest poet’s in the English language, this would be a beautiful evocation of a lost time. Rather like “A Fortnight in September”, Gerald Hughes draws a picture of an idyllic pre-war England. The two brothers spent most of their time roaming the Yorkshire countryside in search of wildlife and likely camping spots, and the Hughes family is shown to be close-knit and loving. Ted, we learn, followed Gerald everywhere, asking his big brother an endless stream of questions which forced the older boy to start reading in earnest in a bid to supply answers.
By the time Gerald left for war and as a result of his tutelage, Ted could shoot and fish, and was already employing his creative mind to fashion lifelike jaguars out of clay. They were incredibly close, and the separation caused first by Gerald’s service in the RAF, and later by his employment away from home, seems to have haunted Ted. It is strange that I should have read this so soon after “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” – a novel which represents sibling separation so effectively – as Gerald’s story shows very gently and with great love how difficult Ted found it to bear the lifelong distance from his brother.
“”It had indeed been a long time since our previous visit and being together again had made him wish we were nearer – and naturally I shared those sentiments. “If you were,” he concluded, “I’m sure my life wouldn’t be half so silly.””
Gerald tells his story with an unshakable air of calm, and a kind of stoical restraint which is so recognizable of that special generation which lived through the war. When he returns from service in Africa, for example, having been in a war-zone for a number of years and a long way from any kind of normality, the only glimpse he gives us into how difficult it must have been to re-adjust is to say, “Indeed, I wondered how I was going to fit back into a family that was ticking over so comfortably.” He deals with the many sorrows in Ted’s life with the same moderation and kindness – he is never shocked or emotional, just eternally reliable and supportive. It is easy to see why Ted was so fond of him.
And in that, this also echoed “Unbroken” for me – Louis and Pete, Ted and Gerald – how important siblings are! Whether you are fan of Ted’s poetry (or indeed Gerald’s art), or whether you would simply enjoy a very English story of family love, I can recommend this wholeheartedly.
“This memoir, therefore, is a personal effort to take hold of a few of the past’s memorable moments, when we were joined with it, and part of it, and knew it, and my way of touching it, however briefly, before it, too, is lost.”