It hadn't escaped my attention, and several of you mentioned it in comments on The Winter of 1963 post, that February 11th was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath. I am remembering birthdays rather than deathdays in my 'On This Day...' feature on here through the year so I plumped for a Roger Deakin celebration of life instead, whilst never forgetting Sylvia too of course.
The Canadian author Margaret Laurence also found herself exiled and alone with young children, living in Hampstead in London in that February of 1963. Rewriting The Stone Angel and walking children to and fro to school for fear they would get lost in the fog, Margaret Laurence is stunned by the news and recalls her reaction in her memoir Dance on the Earth...
'It was not a terribly pleasant time, particularly since the English are totally unprepared for large quantities of snow... it took me a while to discover that if you lit the gas oven and opened the oven door, you could at least be warm in the kitchen. One cold day I went down to the local shop to buy the Hampstead and Highgate Express. I took the paper home and was stunned by what I saw. Sylvia Plath, the poet, who had been living in Primrose Grove in Hampstead... had killed herself. I read it but could hardly believe it, I was living in the same area, also in a crummy flat, also separated from my husband... I had never met Sylvia Plath, but I could only mourn for her and for her children...'
Ted and I - A Brother's Memoir by Gerald Hughes was my Boxing Day reading, a Christmas gift from Bookhound. It was pure luck that I even knew of the book's existence, a chance glance at a mention in the press perhaps, or maybe a comment on the radio, I'm not sure, but I have a shelf groaning under the weight of all books Ted and Sylvia and I am always keen to read new perspectives.
In many ways the quiet arrival of Ted and I here, published by The Robson Press who would probably be wanting to hear that I had picked it up via a blaze of publicity, is entirely suited to the quiet and reflective nature of the book. Readers seeking sensational insider gossip or scandal about Ted and Sylvia will be disappointed; that is not within the remit of a loving and caring brother, and those are the powerful sentiments that came across as I read. The book is clearly a venture that has received the family's blessing too. Carol Hughes helped willingly and provided extra material, Ted and Gerald's sister Olwyn jogged memories and offered encouragement, and Frieda, Ted and Sylvia's daughter, not only suggested the book but has also written the foreword...
' He [Gerald] has always been an important figure in my life because he was a hugely important figure on the life of my father...'
In her foreword Frieda pinpoints the importance of recording information like this within any family...
'I only wish that I remembered more, but children rarely think of asking their older family members about their lives and experiences because they believe there is always tomorrow and that their parents will somehow always be there.'
Growing up together in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, it is their mother Edith who ensures that her sons both embrace her love of walking and the countryside around their moorland home. The boys would go camping together, and out on early morning hunting trips in the Calder valley before school, and Gerald recounts some wonderful personal memories of the sort that only brothers can remember, and indeed over which the two of them would often reminisce in later years.
Cousin Glenys however probably never forgot the day Ted dropped a mouse down the back of her dress.
Shooting rabbits, fishing and keeping the tiddlers in a jar only for them to die (we lived on the banks of the River Wandle and our sticklebacks always did likewise), kite-flying, sledging in the snow, sketching, and piano lessons. The latter probably a mother's attempt to civilize her lads and embed a little culture in amongst the obsession with the BSA air rifle and skinning moles, and looking back I can see I did something similar by sending a seven-year old Gamekeeper off to violin lessons.
This after I tracked the odd smell in his bedroom down to a mouse skin cured and pinned out on a board. Dont ask, just blame the SAS Handbook which he had read cover to cover, and be thankful it wasn't a cat.
Gerald, now ninety-two and older than Ted by ten years, is tactful and circumspect about his brother's marriages, relationships and personal tragedies, never passing judgement on events which came as a 'terrible shock' to an extended family who knew little of Sylvia's 'emotional struggles', focusing instead on their life as siblings, and the close connections they maintained throughout Ted's life.
When Gerald emigrated to Australia in 1948 the plan was for Ted to follow once he had finished his degree at Cambridge. All that would change of course once Ted had met and married Sylvia Plath in 1956, but the brothers kept in close contact and it is clear that though they never met, Gerald 'knew' Sylvia through the letters that she wrote to him too...
'Two stags leaving gold footprints and gold sky of snowflakes to say our Merry Christmas to you. My teaching takes up most of my time sof far - keeping a week ahead of my seventy grils like a fox eluding panting hounds..'
The closeness of the brothers perhaps shared and embraced by Sylvia and reflected in her eagerness to be included...
'Ted had already sealed up your letter in his secretive way, but I made him open it again to let me gossip for a bit...'
and there follows a lovely chatty letter with news of baby Frieda, and her eyes of 'astounding blue', on a trip to feed the camels at the zoo...
'I think she thought it was Ted in an overcoat.'
When the brothers are finally able to meet again in 1964, and Ted talks about the tragic events of the previous year, Gerald is the perfect listener that in some circumstances only a sibling can be, with that shared understanding and familiarity with each other's emotional territory born of a shared childhood. I was incredibly moved by Ted's heartfelt pleas to Gerald now back in Australia in 1970, asking him to come home to England and join him in his farming venture in Devon, followed by Ted's acceptance that it was never going to happen...
'...the final realisation that you will never come and live over here was probably what knocked me out - it was a big station in my life's journey to realise the emptiness of that dream. Part of the general stripping away of everything, lately drastic...'
'I send you fewer letters - fewer and thinner
Year by year. Can I really be thinking
It's just not worth it anymore?
What was it I once hoped for?
Gerald is very much the proud observer, noting frequently Ted's loving and close relationship with his children, Ted so admiring of their achievements and travelling the world to see them and to be part of their lives, and also sharing in this book Ted's wonderful letter concerning his Laureateship..
'The 60 million who would never know the difference between what I write & 3 blind mice are ready to extend me every possible kind of credit. So it becomes quite a problem - not to blow it...'
So all in all a really special book. In amongst so much that has been written by and about Ted Hughes, Ted and I feels hugely important, a unique and personal view that adds much to any understanding of the man and his life. Bookhound and I have both enjoyed this one immensely
Final words must go to Frieda Hughes...
'In April 1997 I got the devastating news that my father was seriously ill and in hospital with cancer. I arrived in the UK...stayed two weeks and only returned to Australia to pack up my home and...return to the UK that July. I wanted to be on the same land mass as my father and spend more time with him. He died on 28 October 1998 aged sixty-eight.
My father's love for his brother ensured that Gerald was part of my life as I grew up, despite the separating miles, and Gerald's love for my father has resulted in this moving tribute, which is a joy for me to read.'
On second thoughts, perhaps final words to Ted, those which surround his ledger stone in Poet's Corner, the same words with which Gerald ends this heartwarming and very affirming book...
'So we found the end of our journey.
So we stood, alive in the river of light
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.'