The Table Talk of Ted Hughes
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I remember him once teasing a young painter in front of other guests. The painter had taken to abstraction, of which Ted took a dim view. He mock-introduced him: ‘—— is an artist who used to do wonderful figurative paintings of mackerel’. The reference was to something done in his teens.

The artist stood up for himself. ‘Yes, I did a painting of some mackerel when I was seventeen – it was a good painting and Ted liked it too. Later I discovered abstraction and found my vocation.’

Ted groaned. ‘Oh yes. Come on then, explain it again. For thickies like me.’ The painter smiled, which Ted took as an invitation to re-start an old conversation: ‘You have to begin with something people can recognise…’ Abstract art, by contrast was too cerebral, detached from real life. It was unhappy art. The painter made to interrupt him now, but Ted had just thought of something: ‘When you die, and all that’s left of you is molecules, and then when the earth is involved in some final catastrophe, and those molecules and atoms that were you go streaming through space with the dust and the radiation, every single one of them will be shrieking – “Mack – er – el! Mack – er – el! Give us back those mack – er – el!” ‘ He did the voice of the molecules in a harsh whisper, indicating their flight through space with his arms outstretched, a glass of champagne in his right hand.

It made everyone laugh, the painter included, so he stopped badgering him. To everyone’s relief, no more was heard of abstract-versus-figurative that evening.

He once told me the life-history of an English middle-aged poet, whose work he was trying to promote. This poet had always been the wordsmith of the family while his brother was the artist. He described to Ted a formative crisis in his late twenties: a complete and completely inexplicable block. He tried psychoanalysis: Freud, Adler, Jung. Nothing doing. Meditation, special diet – the works. Finally, after a car accident, he fetched up in a hospital ward, quite literally having his head examined. The doctors took their X-rays and studied his brain-wave patterns. There was no damage from the accident but the doctor was astonished by something else: ‘You have the most repressed right hemisphere I have ever seen.’ That was the clue the poet needed. He knew that spatial awareness is governed by the right hemisphere, language by the left. So he began to draw, to see if this would restore his creative abilities. And indeed they gradually returned. He had suppressed part of his brain as a concession to family feelings and it had almost destroyed him as an artist. Ted had a similar theory about Vitamin C. If it made all the difference for Olympic athletes, why not for writers? He would explain all this in dramatic, urgent detail. He turned up one evening with a video of two ganglions in a rat’s brain actually forming a new connection – the birth of a thought captured on film.

When microwave ovens came in, he read up all about the ‘free radicals’ they activate in food and how dangerous these are. Or there was some theory of memory loss he had just read about. He enjoyed haranguing people, making them sit up with his tales of ‘startling new evidence’. The more arcane and scientific-sounding his theory, the happier he was – all the better to brow-beat complacent neighbours.

And then the next time you saw him he’d sit there and solemnly inform you that the rational, scientific, Hellenistic part of the inheritance had ruined everything.

That said, he could get these things spectacularly right. He saw the BSE crisis coming years before it was news. He was for some years heavily involved in a campaign to stop a sewage filtration plant being built at the mouth of the Torridge estuary. And it was the science he talked about, not the aesthetic angle. Near the end of his life, the scope of the powers being transferred by governments to multinational corporations began to worry him. One of the last times I saw him, he said that what we recognise as civilisation had about forty years to run. I shook my head at his reflex pessimism.

He clearly needed this restless theorising. Perhaps it accounts in some way for the amazing range of his poetic voice. The restlessness went very deep. He would rather have lived in Ireland than England. Devon was ‘the graveyard of ambition’ – drab compared to Alaska, boring compared to London. ‘Are we living in a museum?’ he asked one evening, after someone had described the ‘picturesque’ life of a local small-holder, soon to retire. He would have preferred to be Jewish rather than question-mark Anglican. In some ways, he would rather have been a doctor rather than a poet. If only he hadn’t wasted so much time running around with women when he was young he ‘might have really achieved something’. And so on and on.

Whether the discontent was divine or not, it was certainly relentless. When he didn’t get stuck on one of his pet-hates, sometimes it was as if he demanded of everyone around the table that they review their lives completely – reassess everything, start again, as of that evening, completely true to their actual selves this time. (Or his version of their actual selves.) It’s how an artist operates – beginning afresh time after time. Otherwise why bother talking / writing at all?

If this mood of radical reassessment misfired, a curious atmosphere ensued. A laboured attempt to keep the great man amused. Everyone about to say something supremely witty. Everyone radically open about their lives, at long last. In other words, everybody double-locking the doors.

Or it could be exhilarating. One example: I was unsure of whether to take up my place at university. Ted went with the mood. Yes, undergraduates are like baboons, he said, all crammed into the same cage, all shouting ‘Me! Me! Me!’ And as for the teachers… He grew more serious. The underlying principle of university life, he said, is observation, rather than action. When he visited Cambridge now, it was full of people who, instead of plunging bravely into life, had ‘held their breath somehow’ instead. And gone on holding it, until at last they became incapable of breathing the harsher, truer air of the real world. Perhaps, he thought, that was what I was sensing and shying away from in the idea of university. It was a genuine attempt to engage with what was on my mind. As an idea it has stayed with me.

Still, his theory was probably more revealing about himself: the dichotomy between the writer trapped in his ‘sedentary trade’ and the man of action was one he struggled with. He admired action-man/woman politics. Mrs Thatcher was a big enthusiasm. Michael Heseltine became a friend. Kenneth Baker – Thatcher’s ideologue-in-chief – was also a buddy. He liked Mrs T’s belligerent business sense, her militarism, patriotism and all-round impatience with slackers. These were traits he shared and was proud of. Politics were not his forte but, for a while at least, he wouldn’t leave them alone either. After Thatcher fell from power and Heseltine lost the leadership contest, his interest seemed to drop off. He began to complain about Thatcher’s anti-European rhetoric. I suppose he thought that for a few years she was, in her way, ‘making it new’ – rather as his conversation sought to start afresh, liberated from the preconceptions that stifle and inhibit. Perhaps, though, there are some preconceptions we don’t need to be ‘liberated’ from.

He used to talk affectionately about North Devon as he had known it in the early 60s – how he had chosen the area because it was upwind of the nuclear power stations, for the sea-trout in its rivers and the red deer on its moors. How in those days it was ‘full of farms where nothing had changed since the Fourteenth Century, and you could buy them up for almost nothing’. For ages he kept the wreck of the Morris car he first came to Devon in. He was still driving it around into the early 80s. How he got it through its MOT remains a mystery. Partly, he reminisced like this because he liked to make ‘new-comers’ feel how much they’d missed by arriving too late or being born too late. And partly of course it was other things.

But his attachment to the history of his chosen home was serious. He loved talking about the Iron Age associations around North Tawton. He said the whole area had been some kind of sacred forest and liked to explain the (extremely good) evidence for this. The ‘Nymet’ place-name, for example, is common and comes from the Celtic word for sacred grove. River and field names also point to a marked persistence of un-Romanised Celtic populations and culture here – as do ‘Devon rounds’, a form of small late Iron Age fortification particularly common in the area. Ted used to say he knew a farmer nearby who turned up strange white stones in one of his fields – fragments of a pre-Roman temple-floor, he felt sure. I could never get any details out of him about this, though.

North Devon wasn’t on the way to anywhere the Romans wanted to go. Their occupation of North Devon was brief and left almost no trace – other than a few mentions in Tacitus and the works of a Byzantine historian and one or two archaeological sites. The garden at Court Green is one of them: it contains part of the rampart of a Roman military camp (he said fox-cubs used to play on it some years.) The camp at North Tawton was set up by Vespasian during his campaign in the area in the 50s AD.

In other words, he had, literally on his door-step, and all around him, traces of this tension between a native culture more or less stamped out elsewhere, and an ‘acquired’, wider European one. He referred to rural England as his ‘sub-culture’ – it was what he knew best, it was where his voice was from – and yet it could never be the whole picture. There was always an acquired wider culture to integrate somehow. There was always a balance to be struck.

He liked Devonians, he said, because, assuming they are impressed at all, they are less impressed than most by celebrity – as if they have kept something that matters more to them. And a certain resistance to the passing crazes of the mainstream goes back a long way. Just as the Pilgrimage of Grace started in West Yorkshire, so North Devon was the centre of an armed uprising triggered by the introduction of Cranmer’s Prayer Book. Many of its churches retain elaborately carved altar-screens – and other signs that the reformed, de-ritualised faith was received sceptically.

He admired a quality of resistance in foreign cultures too. Japan and Israel seemed to be favourites. He was fascinated by Mishima’s On Hagashuke. He admired both Zen in the Art of Archery and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He advised a friend on a documentary he was making about Basho’s Long Road to the Deep North. He was fascinated by netsukes and sometimes said that Japan’s apparently unstoppable success was owing to its having adapted a genius for miniature ivory carvings and verse-forms to the world of electronics.

He admired Israel for its tenacity against the odds, but it was Singer’s Israel, as well as Amichai’s. He valued the spiritual tenacity and the receptiveness that had, over the centuries, kept the Jews culturally confident in spite of everything, making them so fertile in religious ideas. And he felt that the scientific, political and psychological ideas of Einstein, Marx, Freud were rebellious products of the same spiritual matrix.

This had another side. He thought the economic success of Japan was revenge being exacted. ‘People wonder how they do it,’ he once said, ‘It’s the atom bomb that’s driving Japan.’ Israel’s continuous war-footing was also proof that it still had something sacred to fight for, even if it was only survival. He said he envied Amichai his having fought in three or four wars and exulted in the Falklands adventure as if he thought it might re-awaken the English to some comparable sense of themselves. There’s no point in trying to air-brush this out of the picture. At a lunch once the hostess said her son, a pilot in the RAF, had decided not to come because he knew Ted was a poet and he knew that poets are anti-war. ‘Oh no,’ came the reply, ‘I’m pro-war.’ He wasn’t just being funny.

He admired in Japan and Israel something he felt the English had lost – something he was constantly looking to re-discover anywhere and in any way he could. Perhaps he found it in monarchy at the end. His sense of English history – from the Tudors, through the Civil War to the Restoration, even up to the Industrial Revolution – was charged with a sense of Revelation betrayed. Rather like the Old Testament’s mixture of history and prophecy. For Sinai read Shakespeare. Or Blake maybe. I’d heard a techno version of Jerusalem played at closing-time in a run-down pub on the South Coast. I asked at the bar why they were playing it. The girl said it was always played at the end of raves. ‘Yes,’ Ted said, unsurprised, ‘Jerusalem is the unofficial national anthem.’

He took pride in the wealth his work had brought him and his attitude to money probably helps to clarify some of his stranger politicking. He liked it and he liked people who had lots of it, especially if they had land along salmon rivers too. Next door to us the land belonged to an old farmer who had no children. It was a tumbledown place, full of wildlife, and I used to spend a lot of time birdwatching there. This farmer told me that when he sold up I could have first refusal on some marshy fields by the river, which were very good for wildfowl. He made the offer but never repeated it. I was worried he’d sell elsewhere and the new owner would drain the land. I shared my concerns with Ted, who said I should fill a sack with £ 5 notes matching the value of the land. Then I should take it down to the farmer’s house, tell him it was for the promised land, and simply leave the money by the door. He might ignore it at first. He’d take a couple of fivers out to begin with, intending to replace them. But he wouldn’t. Slowly but surely he would use up the sackful.

That was very much the Hughes approach to money – a combination of nonsense and no-nonsense, a bit cynical, tough, funny, like something out of a folk-tale. The only trouble being that money isn’t like something out of a folk-tale. How serious was he? Does it matter? Maybe it does. One aspect of him became, for at least one admirer of his work, more and more off-putting – where money seemed to determine politics, to distort his natural inclinations. My family was on his well-to-do Devon list. He may have talked differently elsewhere. I can’t say. But in our company at least, he went through a phase of slagging off the French in a way entirely worthy of some wit on The Spectator. And then translated Phaedre. He introduced a generation to Yoruba poetry. Yet he could argue at length that British aid to the Third World was a waste of money. Africa, for example, was simply over-populated. Nature must take its course. He spoke of how much he owed to the fairness of Butler’s 1944 educational reforms – then suddenly Kenneth Baker was coming to dinner and 50% of school-teachers were homosexual. Fact.

When I returned for Christmas 1989, from the revolutions in Prague and Berlin, Ted’s greeting was characteristic: ‘So did you see any cracking of skulls?’ In other words, had I actually witnessed any policeman versus demonstrator punch-ups? It didn’t seem that funny in the context of people still being beaten to death in Romania. He sneered at Vaclav Havel, said he wasn’t up to the job. You could have been forgiven for wondering if he didn’t rather regret the end of the Cold War. The environmentalist aspect of 1989 has been largely forgotten (conveniently so for western corporations). Even at the time it didn’t seem to interest Ted.

In 1991 I’d heard Harold Pinter and others were helping to found and stock good libraries across Central and Eastern Europe. Harmless enough, you might think, and something a voracious reader might approve. I asked Ted if he’d heard about it. ‘No,’ he answered, in his definitely-not-interested voice, without even looking at me. Instead he caught the eye of the only woman present: ‘Dreadful people…’ (i.e. Pinter and anyone who might agree with Pinter about anything). Ted smiled winningly, got the giggle he wanted, and that was his answer.

Maybe he felt there was something distinguished in holding such downright views. Maybe he enjoyed trailing his coat, teasing an earnest young man. It’s possible. He affected to find Liberalism and the whole area of ‘public discourse’ wearisome, though he subscribed to any number of magazines and newspapers. I mentioned some feature in the New York Review of Books about T S Eliot’s alleged anti-Semitism. Ted’s response was that you have to decide whether or not you’re going to spend time getting worked up over these ‘great literary debates’. As if it was clear which way he’d decided.

His suspicion of ‘great literary debates’ isn’t hard to understand. They were neither literary nor debates in his experience – people climbing onto Court Green’s churchyard wall to shout things at him in his own home. English postgraduates presumably, with queries about scansionÄ I remember one particularly vicious run-in with a British Liberal broadsheet, which claimed he’d been at a party in the flat downstairs on the night Sylvia Plath died. ‘They wreck whole months of your life and then print an “apology” somewhere on the inside pages where no one can find it…’ He had threatened court action and the threat prompted the ‘apology’. You were aware of an atmosphere heavily charged with libellous accusations and pending law-suits. He always seemed just about to go to war with the whole of Fleet Street and/or Hollywood. He felt that most of the curiosity was simply prurience – tricked out as ‘criticism’ or ‘theory’. Given this hypocrisy, why should he be ‘balanced’ about it? If he sometimes retreated into a kind of Tory Shires crustiness, who can blame him?


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