Ted Hughes's brother Gerald offers a moving evocation of their early life
Gerald Hughes's memoir of his little brother, Ted, has a muted, soul-swelling intensity, and the kind of holiness that requires no mention of God. Hughes's purpose is not priestly, though, or psychoanalytic, but botanical – to sift through old childhood soil which was fertile enough to grow a poet.
In 12 concise chapters Hughes describes the years from childhood in Yorkshire to Ted's death in 1998. Brotherly love suffuses each memory, and Hughes's earth-scented descriptions of Yorkshire show a love of nature reminiscent of Ted's, as similar to it perhaps as their ears or hands to each other's. It was an inheritance received in different ways: Ted became a great nature-poet and Gerald a farmer in Australia.
Gerald was 10 years older than Ted – a gap large enough to accommodate Ted's hero worship for which Gerald waited ready-made, with his rat-shooting skills, his knowledge of trout and the weather and of how to tie knots. Gerald's account of their early relationship is moving both as a portrait of sibling love and as one of a rural innocence that no longer exists. They didn't have Facebook, but "a message tree" on which they pinned notes to friends.
Life in Hebden Bridge blooms from the page – a sepia-tinted world of tram rides, box Brownies, Royd's ices, and Sunday hats. "Whip and top were the rage", "Granny" owned a sweet shop, "Mam" was "selfless". The description is strewn with parenthetical wonders: "(Farmers always spoke loudly – from working in wide fields in windy weather)". Recollections are tiny blueprints for an emerging design: aged four, after burning himself, Ted exclaimed: "Fires can jump up and bite you." At six, he sighed: "What a dull old world it would be without wildlife."
Gerald's tutelage of Ted "in natural country life" supplies the greatest pleasures of the memoir, its tone recaptured by Gerald's enduring fondness for its details. On one occasion the future poet laureate tore a page from his notebook and, under Gerald's supervision, practised shooting at it, his bullets landing, as his words would, in perfect formation on the page.
During the second world war, Gerald was stationed in North Africa with the RAF, so Ted "came under the influence" of his elder sister, Olwyn, an "academic star". As Ted later remembered in a letter, his teacher pointed at a line in his notebook – it described "the frost-chilled snap" of a wildfowler's gun – and said, "That's poetry." Ted thought, "Well, if that's poetry that's the way I think so I can give you no end of it."
When Ted went to Cambridge, Gerald emigrated to Australia. Whether Ted experienced this as a betrayal goes unexamined, but his immediate idea was to join Gerald after university. This "well-formulated" plan was abandoned when Ted met Sylvia Plath.
Even though they never met, Gerald felt "close" to Sylvia, receiving many letters from her and Ted. One of Sylvia's begins in a characteristic tone, both accusatory and self-belittling: "Ted had already sealed up your letter in his secretive way, but I made him open it up again to let me gossip for a bit." Ted was, Gerald remembers, "overwhelmed by his American family", their "opulence" and "social rounds". Estrangement was apparent on both sides: photographs showing Sylvia's first visit to her parents-in-law are full of smiles (Sylvia's face is the "tight ball of joy" Ted describes in Birthday Letters) but there is no doubt which of the group was not born in Yorkshire.
A letter from their mother to Gerald a few years later contains a speaking non sequitur: "Sylvia is strong-willed, but I think left alone they are very happy together." "Strong-willed" was a euphemism designed to contain whatever behaviour led Mrs Hughes to believe Sylvia "resented" Ted's closeness to Olwyn.
That Sylvia's anxieties and depression were exacerbated by a cocktail of ineffective medication and an "awareness that Ted had become infatuated by another woman" – Assia Wevill – was inevitable. Gerald sidesteps the question of his brother's culpability by depicting him as a bystander: "Sylvia talked of divorce, but Ted balked at this, believing they could get back together." But Ted continued to love Assia, whom he later described in "Dreamers" wearing "Soot wet mascara, in flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,/ Slightly filthy with erotic mystery."
On the subject of Ted's love life, Gerald's humility, so vital to his portrait of boyhood, leaves the reader wishing he would risk more insight. Perhaps his evasions signal, like the doze of a benevolent grandparent, that certain complexities are beyond his understanding. Assia's suicide is merely reported by him as an uninterpretable fact. Ted's final marriage to Carol Hughes – a farmer's daughter – represented for Ted, and perhaps also for Gerald, a return to intelligibility. Ted felt "as if my real life had been suspended since the age of 16". A predestined muddle, perhaps, for a poet who looked like a film star.
Ted and I supplies ample explanation for Ted's belief that "Poetry is a way of contacting your family when they are gone". Ted's lifelong yearning for Gerald is heartbreakingly particular, and universal: who has not felt the need of a wise older brother? Ted was lucky enough to have one, and unlucky enough to be separated from him by half the Earth. Until death, Ted felt that if only Gerald lived nearby, "My life would not be half as crazy."