This foreword is excerpted from Ted and I, Gerald Hughes’ poignant memoir about his childhood with his younger brother Ted. Here, Frieda Hughes, Ted’s daughter, reminisces on two lives well spent.
My Uncle Gerald, older brother of my father, Ted Hughes, lives near Melbourne in Australia. He has always been an important figure in my life because he was a hugely important figure in the life of my father; we have kept in touch over the years.
Following my father’s death in October 1998, Gerald often mentioned to me the letters and phone calls he was receiving from various individuals wishing to write about my father. He felt obliged to provide answers where he could, and was finding it increasingly tiresome.
I suggested that, instead of remembering the past for others, he should write his own book and remember the past for himself and his family (me included), just as he had once persuaded his mother to write a short memoir of her own for him. And so he has, and here it is.
My father often talked about his family and that of my mother, Sylvia Plath; he seemed to think it important that my brother, Nicholas, and I knew something of our origins. 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.
There are reminders of my father’s early stories here, however, one of my favorites being about the army pay book that saved his own father’s life during a battle in northern France in the First World War. My grandfather kept this pay book in his left pocket over his heart, and when he was hit by shrapnel the pay book took the impact. After the war he kept the tattered remains of the pay book, still speared with large pieces of shrapnel, together with his sergeant’s stripes, his DCM and other medals.
He told me too, about my Uncle Gerald – his older brother by ten years – who shot rats and rabbits and had taught my father to fish and shoot too. My father also learnt how to cure mole skins, pinning them to the underside of his school desk lid to dry out. (It might have also helped discourage people from borrowing his pencils.) Gerald was something of a natural teacher for my father, just as my father became a natural teacher for my brother and me.
When I was a child my father taught me how to skin a road-kill badger and cure its pelt, how to shoot, how to cast a fly (we practiced on the lawn before putting it into practice on water) and how to draw birds, just as he and his brother had drawn birds together as children.
When my father and his sister, Olwyn, were still very small, their mother, Edith, a great walker and lover of the countryside, took them to all the beauty spots around the Calder Valley when they lived in Mytholmroyd.
My father was around four years old when he started to accompany Gerald on their own exploration of the area. Gerald apparently found his little brother to be full of curiosity: he wanted to know the names of the trees, the habitat of birds and breeding patterns of fish. Gerald did all he could to feed this thirst for knowledge, and if there was something he didn’t know, he’d look it up in order to inform his little brother. These elements of nature were to become important themes in my father’s poetry.
Together, my father and uncle also worked forensically and patiently on their toys and inventions. A Chinese proverb my father often used to quote to me was ‘hair by hair you can pluck a tiger bald’, a reflection of the patience that he and Gerald applied to the problem-solving and construction tasks they set themselves in their childhood.
After spending the war years working on airplanes in various postings around north Africa such as Algiers and Cairo, enjoying the sun and outdoor life and experiencing all the excitement and tragedy (he had several near-misses of his own) that the RAF had to offer at the time, Gerald became a policeman in Nottingham.
However, after life in the Air Force his new job was something of an anti-climax so, upon seeing an advert in a travel agent’s window that promoted migration to Australia, Gerald decided to take the opportunity and move there; he needed a bigger challenge than Nottingham could offer him. He left the UK in 1948, just missing the opportunity to go as a ‘ten pound Pom’.
If my father had been able to persuade him, Gerald would have moved to Moortown, the farm in Devon that my father bought with Gerald in mind when I was in my teens. He hoped the farm might tempt Gerald home, but Gerald was too firmly fixed in Australia by this time to consider leaving.
Gerald’s great hobbies are painting and golf. He sent my father several of his watercolors over the years, and my father eventually passed them on to me because I liked them so much, but there was little that Gerald could not turn his hand to. On one of his visits, when I was about fifteen, I needed a proper cage for two little zebra finches that I’d bought as pets, so Uncle Gerald made me a little wooden cage with wire mesh, a handle, and top and bottom doors. To me it was the most beautiful little cage in the world, and I was touched that he would spend part of his precious holiday making it for me.
During my 1988 visit to Gerald in Melbourne for Christmas Gerald and I would go out painting together. That was when he introduced me to the artist David Rankin, who later sold several of my etchings through his Port Jackson Press, in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
Prints for many leading Australian artists were also produced in this studio, and once a week Gerald would go to work in the space that David had set up for him. Propelled by David’s enthusiasm he seemed inspired. Paintings later gave way to etchings, which Port Jackson Press sold for him.
My father had met David first when he’s gone over to Australia to read his poetry at the Adelaide Festival in 1976; David subsequently lived in the UK for two years, and so he knew all about Gerald and Gerald’s interest in art from my father. It was 1983, when David returned to Melbourne from the UK, that he and Gerald finally got together.
It was easy for me to see why Gerald might have fallen in love with Australia: the vast landscapes with peeling paper bark eucalyptus, the rolling mountains, the strange prehistoric-looking vegetation, the way the sun, so bright in the daytime, drew long shadows in the late afternoon as the colors intensified in the last of the daylight.
During my visit I fell in love with Australia myself, and in 1991 I became an Australian resident and moved to Perth, Western Australia.
But in April 1997 I got the devastating news that my father was seriously ill and in hospital with cancer. I arrived in the UK on 25 April, stayed two weeks and only returned to Australia to pack up my home and make all the necessary arrangements to return to the UK that July; I wanted to be on the same landmass as my father and spend more time with him. He died on 28 October 1998 aged sixty-eight.
The last time Uncle Gerald came to England was May 1999, when he and Joan stayed with his sister, my Aunt Olwyn, for my father’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey, and then with me at my home in London.
Gerald had encouraged my father’s appreciation and knowledge of the countryside, and in turn my father encouraged my brother and me. When my brother died on 16 March 2009 at the age of forty-seven, the countryside and fishing had been a major part of his life; he was an evolutionary ecologist and a professor in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, conducting research both in Alaska and New Zealand. As for me, the natural world is the basis for much of my writing and painting.
My father’s love for his brother ensured that Gerald was part of 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.
Gerald Hughes is the elder brother of the poet Ted Hughes. He lives in Australia.
Frieda Hughes is the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and is a poet, author, artist. She has recently decided to train as a bereavement counselor.
Picture: copyright and by kind permission of The Estate of Ted Hughes.