Mum's tragedy ended my childhood
MOST of us slip seamlessly into adulthood. For others, protection from the harsh realities of life is swept away in the blink of an eye. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion falls into the second category.
MOST of us slip seamlessly into adulthood. For others, protection from the harsh realities of life is swept away in the blink of an eye. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion falls into the second category. A family tragedy was like a solid metal door crashing down and cutting him off from his childhood.
It happened in the final days of 1969 - a couple of months after Andrew had turned 17. His mother, out hunting in the fields near her Essex home, fell and struck her head on a narrow concrete strip.
Gilly - who had been pretty and spirited - lay in a coma, a blood clot on her brain, and it was touch and go as the family waited for news from the hospital in Chelmsford. She was unconscious for three years.
Richard, her husband, built an extension to their home near Braintree, in the hope she might return to live there with the aid of a carer, but Gilly would never leave the hospital environment.
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After those three years she “very slowly lifted back to an in between state between life and death”, explains her elder son. “She got some speech back; she could sort of scratch her nose. But that was about it. She could look from left to right. Her memory was very patchy, and she never had the energy to speak for very long. Moreover, she kept getting pneumonia, too, and then there'd be crises and we'd think she was going to die and we'd all rush home to be there.
“And then after six years of that - nine years in all - pneumonia did come back in an unfightable way, and she died in November 1978.” Her husband had visited every day bar three.
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The accident, and the surreal days straight after, is the point where In The Blood begins, and ends. In between is an account of the poet's formative years. There are emotions with which many readers can identify: feeling safe and secure at home; being baffled by social rules that only adults seem to understand; the shock of a sensitive daydreamer at being sent to a sometimes harsh boarding school.
Autobiography compels the writer to acknowledge the pain.
In the days before speaking to the EADT, Andrew Motion has been to Edinburgh . He admits: “To be honest, I've never felt so nervous when I was giving a reading.”
One of the excerpts was when he and his brother meet after the accident and Kit explains what happened. “And that was difficult. I just need a way of dealing with this stuff as though I'm giving a quick performance”.
Parts are certainly heartrending. During their first visit to mum in hospital. Andrew winces as he imagines Kit, then 14, having to pack his school trunk alone at the end of the Christmas holidays.
The accident “taught me a lesson about randomness and about the lack of connection between virtue and reward, and between the quality of a person's character and what might happen to them in life. My mother was a good person who never hurt a fly - in fact, only did good, in her modest way - and look what happened.
“That's a big lesson for a child to take on board, particularly when they're brought up, as I was, in pretty strict Church of England ways - when you are in some sense encouraged to believe that living well might produce some sorts of benefits. I don't see that any more. Try to live as well as you can, but nevertheless know that life is going to take a pot-shot at you if it possibly can.”
This insecurity is manifest in a poem such as Close, in which he imagines himself swept away from his wife and children by a wave.
“You spend your life on the railway line, staring ahead of you to make sure you get out of the way when a train comes towards you, but in fact it's behind you - is how I feel about it,” he explains.
Encouraged by his English teacher at Radley College in Oxfordshire, the teenage Andrew had already started reading poetry. The turmoil of the accident didn't make him become a poet, therefore, but it did provide emotional impetus.
Common muses such as flowers and trees “all seemed pretty lightweight compared to what was happening in the hospital. It's possible that the psychological imperative to be clear about that, and look at it in ways that helped me to organise my feelings, was something that acted as a validation or confirmation”.
Andrew Motion was studying for his A-levels at the time. It wasn't long before he went to university - to read English at Oxford - and effectively left home.
His father married a couple of years after Gilly's death and moved to a smaller house in Stisted, which is where he lived until his own death last spring. “His roots were incredibly strong, although it must have seemed very strange living in a place that had so many memories of my mother, but also in some senses in the shadow of his grandfather, who had lived in the Hall.
Gilly and Richard had been devoted to each other. “Kit and I knew that, even though they almost never touched when we were around, or kissed one another”. Though they shared essential values, they had different personalities, however.
Mum, a natural storyteller, “let go of her feelings, and dad didn't. That was how he'd been brought up, and he wanted us to be the same”.
Dad commuted by train to London, where he was a director of a brewery that would later become Ind Coope. At weekends he loved to hunt.
Naturally enough, Andrew inherited many recognisable traits.
“I look very much like my dad. Physically we're incredibly alike, and a lot of my personality is very like his, too. But by some magic intertwining of DNA, my mum's lightness and imaginativeness - thank God - came through. I've often wondered whether my mum's relish and exaggeration is something which became writing in me.
”And dad's love for the naming of things - identifying the birds, trees, fields. I sometimes think that a good working definition of what poetry is an attempt to name things accurately. So I think I owe them both a lot in that respect.”
Young Andrew's world was rocked when he was nearly eight and was sent to a boarding school in Northamptonshire run by a creepy friend of grandpa's. Beak dispensed beatings for minor infringements.
Too sensitive, really, for an institutional regime, “Motion I” found refuge in solitary pursuits such as birdwatching and building Airfix models by a comforting classroom radiator.
He was, he accepts, something of a daydreaming loner. “I think it's almost inevitable that an emerging writer should be such a thing. I like other people and I'm not unsociable. Well, I don't like going to parties very much. What I liked then is what I still like now: being alone and looking at things - going for walks. Not quite sticking my head in the clouds, but being able to look at the world and finding a way of catching it.
“For those reasons I've never quite understood it when people who want to be writers - and quite often my students say it too - 'Oh, the blank page is so frightening!' Not at all! If that's really what you feel, then you're probably doing the wrong thing. The blank page is a sort of a huge playground for you to have an adventure in; and the solitude to do it is bliss, frankly.”
Radley College later proved much more outward-looking. Andrew was drawn to the music of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix; was interested in student protests in France; read the New Statesman. Even intended voting Labour.
The teenager realised - as most children do - that he wanted to live his own life differently to the way he'd been brought up. For one thing, he'd give up hunting. It wasn't about mum and dad, exactly. “It's not them. It's things round them. Not so much bellowing. More thinking,” he explains.
Maturity brought insight. There was more to his father than he'd thought. “Dad never showed off about things, but he turned out to be a big man away from home, in the other places he belonged to.” At the hunt, for instance, and at work. “He wasn't always trying to keep things the same, either, which was what I'd started to think.”
He tells the EADT: “I was, and still am, very proud of him. His way of being - his sense of decency and fair play - was wonderful.”
Richard read the manuscript last November, six months before he died, and didn't mind aspects of his life being interpreted and laid out for all to see.
“I think it's possible to tell the story of his life in a way that simply joins up dots of unhappiness. When he was a little boy he squashed his finger in a deckchair, which was highly symbolic, I always thought, of various other ways he which he'd been squashed by the rather severe manner of his father, and further squashed by my grandparents getting divorced at a time when it wasn't as commonplace as it now is.
“That, and various other things like his time in the war, made him a very withdrawn, shy person - though not without firm opinions. He could be very stern, but he was also blessed with tremendously good manners and great charm.”
Another hero is Kit, the go-ahead young brother.
Andrew Motion smiles. “He's the voice of sanity compared to my effete, highfalutin', sort of wannabee personality. He always does the decent thing. He's a very fine person.
“Even though our lives have taken us down different roads, we're very fond of each other. I value that; and now both of our parents are dead it seems even more valuable now.”
In the Blood - A Memoir of My Childhood is published by Faber and Faber at £16.99. ISBN 978-0571-22803-4
HE might live in Camden, but Stisted is where Andrew Motion's heart is.
His family's association with the village began with another Andrew: his great-grandfather - the son of a baker from St Andrew's in Scotland.
His family moved south in the 1870s and great-grandpa went into the wine trade, then brewing. It was a meteoric rise. “He was licking stamps for the brewery when he was seventeen, and owned it by the time he was thirty.” He came up with the idea of buying freehouses and tying them to the brewery.
Great-grandpa turned himself into a country gent. He bought Faulkbourne Hall, an Elizabethan house near Witham, and then a pile in Warwickshire, before moving back to Essex in 1926 - to Stisted Hall.
Andrew and his wife Jessie made their mark. Gilly Motion told her elder son: “Andrew decided all the houses in the village should have numbers, to help the postman, but he didn't dole them out in 1, 2, 3 order. He used the birthdays of his family and people he liked. So the numbers jump around all over the place.”
The poet Andrew Motion has spent 25 years of his adult life in London, but misses the countryside increasingly, and “I'm beginning to think it may well be where I end up”.
He laments that rural Britain seems to be misunderstood by the Government, and part of the point of his book is to “commend what's under threat”.
What would he do, given the power?
“Well, leave it alone, for one thing! And find different ways of reinforcing the infrastructure it needs in order to work: better transport, better ways of allowing time-honoured values in communities to survive - rather than largely becoming dormitory towns for people who don't work there. To come up with strategies for enriching or reconfirming the things which made them what they were in the first place.
“Stisted is a case in point; it's a very pretty village and a very content-seeming place with its church and its village street and its pub. Idyllic in all kinds of ways. But I think it struggles to find focal points around which community spirit might cohere.”
His brother stayed there until about the time their father died, and now lives near Sudbury. Kit's a grain merchant. “Real work,” smiles the Poet Laureate.
Andrew sees him regularly, and on the way will visit his parents' graves at All Saints' Church.
“I'm eyeing up the patch next to my dad,” he laughs. “I don't want it to happen in a time I can imagine, so I don't think about it too hard, but maybe one day they'll have me.”