Among other things, I cover the different sorts of challenge (and opportunity) that I have previously experienced in writing about my mother in poems and in a prose memoir. My mother inside the bubble was still delicate. Very delicate, in fact: for the last three summers, exactly as Kit and I left school to begin our long holidays, she was diagnosed with glandular fever, and took to her bed. It meant that we spent a large part of every day sitting quietly in her bedroom, while the yellow of her illness bloomed and faded. Then, when she got better for the third time, it was my turn to be delicate. I developed arthritis, which kept me in plaster for a while, put me in hospital for two operations, and finally kept me home for a long stretch when I should have been at school. It was painful and tedious in all sorts of ways, but it was wonderful as well. For months on end I had my mother to myself, and time to myself. I listened to music. I read and read and read. I began writing poems. At the time I never considered there might be a psychological dimension to any this: I was too ignorant/innocent to imagine such a thing, and no doubt too self-absorbed as well. But with hindsight it seems perfectly clear what was happening. I had to be ill to break with my inheritance in general and my father in particular. And my mother had to be ill to get more attention than any of us gave her when she was well.
My father Richard was a brewer and his office was in Smithfield; he commuted to London every day from our home in north Essex. But he thought of himself as a countryman, with good reason. He lived for country things—for ‘peace and quiet’, for seclusion, for doing the old things in the old ways—and he distrusted or despised their opposites. My mother Gillian, who was the daughter of a GP in Beaconsfield, was less emphatic. Although her parents were old-school (they sent her brother to university, but decided she needed nothing more in the way of higher education than a trip to visit relatives in South Africa), they couldn’t or wouldn’t deny her a glimpse of faster and more metropolitan life. A generation later, she would easily have found it: she was clever and amusing and spirited, she made friends easily, and she was pretty. But things being as they were, when she married my father aged twenty-two she settled for doing things his way. She sank into country customs. She walked the dogs. She learned to fly fish (my father was a very good fisherman). She began riding again: ponies had been a small part of her childhood. She took up hunting, which was my father’s passion. And what else? So much of our parents’ lives remain mysteries to us their children. All I know for sure is that she taught me to read, she sang me to sleep, she spoiled me rotten. My brother, too, when he was born two and a half years later. Then there was my father. She ‘did the house’ for him. She put his supper on the table when he came home from work. She exercised his horse. Did she flirt with the puce-faced and randy local farmers who lived roundabout? Probably. Did she have affairs with them? I doubt it. In all sorts of ways my mother had surrendered her young and inexperienced life to suit my father’s wishes, but so far as I can tell they were happy together.
And yet my mother was ill a great deal, so something must not have been right. When my brother Kit was born she contracted brucellosis and stayed in bed for a year. Kit and I were looked after by Ruby, my grandmother’s housekeeper, who back in the day had been my mother’s own nanny. I have no memory of this, which is not to say that it had no effect on me. As she recovered, and I became dimly conscious of her as an independent character, I could see why everyone said her illness had ‘knocked the stuffing out of her’. She was fun, but she was ‘delicate’. Not faint-hearted. Frail. Easily tired (resting for an hour after lunch every day), taking a lot of pills for this and that, being told by my father (affably enough) to finish her food at meals so as not to ‘waste away’. Perhaps this was partly why I cultivated a slightly ‘delicate’ identity myself. My father was always on at me and Kit to ‘toughen up’, but my mother’s way of living—alluring because it was mildly alarming—seemed preferable.
All the more so, after my parents packed me off to prep school at the age of seven. I’ve no doubt my father took the lead on this, as he did on everything, and while it was clear that my mother supported him, I also knew that she hated me leaving home almost as much as I did: our partings were equally tearful. As a way of toughening me up it was a disaster. The school was a vortex of horrors: pederastic old bores, routine beatings and beastliness, pederastic younger bores, unkindness, tedium and stupidity. Instead of growing an extra layer of skin I felt that I lost several. I learned next to nothing. I switched from thinking life was pleasure interrupted by unhappiness into thinking it was unhappiness interrupted by pleasure. When my five-year sentence was up, I had changed from a cautious and shy child into an anxious and melancholy one.
After another two years of education, at my much more enlightened public school, the lights in my mind finally began to flicker on. I grew more confident. I began to read books. And although reading smacked of school, I found that my mother liked it too—found, in fact, that she liked a whole range of new things that were beginning to appeal to me. She didn’t mind when I said I wanted to give up riding. She took me to see the Nutcracker . She gave me records of Julius Katchen playing Beethoven . She wondered whether I’d like to read Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, which had been sent to her by the Book Club she’d recently joined. She gave me poems to read by Francis Thompson and Rupert Brooke, because she had enjoyed them herself at my age. She even, when I sent her a long letter that pompously paraphrased some early Fabian writing I’d been looking at (thanks to the crush I’d now developed on Rupert Brooke) , sent me an equally long reply that felt as though it came from a friend.
By the Spring and Summer of 1968, when cobblestones were flying through the air in Paris, I felt sure that my mother was on my side about everything important. My father, who had fought in the war to keep the old structures intact, was not. Rock and roll, long hair, effeminate clothes, revolting students, left-wing politics: all these things were anathema to him—not to the extent of forcing us into a permanent confrontation, he was too retiring a man for that, but enough to make us feel continually at odds. Enough to convince me that my mother and I were now a team of two, floating in a bubble of art-life across the country-life created by my father.
But my mother inside the bubble was still delicate. Very delicate, in fact: for the last three summers, exactly as Kit and I left school to begin our long holidays, she was diagnosed with glandular fever, and took to her bed. It meant that we spent a large part of every day sitting quietly in her bedroom, while the yellow of her illness bloomed and faded. Then, when she got better for the third time, it was my turn to be delicate. I developed arthritis, which kept me in plaster for a while, put me in hospital for two operations, and finally kept me home for a long stretch when I should have been at school. It was painful and tedious in all sorts of ways, but it was wonderful as well. For months on end I had my mother to myself, and time to myself. I listened to music. I read and read and read. I began writing poems. At the time I never considered there might be a psychological dimension to any this: I was too ignorant/innocent to imagine such a thing, and no doubt too self-absorbed as well. But with hindsight it seems perfectly clear what was happening. I had to be ill to break with my inheritance in general and my father in particular. And my mother had to be ill to get more attention than any of us gave her when she was well.
Those months of illness—hers, and mine—were the most formative of my life. Not just because I started to write in earnest, and so to set my life on the track it has followed ever since, but also because everything I thought and said was quickened by things my mother thought and said. This wouldn’t have happened without our ‘bad luck’, so we thanked our unlucky stars. They cast a light that felt oddly privileged. They made us seem like conspirators, treasuring ‘our things’ while the rest of the world—the healthy world—got on with other business.
In the summer of 1969 I went back to school. I was healed in body and felt transformed in my mind. When that term ended we all flew off to Portugal for our annual family holiday. My father sat on a boulder and complained loudly about the Pope. My mother and I—of course—fell ill with food poisoning. Then I went back to school again and began the second of my A level years, plunging into my English course as though my life depended on it. Then home for the holidays again. Then….
Because I was staying with a friend when my mother had her accident, and my father was at work, I had some difficulty in piecing together exactly what happened. On the Thursday morning between Christmas and the New Year, my mother and Kit went fox hunting. At some point around midday my mother was riding through a wood then had to jump a ditch to get out. Her horse (its name was Serenade) stumbled. She clung on while galloping across a ploughed field, then finally tumbled to the ground as she crossed a cement track. Her hard hat came off and she hit her head, suffering a serious brain injury. Serenade galloped on past Kit, my mother’s empty stirrups banging against her empty saddle. This was the first he knew of any mishap.
I’ve written a great deal about my mother’s accident—there are poems about it in every one of my books, which I began to publish in 1976; I describe the day it happened in my childhood memoir, In the Blood; and in the spring of 2018 I’ll publish a long poem that tells the story of her slow death, as well as the story of my father’s death many years later.
The facts of the matter are these. After the accident, my mother lay unconscious for three years, then spent the next six in limbo. Eventually she was able to speak a little, and turn her head a little, and lift her right hand a little. She remembered some things from the distant past, but not much from any nearer time. She was moved from hospital to hospital as doctors looked for a way to help, and eventually settled in an annex to one of the Chelmsford hospitals called ‘The Links’, which specialised in the care of incurable patients. She got pneumonia several times a year, and whenever this happened my father and Kit and I would tell ourselves that this was it, she was going to die. But she didn’t die—not until nine years after the accident, when her chin sank at last onto her chest, pressed down by the weight of her monolithic depression, and pneumonia returned to take pity on her.
Was there a psychosomatic element to my mother’s accident, as I suspect there was to her previous illnesses? Was it another and much more dangerous unconscious bid for the attention she felt was missing? These questions have formed a part of my thinking throughout the years following her fall. At the time it was simply the facts of the matter that seized my attention. The bruise engulfing my mother’s face like a flame. Her shaved head (before the operation to remove a blood clot from her brain, she had beautiful yellow hair). Her nimbleness and her skinniness slowly vanishing into a body fattened by drugs. The violation of her privacy—the oxygen mask, the tube poking into her throat, the other tubes with their bags attached, that wormed beneath her blanket. The well-meant banality of nurse-talk (which was never quite talk, but always a half-shout). The fug and stink and racket of her ward.
I often wanted to look away. But that would have been unforgiveable. Besides, for the first three years at least we lived in the hope that my mother might suddenly open her eyes and be herself again. So day by day during the school holidays, on the week-ends we were allowed home during term-time, through most of my gap year before I went to university, and then through my university vacations and term-time visits, my brother and I sat beside her bed and held her hand, talking to her and wondering whether she could hear us. My father did the same every evening, on his way back from work in London: in the whole nine years he only missed a handful of days. I thought then and I think now that he was saintly in his devotion.
When my mother’s eyes did finally open, which was early in my time at university, I felt like the prince in the fairy story, watching Sleeping Beauty come to life. Except it wasn’t a rapid change like that. It was a slow and difficult climb from wooziness and forgetfulness into brighter wakefulness and better remembering. But never complete remembering. And it was complicated in other ways as well. On the one hand my mother was glad to be alive, and to share what she could of our existence. On the other hand, she was dismayed to discover how little was now possible for her, and would never be possible again.
Hoping for the best, my father bought a Ford transit van and had it adapted into a kind of ambulance, with a tail-lift and space in the back to take my mother on her stretcher. He added a small wing to the house, thinking my mother might live there with a full-time carer. But the doctors would never allow it. She was too damaged. She needed more nearly full-time nursing than a carer could provide. The best she could expect was a trip home at week-ends for Sunday lunch. The worst, which she dreaded so much it overshadowed almost the whole of every visit, was having to return to the hospital at the end of the day. I shall never forget the expression on her face when Sunday afternoons turned into evening, and she gazed up from the stretcher into my father’s eyes and begged him to let her stay.
When my mother died, several family friends told us it was ‘a merciful release’. We knew what they meant of course, but I deplored the idea and still do. The phrase seems to devalue the love we poured into my mother, trying to fill up the enormous deep cave of her distress. And it doesn’t give enough credit to the beautiful and brave person that she remained until the end of her life. Even when she was completely unconscious, even during the bleakest moments of her posthumous existence, she was still my mother and my brother’s mother; she was still my father’s wife.
This means, among other things, that when I ask myself what her influence has been on my own life, I find myself answering under two headings. One has to do with the influence of her life before the accident, when along with my A level English teacher, and my best friend at my secondary school, she led me towards my immersion in poetry. The other has to do with the influence of her life after the accident, and of her death, which gave me subjects that will preoccupy me until I die myself. Subjects I see by the light of certain lucky stars I gratefully acknowledge, and also see by the light of unlucky stars that convince me I’m alone, and bound to succeed or fail by my own efforts, if I succeed at all.
Two years ago I’d have ended there, conscious that I have once again failed to say everything there is to say about the effects of the accident, but feeling at least that the broad shape of its narrative was settled. Then, in the Spring of 2015 when I was about to leave England and start a new life in America, an email arrived that told me something I didn’t know. It was sent by a gamekeeper now living in the north of Scotland. He said he’d been reading my childhood memoir In the Blood, and was surprised that I’d got the details of my mother’s accident wrong. I replied explaining that I hadn’t been there, and had relied on what others had told me: how did he know any better? He wrote back and said that he had seen her fall: would I like to hear more? I told him I would, and asked him not to spare me any details. I wanted to know exactly.
It was a lawn meet, at a house where he was then employed; his job that morning had been to take round a tray of drinks for those on horseback, so they could fortify themselves against the cold morning before hounds moved off. When this happened, and the riders began to follow, he stood to one side, and noticed my mother’s horse shy at something—a shadow in the grass, he thought, perhaps the shallow dip where a ha-ha had been filled in. Serenade reared up and my mother, who was a good horsewoman, was caught off guard. She toppled backwards. As she fell to the ground Serenade kicked out, catching her with her iron shoe on the left side of her head just below her hat. The gamekeeper ran towards her and knelt down. My mother was unconscious, lying on her back, with blood coming out of her ears. He stayed kneeling, and took off her hat. A doctor appeared from nowhere (he’d been among the foot-followers of the hunt) opening his oblong bag. But there was nothing to be done except ring for an ambulance. It arrived very quickly, and took my mother to hospital in Chelmsford.
Does knowing all this make any difference? It does to me. Facts are facts, for one thing, and it’s always good to know them. For another, knowing the truth deepens still further my sense that what happened to my mother was simply bad luck. The sort of thing that might happen to anyone, and often does. The sort of thing that comprises the only reliable law of life: its randomness. My mother wasn’t galloping wildly through the countryside, taking outlandish risks. Serenade was just walking dully along. There was no great obstacle threatening her. There was just a shadow in the grass.