‘It’s the way people like us don’t talk’

Frank Kermode

  • In the Blood: A Memoir of My Childhood by Andrew Motion
    Faber, 326 pp, £16.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 571 22803 8

This memoir takes its title and its epigraph from Wordsworth:

I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.

The poet laureate thus salutes a distinguished predecessor. Yet there is nothing particularly Wordsworthian about Andrew Motion’s book. The only character who uses the expression ‘in the blood’ is the poet’s father, and what he means is that when the time comes Andrew is bound to enjoy hunting. There is little evidence here of childish wildness or wickedness, no hint of Wordsworth’s animating discipline of fear – ‘more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved’ – and even less in the way of ‘aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’. Nor does Motion’s bear much resemblance to other classic accounts of childhood; though sometimes movingly and expertly sad, he is normally rather sedate, with a matching prose style that offers nothing in the least like those huge combing sentences that break over the head of Proust’s boy, and none of those uncanny spots of time that in their various ways obsessed both Proust and Wordsworth. Nor are there glimpses of a shining angel infancy like Vaughan’s.

This is by no means to suggest that Motion is incapable of eloquence, merely that he has for the most part to cultivate the commonplace. A certain modesty of tone suits his story. The houses of his youth are quite big but not grand; the family though not, by ordinary standards, ordinary, is consistently represented as such. Dad (always so called) commutes to his job in the city office of the family business (brewing, distilling), comes home in the evening, deposits his bowler hat and pours his first whisky. Mum spends a lot of time at the Aga. There is a granny, an amiable family servant called Ruby, and a gardener. The morning ride, and duties related to dogs and horses and ponies – mucking out, cleaning tack – take up a lot of the family’s time, especially that of Andrew and his younger brother, Kit.

Dad, who saw action in Europe in 1944-45, is still active in the Yeomanry, but he is happiest on hunting days. As MFH he is an important figure in the neighbourhood. He takes such opportunities as occur to shoot and fish in Scotland and dutifully instructs his sons in these skills, but is no good at all at displaying affection. His reticence adds to a feeling of gentle but insistent domestic repression, of life as on the whole an agreeable experience but one controlled by mostly unspoken taboos. The boys may play with the village children, but not after reaching the age of seven, when they are sent off to school, their fees paid by a rich grandfather. When out riding they raise their hats to foot passengers: ‘Mum said this was important, otherwise people would think we were stuck-up.’ On rare visits to London they consult the best dentist, patronise the shop acknowledged by all to be the best for school uniforms, visit a Mayfair barber, lunch at Brown’s Hotel. Illness, suffered by both Andrew and his mother, is, if necessary, treated in Harley Street or at the London Clinic. Such were the essential, unostentatious rituals of class in this not particularly wealthy family.

Reading is not one of the family interests, though Dad takes Horse and Hound and Mum enjoys a regular supply of fiction from a book club. Her taste is what used to be called middlebrow, and her idea of a night out is South Pacific. She reads the expected children’s books to Andrew but leaves him in a state of almost total ignorance concerning poetry, which, if it occurs to him to think about it, strikes him as entirely a matter for grown-ups. Prep school made matters worse, for it ‘turned poems into a kind of punishment’. So ‘books didn’t fit at home,’ or at school either, and far from being encouraged to lisp in numbers the future laureate made his first serious acquaintance with poetry much later, when he was put on the right track by a master at his public school. After that, however, there was a lot of poetry, turned out by himself, and redolent of Larkin and Heaney, though ‘it was more like turning the tap on a steam pipe than anything to do with thinking.’

The years without books and poems seem not to have been a grave deprivation; other matters, and not just horses, were more important. Among them were certain facts of life that couldn’t be picked up unaided: Mum had to make her son understand how wrong it was to use certain ‘suburban’ words like ‘patio’ and ‘toilet’, to say ‘mirror’ instead of ‘looking-glass’, ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’, to speak of ‘fish-knives’, and so on. Those giveaway words were originally proscribed around 1956 by Nancy Mitford and John Betjeman, perhaps partly as a joke, but now served as infallible class markers: ‘It’s the way people like us don’t talk,’ Mum explains. There are things that must not be said or done, no reason offered or needed, and things that must be done, however upsetting, however unintelligible to non-U villagers – like sending seven-year-old boys, against your will and instinct, as well as theirs, to remote prep schools.

Mum dutifully but sadly enforces these inexplicable rules but remains nevertheless, very properly, the object of her sons’ adoration. She dominates this book. Its structure is determined by a fatal accident she suffers while hunting, when Andrew is 17. We begin and end there: the first chapter concerns the day of the disaster, and the misery of the days that followed as she lay in a coma. We return to that scene at the end. Between these poles the main part of the book is a flashback to earlier youth, which in the course of its telling takes us round to the beginning again.

This design is well executed, and the opening chapter is brilliantly written. Andrew goes off, mildly excited, for an overnight stay at some girl’s house, where he gets news of his mother’s fall. Later he hears about it in more detail from his younger brother. The cause and nature of the accident are very exactly rendered, and this record of a personal loss that might seem too profound to allow artful description is in fact a work of art. Here and elsewhere it might be complained that the writing seems too calculated. There is dialogue, apt, convincing in its way, yet always tempting the reader to think its detail improbable to the point of falsity:

I keep expecting Ruby to say everything will soon be back to normal, but she doesn’t. She goes on crying, making odd quivery whimpers, and then Kit’s crying too, and then I am. The light from outside, flicking off the bare branches of the chestnut tree, swings over us in pale yellow waves. The mattress on my bed gives a muffled creak as it recovers from our weight.

The commonplace opening sentence here may make the rest of the quotation sound a bit too researched, the tree too splendid and the bed’s creak likely to have occurred rather at the moment of composition than at the time described.

Why be suspicious of what is so moving? Why is it slightly embarrassing that at a critical moment a pan of potatoes boils dry on the Aga, or Kit glances at his brother and ‘rolls his eyes’? The blurb says the book is written ‘from a teenage child’s point of view, and without the benefit of hindsight’, but of course it is a work of maturity, a work of hindsight. In fact Motion sets himself a virtually impossible task: an adult writer is setting down what he imagines to be the thoughts and observations of a teenage boy who is, in turn, remembering and reflecting on his earlier life. This complicates a problem that would exist even if there were only two, not three, Motions involved in the business. It is impossible to imagine what an account of childhood ‘without benefit of hindsight’ might be like, unless it resembled Joyce’s attempts in the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist.

The imagined speaker in this book reflects soberly that whereas the childhood of others ends slowly, in fits and starts, his has ended ‘suddenly. In a day.’ Not, surely, a child’s observation; and neither is this: ‘I don’t want to talk about it in grown-up language I haven’t learned yet.’ Of course that is what he does and has to do, with some effect of falsity. The voice is inevitably the voice of the artist: someone ‘made a face’ or ‘lit another cigarette and dotted the ash into the blue glass ashtray’ or clasped and unclasped her hands. When a lamp ‘buzzes’, or the boy kicks aside a mistletoe berry or a yew berry (feared as poisonous), we must assume the adult writer’s imagination is pretending to be the teenager’s memory. Perhaps there are moments when the man has remembered his childish language, betrayed by his fondness for such words as ‘wriggle’, ‘slither’ and ‘squish’. But mostly I think we understand that the grown man is doing the talking and thinking, sometimes with slightly uncomfortable results.

Told he must go to prep school, Andrew tries to explain to his mother that the whole notion is simply a mistake or misunderstanding: had he been consulted the matter would never have come up. ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I’ve decided I don’t want to go to a prep school.’ But ‘everyone has to go away at your age,’ says his mother, herself equally distressed at this requirement. The boy’s immediate reaction is to run away, but only briefly; then he toes the line, as he must. The school is dreadful in a way he could hardly have imagined, but there exists a template for descriptions of the horrors of prep school and Motion’s account of this one fits it neatly enough; less philosophical in tone than Orwell’s masterly essay, this is nevertheless more appealingly miserable. The first journey to school registers painfully the dull anguish of such occasions, which may easily allow the victim the consolation that things may not be as bad as at present seems likely; a hope disappointed by the sequel, with its all too credible tales of ignorant brutality and petty greed. Now and then the schoolboy habit of dealing with masters by making caricatures – distaste mixed with fear – is accurately carried over into adult prose: so we know one of these men by ‘his high-pitched voice, which had a scream trapped inside it’. But these shades of the prison house were, to a great extent, dispersed by the more humane culture of the public school.

Motion writes well and with great familiarity about nature – woodland, plants and vegetables as well as horses – but I was surprised to discover that the passages I most admired were descriptions of violence or danger. A neighbour’s bull terrier savagely attacks one of the Motions’ dogs. Dad suffers a vertigo attack on the roof of the house, while Andrew capers dangerously around it in a weirdly Oedipal demonstration (and a persuasive exhibition of the author’s own authentic power). There are descriptions, equally fine, of Andrew’s first salmon and of a stag hunt, credibly remembered in minute detail. Probably even more central to the book is the story of his first hunt, and of the unforgettable experience of being blooded.

There seems to be no limit to the number of ways in which there might occur what Wordsworth called the growth of a poet’s mind. Motion’s childhood was ordinary, much grander than most, but less grand than Dad pretended and Mum’s taboos insisted. Nevertheless, as seen against the background of the commonplace, those streaks of blood on the boy’s face, that dead stag, that appalling school, proved as formative as a childhood in a well-stocked library might be to other poets. And, after all, Wordsworth, though a reader and ‘a dedicated spirit’, also enjoyed rural sports, climbing, skating, rowing and flirting. He might well have acknowledged a family resemblance in his latest successor.