Cambridge Folder

Conversation with Hughes’ Contemporaries

Transcript of a recording made at the International Ted Hughes Conference, Pembroke College, Cambridge University on Friday 17th September, 2010.

Chair: Colin Wilcockson. Panel: Daniel Huws, Richard Hollis, Carol Hughes.

CW: It’s a rather hazardous business being on this particular symposium. Daniel Weissbort would have been on it but was not at all well and alas has had to leave for home. I am glad he read his poems yesterday evening. The other person we were originally going to have also on the committee was Terence McCaughey. Terence, who lives in Dublin, knew Ted probably better than anybody else, was an exact contemporary of his in Pembroke, and was very fond of him. And Terence is very upset that his health over the last few months has made him feel it would be very unwise to make the journey. But fortunately, we have Terence by proxy. He wrote to me about a week ago, a letter which was very moving, saying how much he would miss not being here, but that he’d written down some memories of what he would have brought up about Ted. And we’re very lucky that Carol will read this for us, and I think that will provoke a lot of questions to the other people who knew Ted well: Daniel Huws, who will answer you either in speech or in song; and Richard Hollis, who knows a lot about the artistic productions of Ted’s works.

So we have brought a good mixture here, and I’m sorry I’m the only sort of odd man out. I could say I met Ted. Indeed, when he was awarded an honorary Doctorate by the University of Cambridge, I spoke to him on Pembroke lawn for, I should think, at least seven minutes! I had myself the fortune (but in this particular context, the misfortune) of going up at exactly the same time to university, but it was at a place which I will say, sotto voce, was called Merton College, Oxford. So, I don’t know anything about anything useful to us this evening, as I’m pretty ignorant of the Cambridge scene at that time.

The other thing I will mention is that both Daniel Weissbort’s memoir and Lucas Myers’ memoir are both on sale here and those may well supplement the discussions we have this evening. About the absent Terence McCaughey: you can again have his presence, because in the photograph in the showcase at the far end there, he’s shown in the centre, David Morton is on his left, Terence in the middle and Ted on the right. So that, again, when all this is finished and you want to know who was behind this memoir, you can see Terence in person.

The other thing I will mention, which of course would be near to Ted’s heart, is that I noticed when I looked at the little paragraph about all the characters who are performing during this splendid conference, is that Daniel Huws and I were born in the same year. Now I’m damned sure I look younger and, in fact, I am right! Daniel is July and a Cancer, solidly in the middle of it. They’re very quietly reliable people, Cancers. Me, I’m a little bit later, July 23rd, born on a cusp, very uncomfortable that is. So, I’m three-quarters a Leo and one quarter a Cancer. That, I think, accounts for the fact I’m never certain of anything about anything and I can never decide whether I’m actually neurotic or just hysterical!

Well, with that, let’s start now and I’ll ask Carol if she would kindly read Terence’s memoirs.


Ted and I met for the first time in Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge during what must have been our first or second week in Cambridge in Autumn of 1951.

Forty seven years later, our last meeting took place in Dublin in June 1998, and, while we spoke again, it was to be the final one in a sadly fitful and irregular series of encounters over nearly five decades. Indeed, it was perhaps testimony to the relationship that notwithstanding the erratic nature of our meetings, they were marked by undiminished affection, still poignantly so on that last occasion just weeks before he died.

I cannot recall what particular books I was looking for that autumn day in 1951 but certainly my list included Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose – also on the list of this stranger in the shop. He already had his sister’s copy, but a version without the accompanying vocabulary. He proposed that since we both apparently belonged to the same college I should buy his copy and so allow him to buy the more expensive one – happily complete with vocabulary. We agreed on the bargain there and then. After whatever coming and going was involved we agreed to be supervised together for our first year under MJC Hodgart – an authority on the ballads and who was developing his interest in oral literature in general and James Joyce in particular at that period. The two of us felt encouraged to develop an interest in the words and music of street ballads not separate from our studies but as part and parcel of them. We also enjoyed singing them when the occasion demanded – even indeed when it did not…

Ted and I spent much of our time together during those years. In part, I think perhaps this was a response to coming from outside the public school environment – we were both, in a way, outsiders – me from Ireland and Ted from Yorkshire.

But it was not just that. We were fortunate to share so many interests – music, nature, poetry, language… In the evenings, for example, after Hall, we would often retire to either Ted’s or my room and spend the evening reading poetry or listening to Beethoven on 78 rpm records. We would go to the cinema fairly regularly – Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. I can remember many and varied things we did but just now I recall particularly vividly sitting in the dusk or darkness while Ted made owl noises to attract them to us… It was also during that first term that Ted introduced me to brown bread, cheese, and treacle sandwiches – proper north of England fare – and utterly delicious!

I should perhaps mention the visit to Cambridge of Ted’s sister Olwyn. I hadn’t of course met her before. We had tea together in a tea house near the Franciscan church and opposite The Eagle Pub. What really astonished me about the relationship between the two of them was the fact that they could and did speak of their friends in terms of their horoscopes. So that for instance they would say the relationship between so and so and so and so was doomed as they were horoscopically incompatible! This was a totally new way of looking at relationships to me!

Regretfully our contact over the immediately following years was more sporadic. This was due in no small way to my preoccupation with my own life in another country and my failure to be there for him. Ted, for his part, never missed an occasion to send Ohna and me copies of his latest collection, occasionally including messages scolding me for my poor efforts at keeping in touch.

I can only say, sadly, that I was aware of the terrible suffering of his whole situation but found it impossible to believe I could be of any real help to him.

Since his death I think of that last day we spent together in June 1998 and the final words that passed between us that afternoon. After lunch in Trinity and after a while sitting in the sun on the Dining Hall steps we split into two groups – Carol and Ohna to the town and Ted and myself on the Hopkin’s Trail.

Unfortunately the upper floors of Newman House were closed for renovation and we were able to gain access only to the bottom of the stairs. Not to be defeated in our search for places associated with Hopkins we went next door to have a look at the University church, built as the church for the Catholic University at the instigation of Cardinal Newman. It was freshly done up and looking very well. Ted was silent for a minute or two, then he said, “This fairly closely persuades me to become a Catholic or a Christian” That was all. It was said so quietly – almost to himself.

The next place we stopped at was Glasnevin Cemetery and though we stopped at graves here and there our main focus of interest was the Jesuit plot where Gerard Manley Hopkins, along with scores of brother Jesuits, lies buried. The plot is a huge gravelly square with nothing whatever growing on it – grey and barren – “Were they so very noxious?” Ted wondered, “Does nothing at all grow here? Nothing at all?

Each of the books we received from Ted over the course of those years, between finishing University and the June of 1998 contained something wonderful. And following his death, I have re-red many of them, each time finding something new and uplifting – none more so than the following, from Tales from Ovid… [The passage which was read was from the Introduction to Ted Hughes: Tales from Ovid, Faber,1997, pages x and xi, beginning: “In his earlier books, preoccupied with erotic love, he (Ovid) had been a sophisticated entertainer.” ]


CW: Thank you very much Carol

What I’ll do now if I may is to ask Daniel and Richard just briefly to indicate to us the ways in which they knew Ted, how they first came across him, and in what way they worked or played together. So Daniel…

DH: Um. A good way to begin is with “Um” I am not going to start talking about Ted. I’ve written a memoir which is for sale, this is not a sales talk, it’s simply that, although when you get older you do repeat yourself, consciously to repeat myself is something I have avoided all my life. So I can’t possibly bring myself to start telling stories which are in that little book. So, I won’t have a lot to say. But we have just heard about Terence. Terence I love, he’s a marvellous person and Terence and Ted, above all, and a couple of their Pembroke friends, transformed my life in Cambridge. I was at a college over the road, Peterhouse, and met them by chance and I attached myself to Terence and Ted like a leech, from the middle of my second year on. And we had things in common. With Terence – I’m going to talk a bit more about Terence than Ted really – we’ve heard a lot about Ted – Terence, was very close. He was undoubtedly Ted’s closest friend throughout the Cambridge years. There’s a photograph at the back with three young men, at the end of an evening I would guess – Ted with a moustache which I never saw. I was amazed to see he’d had a moustache at one point. And the very nice character in the middle is Terence. And as Terence said, they loved singing, they used to sing a lot, and I came to sing with them. That was a very strong bond for a long time, and Carol told me last night that Ted loved singing even in the eighties when the occasion arose. He had a very good voice, but Carol has no recording of Ted singing. It seems criminal. He had a very… well, you all know his reciting voice, but his singing voice was not the same, a light, beautiful voice. But there we are. I think it is proposed later that you will be free to ask questions. So although I’m not going to say any more about Ted now, I’ll gladly try to answer questions if I am able to, and I am sure Richard will do the same.

But there’s one thing I feel it incumbent upon me to say. We’ve been reminded more than once that Ted is not with us but, as Auden said of Yeats, “he lives now in his admirers” And that encapsulates that idea as neatly as can be done. I’ve joined his admirers for these very enjoyable few days, but I do have to say that the Ted I knew, who is still more alive in my mind than the Ted in the minds of most of you – that if Ted had been here, I was thinking what phrase would he have used, and there are many, and I thought one very likely one was “a parasitical orgy” or words to that effect. He would have had a multitude of phrases, he could have spun them out. But I think those of you who knew Ted would know that he appreciated people who took a close interest in his work – and I have to look no further than Keith to know someone who took a deep interest in Ted’s work from a very early stage and Ted appreciated it highly, and you realise that from the wealth of letters written by Ted to Keith. So he appreciated that. But by-and-large academic works, literary criticism, were… I won’t use any more words. So I met Ted in 1952 and got to know him much better the next year, and I knew him very well until my wife and I left London in 1961.Ted and Sylvia left in 1962, and from then on it was much more occasional. We used to come now and again down to Devon – but not very often. OK.

CW: Thank you very much. Richard, would you like to, as it were, locate yourself.

RH: In a sense I represent the missing people, because I was drawn into this circle of people from Cambridge – I am one of the very few people here who never went to University. I went to art school. And through the Cambridge connection though, I happened to be living above where Daniel Huws’ father had a flat, and where Daniel Huws was also living and then Ted and Sylvia then came to live there. But also I’d like to say that because the people who knew Ted were running, in a way, to the end of their lives, that I thought it was very nice that what they knew of Ted should be remembered in publications. So, because of the new cheap ways of printing, I started – I’m not really a publisher, but I started having printed (because I’d been a book designer), printing first of all Dan Huws’ memoir and also the book where Ted wrote an introduction to the poems of Susan Alliston, who was a friend of mine. And then Daniel Weissbort’s, Ted Hughes and Translation, and Lucas Myers’ – his memoir of Ted and Sylvia. Because I knew these people and was part of this circle, although not being a text person but being an image person it was slightly strange, so I am in a way peripheral to it.

On the other hand I worked with Ted and Daniel Weissbort on Modern Poetry in Translation when it began, so was very involved for quite a long time with that and had some interesting meetings with Ted and Daniel and translators and so on. But my contribution can only be anecdotal and marginal, because I can’t say that I knew Ted well, although I let him stay in the flat that I’d vacated. So it was an intermittent thing and through – when he had the thing on the South Bank – Poetry International – I can remember walking across the bridge with him and chatting. I didn’t, of course, see them as… I knew they wrote things, but it wasn’t the crucial thing. They were people for me. And Sylvia, who lived down below, you could sit while she was knitting something, and she was like a, more a housewife, who is just doing things. So I had a very different relationship to people who were writers and, as I say, I didn’t know Ted well but really marginally. But anecdotally I can contribute.

CW: Thank you very much. I have a question. A few years ago a contemporary of Ted’s at Pembroke who read English, Chris Wilson, sent me his diary. You may have seen it in the exhibition in the Library. And it’s just a very simple, free, hand-out diary that Heffers gave to all students as a sort of advert for Heffers, the bookshop. And Ted had got hold of Chris’s diary – he’d called on Chris one day, Chris wasn’t in his room but his door was open, and he filled in at various dates things that apparently had happened to Chris: a completely weird and surreal story that started with Chris inadvertently having gone out to a restaurant that served dog. Chris’s confession to his various friends in this diary brought totally different reactions – completely mad reactions – from parents, girlfriends and heaven-knows-what, and this kind of crazy, surreal humour, followed by a lot of very amusing sketches – a marvellous one of Beethoven, looking very, very serious, strumming away at the piano, and the bird in the cage has actually died – and I’d like to ask Daniel particularly, was Ted often funny? Had he got a great sense of humour and what sort of humour had he if he had one?

DH: Oh absolutely. The whole of Cambridge was regarded as a big joke.

CW: In general, or by him?

DH: Well by him and by us. It wasn’t taken seriously. I don’t know what was. You were allowed to sort of approve of certain people – Beethoven for example – OK, Beethoven was great, and Swift was great, Shakespeare of course – there were these great, great people, but Cambridge… most of the dons, almost all of the English (I wasn’t in the English department, I used to hear all about them ) they were not highly regarded with one or two exceptions. The students were by-and-large written off. They dressed in a way which seemed rather stereotyped, and talked in a way which seem rather stereotyped and their interests seemed rather stereotyped. It was probably very unfair, because I look – my favourite page in the newspapers these days is ‘Obituaries’ – and I read about these people and I say, “Good God, he was at Cambridge when I was there”: people I had never heard of, never come across, but interesting people. They were here. But apart from the small group of friends… they were then sort of… write-offs.

CW: And was there a public school/ grammar school tension? I haven’t found it in anything from Ted, but you may have.

DH: It was undoubtedly there. Yes. Ted and Terence’s circle, which I joined, and later it sort of expanded and people from other colleges, Christ’s and Trinity, one or two other people were drawn in after Ted’s immediate contemporaries had left. But a common factor was, I think, that none of them – (apart from me, I was a sort of Public school – because for four years I had been to Public school, but I’d been at a State School in Wales before that, and I felt an outsider at the school I went to. And Terence had been to Campbell College [Belfast] – is that a private school? I think it is. Terence had been there)… Terence, incidentally – you heard his piece – he is a Protestant, a Presbyterian. What else? A Republican. And he took part in the early Civil Rights protests in Northern Ireland, and received death threats, and this is just a bit of Terence’s background. He moved down to Dublin and has lived there ever since – but that was Terence… Why did I start saying that, I’ve forgotten?

CW: Well I’m interested that he was at Campbell, because it is indeed a Public school. And Chris…

DH: [Remembering his theme] Ah the social business. There was, you know, you saw someone coming towards you in grey flannel trousers and a blazer, and you walked past them, you knew they were from different –

CW: [interrupting] Were they wearing ties?

DH: And ties, yes, but almost everyone wore ties. Almost everyone wore ties. Even I wore ties quite often. But there were unspoken social divides, which you recognised.

RH: [interrupting] I ought to point out that in Lucas Myers’ memoir, Daniel Huws is going about with boots tied up with wire, which gives you an idea of his conventions.

DH: That’s fiction.

CW: I was at Oxford at exactly the same time and I don’t think anyone ever even knew what school you were at, so, at that time…

DH: I don’t know. You didn’t know what school they’d been to. You knew what sort of school they’d been to.

CW: Ah, I see.

[It was remarked that Ted hated blazers for almost the rest of his life]

DH: And so did I. Ted did wear grey flannel trousers. But they were only… Ted would… I think his wardrobe was very meagre. He had grey flannel trousers and he had this black jacket which he wore for years. Corduroy. Which he passed on to me, actually.

CW: Yes, as in the photograph on this [indicates a photograph of Ted, in black jacket and moustached, on the cover of the conference folder].

DH: He wore that. He probably must have had a suit. And he probably had another jacket, and then someone mentioned, in one of the talks, the First World War leather coat. It was a leather coat, issued to men in the trenches, and leather was relatively waterproof and normal, I suppose, in the First World War, and he wore this. It was very faded and scuffed, and he wore that when the weather demanded a coat – a scuffed leather coat.

[Dan Huws was asked whether, at Cambridge, Ted ever had long hair which he used to tie back]

DH: He never had a pony tail. His hair was generally long, yes. And it was still long, as we saw in the film last night [Noel Chanan’s video: Leonard Baskin and Ted Hughes in Conversation 1983. Chanan, 2009], he was still long haired. It was long before long hair became fashionable.

CW: Some questions.

KS [Keith Sagar]: I was only one year behind Ted and that was at King’s, so it was very much the same Cambridge. I never met him until 1970, many years later, but I told him one day that I remembered him from Cambridge, because he was such a conspicuous figure in the lecture theatre. Everybody else wore blazers, or sports coats, duffle jackets, and I said “You were twice as big as anybody else, you wore a burgundy coloured cord jacket, you always took an aisle seat because there wasn’t room for your legs, and sprawled you legs out into the aisle, and you always looked completely bored” He said, “Oh no, that wasn’t me, that was Karl Miller

DH: A burgundy coloured jacket sounds more like Karl Miller than Ted. I don’t remember the burgundy coloured one – he may have had one in his early years. There’s a question…

CW: Terrence [Terry Gifford]

TG: I may have asked this before. Did Ted come to Cambridge a singer or did he learn songs at Cambridge, and where did these songs come from? How did he learn them? And what kind of songs did you [Daniel Huws] bring to Cambridge? Perhaps you could give us an example.

DH: I will, because I promised Carol to sing at least one song, which was a great favourite of Ted’s, before the end of the evening. So, be patient. Ted – I got to know Ted when I was in my second year and he was in his third, and by that time, Ted, Terence, they’re named in the memoir, they were all Pembroke people. They probably knew a lot of people in other colleges but they stuck together throughout their three years and they would go down to The Anchor. Most evenings they’d sort of meet there between six and seven, exchange the day’s news, and so on. Then after Hall, after dinner in the evening, if there was nothing better to do, if there was no film or play, they’d often go back there and then on those evenings we’d usually end up singing. The great source of songs? The repertoire was probably three-quarters Irish, and Terence was the source. Terence knew lots of songs, so there were street ballads. I think they were encouraged by Matthew Hodgart, who was their tutor, and one of the few dons the students felt at ease with, I think. I didn’t know him well but I met him once or twice, and his great interests were, as Terence said, ballads. He wrote a small book about ballads. And James Joyce, which of course was, in those days, whether you read James Joyce or not, you had to be interested in him. And so Terence knew a lot of songs, many of them I later realised probably came from Colm O’Lochlainn’s collection of Irish Street ballads [Irish Street Ballads, Dublin, 1939]. But they’re very widespread. Some were not from there. Some I still haven’t seen in print. Terence had a big repertoire, Green and Orange – mostly Green but a few Orange songs. And I remember one evening we were singing in the pub and a couple of Irish labourers came in and they sat in the corner and listened. And one of them came over after half an hour and he said “What fuckin’ side are you on?” So, Terence was an Orangeman, you see, but in spirit he was more Green. I’ll sing one song that Terence…

CW: [interrupting] This doesn’t let you off at the end you know!

DH: No, No. I’ll sing the one that I promised Carol. But talking of this Green and Orange reminds me of a song which Terence sang. I haven’t seen all of the form he sang in print. So that was the staple. Irish songs really. There was a small element of Music Hall. There was a man called Brian Roberts. I don’t know what became of him, he was at Pembroke, he had one or two Music Hall songs; and Roger Owen, who was also a friend, and became a BBC man; and Ted – he had a couple of Yorkshire songs which he never sang often enough for me to learn them. I don’t know them. His great… his big songs, and because they were big songs they couldn’t be sung early in the evening, so at about half-past-ten (pubs closed officially at 11 in those days. You were kicked out) it was, “Come on Ted, it’s time. We want ‘Sir Patrick Spens’” And we’d get ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. And his other big ballad was ‘Eppie Morrie’, which is about the abduction of a girl – or an attempted abduction. It’s a great song for women, because she wrestles with a man all night and she emerges a virgin. And the maid comes in in the morning and says “Shame on you!” to the man. It’s a long one. I can sing most of it but I’d need a few pints before I’d take on that. So those were his two big songs. So it’s basically Irish songs. And then, after that year when I got to know them, there was a man from Christ’s (no he was at Queens’, he had a friend at Christ’s) called Colin White, who was a Scotsman, a very fiery Scotsman, a lovely man, he died quite recently. And he used to go up in Summer – he worked, when they were building Dounray, the atomic power station – and he used to go as a labourer to earn money and live in a bothy with all the navvies, and he had a very good stock of bothy songs. So those were the sources. Such songs as I knew, which no one else knew, they were Welsh. So now and again I’d sing a Welsh song, as a sort of a bit of decoration.

CW: Are you giving us a sample now?

DH: Of a Welsh song?

CW: Well, yes.

DH: No. Is it time for a song already? [Aside in Welsh to CW, who understands Welsh] Give me a drink.

Right, I will sing one song then we can talk a bit more. I’ll sing a song of Terence’s which is quite an easy one to sing, which is ‘Brian O’Lynn’. Which I’m sure lots of you know versions of ‘Brian O’Lynn’. I just have to remember how the beginning… just get a reasonable note:


Brian O’Lynn to his house had no door,
He’d the sky for a ceiling, the earth for a floor,
He’d a way to jump out and a way to jump in,
“Tis a fine habitation”, says Brian O’Lynn.

Brian O’Lynn went a courting one night,
But he set both mother and daughter to fight,
To fight for his hand they both stripped to the skin,
“Ach I’ll marry ye both,” says Brian O’Lynn

Brian O’Lynn and his wife and wife’s mother,
They all went over the bridge together,
The bridge broke down and they all tumbled in,
“Ach I’ll go home by water,” says Brian O’Lynn.

Oh Brian O’Lynn was an Orangeman born,
But he married a Papist from this side of Mourne,
“Ach I will wear Orange and she will wear Green,
And we’ll keep out of trouble,” says Brian O’Lynn.

Brian O’Lynn went to Chapel one day,
But he had no beads so he’d damn all to say,
The priest comes up to him, says, “What is your sin?”,
“Ach I have no apparatus,” says Brian O’Lynn.

CW: That’s wonderful, thank you. Right. [To questioner] Yes?

Q: Plenty of women in the songs but a real woman hasn’t been mentioned yet. Was that the tenor of the Cambridge experience? Was it wholly masculine?

DH: Almost totally masculine, yes. We talked about women. We’d see them in shops and walking along the street, and in lectures. There were the women of Girton and Newnham, and New Hall, which had just opened. There were only about fifteen in New Hall, it’s a tiny College [now known as ‘Murray Edwards College’]. And of those, they were mostly chosen for academic achievement, you didn’t see them much except in lectures. So there were these very glamorous – the glamorous few who acted and were public figures. Well, they were a bit like film stars, you know, you knew some of them by sight. But hardly anyone had girl-friends. If they had girl-friends they were in London or, apart from Girton and Newnham, there was Homerton College, which was a teachers’ training college, there were girls there, and Addenbrooke’s Hospital – a lot of nurses. That was it. So it was a strange life, looking back and young people today would… Like a monastery.

Q: I went to university twenty years later and I can’t remember much other than girls.

CW:. Well, on that note of confessional – What about some questions about the arts.

KS: Can I say this about girls –

CW: You had an ample supply?

KS: There’s a photograph in the case there of Ted at a May Ball, with a girl, obviously. I went to a great deal of trouble to try and identify that girl, and I have here a letter from Claas [Kazzer]. Where is he? [To Claas] You didn’t put a date on it unfortunately. The first bit is very personal information about yourself, so I’ll leave that out.


The remainder of my trip continued as fruitfully as the first week had been, and the meetings with Edna Wholey…

KS:[Aside]Is that how they pronounce it?

KS:[reading] … and Olwyn were very enlightening. I sat down and went through my recording locating and transcribing the bit about the picture you asked me to show to Edna. I thought it might be a picture of Edna Wholey herself. Edna, her husband (John, I believe [Joe]) and I, had been sitting in the living room talking about and looking at pictures she had, when I produced your photo’, telling her that you had this but didn’t know who the young lady was. Edna looked at it, took a deep breath, paused. I wasn’t altogether sure whether the photo’ brought on a pleasurable memory or not. After maybe half a minute, she smiled and began:

Edna: “Ted came to ask if I could go to the May Ball” <</p>

Husband: “When he was at Cambridge University, they have a Ball”

Edna: “In the first year”

Husband: “May Ball it’s called. It’s usually in June. It’s called the May Ball.”

Edna: “My permission was refused. A visiting – the family name was Alpino. They were Italians.”

Husband: “That’s right”

Edna: “Italians who came over after the war. They were – ”

Husband: “… Sort of restauranteurs”

Edna: “They were restauranteurs and Tony Alpino was an actor. This is his niece. Her name begins with a ‘C’ – That’s a photograph of Ted looking very apprehensive. He’s looking very ‘Well – ‘I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing’. Carina – Ca – was it Carina? Her name was Carina. Her name was not Alpino. She was of the Alpino family but her mother had married an Englishman. She was visiting us, and he was so disappointed. He’d come to ask if I could go – And so he just turned round and asked her. He’d never met her before. And her family were very Italian. They all went into a huddle. So they booked a hotel room. They booked a hotel room for her and her uncle. Tony took her on the train to go to Cambridge, and they were at Cambridge the following morning to bring her home”

Husband: “Very proper.”

Edna: “ I don’t suppose the poor girl went to bed before five in the morning”

Husband: “Ted’s eyes are saying: ‘I did never believe this’. He truly thought this: ‘What about this in the Yorkshire Post?’”

Edna: “He’s looking very wary of it. Not at all happy about the situation. This is Carina, there”

Claas: I asked which age she was then. Nineteen?

Edna: “Well, just as he went to university – yes, nineteen.”

Husband: “Should be about his first May Ball, I should think.”


There you are.

DH: The value of research! If you’d asked me, I’d say it was a needle in a haystack, but there you are. If you’re persistent in a scholarly way you dig up the truth.

CW: You had a question?

Q: Yes, I did. I know Daniel [Weissbort] isn’t here tonight, which is really sad – It was touched on – Modern Poetry in Translation – and of course one of the things which has been mentioned rather obliquely is the breadth of Ted’s European sympathies. I mean European all the way through to, well Amichai was mentioned, Janos Pilinzski, Vasco Popa – people that he was championing. Even for schoolchildren to read, back in the early nineteen-sixties. And this strikes me as – when you think of ‘The Movement’ going – it’s a Little England. Was that something that you noticed in Ted? That early on – a breadth of interests?

DH: No. Richard may tell you more about that.

RH: He was very internationalist in outlook. I think, well from what Daniel Weissbort says, it was really being invited to the Spoleto Festival, when he met people like Vasco Popa, that gave him the incentive. He suddenly realized that he’d been handed sheets which were literal translations, or crude translations, just to give people an idea of the content of the poem. And he thought really, with somebody speaking in the original language and having this literal translation, that was enough. But I think his whole outlook was actually very – you know, “Poetry isn’t just for England. And other people’s poetry is also ours” And of course poets, some English poets, were very hostile to this notion, saying that it is impossible to translate and bring anything of the original. So he met with a great deal of resistance.

And the way that, with the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation he was very – I quite by chance had been in Latin America, where the notion was that you could just hand out poems in the street, and it was free. So the first Modern Poetry International [Modern Poetry in Translation] was printed on this airmail paper, with the idea that it could be sent for very little money. That’s why it was on light paper, because the cost of sending things was dependent upon their weight. But we did it on this very light paper, and it also at the same time looked throwaway. So it was that kind of idea that poetry is for everyone.

It’s an aspect of Ted that I think is very much forgotten. That he was not in the least, well you know this, ivory tower. It was his involvement with the environment and environmental issues; and helping his friend, his Cambridge friend, David Ross, who helped found the St Botolph’s Review (with the money for it) and also started a magazine which Ted gave his backing to. His actual mental horizons were vast. It’s very extraordinary that he had not only this extraordinary memory but that his interests were so vast.

And also, I think, that the sort of thing that is forgotten, is that he was actually also a very humorous. Apart from being a very generous person in this way, he was also very humorous, and there was a lot of fun actually in doing Modern Poetry in Translation. As I was telling Daniel [Huws] earlier, there was a meeting with Daniel Weissbort when we were discussing a Yehuda Amichai translation, not made by Ted but made by an Israeli who was there. Well, Ted said: “You know, the original poem has forty-five stanzas and you’ve only got thirteen?” And the man said: “I make a new creative entity” And Ted was absolutely folding up with – roaring with laughter – holding up a copy of the old modern translation.

The other thing is also the retiring from public interest in a way. Because I was involved with a book done by Sebastian Barker, the photographer George Barker’s son. There were photographs of poets with one of their poems. And, in a way, because I had known Ted, I was the person who was to ask him to – “please will you bloody well be photographed” – with one of these huge cameras. And Ted would not agree to be photographed. Only by trickery could he be inveigled out of Olwyn’s house. And he was standing in front of some railings, where he’d emerged very startled-looking in the morning, and Sebastian Barker, who had a very grand camera, had to take only a miniature camera to take a photograph of Ted and quickly grab his image. And there in this book of beautifully printed photographs is the one of Ted, and the poem is the ‘Tiger’, so it looks as though he is almost behind the railings and looking startled [The book is Christopher Barker, Portraits of Poets, ed. Christopher Barker, Carcanet, Manchester, 1986. Richard Hollis has since written that the poem (on p.24) is ‘Famous Poet’ (THCP 23). It begins: “Stare at the monster – ”]. And it is the only one which is not really in focus or sharp. But that gives some idea that he didn’t actually enjoy being, I don’t think, being a public figure or being, I shouldn’t say this, the subject of –

[One of the panel commented that Ted was livid and defiant when he heard that a photographer was waiting outside Olwyn’s house to take his photograph, and that’s what shows.]

RH: Exactly! But it’s good. Well this was something which I found out. Because the only other person was William Golding, not that he was a poet, but in other Faber circumstances – these were the people who – As a non-writer, I admired the people who were slightly protective of what they wrote.

CW: [Indicating the photograph of Ted on the front of the Conference folder] That one’s with railings, too. Who took that, do we know?

RH: It’s a motif.

[The photograph is in the archive of Gerald Hughes, Ted’s older brother, at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and was probably taken by him when Ted first went up to Cambridge. One of the panel commented that there is a belief in some cultures that to have your image taken is like stealing your soul.]

CW and RH: Yes.

Q: Australian aborigines. You just mentioned something really fascination about the notion of being a public person – you said he disliked that. And yet, how did he feel about the opportunities that gave him? That was the impression that I got from him, that he didn’t want to be –

RH: I don’t know. Carol would have to –

Q: – a public person, but the possibilities to further his work. You were talking about wide interests – that sort of generosity – the encouragement of children. The engagement with the environment –

RH: Absolutely!

Q: That must have been a real conflict for him.

RH: I don’t know how he had the time to do all the things that he did. Incredibly generous that he would – I mean with the letter writing – And if people needed some support for something he seemed to be willing to give it. He was under extraordinary – apart from the writing. He was very extraordinary.

DH: I think it developed slowly. When he was at Cambridge, as is well chronicled, he never sent a poem to any proper magazine for money the whole time, before Sylvia appeared. And then Sylvia took him in hand and within the year he was famous. Of course there were the gifts, but he himself hadn’t promoted himself one inch: he had done nothing to promote himself up to that point. Promoting himself, I think, throughout his life, was against the grain, but he had these very firm, original ideas from an early age, and they developed: Poetry in Translation was one. I don’t know – When was the Spoleto Festival, early sixties was it? Sixty three or thereabouts?

RH: Yes, early sixties.

DH: Before then he wasn’t – When he came back from America, for example, he’d made discoveries (I hadn’t seen him for two or three years) and he was full of some new writers but not – but all in English, still all English writers. But then, he discovered rather suddenly this marvelous, mostly East European, poetry. And even in the handouts, which were not done by professional translators, Ted, with his eye for what a poem was really about, saw instantly what it was. And from that MPT, which began in 1965 was it?

RH: Yes, that was the first issue.

DH: And that was also the year of the big thing in London.

CH. Yes, the festival [the International Poetry Festival].

DH: So that – He had this vision and he wanted everyone to share this vision and to understand these things. And so he took that on board and then, a few years later, Your Environment, he encouraged David Ross to start that [Your Environment, London, 1970. David Ross and Walter C. Patterson are listed in the editorial details of the magazine as Editors, and Daniel Weissbort and Ted Hughes as Advisory Editors. See also, Daniel Weissbort’s note in Ted Hughes and Translations, Hollis, 2010. p.18]. And one thing after another. And the Poet Laureateship was just one in a succession of things which, if you like to look on it as shamanic (which is a word which is used in relation to Ted, I think isn’t a very easy but not misleading word to use of Ted), in accepting that, an office or post or whatever you call it which he must have known from the start would bring a lot of ridicule and mockery. Children’s poetry in this case – it was probably the beginning. By then he knew it was possible, by embracing these sorts of public channels, to influence children and to influence the whole world of poetry. Which it did.

CW: I rather get the impression that he wrote a lot of poetry at school. We know that, and we know that a sheaf of his poems was sent to Pembroke when he did the scholarship exam. That wouldn’t have got him the award that he got, because that would have to be on the written papers. So any sort of talk – the myth, I think, that grew up later (that Ted was perfectly happy to tell because it sounds a very romantic myth) that he was accepted at Pembroke as a dark horse. He got an Exhibition, which you can only get by taking the scholarship exams. Had he been a dubious entry – “Shall we? Shan’t we?” – not getting an award – then the poems would have made a big difference probably. Unfortunately, although his file records that the poems were indeed sent, it also (there’s a letter in the file from one of his teachers who thinks that perhaps on reflection they shouldn’t have sent them. I suppose because it felt as if perhaps this was working outside the strict system. I don’t know), unfortunately, the poems aren’t there. Nor, in the file, is any response to the poems. So we don’t know, in fact, what Matthew Hodgart or whoever read these, actually thought of them. But I do get the feeling – but am I wrong here? – that he wrote a lot of poems at school and he was very encouraged by his English teachers – one male and one female – both of whom he much admired, and who supported him, then for his two years of reading English he was not poetically productive. But is that wrong? I don’t find any record of anyone talking about his poems as an undergraduate.

MW [Mark Wormald]: I don’t want to forestall any contributions from the people who know, but I think it’s important to say that Charles Ryskamp who visited Pembroke last summer, told me at some length and with much fondness, about Ted’s visits to his room (Charles’ room on M staircase) quite late at night after Ted may have come back from the pub, and Ted would scribble poems furiously.

CW: What year was that?

MW: That would have been, I think, 1953. Charles said that he had very vivid memories of Ted writing copiously, writing poems, then saying, “This is not good”, scrumpling it up, chucking it in the bin.

CW: Right.

MW: And I was struck at the time that this was evidence of Ted being a very committed writer, drafter, of poetry as an undergraduate.

CW: It had just gone through my mind, but I think that resolves that one. But I’ve quite often heard from students, that reading English can be killing to your creative ability. That every time you set pen to paper, you think, “Oh my God, this isn’t as good as Keats, or whatever”, and you pack it up. And it can be undermining, but you think that wasn’t so?

MW: Not least because Charles would have been very keen to come to the conference, I think that it’s just important to have this of his memory.

Q: Was this after the experience of the charred fox? The story that is very well known -

MW: Charles wasn’t clear about that I’m afraid.

Q: – the idea that reading English – it seemed to be using the same part of the – the same batteries –

CW: There’s a wonderfully gothic story, it’s probably an allegory, I guess, because there was a subsequent vision when the fox nods approvingly. Normally one’s dreams aren’t – my dreams aren’t as logical as this. Nor do I get the “Do watch this next week, kind of thing” In his year, as it happens (about the fox story I don’t know anything) there were eight undergraduates in his year, four of whom switched to different subjects in their third year. So it was not at all a maverick kind of move. It was very very common. But it may be, nevertheless, that he found that reading English, and the rather stringent conditions, and the expectations of the sort of essays you are meant to write, became increasingly unsatisfactory to him.

Q: More importantly, he was beginning to write things and to recognise where the material lay that he needed.

KS: He published only two poems as an undergraduate. Both right at the end. The first was ‘The Little Boys and the Seasons’, in June 54, in Granta, under the pseudonym of Daniel Hearing. And about the same time, in Chequer, ‘Song of the Sorry Lovers’, under the pseudonym of Peter Crew.

DH: So that’s a Daniel who didn’t hear the first time. Perhaps I didn’t even read that. I can’t remember reading it published by Granta. But the second one of those was when the first poem I published, a rotten poem, was in that same issue. And we met that evening in The Anchor, we happened to be the only two there at that time, and he pulled out this copy of Chequer and he said “What do you think of this?” It was this poem by Peter Crew. And I think I passed. I haven’t a clue what I said. He didn’t show displeasure anyway and said “I wrote it”.

CW: Neil [Roberts] did you have a question?

NR: Yes. Well no just a statement. I think that it is said in the interview he did in The Paris Review later on, that when he was at Cambridge he was writing all the time but what he wrote was complete confusion. It wasn’t that he wasn’t writing, just that he was dissatisfied.

DH: That’s my impression. In retrospect, I’m sure that’s right. Cambridge was a shock to him and this completely new attitude to literature which he encountered in the lecture theatres threw him off course.

CW: Terry [Gifford]?

TG: Brian Cox has a memoir – Professor Brian Cox was at Pembroke and was I think a post-graduate student when Ted was an undergraduate, and he has published a memoir (he’s dead now), he published a memoir about Ted in Pembroke. He makes the point that his own creativity, which had begun at Grammar School, was crushed by the English Tripos at Cambridge. As I think you make that point, don’t you Keith? Were you writing poems before you came to Cambridge?

KS: I published one or two poems in the school magazine and one in my first term at Cambridge. Sixteen years before I wrote another.

CW: It sounds as if it was the kiss of death to creativity, coming to Cambridge. We’ve time, say, for two more questions.

MW: Can I ask Richard to say a bit more about life in Rugby Street?

RH: There’s not a great deal to say about it, because I suppose it was when Ted and Sylvia had come back from America and they were staying there. I’ve been in the house recently and it’s a very –

DH: That was ‘59 was that?

RH: When? What date?

DH: No,‘56 they left. That’s when they first came together. They lived there on and off, because they met there is ’56. I mean they slept together for the first time there in ’56.

RH: It’s very well described in Lucas Myers’ memoir, exactly when everything happened. And I think the house is described, which actually today is not dissimilar, although they’ve built another floor on the top. Because quite by chance, when Jim Downer for whom Ted rewrote the verses to the children’s book which was published about a year ago [Downer and Hughes, Timmy the Tug, Thames & Hudson, 2009], we were able then to go into where Jim Downer (who wrote the book) had the same floor as I did, which was above where Ted and Sylvia were, which was Daniel Huws’ father’s flat really. It was just very primitive. There was still some gas lighting. There was only – the lavatory was in the basement in the area under the pavement for the whole house. There was one cold-water tap on the stairs. It was very primitive. And I asked Daniel today, “How did we manage? How did you get – as my wife said to me – well how did you get water to fill a kettle?” And I was reminded that you just had a big jug, which you filled at this tap halfway down the house and you took it back up again. And then occasionally you went to public baths. It was very –

Q: It wasn’t that long since rationing had finished from the Second World War, was it?

RH: That’s right. The interesting thing that I discovered after Jim Downer’s book was launched – I thought this house is so interesting. I then went to the public library and enquired about the building next door, which turns out to have been a Rationalist Church. Where some famous speeches were given at the end of the nineteenth century and before the First World War, but where instead of having saints, they had Shakespeare, Goethe – and it’s completely extraordinary –

DH: Followers of Le Comte [Auguste Comte 1798-1857] weren’t they?

RH: Yes, followers of Auguste Comte, yes. It was a Positivist Church, I should have said. Very remarkable – because I think in the Birthday Letters poem about 18 Rugby Street Ted says something about there being something extremely strange about this house, because there seemed to have been so many extraordinary events. And the way it was described by Jim Downer, having Jacques Tati and Peter O’Toole and all these extraordinary visitors. And the woman who – when the house was full of gas one day, the woman on the ground floor – Was it the ground floor or the basement?

DH: Ground floor.

RH: It was in the basement. Her boyfriend –

DH: One Sunday morning – this terrible smell of gas. Gassed herself.

RH: So we knew there was something –

DH: Someone mentioned in one of the lectures (Richard wasn’t here), someone said that on the eve of the publication of Birthday Letters Ted was full of this terrible anxiety – were there going to be terrible headlines the next day or whatever; and he even worried about – was there going to be a law suit by the motor mechanic in 18 Rugby Street. The motor mechanic in 18 Rugby Street, I can name him, he’s probably dead, he’s called Bill Bush, and he had a mistress and she lived on the ground floor. He lived somewhere in South London. And he ran some sort of dubious business in spare parts for motor cars and stored them in the basement. And Helen, his mistress, she was a nice sort of dark, buxom woman, who must have been about thirty, and she gassed herself one Sunday morning. There were rather dreadful events on the ground floor and first floor. Not on the second floor where Ted and Sylvia met. So there were no particular bad omens on that floor. If there were, Ted would have dragged them out. And the top floor again, the man who lived there – he was an architect – he drowned a year or two before Richard arrived – in his own yacht.

CW: Carol, could I ask you – Did Ted reminisce much about Cambridge or was it “the past and that’s finished”? Was he a reminiscer?

[CH recalled that Ted would reminisce in the company of friends and they would also sing].

CW: Bit of reliving was it? Well if there is one more, and I hope there is, one more question to someone on the panel and then we’ll end with Daniel’s final song. Could I have a question? Ask me something, it makes me feel loved!! Ah!

Q: I am really struck by how vividly these memories are conveyed to us. I can barely remember the day before yesterday even and I certainly could not remember when I was eighteen or nineteen. I’ve completely repressed that, as I’m sure many of you have –

TG: Do Tell!

Q: I wonder whether you in fact have particularly acute memories and/or whether this was such a crucial, formative time that it can’t be forgotten. Whether you can’t have Ted Hughes without this period. How important were these few years to what was to follow? I’m really interested in the status of how you remember things so well.

CW: I think what is amazing, actually, just in general, is that those three years at university are so compressed that they do make an enormous impression. I’ve always been amazed. I met just only this evening a young woman whom I’d accepted here (I was admissions tutor for many years) and she knew word for word every question I’d asked her in the interview. Thank God, most of it sounded almost cogent. But sometimes I think, at a time like that, where you’re living it very intensely – Would you say (this is to ask what sounds like an aggressive question) how much are your memories – do they become – do you suspect, even yourself – might become a bit embellished? I’m putting it in an aggressive way just to spark it off.

RH: Well certainly mine are so minimal that there’s nothing to embellish.

CW: I suspect, but this is heresy, that like the story of the fox, there’s an element of embellishment that has gone on there in Ted’s mind. And Diane Middlebrook does say that each time he told the story over the years detail was added, and it wasn’t always the same. Mind you, that may be because the people recounting the story back again had misunderstood or added or subtracted. But how reliable do you feel your memory is?

DH: Your past is really valueless except for the stories, and so the stories – you cherish them, you – I don’t think ‘embellish’ is the word – but you sort of –

CW: Tidy up.

DH: – tidy up and –

Q: I don’t think my point is that anyone was embellishing at all. I am really struck by Daniel – Keith says something and it sparks something new. I don’t have the impression… I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I implied anyone was embellishing. I really don’t get that impression. It’s just seems that in a long and enormously productive life these few years seem to be – from your representations of them really, really, really fundamental. And I’m wondering if you talk about now, as much as your own –

DH: It’s a little bit like – It’s a common observation that soldiers who have been in the real war, even if for a couple of years, those couple of years (like First World War soldiers) those couple of years they emotionally – they carry more weight than anything else, even their love and marriages, in their lives. And I’m not saying that Cambridge in the 1950s was like the First World War trenches but it was a bit more intense and to many of us it was completely novel. And so I suppose you do remember better.

RH: But what is significant about the memoirs is that they all corroborate each other. There’s no disparity in information, even anecdotally. It’s interesting.

CW: Did - I’m sorry I’m talking again – did he ever mention his service in the RAF? His two years National Service?

DH: Oh a little bit in a sort of way. He was a radar mechanic.

CW: It didn’t seem to make a vast impression on him.

DH: Oh no, no. I did National Service. It didn’t make a vast impression. In contrast to many, I think most people who did it, they grumbled. I found it immensely valuable. I went from a Public school and I had a place in Cambridge at the end of it. And you were thrown into this world. I did maths and science, so I became a technician – I repaired electronic stabilizers on Centurion tanks, that was my expertise – that’s by the way. But suddenly you met people of your own age from every town in Britain more or less, at that time I could do a dozen different accents – Geordie, Glasgow, Scouse. I could do them. And it was marvellous. They were interesting people. I didn’t become an officer. A lot of people became officers and they were deprived of this education – they were deprived of the other ranks. You had a day – 8 till 4’o’clock – and then you were free. And there was bugger all to do except read. And so I read a fantastic amount in those years. I’m sure Ted did.

RH: It’s significant that when Ted was in the RAF the Korean War was going on. So actually if he’d been in the army this might have been very different.

DH: Well our friend Colin White, he was in Korea. He had one very good Korean War song: ‘We’re a shower of bastards’ – it’s an Australian song.

[CH supported the view, from her own experience, that group memories are honest.]

CW: Well time’s going on. I think it’s time for our climactic song. Thank you all very much for asking such interesting questions. I’ve learnt an enormous amount and I hope you feel you have, too. The whole feel of what it was like to be at Cambridge at the time. And I now turn to Daniel for the Finale.

DH: Carol suggested this song. I love it and Ted loved it. He mentioned it somewhere in Birthday Letters. It’s called ‘The Brown and the Yellow Ale’ and it’s an Irish song. The original song is in Irish and the version which I sing, which is in English, I believe the words are a translation by James Stevens. We didn’t sing this in Cambridge. We didn’t know it in Cambridge. We learned it in Rugby Street probably in 1956. I’m not sure of the year but I guess it was in 1956. There was a BBC programme – a half hour programme I think, about James Joyce and music and James Joyce’s favourite songs, and we listened to this. And I can notate music – it’s a fairly simple tune. We listened to the whole programme, I forget what the other songs were. This one was completely new and seemed rather marvellous. And they repeated the programme a few days later at a different time. And we’d half got the tune so when it was repeated we scribbled down the words and what I sing is what we got. Which mayn’t be quite like the original singer. I can’t say, because I’ve never reheard that record. It probably exists somewhere. It’s a song called ‘The Brown and the Yellow Ale’, and the subject matter appealed very much to Ted and to me:


I was walking the road one fine day,
Oh the brown and the yellow ale,
When I met with a man who was no right man,
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

And he asked if the woman with me was my daughter,
Oh the brown and the yellow ale,
And I said she was my married wife.
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

And he asked would I lend her for an hour-and-a-quarter
Oh the brown and the yellow ale
And I said I would do anything that was fair.
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

So you take the high road and I’ll take the lower,
Oh the brown and the yellow ale,
And we’ll meet again by the ford of the river.
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

I was waiting there for a day and a quarter,
Oh the brown and the yellow ale,
And she came to me without any shame.
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

When I heard her tale I lay down and I died,
Oh the brown and the yellow ale,
And she sent two men to the wood for timber.
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

A board of holly and a board of elder,
Oh the brown and the yellow ale,
And two great yards of sacking about me.
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

If it wasn’t that my own little mother was a woman,
Oh the brown and the yellow ale,
I’d sing you another pretty song about women.
Oh, oh, love of my heart!

CW: Thank you all very much. And I’m very grateful to this panel for supporting us this evening. Thank you.

Transcribed by Ann Skea ©. Edited by Colin Wilcockson, Daniel Huws and Claas Kazzer.

Thanks to Mark Wormald for permission to transcribe this recording; to Terence McCaughey for permission to reproduce his memoir in full; and to Richard Hollis for additional information.

For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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