A 1976 visit to Aus­tralia in­flu­enced Ted Hughes’s po­etry as well as his per­sonal life, writes Jonathan Bate

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In March 1976, with his fa­ther-in-law Jack Or­chard barely in the ground, Ted Hughes flew to Aus­tralia. He had been in­vited to the an­tipodes’ fore­most literary gath­er­ing, the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val. With his wife Carol’s fa­ther gone, it was an op­por­tu­nity to take his own fa­ther, Bill, to see brother Gerald, who had mi­grated to Aus­tralia in 1949. He rather hoped Bill might stay on for a few months with Gerald and his wife Joan, to re­lieve the pres­sure at home.

The trip proved to be another turn­ing point in Ted’s life. As on many oc­ca­sions when he was trav­el­ling, he kept a more sys­tem­atic jour­nal than usual. Af­ter a stu­pe­fy­ing train jour­ney with watery food un­der a March sun, a wait at Read­ing sta­tion and a dreary taxi ride, he and his fa­ther ar­rived at Heathrow. They had asked for a seat with ex­tra legroom, so found them­selves at the front by the toi­lets, which proved dis­rup­tive but some­times amus­ing.

Bill Hughes, who had never flown long-haul be­fore, was amazed at the size of the plane’s wings. They stopped to re­fuel in Bahrain, where some “in­cred­i­bly black small ugly Arabs” came aboard to clean the plane. They stopped again in Sin­ga­pore, bril­liantly lit and gaudy, a “sin­ful Eastern city” with an un­ut­ter­ably bor­ing air­port, where the only re­lief in the hot wet air was the sight of “Pretty Wait­resses ev­ery­where — In­done­sians, Malays etc”.

Then in a daz­zling dawn they found them­selves above the land­mass of Aus­tralia, look­ing down on moun­tain forests, scat­tered home­steads, a tan­gle of dirt roads and pe­ri­odic wa­ter­holes.

They ar­rived in a daze at Gerald and Joan’s neat home in Tul­la­ma­rine near Mel­bourne air­port. Ted ad­mired his brother’s Ja­panese sword care­fully stowed in a steel box in his den. He had ear­ache from the flight. Then they were shown a tele­gram with more bad news: while they had been in the air, Un­cle Walt had died. Walt, the pa­tri­arch of the fam­ily, in many ways more of a fa­ther to Ted than his own fa­ther — mem­o­ries of that first jour­ney abroad and of the visit to Top Withens with Sylvia Plath, whom he mar­ried in 1956 and who com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1963. To have been ab­sent at the time of Walt’s death felt like another man­i­fes­ta­tion of the curse upon Ted’s life.

Later, from Gerald and Joan’s sea­side sec­ond home over­look­ing miles of empty beach on the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula, they man­aged to phone Aunt Hilda: Walt had eaten noth­ing for three weeks, then fi­nally asked for a bot­tle of whisky,


which he drank through the night in the front room while Hilda slept up­stairs. When she came down in the morn­ing he was dead on the liv­ing room floor, hav­ing laid him­self out with arms folded.

They rem­i­nisced and drank cold Aus­tralian beer. Ted peeled some bark from an an­cient gum tree as a keep­sake of his visit, while Gerald carved the name of his house on an an­cient piece of tea-tree wood. Ted asked if there were foxes and Gerald showed him snake tracks. For a fleet­ing mo­ment, they were two boys in the wild once more. Then Gerald drove his brother to the air­port and Ted took a lit­tle plane to Ade­laide.

He liked the clean­ness of the city, the lazy and in­no­cent at­mos­phere, the ex­tra­or­di­nary bird cries. Walk­ing through empty streets and parks in the early morn­ing, he saw quail-crested doves, a grey-brown and yel­low thrush-like bird with a “rear-eye cor­ner like Grou­cho Marx”, budgeri­gars tak­ing flight, and “the gi­ant rub­ber trees like ac­ro­batic ele­phants cop­u­lat­ing”. Above all, the heat: be­ing down un­der, he did not have to wait for July to sense the transit of the sun into the sign of his Muse. Some­thing was stir­ring.

Fel­low poet Adrian Mitchell, who had been on the same plane from Lon­don, had ar­rived in Ade­laide a day be­fore Ted, the time agreed with the fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers. He was met at the air­port by a vi­va­cious press of­fi­cer in a white limousine with green-tinted win­dows, hired to im­press the vis­it­ing writ­ers. Mitchell told her that Hughes would be ar­riv­ing the next day, since he was stay­ing with his brother in Mel­bourne. She thought that it was cheeky of him not to ar­rive at the ap­pointed hour, so she made a point of not fetch­ing him from the air­port. Ted chal­lenged her over this when he was stand­ing in the drinks queue at a bar­be­cue hosted by the Writ­ers Week Com­mit­tee, swel­ter­ing in his heavy leather jacket. She said that she would make it up to him by bring­ing him wine straight away. She brought him four glasses, each with a dif­fer­ent vintage. Telling him that he could not drink four glasses at once, she mo­tioned to him to sit, where she joined him, un­wor­ried about the prospect of grass stains on her starched an­tique white dress. He asked her how she knew that he was a wine buff and she replied that she was psy­chic. He liked this. Her name was Jill Bar­ber.

The fol­low­ing day, she met him at the Ho­tel Aus­tralia in her role as press of­fi­cer. She was dis­com­posed when they were forced to con­front a crowd of anti-Hughes “lib­bers” bear­ing plac­ards, so he let her rest in his room. That evening, at the gala open­ing of the fes­ti­val, they drank cham­pagne and left early. Jill tipsily drove the limousine over a ce­ment bol­lard in the park­ing lot and Ted let him­self go in rau­cous laugh­ter. Back at the ho­tel, he mopped her brow with a wet flan­nel as she threw up the cheap cham­pagne into his sink, then he ten­derly unbuttoned and un­zipped her, gazed ad-

Bri­tish poet Ted Hughes, left; and with his first wife, Sylvia Plath, in Bos­ton in 1958, fac­ing page

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