A 1976 visit to Australia influenced Ted Hughes’s poetry as well as his personal life, writes Jonathan Bate
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,
HE SAT UNDER THE TREES BEING INTERVIEWED WITH DON DUNSTAN
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