Inspired by Ted;English: subject of the week;Profile;Ted Hughes

11th June 1999 at 01:00
To some people Ted Hughes was Sylvia Plath's tormentor. To many others he was the people's poet. To the poets of tomorrow he is an inspiration. And to teacher Sandy Brownjohn he was a friend who shared her passion for nurturing creative instincts in children. Here she recalls their years of friendship.

I first met Ted and Carol Hughes in 1972 at the Arvon Foundation's Devon Centre in Totleigh Barton when he came to read to a course. Ted was involved in the Arvon writing courses from their beginning, and I met him often in those early years.

Some time later, in London, my husband and I were giving Ted and Carol a lift in our old VW Beetle. I asked him if he would come and read to my class at Fitzjohn's Primary in Hampstead, north London. I was only offering pound;60 - the going rate for a reading then - and was very pleased when he agreed. This must have been around 1977.

We arranged a date and he duly turned up in the morning for an hour's session. I had two classes to hear him, both in my classroom, and they sat in a semi-circle in three tiers. Ted was absolutely wonderful. He treated them as equals - he did not talk down to them or modify his presentation, or so it seemed to me.

I had seen him read to adult groups, but can honestly say I had never seen him appear so relaxed. With adults there was always a feeling of vulnerability, even of suspicion and wariness. He never knew if there would be hostile members of the audience - the feminist attacks on him were particularly prevalent in the late Seventies because of their feelings about Sylvia Plath. There was also the element of hero-worship of the "famous poet" to contend with. With the children there was none of this.

The children I taught were poetry readers and writers who had achieved some success in the Daily Mirror (later WH Smith) children's writing competition. He knew this, and also knew they were approaching him as fellow practitioners who wanted to learn from him. He spoke quietly in that alluring and compelling voice, and they listened, drawn in by the power of his use of language and his honesty.

The atmosphere was charged and the hour went by like some magical moment. He read mostly from his current poems - they later appeared in his volume Moortown in 1979. The children asked questions which showed how engrossed they were and he answered them straight and fully - no holding back, no patronising, talking to them as one writer to another. I am sure he enjoyed the visit. I know they did.

It was his respect for them and his natural ease with them which chiefly remain with me. He was an inspiring teacher and clearly believed that children were very important, perhaps all-important, in that they were open and enquiring in their approach to poetry. He believed they were capable of highly sophisticated use of language and should be encouraged to pursue their talents to the highest degree. He was not a man to lower his standards just because he was dealing with children. He knew they can rise to a challenge and surprise us all.

Two very different reactions by parents of children in the class gave me an inkling of the problems Ted had to face constantly. Luckily he was not aware of either of these. In the morning before Ted's visit, one mother, an American, brought me in a bunch of flowers to say thank you for arranging the reading. She was delighted that her son, over in England only for a year, was having the chance to meet and hear such a great poet. She could hardly believe it possible. At the other end of the day, another mother - also American - came into the classroom after everybody had gone home. She berated me for arranging the reading and presented me with a poem called "Arraignment" in which an American feminist accused Ted of virtually murdering Sylvia Plath.

I was lectured on what a terrible man he was and how irresponsible I had been in inviting him to talk to children. When I found an opportunity to speak, I pointed out that he was a friend, and that I did not believe anybody had the right to claim to understand what went on between two people. We could never know the whole truth and thus we had no right to condemn anyone in these circumstances. And that was the end of that.

Throughout his life Ted championed children's writing and believed their talents should be fostered. Like many writers, he was so much in touch with the child within himself that he realised children could be more open and receptive to the subconscious, as well as to the natural forces around us. They don't have to play so many games to break through the adult-made walls we erect as we grow older. He wanted to encourage them early enough to help them avoid allowing adult life to close them down.

I know he worried about the teenage gap - usually around 16 to 18 - when the demands of the school curriculum with exams tend to stop children writing.

He was always trying to see if there was a way of ensuring that those who had shown talent didn't let it wither on the vine. This worry extended to university English courses. Ted himself changed from English to anthropology after his first year at Cambridge. From that time he was against such English courses, with their emphasis on criticism. He felt this worked against the creative being.

He once told me I was lucky in not having read English as it had allowed me to discover for myself what language could do and to retain a love for the subject and to be open to new ideas.

Around 1978 Ted rang me to ask if I would go to the English Advisers' conference in Malvern to give a talk on how I taught creative writing. The Arvon Foundation was to take over two days of the conference, providing writing workshops for the delegates with practising writers .

This was another prong of the assault on how English is taught in schools: let the advisers experience at first-hand the process of writing and they could be converted to a different approach to the teaching of English which allowed the creative in everyone to be explored. This might then filter down to the schools.

I went to give my talk, and over dinner later I remember two items of conversation. One was Ted's rueful and perhaps angry rejection of the lionising he suffered. He felt the weight of it stifling him. It was as if he was always being watched over his shoulder whenever he tried to write something, as if people were waiting to adjudicate on his next work. He found it so strong as to interfere with his ability to write. He longed, he said, for former, more anonymous days when he had been free of restraints on his muse.

He also suggested I should write down how I taught writing, the sort of things I had said in my talk. I had not previously thought of doing this but listened to his encouragement.

He warned me though that, with the way things work, I would find that once I had written it down, I would then be asked to talk about it even more. He was never more right. The course of my life was changed by this conversation.

I wrote about my ideas and this led to more lectures, more books, and a life dedicated to doing my own bit to try to encourage teachers and children to explore poetry and their own abilities as writers. It was Ted's encouragement and belief in me that set me on that course.

Afterwards Ted drove me back to London in the small hours. During the journey I asked if he would consider presenting a Radio 4 programme which had been made about my pupils' writing. He was reluctant at first - perhaps wary of my motives in asking him, bearing in mind his earlier comments on lionising - and he asked what I would do if he said no. I said, matter-of-factly, that I'd just have to ask someone else. For some reason this helped him make up his mind and he said he would do it.

The programme, Crossing Lines, gave him an opportunity to say many of the things he believed about children and their writing.This cause was one he championed all his life. My own experience of this included the WH Smith children's writing competition which was entered and often won by children from my classes when I was still teaching in schools. I can testify to the encouragement and confidence such public recognition gives to teachers who are often working in isolation to promote poetry in their schools. Feedback like this is as good as any tonic.

I also know of Ted's continual commitment to the Arvon Foundation, particularly of late to its education courses - both for pupils and teachers. He was always willing to offer his services for occasions when his celebrity might open doors or bring in much-needed funds. Perhaps he came to learn how to use his "lionising" and to accept it without its stifling effects.

To the end, he never lost his profound belief in the importance of education to develop creative powers and in the importance of this approach for the health and future of mankind. That sounds weighty, pompous even, but I do believe it. True education - the drawing out of what is latent in people and giving it the conditions in which to thrive - is one of the most important jobs for us all. I think that is what Ted believed in his approach to children's writing, and to continuing education generally.

He certainly helped me, and the children who met him at my school; but also teachers who gained confidence to pursue the creative line, and teachers and children who have been inspired by his words and his poetry.

Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate, died on October 28, 1998.Details of the Arvon Foundation's writing courses: 01409 231 338.

Sandy Brownjohn is a freelance writer and educational consultant

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