In the Blood: a memoir of my childhood
Faber & Faber, 326pp, £1
When he was eight, Andrew Motion appeared in a Christmas play at his punitive prep school. It was written by a mistress called Haggie Hairpull, who had earned her nickname from scalping boys as though they were Red Indians. He was originally cast as a lily, but because he could never remember his lines, he was recast as the Weedy Flower: "I always went bright red when I said my one line: 'I'm not very robust, you know'."
This revelatory anecdote underlines the re current theme of ill health. Little Andrew (or Motion I, as the poor child was named) had, like Keats, an uncontrollable urge to blush, and, like Keats, he was indeed not very robust. His father and his younger brother, Motion II, were strong, but Andrew and his mum were not. In adolescence, Andrew developed a serious disease of the knee joints, which required surgery at the London Clinic (or London Clink, as his mother called it) and months of bedrest. This retrospectively justified any earlier tendency to weediness.
The story of the mother's tragedy will be familiar to readers of Motion's work. She was thrown from her horse when Andrew was 17 and survived for years in a coma, never regaining full consciousness. In the Blood opens with the accident, then winds back through family history and the writer's boyhood to rejoin itself at her bedside. We know the dreadful end from the beginning, and foreknowledge adds to the suspense. Yet the narrative seems artless: moments of foreboding are sketched in lightly, from a child's perspective, as though, perhaps, the worst may never happen.
Some material here is reworked, but there is much that is new, or new to me. Mum had once been ill for a year with brucellosis, and she is never very well. She is prettier than other people's mums, but she is skinny, has a bad back, often looks clay-coloured, finds cooking simple meals exhausting and perhaps smokes too many ciggies. She succumbs to colds and catches glandular fever. She weeps easily, particularly when separation from her son is imminent. Andrew is very much Mummy's boy, brushing her hair, creeping into her bed, happily helping in the kitchen. He is sure she will rescue him from the horrors of school when he tells her that he doesn't like it, but she fails him: she makes amends by sending him Airfix models. Too many Airfix models: so many that they become an embarrassment to him and make him fear that people will think he is "wet".
Much of the language is deliberately childish, some of it in a Larkinesque way: bums and titties and willies abound, as do adjectives such as "soppy" and "stuck-up" and "lah-di-dah" and "snooty". There are moments of lyricism, in a description of an iris or a frozen lake or an or gasmic drop of condensed milk, but these are rationed. Mum's vocabulary is puzzling, as is the family's social class. The Motion parents are keen that their children should speak U rather than non-U (the loo, not the toilet); dentists and garage men and Gannex raincoats are despised, as are all the people of Surrey. The Motions live in Essex, and they have dogs and horses. Surrey is suburban. Yet Mum (a word which was forbidden as non-U in Yorkshire) tells her little boy that his shaky handwriting goes "a over t", a phrase she refuses to explain.
The family background was confusing, and the snobberies of social insecurity are part of the plot. The father thought of himself as a member of "A Dying Race". The necessary rituals of prep school, cubbing, fishing and public school shore up the ruins. A striking passage in this memoir retells an incident that inspired one of Motion's strongest poems, "The Spoilt Child". In the poem, a mother and son on horseback encounter a bull terrier that savages their Labrador puppy: the puppy is saved by the intervention of the terrier's owner, "a beery man with a vest, and undone, downtrodden shoes". The prose version is uglier and more violent, and the man from the council estate is armed with a kettle of boiling water as well as a hammer and a stone. When the animals are separated, the man drives the injured dog home for them in his van. That evening, the mother tries to persuade the father to dress up in his army uniform and go round to the estate to insist that the bull terrier be put down. The father refuses. She calls him gutless, and "he said, 'Oh for Christ's sake, Gilly', which was the angriest I ever heard him".
The metamorphosis of spoilt child into successful poet lies behind the tragic family drama. Life looks up for Motion when he discovers folk music and Bob Dylan and meets a chap called Sandy Nairne at Radley. Some of Motion's schoolmates are clearly pseudonymous, but Sandy from Surrey enters as himself. The future poet laureate and the future director of the National Portrait Gallery settle down to share a study and talk about painting and poetry and blood sports. Motion informs his brother he is giving up hunting and shooting. His brother points out that they hardly ever go shooting anyway, as they don't get enough invitations. But his mother carries on hunting, and it kills her. It's a sad, gripping and powerful story.
Margaret Drabble's most recent novel is "The Sea Lady" (Fig Tree)