LAWRENCE PETTENER

Poet, Writer

Interview with Ted Hughes

at the first Bath Literature Festival, 25.2.1995

 

Ted Hughes was famous for refusing to give interviews. The Festival organisers had warned that they would try their best, but that sponsors Sainsbury’s were due to whisk him away for a reception immediately after his reading. So I knew I would have to be nifty.
I must say at this point, that I was quite a fan of Ted Hughes’ poetry. Thus driven, I simply gave him a minute to recover from his performance, and then followed him through the stage exit.
I went through another door, and there the huge man was, having a drink with one of the festival organisers. Standing so close to his immense frame now, it was easier to imagine him as a rugby player than a poet. Mr. Hughes fixed me with a wary, sideways stare. I managed to play down the press side of my being there and push the personal angle, which was by far the weightier. Mr Hughes’ shoulders, which had been pushed up tensely (presumably against the possibility of my intruding into the no-go Plath zone), now visibly relaxed.
Time was clearly limited. I asked him: “Do you think the archetype of royalty has been damaged by…”
“By what’s happened with Diana?” Ted interjected. He had given me a startled look as I uttered the phrase “archetype of royalty”, hitting one of his personal nails on its head; the rhyme which prefaces his Laureate anthology, Raincharm for the Duchy, goes:
“A soul is a wheel. / A nation’s a soul / With a crown at the hub / To keep it whole.”
I completed my question: “Yes, by current events and how people have responded to media coverage?” Ted Hughes replied “No”, flatly, with a shake of his head. “No, you can’t damage an archetype, the archetype cannot be damaged.”
“Not even among a specific generation?” I asked him. I watched his stare turn inward, as though he were storming some stock of inner truth — both by habit and by right.
“No,” he said, “Because you never know what you feel until your back’s against the wall. Then it all comes out. Then you know who you are and how you feel.” He paused a moment to reflect, his eyes turning inward into thunderous depths of reflection. Head down and tilted to one side, he added: “But we don’t need the archetype.”
“We don’t?” I asked, startled.
“No, we don’t, not just now. It takes a situation like war. When things are good, and life is fine and pleasant, you don’t need it—you don’t need to draw on that energy. Then everything changes, turns upside-down.” Mr Hughes was very animated here, talking with his hands and body. He concluded: “So you may think you know someone, but you don’t until the crunch comes”.
The crunch came to this interview as Mr Hughes welcomed some guests.