The New York Times
In the Blood: A Memoir of My Childhoodby Andrew Motion
William Faulkner's character Quentin in The Sound and the Fury repeatedly observes that "temporary" is "the saddest word of all." Despair over human impermanence and the desire to preserve what has been known and felt, even grief, reverberate at the heart of British Poet Laureate Motion's memoir of his childhood and adolescence in rural postwar England. A pæan to his family, to the birds, brambles, and secret hollows of his beloved Hertfordshire and Essex, this memoir evokes with care, clarity, and detail, a whole world long disappeared. The book begins in the present tense in December of 1968, hours before the event that precipitated Motion's desire to capture and preserve unchanged the life he had known heretofore: his mother's foxhunting accident and subsequent coma from which she never recovers. "My childhood has ended suddenly. In a day," writes Motion at the close of the first chapter. "I want to lock into my head everything that's happened in my life up to now, and make sure it never changes."
Whether recounting his first time salmon fishing with his father in Scotland, the horrors of prep school at the tender age of seven, or discovering Thomas Hardy and Bob Dylan, Motion imbues these recollections with the quicksilver emotions of the boy he was and the perceptions of the poet he would become; readers of his verse will recognize many of these experiences as the antecedents of the poems. Yet this memoir is far more than a guide to the life behind the poems; it is a stand against the ineluctability of time's passing, an insistence that what has been "felt in the blood, and felt along the heart," is, as the epigraph from Wordsworth suggests, an integral substance ofour anatomy, a part that can be neither taken from us nor lost.
The New York Times
Motion, Britain's poet laureate, was 16 in 1968 when his beloved mother fell into a coma after a hunting accident and his childhood "ended suddenly." After this shock opening, Motion recounts the scenes and events of that childhood, which range from warm early memories of growing up "country gentry" in Hertfordshire to being sent off to a Dickensian boarding school-with disgusting food, terrible sanitation and a headmaster who enjoyed beating little boys-at age seven. The book soars into the extraordinary when Motion recounts his early teens. A new boarding school brought a sympathetic headmaster who recognized the potential in the unread country boy's love for Dylan and Hendrix and encouraged him toward poetry. (A heartwrenchingly beautiful scene describes his slow, awed discovery of Thomas Hardy.) By age 15, Motion had made his first real friend and entered a new relationship with his mother, who read eagerly in partnership with him. Motion perfectly conveys the "new faster time" of adolescent thinking and subtly conveys us back to his mother's tragedy with a new understanding of its importance to his entire life. (Oct. 1)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
This memoir provides a glimpse into the childhood and adolescence of Motion, current British poet laureate and biographer of John Keats and Philip Larkin. When Motion was 17, his mother fell off a horse during a foxhunt in rural England, suffering a severe brain injury. This event both frames and provides the impetus for Motion's account of his early years. His contented childhood in rural, upper-class England was changed abruptly at age seven, when his parents sent him away to boarding school. Leaving his family proved a wrenching experience; especially difficult for Motion was seeing his mother cry at their separations. Motion captures with unusual clarity the horrors of his school experience, from the homesickness to the corporal punishment. To escape, he resorted to long, solitary walks in the woods that helped cultivate his Wordsworthlike reverence for nature. Once in college, he met a professor who encouraged his interest in books and poetry. This is an elegy for Motion's lost mother and his early life as well as an account of the poet's beginnings. It is vividly composed and conveys a quiet sadness. Recommended for academic libraries.
Nancy R. Ives
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Read an Excerpt
In the Blood
A Memoir of My Childhood
By ANDREW MOTION
DAVID R. GODINE PUBLISHER
Copyright © 2007 Andrew Motion
All right reserved.
Mum doesn't knock, she just whisks open my bedroom door, crosses straight to the curtains, tears them apart, and flaps one hand in front of her face. 'What a fug!' She sounds angry but I know she isn't - she says this every morning, and anyway the lug isn't me, it's Wiggy, asleep by my feet. Mum's got her by the scruff of the neck now, and is dragging her onto the landing: 'Downstairs and into the garden, you idle dog. The back door's open - go on, hurry up, there you are, good girl.' I'm still half asleep, collecting my thoughts. Today it's Julia and the party. Then home again tomorrow. That's all fine.
When I open my eyes properly, mum's leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded. 'You'd better hurry up too,' she says. 'Your bus goes in an hour? I rub my face and carry on remembering. Mum's hunting today - she's half-dressed for it already. Long socks and breeches. Baggy shirt. Stock. Yellow wool waistcoat. She peels back one of her cuffs and glances at her watch, then fiddles the strap until it sits flat on her wrist. I roll over and wait for her to disappear.
Last summer, when I was still sixteen and about to stay with a girl in London - a different girl, not Julia - mum sat on the edge of my bed and gave me a talk. Did I know what I was doing? It was embarrassing, being serious about things we usually thought were a joke. But today there's not a word about Julia - nothing before mum leaves the bedroom, nothing at breakfast, and nothing when we settle into the car. As we reach the lane I glance back at the house - at its white walls through the hedge-trees, the green roof of the stables, and the rose-arch leading into the garden. 'OK?' mum asks, meaning: do I like what I see? I nod, but say nothing.
Mum slows down when we reach the main street, so we can wave if we recognise anyone. But we're not really paying attention. Hunting mornings are always chaotic - the horses to groom, the tack to clean, blah blah - and mum feels off-net. I'm not so bright myself. I've never taken a bus cross-country before. Worse, I don't know what to expect when I reach the other end. I've only met Julia once, at a party a few days ago, before Christmas, and the lights were so dim she was more or less invisible. Will I even recognise her? Her last name is Shelley, that's a good omen. Poetic. Mum says Julia's father is 'something to do with coal'.
We swing downhill under the bare trees, past Mrs Bunton's cottage by the ford, then up and out of the valley. Have I got money for the ticket? Will I remember to give Mrs Shelley the chocolates as a thank-you? Mum knows all this sounds fussy, so she talks in a pretend-whine. I answer in the same voice: yaaaas; yaaaas. We both know we're really talking about something else - about Julia - but neither of us wants to admit it. At the crest of the hill, where the lane meets the main road, we see what kind of day it is for the first time, and feel it too. There's snow in the wind. Mum makes a face, crouching forward as she waits for the traffic. But there's nothing to worry about. We can see the bus already, buffeting towards us along the roller-coaster of dips and rises. It means when we reach The Swan and turn into the yard, there's still time for her to switch off the engine so we can say our last things. What things, though? We've said all there is to say for the time being - so instead of talking, I stare. At mum's gold hair looped behind her ears; the mole on her cheek; her bony fingers gripping the steering wheel. Then the bus lumbers to a stop and suddenly I'm in a muddle. Do I kiss mum goodbye? I've got to be quick, the driver's glaring over his shoulder. Yes, of course I kiss her. I always kiss her goodbye, just a peck, but enough to catch her lemony soap-smell. Next second the bus doors have wheezed shut behind me, and I'm lurching upstairs towards the back window. I want to see mum once more, and I know she'll wait. There she is now, leaning towards the windscreen, waving with her long hand. I twinkle my fingers, feeling idiotic - I'm only going to be away for a night. Neither of us moves until the bus slides over the brow of the next hill.
I switch to the front, and lay my suitcase on the seat beside me as we pick up speed. Looking down, everything is full of surprises even though I still know where I am. I can spy into the bedrooms of houses I've driven past a hundred times, but never thought were more than front doors. Look: a woman twirling in front of a mirror with her hands on her hips, making her skirt into a bell. It's probably a Christmas present, and she's trying it on because she's going to a New Year party at the end of the week. Then we reach the first town, Braintree, with its ropes of dingy lights swaying above the main street. This is the Barclays where I've opened my first account. That's the place we buy shoes for school. Some of the people on the pavements might even recognise me, if I met them face to face. Up here I'm a ghost, watching them go about their business.
The town ends and we're in open country again, with snow sprinkled across the fields, and painful-looking cabbage-stalks poking through the hard ground. Mum said the bus would be good experience, then dug me in the ribs, daring me to ask for a lift all the way in the car. She'll be leaving home herself about now. There'll be the usual kerfuffle with the sandwiches, then a worse panic as she and my brother Kit hook the horse-box to the car, and get the animals inside. It's a tight fit, and Serenade always comes to a dead halt on the ramp, snorting and rolling her eyes while mum hauls on the halter-rope. Kit will stand behind clapping his hands, murmuring 'Go oooon', and mum will warn him to keep out of kicking range. He's only fourteen. In five minutes they'll be off, Kit's tweed jacket and mum's black hunting coat lying on the back seat beside the hard hats.
At Bishops Stortford the bus gives a final enormous sigh and I clamber downstairs, my suitcase banging against my knee. I haven't worked out what I'm going to say next: whenever I think about Julia, all I can see is her black hair and her mouth. It doesn't matter. She's as jittery as I am, waiting beside her mother on the draughty concrete, with her hands stuffed into her overcoat pockets. I glance at her face too quickly, and get a blur. White skin. Eye-shadow. Hair falling forward. That big squashy mouth - is she sticking out her bottom lip or is it always like that? And what about her clothes? Everything's hidden under her coat. Her school coat, obviously - I can tell by that anchor on the buttons. Doesn't she have a proper one? When she says 'Hello' her voice sounds gluey, as though she needs to clear her throat. I can't decide whether to give her a hug, and end up patting her arm.
'Come on, you two. Can't stand about here all day freezing to death.' Julia's mother is black-haired too, though heavier, and her skin is darker. She bundles us into the car and keeps chatting until we reach the house. It's a surprise - but that's good. Home is airy, full of light. Julia's house is shadowy, with laurel bushes dripping round the front door. Even their Christmas tree looks dark, with tiny silver lights almost smothered by branches. When her mother shows me to my bedroom, it's like squeezing into a burrow. I hand over the chocolates, then glance into the garden. Blowsy snowflakes are falling. Mum and Kit will be cold if the weather's the same with them. The hunt will be called off soon, and they'll head home.
Everyone wants to sound relaxed at lunch, but the conversation keeps getting stuck. When we finish at last, Julia looks straight at me for the first time and says we're going for a walk. 'The snow won't melt us.' I tell her that's fine, and she lends me a coat from the hooks by the back door, a tatty sheepskin which stinks of dog. It makes things easier, especially now she's dumped her school coat, putting on a filthy Afghan yak that smells almost as bad as the one I'm wearing. When I tell her, she says she knows, then collides with me accidentally-on-purpose as we stomp off through the back door, heading for the fields beyond the garden. She even looks beautiful with a big hairy scarf tied round her throat and half her face.
We walk side by side for a bit, then drop into single file on a headland round the plough. The hedges have all been ripped out, and the sky feels enormous - much taller than at home, and not so many birds. I stop in a gateway saying we should go back, it's freezing, and that's when Julia takes a step closer. The cold has made dark blotches on her cheek, like pennies in milk, but her skin is warm when we kiss each other. It's so simple. She's wearing the same scent as her mother - she must have borrowed it - and when we hug, the heat squeezes up inside our coats and fans across our faces.
After a while we step apart with our hands hooked together. We've done the difficult bit. 'Well,' I say, though my mouth isn't working properly, 'I still think we should go back'. Julia grabs my elbow, dragging me, and ten minutes later we're in the garden, breaking apart in case her mother's watching. But there's no sign of her - not even in the kitchen, which means we can lean against the Aga and keep talking: what we did for Christmas, what we're doing at New Year. 'Can I see you?' she asks. 'No,' I say, 'I've got a family thing.' I'm pleased she looks disappointed, and think if things are this easy, I'd rather give tonight's party a miss. Julia shakes her head. Plans are plans, and anyway she wants me to meet her friends. So at six o'clock I go upstairs to bath and change. As the door shuts behind me, I notice one of her long black hairs in my jersey, and decide to leave it there.
There's a single knock as I'm swinging my suitcase onto the bed. Julia. She must have changed her mind about the party. But it's not Julia. It's her mother, clasping her hands and peering into my face, then away through the window. I've forgotten to close the curtains, and she's watching the snowflakes sail down through the glow of my light. 'How's the room?' she asks, which is weird. She knows it's fine. Then she starts talking in a quieter voice. 'Listen, Andrew. I was downstairs in the sitting room just now, watching the news, and the telephone rang. It was a friend of your family's: Mrs Hill. Do you know Mrs Hill?' I nod, and so does Julia's mother, pursing her lips before launching forward again. 'It was Mrs Hill saying there'd been an accident while your mum was hunting. She doesn't know what happened exactly, she said your mum fell off and banged her head. She was crossing a field, I think. Anyway. There was an accident, and your mum has been taken to hospital. Mrs Hill says to tell you the people there are very good, they're doing everything they can.'
I'm still at the bedside, holding open the lid of my suitcase with both hands. Now I close it. I don't want her to see my stupid clothes. The pale blue trousers mum gave me for Christmas, which dad thinks are too tight. When I turn round, she's still clasping and unclasping her hands. I feel sorry for her, having to tell me this. But at the same time I want her to leave so I don't have to ask any questions. There are so many, I can't tell where to start. How badly is mum hurt? Which hospital? Is Kit OK? Where's dad? In the end I say 'Can I go home?' - too softly for Julia's mother to hear. Then I sit on the bed, thinking that will be better, but the eiderdown feels slippery and I might fall off'. Brownish feathers on a pink background. Fishtails. When I look up again Julia's mother is standing directly in front of me. Is she going to put her hand on my shoulder? I don't want her to touch me. I want to know what she knows, then for her to leave.
'Can I go home?' l ask again, and this time Julia's mother shakes her head. 'You can't.' 'Why not?' 'There's nobody there tonight.' 'What do you mean?' 'Your brother's with friends, and your father's at the hospital - he'll be staying tonight, they'll make up a bed for him. In the morning you can get the bus back. By then your granny will be home. Mrs Hill said your granny would take charge.' 'Granny!' I want to say; 'Granny can't even look after the dog!' But Julia's mother is still talking, and I have to listen. She's telling me it's best to carry on as planned. Mrs Hill said so, and there was a message from dad as well. He thinks there's nothing to be gained by leaving now. 'I want to see her.' Julia's mother straightens her shoulders. She knew I'd say this. 'Your father doesn't think that would be a good idea,' she says, taking a pace back, then changing her mind and stepping towards me again. She probably expects me to cry now, but I won't. 'You mean I'd be in the way?' I ask. 'Is that what dad thinks?' Julia's mother presses her hands together. 'No,' she says. 'It's more that your mum wouldn't recognise you.'
I'm about to ask her why not, then realise I don't want to know, not yet. So all I say is, 'Right, then; I'll get changed', using the same flat voice that isn't my own. My throat is trying to swallow something gigantic, and I have to be alone to do that. I need time. I push myself upright, reaching towards the door, and as Julia's mother brushes past me she looks like a sad child, with her head bowed. It makes me feel we've changed places. 'I'll be downstairs if you need me,' she says in the corridor. 'We'll leave in an hour. Give me a shout if you need anything.' I shut the door with a smart click. There she is now. Gone. As she creaks along the corridor to Julia's room, I try not to imagine Julia's face, or her empty party dress lying on the bed.
Part of my brain has escaped and is hovering in space. It watches me open my suitcase, take out my clothes, then pad next door to run the bath. When I climb in, the water's too cold - but I don't mind. Everything should be wrong now, even the little things. And everything should be a question. Small questions and big questions jumbled together. What happened exactly? Have they taken mum out of her hunting clothes? How did they do that? Did the nurses undress her normally, or did they use a knife and cut them off? Is she awake? How much does her head hurt? Is dad beside her? Julia's mother was probably right. I am better off here. If I don't go to the party I'll only think of more questions. As I pull on my trousers and button up my shirt, I remember how I packed them this morning, wondering what Julia would think, and suddenly I see myself leaning out of a carriage window at Euston. Where has that come from? I'm ten years old again, waving to mum as the train shovels me off to school. But it's not her I see on the platform, it's myself, shrinking in the steam.
Julia's mother drives us to the party, which she says is twenty minutes away, and Julia sits beside me in the back holding my hand. It's allowed, because of what's happened, but I still feel I have to make a joke, and say we're like passengers in a taxi. Then I stop talking. It's better to hear the silence rush past as if I were dreaming, and when we reach a village green at last and park under a buzzing lamp, my eyes are half-closed. I come to with a jolt, and ask Julia's mother not to tell anyone what's happened. But after we've walked up the path and opened the front door, I can tell by the way people are frowning that she's rung them already. I put my head down and keep going. I need to get through the next door and be where the lights are dim and there's music. I want to be invisible, and then I want it to be morning, and then I want to be on the bus going home.
At eleven the music slows down and the lights fade almost to nothing. Julia is sitting on my knee, and we're chatting to some of her friends, who are sprawling oil a sofa in an alcove. The weight of her in my lap: I like that. Her scent is soaking into my skin, and her hair brushes across my face whenever she leans forward. I don't have to say much, she's doing all the talking, so they probably haven't noticed I'm faking. These are my hands lighting a cigarette, my eyes watching people float round me like bodies underwater. But everything inside me is missing. I suppose I'll have to explain this to Julia, though when we're collected at midnight she already understands. She's been faking too. And now we're at the house again, beginning to climb the stairs towards the bedrooms, there's no need to pretend any more. 'Perhaps I'll see you in the new year?' she says, touching me on the cheek with one hand. I'm too tired to say anything except goodnight, and close my door. There's time to hear the floorboards groan as Julia tiptoes down the corridor. Then her dress rustling, and the click of her light going out. When I turn out my own lamp, I see an open field with frozen ribs of plough. Snow settles in the hoof-print moons where Serenade stumbles, then gathers herself, then gallops into the darkness.
Excerpted from In the Blood by ANDREW MOTION Copyright © 2007 by Andrew Motion. Excerpted by permission.
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