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Beginning in Gladness

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Though I’ve long been familiar with Ted Walker’s poems, until recently I had not read The High Path, his wonderful memoir of childhood. I came to it not only with the curiosity of a fellow poet, but also as one having newly completed a memoir of my own. For a writer, the recall of childhood runs an assortment of risks – the editing effected by forgetfulness or by self-censorship; the distortions brought about by nostalgia or over-simplification; the assumption that the particulars of family history will axiomatically be of interest to the reader. Yet the best memoirs – and Ted Walker’s is surely among them – carry a potent charge, not only conveying the sensuous quick of childhood, but avoiding pure solipsism by acting as triggers for the reader’s own memories.

A memoir is also bound to depict the time and society in which it is set. In Ted Walker’s case, it begins with his carpenter father coming south from Birmingham to the Sussex coast two years before Ted’s birth in November 1934, and ends when Ted goes to Cambridge in 1953. One of the most difficult and important tasks facing the memoirist is to get the balance of all these components right: to succeed in evoking not only a local habitation and a name, but also something altogether airier. In his eight chapters, all of virtually the same length, Walker succeeds in doing so with real subtlety.

The High Path carries as its epigraph a line from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Resolution and Independence’: ‘We poets in our youth begin in gladness’. And that indeed is the presiding spirit, though Walker is never soppy and can at times be very hard-hitting. What makes his account so enjoyable and gives the memoir much of its life and liveliness is a combination of the poet’s eye for detail with his recording of the hurts and joys, the puzzles and insights that characterize childhood perceptions of family and the world around. He recaptures brilliantly a child’s sensit

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Though I’ve long been familiar with Ted Walker’s poems, until recently I had not read The High Path, his wonderful memoir of childhood. I came to it not only with the curiosity of a fellow poet, but also as one having newly completed a memoir of my own. For a writer, the recall of childhood runs an assortment of risks – the editing effected by forgetfulness or by self-censorship; the distortions brought about by nostalgia or over-simplification; the assumption that the particulars of family history will axiomatically be of interest to the reader. Yet the best memoirs – and Ted Walker’s is surely among them – carry a potent charge, not only conveying the sensuous quick of childhood, but avoiding pure solipsism by acting as triggers for the reader’s own memories.

A memoir is also bound to depict the time and society in which it is set. In Ted Walker’s case, it begins with his carpenter father coming south from Birmingham to the Sussex coast two years before Ted’s birth in November 1934, and ends when Ted goes to Cambridge in 1953. One of the most difficult and important tasks facing the memoirist is to get the balance of all these components right: to succeed in evoking not only a local habitation and a name, but also something altogether airier. In his eight chapters, all of virtually the same length, Walker succeeds in doing so with real subtlety. The High Path carries as its epigraph a line from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Resolution and Independence’: ‘We poets in our youth begin in gladness’. And that indeed is the presiding spirit, though Walker is never soppy and can at times be very hard-hitting. What makes his account so enjoyable and gives the memoir much of its life and liveliness is a combination of the poet’s eye for detail with his recording of the hurts and joys, the puzzles and insights that characterize childhood perceptions of family and the world around. He recaptures brilliantly a child’s sensitivity to smell, texture and touch: thus he recalls his love for ‘the slightly acrid scent of freshly delivered coal’, while the smell of a scout hut ‘is compounded of dusty coconut matting, rotting canvas, leather gone dry, frayed rope, old socks, bacon grease, mouldy tea-leaves and bits of burnt stick exuding the stale woodsmoke of former summers.’ When it comes to sight, there is the family wireless with its ‘row of valves like little bottles glowing in the dark under a fur of dust’; or the playground of the Junior Mixed School, where girls ‘did handstands, their bodies continuously unfolding and folding like fans against the school walls’. As for sound, a passing driver speeds by ‘with a sound like the tearing of ripe calico’. The immediate context of these lovingly recorded details is one of hardship and thrift, within the confines of a flat in Lancing that backed on to the High Path of the book’s title – a habitat sufficiently small for the author to observe drily, ‘we had no option but to be a close family’. By the time Ted was 4, his father’s parents, sister and brother had moved into the flat above. A sister, Ruth, lived only three weeks: and he was already 10 when his brother George was born. During the course of the memoir, we meet assorted past and present members of the family, and are taken to the ancestral homeland of Shrawley, between Worcester and Stourport. There are memorable vignettes of several relatives, but at the core of the family’s life – and in many ways the glad centre of the book – is Walker’s closeness to his father. Whether they are looking at an atlas together, or playing their own version of backyard cricket, trying to master French or being mistaken for brothers at a dance, warmth and respect inform all that we are shown of the relationship between father and son. Beyond the family, there are delightfully humorous accounts of various characters, including Mr Jupp, devotee of the Direct Method, with whom Walker learnt first French, then German. Walker describes, with an effectiveness greater than the sum of its parts, going to see him when he was dying in hospital: ‘He knew at once who I was. “Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait la semaine dernière?” he asked me. And I told him.’ And even those glimpsed only for a moment come to life wonderfully – for instance, the pianist at a dance, ‘a grey-haired busker called Dolly . . . the ash falling from her Woodbine as the heavy left-hand chords shook the piano’s frame and hers’. Schools seem to have been a pretty mixed experience for the young Ted, the picture becoming increasingly unlovely after the virtues of his first teacher, Miss White, praised for ‘her loving-kindness’, and her temporary stand-in, Miss Miles, who ‘taught me more about the entrancing power of words in that quiet lull during the Battle of Britain than any teacher subsequently did’. Success in the eleven-plus led to Steyning Grammar School, whose teachers were, with just two honourable exceptions, ‘a remarkable collection of ungifted amateurs’. They get the roughest edge of Walker’s tongue. That almost casual mention of the Battle of Britain is typical of the way in which Walker represents the rumbling obbligato of war – both the First World War and the looming shadow of the Second. He sensibly plays it close to his own experience and knowledge as a child. There is the Lancing Home Guard and, emotionally closer at hand, the death of his Uncle Jack, blown to bits by a mine in a deserted house; there are V1s and V2s. And when the war in Europe comes to an end, his father shows him the photos of Belsen in the Daily Mirror: ‘“This must never be allowed to happen again,” my father said quietly before walking away. He made this seem like my responsibility: which, of course, it is.’ Walker shows the same fine judgement in evoking the social character of the time in which he grew up. This was the era of Virol (‘a whopping spoonful . . . that my mother twisted like a soft, dark, joke toffee from the meat-safe to my mouth because it was good for me’), a time when would-be policemen were expected to take a dictation test (Walker’s father became a carpenter because he failed his): the golden age of the gramophone and the wireless, of grocer’s shops as imposing as temples and Old Tyme Dances in the Parish Hall governed by iron conventions and hierarchies. And think what is conveyed in these two simple sentences: ‘The eleven-plus examination took place on Empire Day. I sat it wearing my scout uniform.’ Against this backcloth the youthful Walker copes as best he can with the burgeoning of sexuality and the grammar school working-class boy’s sense of alienation from his family and roots. In the later chapters we begin to see Walker developing his own opinions on all kinds of matters, from comics to religion, from the numinous quality he discerns in the Sussex Downs to his growing interest in poetry. But with his increasing awareness come less welcome developments, notably the melancholy he first feels on a cycling trip in Normandy, ‘my first bout of what became my chronic disease’. At this point the reader might well call to mind the line of Wordsworth’s that follows on from the epigraph:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness; But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.

Yet, by the end of the book, much seems set fair, with his marriage proposal to his sweetheart, Lorna, accepted: and with a place at St John’s College, Cambridge. The mocking self-portrait of the adolescent ‘entangled in romanticism’ with, memorably, ‘my induced tears making rivulets through my acne’, makes way for wider horizons, and culminates in a film-like scene in which he imagines leaving home. What makes this genuinely poignant rather than merely sentimental is the sadness of the gap opening up between father and son. The High Path, published in 1982, was actually written in Spain, and it won the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography. Two of Ted Walker’s seven collections of poems also won prizes, and he won a Cholmondeley Award, given for a poet’s overall achievement. He wrote short stories for the New Yorker, as well as plays for television and radio and two children’s books. A travel book, In Spain, was much praised. Yet his later life had its measure of rain as well as shine. After a long struggle with cancer, during which Walker nursed her lovingly, Lorna died in 1987: The Last of England, published in 1993, records his coming to terms with her loss. For a time poetry deserted him. He remarried – Audrey, the widow of a friend. Disillusioned with life in England, which he saw as increasingly dominated by selfishness, uncouthness and congestion, they moved in 1997 to a village near Alicante, where he died seven years later. Throughout, what had remained intact were the gifts so clearly evident in The High Path – an astonishing recall, a love of language and a reinforcing wit, underwritten by an integrity that earns the reader’s confidence entirely.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 25 © Lawrence Sail 2010


About the contributor

Lawrence Sail’s most recent collection of poems is Eye-Baby. Forthcoming in 2010 are Waking Dreams: New & Selected Poems and Songs of the Darkness: Poems for Christmas, with illustrations by his daughter, Erica Sail.

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