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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