Ancestral Echoes, Capitalism and Nature.
Given that remnant water mills, chimneys, dams, and mill races, can still be found in the middle of woods, or on hillsides, beside fast flowing streams that once powered them, it’s not hard to identify the source of Ted Hughes’ imagery of chimneys flowering and then returning to the earth before a more ecologically conscious culture can emerge. Not least as an astrologer, I can see (and there is some evidence) that the creative-destructive crises of capitalism may have a deeper grounding in the creative-destructive rhythms of cosmic nature, and that Hughes’ sense of this may well have been informed by his knowledge of astrology. I can also see the value of de-centring the human by locating human enterprise within a ‘natural’ ecological framework.
This kind of -cosmic, holistic, organismic, or evolutionary- perspective becomes problematic, though, if we overlook or naturalise oppression (‘man-the-hunter can’t help it’ comes to mind), and lose sight of the urgent complexities of power relations based on perceptions of human difference. Animists and ecologists, like Hughes, who focus on non-human worlds, may be especially susceptible to regarding human communities as unified natural organisms. When the valley’s mills were abandoned, or adapted for new uses, this may have been part of a ‘natural’ cyclic process, -all human endeavour arguably moves through a cycle of inception, growth, maturity, and decay- but it was also an an expression of the movement of capital. An emergent capitalist class, if we can still think in those terms, and not surely, as Hughes wrote in his introduction to Elmet, ‘the spirit of the place’, invested in the new technology of mass production.
When Ted Hughes refers to slavery, he includes stone as well as people. Like the millstone grit, human beings were uprooted from the wild earth and enlisted in mills where they became fixtures, endlessly trembling amongst drumming looms. The poem Remains of Elmet is juxtaposed against a broodingly dark photograph of Todmorden in the 1970’s. Fay Godwin described her work as documentary realism, but the images in Remains are poorly reproduced. Compared with versions that appear in Land and Landmarks, they are drained of luminosity. (compare Top Withens and Path and Reservoir, Lumbutts, Yorkshire, 1977 in Landmarks, for example). The version of her view of Todmorden in Remains gains detail in the long rows of terraced housing, but loses the sunlight on distant hills. The imagery in the title poem is alimentary. The valley becomes a huge oesophagus, enlarged by a dying glacier. From a literal geological point of view, this may be somewhat misleading, since the steep sided inner cleft of the valley, as we see it today, was carved into the rising land by rivers swollen by melt water.* The mill towns are described as cemeteries, digesting all who came there to find work, until nothing was left but an aching absence picked over by tourists. Again, it was the mill owners, not the towns, that were responsible for the working conditions of the era.
The recent discovery of a National Chartist Hymn Book in Todmorden library reminds us why imagery of hunger haunts this poem. The sentiment of the tenth hymn needs no translation. “We ask “our daily bread” / nor do we ask in vain; / See, year by year, abundance spread / o’er every fertile plain. // Why starve we then? -ah? Why! / Answer thou wicked priest / Who scarce will give us, when we die / The burial of a beast. /…. / Our right, Great God, OUR RIGHT! / We ask this and no more! / O look down from thy heavenly height / And help thy dying poor!'(8) Ted Hughes’ introductions to the two Elmet collections give little sense of the intensity of oppression involved in the Industrial Revolution, and apart from a passing mention of the chartists, say even less about the Calder Valley’s considerable history of political resistance.
E.P.Thompson, who wrote his monumental Making of the English Working Class in nearby Halifax, quotes the testimony of a minister on the ‘murderous system’ enforced in Cragg Vale, where mill hands worked 15 or 16 hours a day, sometimes all night. He’d recently buried a boy who had been found standing asleep, his arms full of wool, after working a seventeen hour day, and been beaten awake. His father carried him home, where he was unable to eat his supper. The boy woke up at 4 a.m. the next morning and asked his brothers if they could see the lights of the mill, as he was afraid of being late. He then died.
Information provided to an 1833 Commission of Enquiry shows that Corporal punishment of children was standard practice in the Valley’s mills. Todmorden’s radical M.P. John Fielden, was motivated by his own experience of child labour.(9) The town’s cotton industry was, of course, implicated in colonialism and profited from slavery in the American South. Today, the end-logic of neoliberal deregulation still generates human tragedies, but these mainly happen in the Global South, or along desperately unsafe escape routes from chronic poverty and war.
Ted Hughes was so good at what he did that I wouldn’t have wanted him to write reams of detailed social realism. Readers must decide for themselves whether his poems sufficiently honour the history of these formative working class communities, and whether indeed, if they are addressed to the land, we should expect them to. For all the radicalism of his ecological insights, Hughes was in some respects quite culturally conservative. Despite spending his adolescence in a South Yorkshire mining area, for example, he accepted the Laureateship in 1984, the year of a bitterly contested miner’s strike.
Ted Hughes undoubtedly caught the prevailing mood of the long period of industrial and population decline in the upper Calder valley. There was chronic pollution. Even I can remember the river Calder running dark blue one day and deep green the next, according to which dyes were being used in one particularly Dickensian establishment. Smoke from a thicket of chimneys would often have been trapped in the valley. There was also a long history of hardship. In the 1970’s, Todmorden was offered one of the Community Development Projects that were set up to study and reverse the effects of industrial decline in communities with high rates of social deprivation, but turned the offer down out of civic pride. Today we have zero hours contracts, workfare, and a food bank. The valley has long had a reputation for its high suicide rate, not least due to the lack of light. Because of the topography, some neighbourhoods don’t see direct sunlight for several months in midwinter. But all was not gloom and doom. Far from it. In part three I want to take a look at resistance and renewal, and reconsider the healing contribution of Remains of Elmet.
B.T 24/11/13, with minor changes 5/2/15.
To be continued …
Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet, 1979 and Elmet, 1994, London, Faber and Faber.
8) Todmorden Chartist Hymn Book, can be found online at From Weaver to Web, Online Visual Archive of Calderdale History.
9) E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, (1963)1968. and Bernard Jennings, ed – Hebden Bridge W.E.A, Pennine Valley, Smith Settle, 1992.
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I found all your blog post articles very interesting, especially ‘The Shaman of the Tribe’, which I enjoyed reading. I like your approach to Ted’s work and the comments you make about his presentation of the Calder Valley are right but I would argue that his poems are a work of nostalgia and love (that is why they have always moved me) and, as he said, they reflection of his mother’s view of the valley and the life in it – underpinned, I would say, by his own strong feelings for the place, in spite of what he said about these being very mixed feelings. Ted’s geological references are, no doubt, imaginative ‘poetic licence’ .None-the-less, it is good to have a realistic historical and geological perspective from which to judge them …..
best wishes, Ann Skea.
*Thanks for this Ann. I’m not sure how realistic my reference to the geology was. I’ve now read contradictory accounts. One version is that there were no glaciers in the Upper Calder Valley. However Bernard Jennings, in Pennine Valley, says that when the main ice sheet (at something like the level of todays ‘tops’) had retreated northwards, it seems that ice still extended southwards down over the Todmorden end of the valley, perhaps at something like the level of what is now the middle, ‘shelf’, section. When this remnant glacier retreated, and the main glaciers and ice sheets to the north were melting, massive river erosion, augmented by uplift of the land, carved the main central part of the valley where today’s settlements mostly are. So Ted Hughes’ line about the valley being enlarged by the death struggle of a glacier would only be misleading if taken to imply that the valley, as we see it today, was sculpted by ice. I’ve re-edited that section accordingly, and will pursue this further.