The Elmet Poems and Collective Renewal
How far, then, can Ted Hughes’ Elmet poems be said to prefigure, inspire, reflect, or inform, subsequent cultural transformations, and efforts towards ecological reparation in the Calder Valley? I can only offer a tentative personal answer, which would be that they inspire and provoke by turns. At their best, the poems are charged with a compressed and cryptic magical ‘spirituality’ that puts rational scientific/managerial discourse about ‘nature’ in question. Hughes arguably comes as close as anyone can to articulating the numinous. If the Elmet poems have helped to resacralise the land that is a significant feat, achieved against the hegemonic grain of transcendental cosmology and religion. The culminating sequence of poems in Remains of Elmet, –I’m thinking of Heptonstall Old Church, Cock-Crows, Heptonstall Cemetery, and The Angel- weaves threads from the folkloric association between birds and death around intimate autobiographical material, and constitutes what amounts to a remarkable ‘tribal dream’.
Ted Hughes re-mythologised the land by drawing on his boyhood memories and ancestral connections. The Elmet poems are a personal vision, but nevertheless widely recognised as an important contribution to the storying of this place. Where they work less well, for me, is on the cultural and social level. He was understandably ambivalent about including very much overtly personal detail. Two of his finest auto/biographical poems –The Source and Dust as We Are- about his mother and father respectively, appeared in Wolfwatching, but were left out of Elmet, even though both parents had died by the time the book was published.(20)
As a former social geographer who once pored over census returns for the valley, I saw Remains -with its depictions of labour, hunting, war, sport, and the reminiscences of old age- as a requiem for an indigenous white working-class culture, and a particular formation of masculinity. Even Fay Godwin’s photographs focus mainly on older white male figures. In the later Elmet collection Roarers in a Ring‘ describes a group of farmers getting drunk on Christmas eve. I was involved in two very different anti-sexist men’s groups that met, in the early to mid-80’s, in the houses and flats in the accompanying photograph. Those walk-up flats have since been demolished, leaving me with some mid-air ghost memories of my own. There were also, I’m told, about a dozen women’s groups in Hebden Bridge at that time. During the well named Plath Wars, Ted Hughes could hardly have been expected to respond positively to second wave feminism. Conceived as a requiem for a dying indigenous culture of chapels and mills, the Elmet poems would in any case have missed these crucibles of social change, but there were earlier manifestations of feminism in the Valley. In 1907, the suffragist Mrs Emeline Pankhurst came to Hebden Bridge to speak in support of striking fustian weavers. She was welcomed by a brass band and huge crowds, many of whom had to be turned away. Three young suffragettes from the town were amongst those arrested and sent to Holloway jail after an attack on the House of Commons in March of that year.(21)
Remains of Elmet makes no reference to the arrival of Polish, Ukrainian, or Pakistani immigrants in the valley. A friend who came to this country from the ‘West Indies’ as a young man in the 1950’s, lived in the valley during the 1970’s. Returning as an elderly man, ravaged by diabetes -he told me that having a sweet tooth was part of the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean, because of cheap and plentiful sugar- he experienced generous support from a close knit community. Sadly, he had also encountered some crude racism in local mills and pubs. At his funeral, one of the visiting mourners surprised us by declaring Todmorden to be ‘just like Barbados’. I’ve wondered what an Elmet sequel, collected from a range of different voices, might look like.
Perhaps Ted Hughes was too good at evoking a depressive mood associated with the long ebb tide of economic and population decline? Several friends who are older ‘born and bred’ Todmordians have told me that they thought the community needed fresh blood, and that diversification has been a good thing.
In the introduction to Elmet, Hughes notes that Methodism has been superseded by the ‘New Age’. I invoke the front pages of two community newspapers as evidence (pace Terry Gifford) that not everyone who came to live here during the 1970’s was preoccupied with whale music. That particular issue of Calder Valley Press, from the year when Remains was published, carried an interview with the shop steward at Ward and Goldstone’s Mons Mill (re-named after the First World War battle, and demolished in 2,000) about the implications of computerised car electronics for the three hundred, mainly female, workers at the plant.
Several very dynamic projects are currently attempting to heal the environmental wounds of the industrial revolution, not least by responding to climate change. The Elmet poems are, I think, potentially relevant because of the animist questions they pose -are we, at long last, managing to reconceptualise human relations with nature? Can today’s exponents of wind and water power be said to be grounding their work in a newly respectful relationship with ‘the Mothers’, the elements, and the genii loci, or are they simply another manifestation of the objectification of nature as an economic resource? As long as their work results in a more ‘sustainable’ form of human ecology, does it matter whether we conceptualise it in terms of relationship with, or participation in, an animate world, -or in ‘spiritual’ terms, that are likely to be divisive?
A recent booklet produced by the Alternative Technology Centre in Hebden maps the approximate sites of over 50 former water mills. Some of these were quite large, such as the two six storey mills at Eaves, where silk was spun, that probably inspired the otherwise obscure title of ‘Chinese History of Colden Water’. Since, like Ted Hughes’ account of the valley, their map depends upon a Hebden centric definition of the Upper Calder Valley, it considerably underestimates the number of water mills.(22) A historical weir that once regulated the flow of Walsden Water for Waterside Mill has just been installed on a plinth at Fielden Square Todmorden, a site that was under several feet of fast flowing water during one of the floods that has swept along the valley in recent years. Hopefully it will serve as a protective talisman against further inundation. The accompanying map shows another fourteen water mills along Walsden Water alone. Several new small scale hydropower schemes have been installed recently to generate electricity.
A partnership project called ‘the Source‘ is working towards a long term vision of ecological restoration in the headwaters of the Calder, by organising appropriate tree planting and moorland restoration, treating damaged land, improving river quality, and undertaking educational activities. They claim that upland blanket bog is Britain’s foremost globally significant habitat type because of its rarity and the ability of peat to sequester carbon. A study they commissioned showed that, during one of several recent floods, almost four tonnes of water fell on the catchment of one of the Calder’s tributaries, the Hebden Water, alone. This is, of course, an example of practical engagement with a ‘creative/destructive’ universe, that Ted Hughes also called ‘the source’.(23)
Terry Gifford draws attention to Ted Hughes’ references to a Golden Age in Tales from Ovid, and advocates a post-pastoral poetry that avoids both pastoral idealisation and anti-pastoral reaction. Its interesting, then, to note that the notion of a Golden Age, in this case of hand-loom weaving, has long been an important feature of debates about the social history of the Calder Valley. Memories of the independence, relatively easy-going and varied life, and self-education, associated with earlier weaving communities inspired the chartist movement. E.P.Thompson quotes a hand loom weaver who obtained work in a mill, lamenting: ‘I used to go out in the fields and woods … at meal times, and listen to the song of summer birds, or watch the trembling waters of the Ludden … I collected insects, in company with a number of young men from the village. We formed a library … and a companion of mine collected twenty two large boxes of insects, one hundred and twenty different sorts of British bird’s eggs, besides a great quantity of shells (land and fresh water), fossils, minerals, ancient and modern coins …’. (24). Records from that period suggest that, for a time at least, local communities might once have lived in relative ecological and cultural equilibrium.
The notion of Arcadia surfaced again during the 1906 fustian weavers strike, when a co-partnership scheme at Eaves hoped to construct an explicitly ‘Arcadian’ settlement around a co-operatively owned mill. Another of today’s dynamic local projects, Incredible Edible Todmorden, aims to provide access to good local food for all. Their website includes evidence on food self-sufficiency from an 1828 small tithes survey, and memories of older residents about gathering wild food.
Ted Hughes imagined the valley as the last part of the last British Celtic kingdom to succumb to the Angles, and its inhabitants as the last Celtic survivors in England. Not much is known about the Romano-British Kingdom of Elmet, but other parts of Yorkshire may have a better claim to be its remains. The area to the east of Leeds still has various Elmet place names, including a parliamentary constituency. Historical Elmet may have finally fallen to the Saxons at a battle near the former Roman settlement of Bawtry. Hughes could equally have written about the remains of the earlier Kingdom of Brigantia. Was the long lost Celtic Elmet, then, Hughes’ personal Arcadia? Although its now thought that there was a long period of assimilation and inter-marriage between the Saxons and Britons (rather than a wholesale expulsion of the latter), the Saxons are said to have introduced a politically controlled literacy ‘whose linearity cut through native ancestral space with the point of a pen’.(25) This account, if accurate, resonates with David Abram’s influential discussion of the the role of literacy in the demise of primal animism.(26)
Ted Hughes called the Calder Valley his ‘tuning fork’ because it is was the source of the language he crafted so powerfully, and because it was the site of his formative experiences of a living world. The Valley has seen a lot of change since Remains of Elmet was published. Otters are now being recorded in the Upper Calder. The repair, conservation, and protection, of once badly wounded land, and rivers, is still a considerable challenge though. There’s a new appreciation of the richness of the natural world, and I hope, of both the remarkable industrial history of the upper Calder Valley, and the rich history of political radicalism, co-operation, and community spirit. Ted Hughes’ poetry is widely valued for its documentation of an important period in the valley’s history, and as an inspirational resource.
B.T 9/12/13, updated 10/12/13.
20) Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
21) Hebden Bridge Web, Fustian Weaver’s Strike, Hebden Bridge 1906-1908, Based on Leslie Goldthorpe, Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society, Local History Booklet, No 3. 1982.
22) Power in the Landscape, Hebden Bridge Centre for Alternative Technology, 2007.
23) Understanding the Hebden Water Catchment, September 2103, Treesponsibility/The Source.
24) E.P Thompson, Op Cit. Linda Croft, Op Cit.
25) Joshua Davis, The Absent Anglo-Saxon Past in Ted Hughes’ Elmet, pp237-53 in David Clark and Nicholas Perkins, eds. Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, D.S.Brewer, 2010, citing Alfred Siewers.
26) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-than-Human-World, Vintage, 1996.
The above is a work in progress, and will be updated occasionally. You can e-mail me by using the contact form at the bottom of the home page. Let me know if you would like some or all of your comments included below.
Thankyou for filling in the gaps in the social history of the area.
I found your comments about Elmet as Hughes’ personal Arcadia intriguing. I think it can be very tempting to apotheosize the past, that most of us have a ‘tuning fork’ fixed in an ideal, be it of farmers or handloom weavers, the peoples of Elmet, Rheged or Brigantia or the hunter-gatherers of the lake villages and wild woods…
Yet these ‘tuning forks’ also provide a platform that distances, alters perspective and forms a standpoint both for critique and from which to see new potentials. So transformation can come about.