Andrew Motion's mother suffered catastrophic brain damage in a hunting accident in 1969 when the Poet Laureate was a teenager. In the Blood, Andrew Motion's first detailed account of his family's tragedy, is the most moving and exquisitely written account of childhood loss I have ever read: "...for most people childhood ends slowly, so nobody can see where one part of life finishes and the next bit starts. But my childhood has ended suddenly. In a day."
Until that day, Andrew Motion and his family live an old-fashioned, conservative life in Hertfordshire and Essex. They communicate in hearty, meaningless clichés and blush at the mention of feelings. They talk about "bloody dogs" and "ruddy weather". People "mind their ps and qs" and they don't go to sleep, they get "shut-eye". If they fall over, they "go a over t". Not that they would dream of admitting what the a or the t stand for. Motion's mother panics when she realises that her son is at school with people who say "toilet". "'You must never say "toilet"', mum went on; she was being so serious that it made my clothes feel tight. 'Why not?' 'Because it's non-U,' she said. 'What's non-U?' Mum frowned, then said, 'It's the way people like us don't talk.'"
The Motions have comic relatives like Uncle Rob, who "had purple nails because he kept hammering his hands when he was meant to be whacking in fence posts", and Uncle George, who modelled badly fitting shirts in television adverts. But the inventiveness and originality of Andrew Motion's beautiful prose make his relatives appear more eccentric and interesting than they probably were. After all, even Motion's unsophisticated friends at his stuffy, anachronistic school think he's old-fashioned. His family are the kind of people who "said they loved animals but spent most of their time trying to kill them". They think that rioting French students should be sent to prison and the Rolling Stones should join the army.
Then Motion has a teenage epiphany. It dawns on him that he needs a different kind of life. "Not so much bellowing. More thinking." But most shocking of all for his family is his announcement that he won't be going hunting anymore, even if it is meant to be "in the blood".
For all his family's panic about emotions, this is a passionate account of a man's love for his parents and for the countryside in which he grew up. The bond with his mother is deep, made even stronger by Motion's knee operations which kept him at home for months. "I didn't want to admit it, but there was always a wrinkle when dad came home. It was partly because he was tired, and hadn't shaken all the work-wasps out of his head. And partly to do with the way that mum and I glued together while he was in London."
Andrew Motion writes as the child he was, but when the child speaks there are intimations of the future poet's power. Listening to a fragment of Beethoven, he captures the sensation brilliantly, describing it as "something to do with the breeze flipping over the chestnut leaves outside my window, showing they were already brown underneath".
For a man who appears so introverted and secretive, In the Blood is disarmingly frank. It begins and ends with the terrible accident and both opening and closing chapters are written in the present tense. The death of his mother is the moment which not only ends his childhood, it circumscribes his life. It's his past, his present and his future. It's in his blood.
Days after the accident, he and his brother Kit are finally allowed to see their mother in hospital. Andrew Motion's description of her bruised face, the sound of the oxygen tank, the smell of sweat and talc, is electrifyingly intimate. His mother doesn't know him anymore, but searching her face desperately for signs of recognition he notices the mole on her cheek. A "stub-end of a wiry black hair has started to sprout from the middle. Mum must have clipped that in the old days, or tweaked it out, and I never knew. She must have hated it, and not wanted anyone to see. I'll do it for her now, when we're alone together. It'll be one of our new secrets." The image of a teenage boy making a pact to preserve the decorum of a mother who's forgotten him and who would take another 10 years to die, made me cry.
The original dedication page of In the Blood read "For my father and my brother and in memory of my mother". Tragically, Andrew Motion's father died before the book was published. The new dedication has been changed to "For my brother and in memory of our mother and father". But in the end it makes no difference. In the Blood will always be Andrew Motion's elegy to his mother. For those of us fortunate enough to read this superlative memoir, it's a celebration of mothers everywhere.
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