This is not a book review - I want to emphasize that. However, I have just finished reading Andrew Motion's childhood memoir, In the Blood, and I am struck by the resemblances between Motion's childhood and that of Siegfried Sassoon - and also by the many differences between them. I am not sure where I got my copy - I think I won it in a raffle, probably at the AGM of the Alliance of Literary Societies a few years ago - but it was only when I started to run out of reading matter during lockdown that I finally got around to opening it. I'm not sure what put me off previously, but, once begun, it proved to be compelling reading.
Andrew Motion's parents, unlike Siegfried's, had a happy marriage. They were evidently well-off, not at all your typical family, but their individual personalities come through very distinctly in Motion's account. He and his brother Kit were rather different in character, for a start. That was probably also the case with Siegfried and his brothers, and it's no accident that, in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Siegfried chose to represent himself as an only child, and an orphan to boot. Whilst very good at drawing short character sketches of village personalities, it's noticeable that he does not try very hard explore the psyche of his close friends and immediate family. Andrew Motion, on the other hand, whilst dwelling on some "characters", such as the gardener and various schoolmasters, gets inside his close family with a few pen-strokes - the busy, reserved, often distracted father, the extrovert, dominant grandfather, and so on.
Like the Sassoon boys, Motion I and II (as they became known at prep school) were taught to ride and hunt early on. Indeed, it was held up as a kind of life goal for them that they should not only practise such outdoor pursuits but should become skilled at them. It didn't come naturally to Andrew, who liked observing nature but was all fingers and thumbs when it came to controlling a recalcitrant pony or tickling a trout.
The prep school to which Motion was packed off, courtesy of his grandfather's money, at the age of eight, sounds not unlike Dickens's Dotheboys Hall. Any 21st-century parent would have been over there like a shot to remove him. In fact, if the facilities were as disgusting as he suggests and the punishments as extreme and unmerited, no self-respecting parent would have left him there in the first place. He survived mainly by discovering poetry and conversing with his sympathetic but somewhat ineffectual English teacher. Strangely, he seems to have been disappointed at not being put forward for Eton. Luckily, someone saw something in him that he did not, and Radley College proved much more congenial, particularly after a new headmaster, one Dennis Silk, arrived in 1968 and made the school "more like a family". Any reader who knew Dennis in person will have no difficulty in believing this.
By his mid-teens Motion was becoming a quiet rebel, rejecting the hunting, shooting and fishing aspect of his parents' lifestyle, but afraid to say so openly, mainly because of his affection for his frail mother. It was too unfortunate that it should have been his mother who suffered the riding accident from which she never fully recovered; the book spares us the full knowledge of the subsequent difficult years. This is where, I think, he differs most from Siegfried Sassoon, whose memoirs tend to gloss over any deep affection he may have felt towards close relatives.
And yet, taken as a whole, there are certainly resemblances between this book and MFHM, which is not surprising when you learn that Sassoon's fictionalised memoir was one of the first adult books Andrew Motion read and enjoyed. It was purchased for him - naturally - by his mother.