Hugo Williams: A talent to amuse

This week, Hugo Williams received the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry. England's wittiest poet talks to Christina Patterson about manners and muses
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On Tuesday, Hugo Williams met the Queen. Following in the footsteps of an illustrious band of poets, including Auden, Betjeman and Larkin, he was presented with the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, an award created in 1933 by King George V. Usually, on a Tuesday morning, he's at a "very, very nice keep-fit class" at a local church hall. "It's all women, except me, which I like," he tells me with a grin. Hugo Williams is nothing if not adaptable.

On Tuesday, Hugo Williams met the Queen. Following in the footsteps of an illustrious band of poets, including Auden, Betjeman and Larkin, he was presented with the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, an award created in 1933 by King George V. Usually, on a Tuesday morning, he's at a "very, very nice keep-fit class" at a local church hall. "It's all women, except me, which I like," he tells me with a grin. Hugo Williams is nothing if not adaptable.

We meet at his house in Islington, north London, the week before the ceremony. I walk past his MZ 250, up to a brown front door and into a time warp. "Do you like the carpet?" he asks me, pointing to an oddly-shaped scrap of green in the middle of the kitchen floor. "Murphy gave it to me. Wasn't that sweet of her?" Before kettles are boiled and coffee beans ground, I'm whisked off to a shabbily cosy snug next door, a room jampacked, like the rest of the house, with books, objets d'art and memorabilia. Williams grabs a large, black book and flicks it open. "That's Silver!" he declares, pointing at a smiley, rotund baby. "Isn't she gorgeous?"

The most beautiful, and perhaps most propositioned, male poet in Britain still has his motorbike, and his looks, and is cas- ually elegant, as always, in Levi's and a button-down blue shirt. Now 62, he also has a bus pass, a grandchild (daughter of his only daughter, Murphy) and a mild heart murmur. And now he has a Queen's Gold Medal and a sudden elevation into the ranks of the respectable. Was he surprised?

"Absolutely!" says Williams with a flash of the smile that has launched a thousand crushes. "Somebody phones and says, 'You know the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry?' and then you're expecting, 'Would you mind being on the panel?' I certainly didn't think I was up for it yet." Was he pleased? "Oh God, yes!" So, I ask, cutting to the chase, what's he going to wear? The smile gets even wider. "Well, I rang up Peter Porter, who got it a few years ago, because I really wanted to know what colour the ribbon was. So we had a very long chat. He alarmed me by telling me you have this chat with Her Majesty. When he finally got round to it, he told me that the medal doesn't have a ribbon."

Shorn of his fantasies of green tweed to match the ribbon's dark red, he's opted for "just a dark suit and a white shirt". The suit will be relatively loose.

"Les Murray dropped his medal," he confides of the epic Australian who scooped the award in 1998, "but he had such a tight suit that he couldn't bend over to pick it up. And Robert Graves," he adds, "must have had some sort of adrenalin buzz or something and said he was related to the Queen. He said 'Oh yes, ma'am, we're both descendants of the prophet, Muhammad'." Is he worried that he might have an adrenalin buzz of his own? "No, I don't really think so," he replies, matter-of-factly, "because I take beta-blockers. I just pray that she'll have seen some of my father's films."

The beta-blockers are for the heart condition and the father is Hugh Williams, Forties matinée idol and a recurring figure in his son's work. So much so, in fact, that unkind poets have, on occasion, tossed off little pastiches featuring Daddy, Mummy and boarding-school pranks. It was Daddy, of course, who packed his son off to Eton on a drunken whim. What would he think of his son's reinstatement at the heart of the Establishment?

"Oh, he'd have been tickled pink. But it's a slightly artificial moment to get the acceptance of the Establishment. It could be the Emperor's New Clothes professionally. My poems," he muses, "are rather delicately balanced." Does he really think that a gong could be so powerful? His handsome features wrinkle into a frown. "No, but it's something I could imagine, something I could get paranoid about. It is," he adds cheerfully, "a kind of self-inflation."

The fact is that, for all his self-deprecation, Hugo Williams is a very good poet indeed. For 40 years he has been writing rueful, elegiac and drily witty poems chronicling the loves and losses of, well, Hugo Williams. They offer a rare combination of candour, tenderness and sardonic self-reflection, all presented with a deadpan, deceptive simplicity that conceals the art behind it. It has led some to the accusation that the work is slight, one that was repeated, to Williams's distress, when he won the TS Eliot Prize for his last collection, Billy's Rain. A chronicle of a 10-year love affair and its aftermath, it is Williams at his most wrily engaging.

The range of his work, it's true, is not broad. But it is extremely finely crafted and unusually funny. As Anthony Thwaite said of his Collected Poems (Faber, £20), published last year: "It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, with the shock and shame of recognition."

Hugo Williams the person is, in many ways, like Hugo Williams the poet: charming, witty, handsome and disarmingly honest. Impeccably well-mannered, too, but with an unexpected quirk. Good manners, I tell him, would surely dictate that you don't spill the beans on other people or talk about yourself too much, or make protracted statements about your love or sex life. Clearly, he does all of these. "That's true!" he exclaims happily. "I thought you were going to say how good it was that I don't do any of this. Yes, I don't know, let's see... Maybe there's a more secure ego underneath my frail exterior than even I know about? The other thing," he adds, "is you really cannot begin to write poetry without that kind of head-on thing about personal matters. I'm always totally amazed by people who say it must have been really painful for you to write that poem about your father or girlfriend. It was certainly painful, because of the long hours, but not because of the confrontation at all. So there's always that element of dishonesty about a love poem."

It all started when he was 15, "in order to fill up an anthology" he was making for his father. "I still like copying out poems," he confesses, "it's one of my favourite occupations. But then, after about 20 pages, I ran out of poems, so I started writing some of my own." He still plugs away at it every day, "a couple of hours in the morning and, say, three in the afternoon". Clearly, none of this nonsense of waiting for the muse. Perhaps you don't need a muse if your subject is yourself? "Now that you mention it," he reflects, "it's almost impossible to imagine treating a different subject than myself... I seriously wonder what a poem could be about if it wasn't about the self."

If this sounds like solipsism of the first order, it is only part of the picture. "I'd like to fill the page up in a different way," he explains, "and I do make attempts at it, but I find it very hard to find any drama unless I'm there. I just do not know the technical means. The 'I' is a technical device, rather than a me, me thing. It's a neat, almost invisible way of doing it."

It all springs, of course, from Mummy and Daddy and a theatrical background that put looks and entertainment at a higher premium than anything else. Poetry, he says, is "for entertainment and to be an actor, to say something dashing on stage. And it's narcissistic, a wholly narcissistic thing. We were all brought up to be narcissists. The morality was to have good manners, dress well and amuse yourself all the time." And how far has he detracted from that? "Oh, I don't think I have," he replies disarmingly. "I do put those things ridiculously to the fore. It is rather crippling, really, that one has to be amused... I'm sure," he adds wistfully, "that that's my limitation in the end."

If Hugo Williams is cast in the central role of the drama of his poetry, it's in conjunction with a cast of walk-on parts. Mummy and Daddy are there, of course, but so are the lovers who have drifted in and out of his life, most notably the "Carolyn" of Billy's Rain. Have his poems ever harmed anyone?" Williams pauses. "I think," he says at last, "they have harmed people because they have made me hard. I'm sure there's a little bit of ice, as Graham Greene said. There is something about poetry that is a bit of armour against the world. If all else fails, I can always try to get a poem published."

And doesn't that, I ask him, affect the life as well as the work? Can you maintain that stance of detachment and still live and love with passion? Williams smiles sadly. "That detachment thing," he says with the air of someone who's just solved a crossword puzzle,"that's everything. I suppose it might be a kind of false power. If you're detached then you can remain invulnerable. But," says England's wittiest poet with a charming smile, "you die inside."

Biography: Hugo Williams

Hugo Williams wasborn in Windsor in 1942. His parents, Hugh and Margaret Williams, were both actors and his younger brother Simon later followed in their footsteps. After Eton, he started working as an editor for the London Magazine. He left in 1970 and has since made a living as a travel writer and journalist. He has, at various times, been a television critic, a poetry editor and a theatre critic, and has been writing a column for the TLS since 1988. Williams published his first collection, Symptoms of Loss, in 1965. His other collections include Sugar Daddy (1970), Writing Home (85), Self-Portrait with a Slide (94) and Billy's Rain (99), which won the TS Eliot prize. His Collected Poems (Faber, £20) were published last year. He is married to Hermine Demoriane. They have a daughter, Murphy, and a granddaughter, Silver.