"Dear Sir or Madam, We are pleased to announce that you have been selected as an applicant for the vacant post of Poet Laureate, and if you send us a cheque for pounds 100 you can be considered seriously for the next stage of selection."
Well, I have to say that this was not quite how I envisaged the Poet Laureate being chosen. If I had thought about it at all, I imagined that it was done via a series of informal chats behind the scenes ("This chap Hughes - does he drink, do you know? Nothing worse than a drunken poet. Imagine having Dylan Thomas as Poet Laureate! Still, at least the Queen Mother would have someone to talk to...") and not as a job you applied for. But it was a chance that might never come again, so I sent off my cheque (payable, for some reason, to the Next Big Royal Fire Fund) and was duly summoned to the Palace for the preliminary auditions.
If I had envisaged a series of individual interviews, perhaps conducted by the Queen herself, I was sadly mistaken. There was a crowd of about a hundred people there, all milling round saying hello to each other shyly if they didn't know each other and saying hello loudly if they did.
I recognised Roger McGough and John Hegley and Ian McMillan the Barnsley poet, and Clive James, and Ian Hislop standing rather apart in one corner with four or five tough-looking gentlemen...
"Who are the blokes with Ian Hislop?" I asked Roger McGough. "His bodyguards? His scriptwriting team for Have I Got News For You? And what connection does he have with poetry?"
"I believe that's the syndicate he leads that writes E J Thribb's poems in Private Eye," said McGough. "Oh, hello, Tim..."
This was in greeting to the imposing figure of Sir Tim Rice, who was graciously moving among the crowd selling copies of his latest book, All Time Great Cricketing Chart-Toppers.
"I wouldn't have thought you needed either the money or the title," I said. "Or the kudos, come to that."
"I don't, dear boy," said the great lyric-writer affably. "In fact, I am not even on the shortlist. I just happened to be passing by and thought it seemed a nice party, so I came on in..."
I was just about to ask how he happened to be passing by, in Buckingham Palace, when a tall official came in and banged for silence.
"Thank you all for coming today," he said. "May I just say a few introductory words? This will be a very casual affair, just to see if we have the necessary calibre of people here for the post. It is not an onerous post, just a few occasional verses a year. But you know what poets are. Ask them to produce and they may be still promising the manuscript a year later. So in a moment I'm going to ask you to write, impromptu, a poem on Prince Charles's 50th birthday."
"Should it be for or against?" said a voice from the crowd, and there was general laughter. Even the official failed to scowl.
"Alas, poor Mr Hughes died too soon," he said. "Before he could do some celebratory verses, I mean. And while I am on the subject of the late Ted Hughes, I must stress that the next Poet Laureate's private life should be blameless. The Queen is well aware that, in connection with Mr Hughes, Sylvia Plath has always received more publicity than she has. She would prefer it if the next Laureate did not have tragic deaths hanging over him."
There was a sudden buzz of conversation, as we all tried to remember how many suicides we had each been responsible for. The official called for silence again.
"Now for the test poems..."
The speaker was a powerful-looking man whom I dimly recalled having seen on some late night BBC2 programme.
"I think I speak for everyone when I say that poets should not be subjected to talent tests like secretaries or chorus dancers. We are content to be judged by our printed works. I for one am not staying for any demeaning audition!"
There was a growl of agreement and to the official's surprise, the assembled poets rose and followed their leader out of the room, presumably down to the nearest pub. Only the official and I were left facing each other.
"Your name?" he asked.
I won't say what followed next. Suffice it to say that things are looking very hopeful for me.Reuse content