Laureate's role is but to rhyme or die

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHAT A first week for the new Poet Laureate! Wherever you looked, the monarchy and the British nation were presenting themselves as subjects for memorial verses. You'd think the whole news agenda was being skewed so as to attract his attention. As I understand it, the Laureate's job, though loosely defined, is to commemorate big occasions in the royal calendar and moments of national triumph or disaster in which a grand, rhetorical, voice-of-Britain flourish seems appropriate. Right then: in the past seven days we've had one historically devolved government, two royal embarrassments (Sophie and Philip), one sporting triumph, one disgraced sports captain, one international peace initiative...

By the end of the week, I was surprised to have heard nothing from Andrew Motion on these epic developments. The only thing published under his name was a long effusion in Friday's Times Literary Supplement, about going for a walk at night when he was a schoolboy. Fine in its way, but almost perversely un-topical. Maybe he hasn't started yet. The news of his appointment was, of course, leaked by Downing Street a couple of weeks prematurely. Perhaps he wasn't supposed to get properly under way until June. But if he'd been around last week, what a time he would have had...

Tuesday, 10am. The Laureate is in his study, eating a Nutri-Grain bar and boning up on Wales. He skipped breakfast to work on the Dallaglio Sonnet ("All he wanted was to find the touch/Line..."). Now the Palace has rung to say: "Forget the rugby-and-cocaine stuff. We'd like your thoughts on the official opening ceremony of the Welsh Assembly. Nothing too fancy, mind. We don't want to give them ideas. I'll fax over a list of featured celebrities. Perhaps I could remind you that Shirley Bassey rhymes with `chassis'."

Damn. Two hours' work down the Swanee. He puts an irritable line through the limpid iambics and thumbs through The Rough Guide to Wales. Let's see: Druids, Alun Michael, crafts centres, Caernavon Castle, leeks, that statuesque young woman in Catatonia, thieving, Ron Davies (careful now), Dylan Thomas, community singing, the Severn Bridge... By 11am he has a rough draft. "Assembly roads: all the signs/have funny lettering - no "Ks or "Xs/spike the sunset motorway/to Cardiff..."

Wednesday, 7am. The Laureate is in the kitchen. A bowl of Alpen lies untasted by his spiral notepad. Emergency call from the Palace at 6am: "The balloon's gone up, I'm afraid. The royal fiancee's tits are all over The Sun. That weaselly little sod, Yelland, has gone mad. You know the chap?"

I assure you, murmurs the Laureate smoothly, he has never dined in Tufnell Park.

"Absolute blighter. Looks like the alien in The Roswell Incident. Ugly scandal, this. Up to you to defuse it. Something short and snappy. Emphasise her innocence. If you get stuck, I believe `Sahara' rhymes with "that bitch Kara'..." Dear God, thinks the Laureate. Tennyson never had this problem. Some brief satirical squib?

"When on hols my Sophie goes,/Drinking dandelion-and-burdocks,/the liquefaction of her clothes/Is no concern of Rupert Murdoch's." Would that do?

And dammit, The Welsh Assembly Ode, now presumably to be abandoned, was going so well. Even got in a dig at the no-show Manic Street Preachers: "If you tolerate this/Then the Cornish will be next..."

Thursday, 6am. The Laureate is in his striped pyjamas, drinking an early- morning wheat-grass pick-me-up. His answering machine was on, but the Palace got through on the mobile. "Cancel everything else," the voice said, tremulous with excitement. "The nation's gone mad over Barcelona."

I see, says the Laureate. The Thirties all over again, is it? A new civil war? Fascism vs. democracy. Writers taking sides. The spirit of Auden and Orwell...

"No," said the Palace coldly, "it's Manchester United. I take it you weren't watching the developments in injury time?"

What precisely, inquires the Laureate, are you on about?

There followed an unstructured brief about someone called Ferguson and his folly in misaligning his wingers but how, at the end of the day, you had to hand it to the substitutes... Absolute gibberish.

The Laureate scratches his shin. Surely an Oxford degree, two biographies and tenure at the Arts Council and the creative writing department of the University of East Anglia have prepared him for better than this?

But he sets to work like a true professional: "Ferguson, though you were the favoured son,/and, like Bill Shankly, you are Scottish too,/You never understood the winger's role..." No, too downbeat. Use the metaphors to hand: "Injury time: a bruised nation waits. /The Spanish dusk is looming like a nurse,/When in comes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer..."

This is hopeless. A crumpled sheet of A4 hits the Ikea wastebin.

Friday, 5am. The Laureate is roused from slumber. There is nothing around to eat or drink.

"We'd like something on Basil Hume getting the OM," says the voice from the Palace. "Or else on the BBC election. We are quietly confident that you, if nobody else, can find a rhyme for `Yentob'..."

Oh, bugger off, says the Laureate, shortly.

WHILE WE'RE talking sport, there was a little joke doing the rounds in Conservative circles last week. Normally buttoned-up, un-sporty Tories couldn't conceal their delight at finding the captain of the Zimbabwean cricket team is called Alistair Campbell. Just fancy! The scope for quicksilver political humour was enormous. By Thursday morning, they'd finally worked out a joke.

"You know England beat Zimbabwe yesterday?" I heard one say in the lobby of Conservative Central Office. Yeah, said his friend. "And you know they're saying it was because the captain used four medium-pace bowlers ...". Yeah, go on then, said his friend (both were starting to weep with laughter). "Well it's hardly surprising they lost, is it?" said the man choking with hilarity, "because..." Go on, urged his friend. "Because you see..." Go on, said his friend, stuffing a hanky in his mouth, "Because - it's the first time in his career Alistair Campbell has used only one spinner!"

I left them rolling on the floor. Then Zimbabwe beat South Africa, and the joke didn't work any more.

I GET some odd things in the post these days. No columnist is spared the ravings of retired dictators living in sheltered accommodation, religious zealots identifying the precise location of Armageddon on 31 December (Sidcup, apparently) and local councillors anxious to have you bitch about the local grammar school; but last week was special. I got a gratis copy of the Erotic Review, a bit of hate mail from Richard Dreyfuss, an invitation to a private view of Rembrandt self-portraits, and a couple of... Sorry? Yes, that Richard Dreyfuss, the American actor currently starring in Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue in London. It must be him because the letter was headed "Theatre Royal, Haymarket." It read: "Dear John Walsh, Your article in today's Independent regarding cruise ships is without doubt the stupidest, most irresponsible piece of crap I have read since I arrived in London in January." It was nice of him to narrow it down to just the past four months, as opposed to his whole life; but I was troubled.

One does not want to go around upsetting chaps of Mr Dreyfuss's global distinction, though it's clear that journalists upset him by just existing.

So I dug out my piece on cruise ships, published on 22 May. It said the numbers of people going on cruises had gone up by 20 per cent lately, despite the Titanic movie, and cruise companies were making ever-grander ships to accommodate popular demand. That was it. Nothing there to upset a man who once faced a working model of a 25-foot white basking shark...

Except that, at the end, I mentioned the biggest cruise ship of all - the 250,000-ton America World City from the Westin Corporation, which will

be launched in 2001 or so. It would be awful, I said, if that wound up on the seabed, like the Sun Vista did on the morning of 21 May. And indeed it would, though one hopes all the passengers and crew might be saved, as they were from the capsizing ship off Manila.

Did it bother Mr Dreyfuss that I suggested a ship might sink? Did he think I was notifying international terrorists about a likely future target? It was only later, while listening to the radio, that the penny dropped.

Mr Dreyfuss was on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs a week ago, and one word reverberated through his discourse and his eight records.

He chose "America" by Simon and Garfunkel. He chose "Mother Country" by John Stewart, a lachrymose little number which ends, "America/mother country/I love you." His first starring role was in American Graffiti. See how a pattern begins to emerge?

Mr D. is evidently the kind of patriot for whom a name like America World City acts as a trigger. Any mention of the word "America" that's accompanied by a suggestion of failure, disrespect or lese- majeste, any hint that a large floating symbol of his homeland might be deep-sixed by an act of God or man, is clearly too much to stand.

Well I am sorry. But perhaps Mr Dreyfuss should think of heading back soon to the country that he loves so much.

Absence is making his heart grow bilious.