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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: A Laureate's poems are all that matter

You get a few hundred bottles of sack, or dry sherry, and the unlimited scorn of most of your colleagues. You are required, by newspapers if not by royalty, to produce a lyric effusion whenever a royal prince is born, marries or dies, which is then ripped apart by journalists. And you have the ineffable boredom, I dare say, of attendance at all sorts of official events, and having to talk, endlessly, to people who have read nothing apart from government briefing papers for decades. Poet Laureate is not a tempting job.

In their different ways, however, the last three Poets Laureate have been great successes, and I never understand how anyone can say that the role is outdated or ridiculous. John Betjeman, who was Poet Laureate from 1972, was both a great popular poet, and one of the first writers to perceive the possibilities of television. His poetry, well-crafted and highly distinctive, achieved best-seller status in an age when poetry was not supposed to appeal beyond a small coterie; his television appearances gave him a public profile beyond anything previous generations could have envisaged.

Ted Hughes was simply a great poet, who wrote some of his best poetry after being appointed Laureate. It was supposed to be impossible to write great poetry on royal, public subjects; Hughes ignored that, and some of his occasional poetry on royal weddings and christenings is overwhelming – "Rain-Charm for the Duchy", on the birth of Prince Harry, is one of the great nature poems of the century.

Andrew Motion, too, has been a great success, convincingly parlaying the role away from Hughes's national shaman-mystic role, and towards a public role in communities. He has been tireless in promoting literature at the highest levels in schools, festivals, universities, and other literary forums. You might call it a Blairite mission, except that Motion has been very firm about upholding notions of literary quality, and recommending some very demanding books to some surprising audiences. He has effectively stood out against the precipitous lowering of standards in schools in the past 10 years.

These are very different interpretations of the historic role, each successful in their different ways. I wonder what Carol Ann Duffy is going to make of it. Her appointment has been billed, in advance, as a great break with tradition, in that she is not only a woman, but lesbian, too. Her career, like many poets nowadays, is largely built upon the fact that she is widely taught in schools – her perceived rival for the post, Simon Armitage, has had very much the same career. There is an expectation that the outreach and educational aspects of the role pioneered by Motion will continue seamlessly. Despite surface differences, I think this is an appointment of safe continuity.

It would have been wonderfully bold to have appointed a poet whose linguistic accomplishments alone have raised him or her to the first rank – personally, I think Don Paterson would have been a wonderful appointment. The quality of the poetry ought to be sufficient reason to make an appointment. How wonderful of the Victorians to appoint Tennyson at the peak of his powers! And what a mistake to overlook Auden, when the opportunity arose.

Still, Carol Ann Duffy is a good poet who takes her public role seriously. Her intervention when a foolish examiner sought to remove a knife-crime poem of hers from the syllabus last year was very useful. She has, however, a tough act or three to follow. At a moment when literary values seem not so much under question as largely dismissed and forgotten, the appointment of a Poet Laureate is a long way from the drowsy sinecure it once was.

Let's celebrate achievements of all disabled people

No one could fail to be moved by the ongoing marathon of Phil Packer. An army major crippled by a rocket attack on a base in Iraq, he was told in the first stages of his treatment that he would never walk again. Last Sunday, he embarked on the London Marathon, walking two miles a day on crutches. He has reached the halfway stage by now.

A physical struggle like this is immensely impressive, as are the spectacular feats of the Special Olympics. I wish that, as well as the achievements of physically disabled people, some way could be found to express admiration for academic achievement by the mentally disabled.

When some people learn to read and write, it is surely an achievement as immense and laudable as Major Packer's extraordinary determination to get round the 26 miles. When a stroke victim learns not just to walk, but to talk again, the effort can be colossal, and we should justly call it heroic.

In such cases, however, the marvelling stops at the person's immediate carers and family. We don't hear enough about the ordinary struggles, the ordinary and hard-won achievements that take place constantly in hospitals and behind bedroom doors.

BNP promotes the 'benifits' of good grammar

This is a disconcerting one. The British National Party, having some slightly worrying success on social networking websites, has apparently urged its members to "use proper spelling and grammar". Could this be a response to a worrying trend of political spin-masters to misspell their online contributions to imitate members of the "ordinary public"? Or could it, much more frighteningly, display a belief that correct spelling and grammar chime much better with the BNP's core values?

I do hope not. Correct spelling and grammar belong to no racial group and no social class. More immigrants have been helped by their mastery of, and contribution to, the language than through any other cause. If the French have the "Academie Française" to guard their language, we don't have an authority; and if we did, I'm very sure we wouldn't want it to be the wretched BNP. In any case, they have a long way to go educating their half- witted supporters in the correct use of the English language. I notice that today on their online message board, a supporter calling himself "Caractacus" writes that "The scrounger will vote Labour to keep their free housing and benifits, the Gurkha's are honerable people."