A plea to the Poet Laureate

`We shared a taxi, / back to Euston. / His coat was gorgeous. / Aquascutum!' Andrew Motion wants to bring poetry to the people. But what would he say to the collected works of a certain Ms D Ross?

Deborah Ross
Sunday 10 October 1999 23:00

I MET the Poet Laureate the other day, and was sufficiently moved to write a poem myself to celebrate this momentous occasion:

I MET the Poet Laureate the other day, and was sufficiently moved to write a poem myself to celebrate this momentous occasion:

I went on a date with the Poet Laureatewhose name is Andrew Motion. He was very dishyand smelt really nice.Andy, great after-shave lotion!He talked about Larkin, Spenser >and Plath.I said: My favourite poem begins with`thirty days hath...' I added: It rhymesand helps you to rememberJust how many days are in September. He said: `Sorry, have to dash.There is this train that I must catch.' We shared a taxi, back to Euston.His coat was gorgeous.Aquascutum!

Isn't it wonderful the way poetry can skewer your heart in a way prose never can? I'm not sure, even, that I can usefully add anything to the above. It may be the distillation of all human experience. It says it all. Or would do, if it did. So perhaps a bit of prose is called for in this instance.

We meet, initially, at Broadcasting House; I'm not sure why. It may have something to do with the Radio 4 programme Poetry Please - as opposed to "Poetry No Thank You", which is still awaiting a suitable slot. However, we are led into a corporate meeting-room of such superb soullessness that we leave as soon as is seemly - almost immediately - for the hotel over the road. "Fancy a drink, Andrew?" "Yes," he replies enthusiastically. So over we go, to the bar at the Langham Hilton.

Here, Mr Motion asks the waiter: "Might we get a drink?" Might we get a drink? What kind of wishy-washy, humble nonsense is this, Mr Motion? You are the Poet Laureate! You should roar: "I am the Poet Laureate and, as such, demand the best table in the house." Where's the Michael Winner in you?

Andrew is not un-egotistical. He says, later, that October is his favourite month because there is a succession of birthdays that goes "Evelyn Waugh, Dylan Thomas, me, Sylvia Plath, John Keats..." Still, he is also rather shy and blushes easily. He blushes now. Then says, meekly: "I am not Michael Winner." Michael Winner, I've since discovered, was born in October too. A revised list would have to read: "Waugh, Thomas, him, Plath, Keats, Winner." This doesn't sound as impressive, I know.

He orders Guinness. I order wine. He is extremely tall (six foot one) and, yes, extremely dishy. He is also extremely dapper. The gorgeous, soft, navy, full-length coat is, indeed, from Aquascutum. The suit is black and beautifully cut. His boots are lace-ups made, I suspect, from Italian leather. He adores clothes, and adores clothes shopping. "If only I had more lolly," he sighs. Many have found his worldliness to be rather off-putting. Certainly, he took a lot of flak when, after Ted Hughes's death, he was appointed Laureate in May. "A mediocre poet for a mediocre Prime Minister," said some. "The safe option, rather than the right option, which would have been Seamus Heaney," said others. I think, however, that a lot may be to do with a kind of inverse snobbery. I think, on the whole, we like our poets to be ethereal, half-loony and poor. Preferably, even, they should have died of consumption at not much past 24. (Look at that! I've just written another poem! I'm so productive it's not true!)

However, Andrew - who is 46 until his birthday, just after Thomas's, and just before Plath's, on the 25th of this month, when he'll be 47 - lives with his wife (Jan Dalley, literary editor of the Financial Times) and their three children in a big house in Tufnell Park, north London. She likes clothes, too, and he likes to take her shopping. He recently bought her a "pink suit thing". But, no, he won't tell me where it was from, because the shop "is very expensive". He is keen on beer and good wine, which he drinks quite a lot of. "I don't get sozzled, or fall down, but, most nights, I do go to bed quite drink-logged." Plus he's not exactly half-mad or non-mainstream. He is an award-winning biographer - the musician Constant Lambert and his family, Philip Larkin, Keats. He has worked as a senior editor at Chatto & Windus. He has taught at St Anne's College, Oxford, and Hull University (where he met Larkin). He is now professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. He is on the literature panel of the Arts Council. He likes, on the telly, NYPD Blue and Inspector Morse. This does make him very Establishment. But does it also make him any less of a poet?

Maybe. Maybe not. His poem about Diana's death seemed to do the job - "Diana, breathless, hunted by/ your own quick hounds." I like his poem "Look" which, I think, describes seeing an ultrasound scan of his unborn twins, and goes: "...out of their capsule/ in mooning blue/ their dawdler's legs/ kicking though silence/ enormously slowly..." Still, I tell him, I do sometimes feel sorry for the words that end up in poems. I mean they've probably planned an easy morning watching Richard and Judy and flicking though Hello!, but what happens? A poet comes along and squeezes them so hard for meaning that it hurts. Are any words safe? He thinks maybe "lovely" is, because "it's just such a nothing sort of word." He doesn't think "stinking hellebores" has much to worry about. (Obviously, he is not familiar with my great narrative poem, entitled "Lovely Stinking Hellebores Can Take Your Mind Off Household Chores", which is something of a shame.)

He is, he says, very into "mercury". He likes what it does. He likes the fact that "moonlight on the grass looks like mercury." He may be almost as poetic as me.

Certainly, he is keen to make his Laureateship mean something. He says past Laureates have been mostly content to "wrap the laurels around themselves and sit around". When he was appointed, the Queen and Prime Minister said he didn't have to do anything - the title is more an honour than a job - but is keen, for example, to encourage more and better teaching of poetry in schools and, to this end, has already met Blunkett to discuss "the role of poetry in the national curriculum". He recently, he says, gave a talk to a group of five-year-olds at the school in the village he grew up in. It was quite scary - "like looking into the barrel of a shotgun" - but very rewarding. He read them a poem with the word "bottom" in, so, of course, they enjoyed it enormously. I'm afraid I ask him if he might consider coming to talk at my son's primary school for an hour or so one day? He says, absolutely, "so long as you don't take the piss out of me". I say, if I half take the piss out of you, will you come for half an hour? He quite enjoys being teased. He smiles and says it's a deal. He has the most beautiful smile. His smiles don't come often; you have to earn them. But they are worth the earning. I may be quite smitten. In other circumstances, I think we could have become the Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett of our time.

Mostly, though, he wants to bring poetry to the masses. Indeed, this week he'll even be at The Bread & Roses Pub in Clapham to discuss his own "manifesto", which calls for "a greater role for poetry in British public life." He has already written a poem for the TUC, and one to commemorate the Wessexes' wedding. I ask, how can you write a poem to order? Isn't it rather like telling a pregnant woman she has to give birth to a red- headed child? He agrees that, yes, it is. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But it is important to give it a go."To make poetry more visible in our personal lives," he says, "it must be adequate to describe what happens in our national lives." He is currently writing a poem about the Paddington train crash. Why? Because, he says, like most others, "I just felt immensely moved by it." How, I ask, do you start on such a poem? With a particular word? Or with some visualisation you try to describe? He says the latter. "I think about the people getting the 06.05 from Kemble. The businessman who hasn't kissed his kids goodbye. Maybe he's pissed off with them. Maybe they're not up yet. He hasn't kissed his wife good-bye, either... and the next thing they know, he does not exist any more."

I ask him when he first discovered that words could be put together to powerful effect? He says it was when he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, and was living in a rented room at the top of a house, and wrote his first ever poem: " `In The Attic', which was about my mother's clothes. I wasn't thinking about my mother's clothes. I'd been reading some poems by Ted [Hughes]. I was reading the poem `Song' which ends with `Oh, my lady...' I wrote `In The Attic' in about 30 seconds." The poem opens with: "Even though we know now/ your clothes will never/ be needed, we keep them/ upstairs in a locked trunk..." It is one of several very moving poems he has written about his mother, and her death. Her death was, yes, what made him a poet.

He was born into a fairly prosperous household on the Suffolk-Essex border. His great grandfather had founded the Taylor Walker brewing empire. His father, Richard, was a brewer, too, although when his time came the empire was no more. He worked, instead, for Ind Coope, "at a desk, adding things up". Andrew's mother, Gilly, was a country lady - "beautiful, thin and elegant" - who adored her sons (Andrew has a brother) and rode to hounds until, one day, when Andrew was 16, she fell off her horse, lost her hat, and hit her head on concrete. She was rushed, unconscious, to hospital, where emergency surgery was performed to remove a blood clot. However, when she was operated on, "a piece of her brain also came away". She was in a coma for three years, partially recovered such that she was, Andrew thinks, aware of what was going on for seven years, then died 10 years after the accident, without ever having left the hospital. Andrew thinks she died "of a broken heart, because she knew she couldn't have her life back". He still, he says, thinks about her all the time. And your father? `He is a saint. He behaved impeccably throughout, visited her every single night..."

He says he doesn't have any memories of his mother prior to the accident. Except for one. That is her sitting at her dressing-table. It is a kidney- shaped dressing-table, with family photographs fixed under the glass top. On the dressing table is an open copy of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Andrew snatches it. She snatches it back, crying: "You're not ready for that yet!" I ask him why he can't remember anything else. He says perhaps it was because he was happy, and, "as Larkin once said: `Happiness writes white.'"

He adores Larkin who, he says, is possibly "the finest expository lyric poet". Still, his all-time favourite is Keats - "for his letters as much as his poems." But he doesn't get on with Wallace Stevens - "I just can't hear it" - or Edmund Spenser. "I used to think he was the bee's knees, but now I find it's like getting lost in a greenhouse, with leaves brushing all over you." Don't we all, I empathise.

Anyway, we drink up. He is off to Chester to do a poetry reading and he truly does have a train to catch. We share a taxi to Euston. I watch him go off, in his gorgeous coat. I am moved, even to write another poem, one I think I shall call: "A Plea to the Poet Laureate":

Euston!Aquascutum!Not an especially brilliantrhyme. Considering I may be one ofthe greatest poets of ourtime!Next time we meetcould you please wear Hugo Boss?And ask, perhaps, to be dropped at King's Cross?*

*All the above poems could have been found in `The Collected Verse of Ms D Ross', had anyone ever bothered to collect them. Funnily enough though, they haven't

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