By Jeremy Miles
The evening had been billed as a chance to hear the former Poet Laureate reading from ‘The Cinder Path’ - his recent collection of war poems - but Andrew Motion was about to deliver much more than that.
In addition to some superbly sad and knowing pieces about 20th century conflicts - works inspired by the human-cost of battles that have wrought misery and death from World War I to Afghanistan - Motion also talked about his early years, his parents and his recent marriage to Korean translator Kyeong-Soo Kim.
We were treated to poems about everything from elegies to good friends and brave soldiers lost, to mowing the lawn and the fact that his father didn’t like small-talk, possibly because he had once bitten off his own tongue in a childhood accident.
Some of the personal information was quite surprising. Who’d have thought that Andrew Motion would count Simon Cowell among his friends? Other revelations were more predictable. Like his assertion that his recent recruitment as creative writing teacher at Jamie Oliver’s TV Dream School had been a big mistake.
He described the project as ”Well intentioned but seriously ill-conceived”, admitting that after a single session trying to teach 20 disruptive youngsters he went home and burst into tears.
For a heavyweight literary practitioner used to teaching at MA level and moving in intellectually enlightened circles, being confronted by raw aggression, anger and, worst of all, contempt in the classroom came as a big shock. In the poet’s world such emotions are harnessed in poems. You fix them by putting them on paper. You turn them from negative to positive.The class Jamie had given him had supposedly been failed by the system. In fact they were out of control, beyond the reach of reason.
“I’ve taught for 30 years and never had to keep order. I’ve never had to raise my voice.” said Motion. “They didn’t need someone like me. They needed serious professional help.”
His chum Cowell apparently had his own solution “Tell them to shut the fuck up” he had advised. Motion, a man of words, seemed to find even the task of relaying this information embarrassing.
No sooner had the second hand profanity left his lips than his face turned the colour of his beautifully crafted ox-blood shoes.
Intriguingly footwear featured heavily in his readings. He remembered buffing his father’s army boots, the strikingly designed shoes his wife was wearing when he first met her and the day the girl sitting next to him at primary school had wet herself leaving his sensible lace-ups paddling in a little pool of pee.
Question and answer time found a perceptive member of the audience quizzing him about this apparent fixation. Motion blushed again and shrugged it off, saying that it was probably because he was someone who had always looked down. His earliest memories, he said, were of his father telling him to “sit-up straight” or “stand-up”, something he had never really achieved.
In truth it wasn’t really an adequate answer but one can understand that the one-time Poet Laureate, writer by appointment to the Queen, has no wish to become known as some kind foot fetishist. The last person who moved in Royal circles and was famous for having a serious “shoe-thing” was probably Prince Charming and his life is nothing more than an endless pantomime.
It’s unlikely that the tabloid media would dub the gentle poet with such a kindly soubriquet. After all it’s only a few short years ago that, having discovered that he had had an affair with a younger woman, that the Daily Mail gleefully called him Pelvic Motion. I can’t imagine how embarrassed he must have been.
Motion indicates that his 10 years as Poet Laureate (1999 - 2009) was not a particularly enjoyable experience. Although the Queen reportedly told him that he didn’t have to write a word, that he could accept the title, take the £5,000-a-year and butt-sack of sherry that came with it and do nothing, he felt he had a duty to mark public events.
The trouble was he hated writing to order and ended up unable to write anything at all. He might as well have drunk the butt-sack, about 700 bottles, that would have achieved the same thing. The last two years of his laureateship found him creatively paralysed by writers block.
“I thought the poetry had gone,” he says. Happily that problem is now resolved. A series of events, including the death of his father and meeting Kyeong-Soo Kim, unlocked the muse. In the past two years Motion says he has written more than he did in the previous decade.
His work is exemplary. Much of it is quite dark but it’s wonderfully perceptive and quietly rhythmic.There is also plenty of humour though Motion thinks of this as being “a little bit wry”.
He certainly isn’t averse to crazy flights of imagination like the poem which recalls a dream in which his beloved William Wordsworth was rattling around the Lake District in a white van moonlighting as a plumber.
The only time,” says Andrew Motion, “that I have woken myself up laughing.”