The New Statesman Interview - Andrew Motion

He has expensive tastes and sends his children to public schools, but he gets more left-wing as he g

On meeting Andrew Motion for the first time, the Prime Minister alluded to the new Poet Laureate's off-message stance. "I have read that you are getting more left-wing as you get older. Tell me about it," he said. Motion, at 46, is slightly longer in the tooth than Tony Blair. "Give it time," he advised him. Then, pleased both with his bon mot and his warm reception, he went off to see the Queen.

"I said I would try and write poems for occasions which had to do with her family - but that these things are slightly unpredictable, so I couldn't exactly promise." Her Majesty, possibly alarmed by the spectre of ode-free nuptials for Edward and Sophie, made a point of stressing the affinity between the Queen Mother and Ted Hughes; always guaranteed to come up with the goods and never, unlike his successor, open to charges of closet republicanism.

Despite any differences in outlook, Motion found his audience with the Queen "delightful" - an oasis in a month low on delights. First his appointment was prematurely leaked to the Times, supposedly by a Downing Street source piqued that the Telegraph had revealed Carol Hughes's unease over Blair's wish for a "people's poet". Then came the insults. The choice of Motion ("minor, obscure, conservative") was variously lambasted ("an insult to the country's intelligence", "a bag of shite").

He was not wholly surprised. "I thought Downing Street would leak it. They leak everything else. I've had a letter from Alastair Campbell, saying, 'It wasn't me, guv'. But somebody did it. Then, because one paper got hold of the story, the rest got pissed off with the Times and with me." Surely Motion was a target less of press turf wars than the vitriol of his own, mostly anonymous, colleagues? "The poetry world is a snake-pit. That is nothing new. When Tennyson was appointed, there was a storm about why it wasn't Elizabeth Barrett Browning." But unlike Browning, Carol Ann Duffy protested that her rival's choice demonstrated "a shameful failure of integrity and imagination". Motion, who has been stressing how friendly he and Duffy are, changes tack. "I have to say that isn't what I would have said if she had been appointed," he says acidly.

Among the slurs against Motion, innocuousness is high on the charge sheet. And there is, at first, a marshmallow quality about him; not blandness, exactly, but the instant chumminess of a man who is able to charm and wishes to be liked. He phoned several times before our interview to revise timing and venue (my house, because his was full of literary types meeting his wife, the literary editor Jan Dalley). "It's Andrew," he announced on the first call. By the end he would simply say "Hi, it's me," as if we had been friends for years.

The genuinely nice manner and mellifluous voice disguise, I suspect, a harder character. He has an odd way of staring out of the corner of his eyes which both evokes his past as a cowed and bullied prep-school boy and suggests that he learnt, long ago, to hit back. There are hints that, in the snake-pit of poetry, Motion can be as snaky as the rest. Certainly he is unexpectedly acerbic about some fellow-slitherers in the literary world.

When we talk about his two "not very good" novels, he says: "I wrote them to make some money and leave my job [as poetry editor at Chatto]. It was killing me slowly." When we discuss his forthcoming fictionalised biography (of an obscure 19th-century character called Thomas Wainewright), I remark that Peter Ackroyd invented that genre in his life of Dickens. His reply - "It's about a thousand miles beyond Ackroyd" - implies a qualitative rather than a quantitative measure.

Although he is not short of admirers, Motion may need his toughness for now as armour against odium and, for the rest of his ten-year tenure, as protection against perceived gaffes. An interview for the literary review The Printer's Devil, which he gave last January, has already provoked a fuss about whether a lukewarm monarchist and a Labour Party member who doesn't think Blair left-wing enough is suitable Laureate material.

On both points he is unrepentant. "I don't think you have to be goofily, uncritically, sentimentally monarchist, but for a lot of people there is a time-honoured thing there. I am a vigilant monarchist. I want to see things evolve. The direction the monarchy seems to be moving in - towards a more mainland-European model - is one I would feel sympathetic about."

So the British monarchy should be slimmed down? "Definitely. And I think they believe that themselves. I also think that in me they will have someone who will do an equivalently modernising job. If I were completely old-style, that could look anachronistic."

His first test will be the Edward and Sophie poem, due on 19 June; a task that Motion - hardly an off-the-peg versifier - seems to regard with little relish. "No, I don't mind writing it . . . well, I might. This wedding is very badly timed," he grumbles. "It comes far too soon after the fuss about my appointment. I shall try to write a poem that is about the moment but doesn't betray things that are true to me as a poet. The best public poems aren't necessarily those that go at the subject like a bull at a gate."

Taking Keats' tenet (we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us) as his text, Motion favours a refractive approach. As a commentator, he is less oblique; unrefractively scathing about Blair's Kosovar war. "The bombing was a terrible mistake. The disparity between intention and effect is so enormous. And to start bombing without relief mechanisms in place was absolutely mind- boggling. Quite astounding, deplorable and shameful."

Is new Labour in general a great disappointment? "In some respects, although they are doing quite a lot I approve of. But if they are worried about losing their middle-class support, that is pathetic. They should put their voices where their hearts are. And what are they doing about the NHS? Not nearly enough."

Then there is education. In public, Motion - professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia - is upbeat and eager to use his Laureateship to foster poetry teaching. He will shortly be meeting David Blunkett to talk tactics, and he plans to produce a vast new anthology for use in schools. In private, he is gloomier.

His older son, aged 12, goes to Highgate School, and his 11-year-old twins - still at state primary school - will also move to the private sector. The Poet Laureate's lament is a ballad familiar to the Islington middle classes. "If I were Genghis Khan, I would abolish private education tonight. But, in voting for my children, I have only done what Tony Blair has done. I see no distinction. It will sound pious, but I hate having to do it. We are buying for our children a chance for them to know what their options are - up to the age of 15. Then the money will run out. We've costed it carefully."

Money is a theme of Motion's best poem, "Lines of Desire", and - inevitably - of his biography of Keats, in which he noted: "His poems sold badly, and his publisher concluded that 'the world cared nothing for him'." Motion's eagerness for the Laureate job - a cupidity suggesting, to his green-eyed critics, a beagle after a bone - has not quite been satisfactorily explained.

Could it be, I ask indelicately, that he considered the post and its attendant status a nice little earner? Motion says, naturally, that he was not desperate to get it. Nor does he know what he will earn beyond his £5,000 honorarium. But he does not dismiss the lure of cash. "I lie awake at night worrying about money. I have expensive habits - drink mainly. Not nice wine; just a lot of it. I like eating out. I like buying beautiful paintings and being surrounded by beautiful things. I have to finance that life. I can barely afford a pension scheme because I don't make enough money. So what am I going to do at 60, when I'm hopelessly out of fashion and no longer Poet Laureate and too tired and too sozzled to write?"

To dispel the gloom over this (relative) impecuniousness, I ask him where he puts himself in the pantheon of great poets. "I know who I'd like to be with when I am dead - Housman, Hardy and, particularly, Edward Thomas." While such comparisons may, as he admits, sound hubristic, any of the aforementioned might admire Motion's eclecticism.

He would like to write Bob Dylan's biography. He will remain on the Arts Council, sloughing off criticism that he is a dull committee-server. ("I've always been interested in changing things. Sitting on the Arts Council is one of the most thankless things you can do. You are living very close to the fan and the pile of shit.") He will broaden the Laureate remit.

In addition, Motion, a noted solipsist, will continue exploring his life and past; the starting point of all his poetry. If his critics scrutinise his background - Radley, Oxford, middle-class privilege - then so does he. "My poems are alert to their social conditioning. What does it even mean to have a mother who brains herself [as Motion's mother, Gilly, did] in a riding accident? That has a class connotation. Is that little bit of society extinct or will it mutate?"

I doubt if Motion - for all his professed left-wingery - has mutated much. But the issue is not whether he is too tame for his establishment post or too radical. The question is whether such an inward-looking man can square his "real identity" with the populism required of a punters' poet. A royal wedding looms. We shall see.

Mary Riddell's "The Duchess of Kent: the troubled life of Katharine Worsley" is newly published by Sidgwick & Jackson, price £17.99

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote