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Former Poet Laureate heads for the Customs House

Sir Andrew Motion will read from The Customs House at... the Customs House in South Shields

Stuart Leech Sir Andrew Motion
Sir Andrew Motion

Grass does not grow under Sir Andrew Motion’s feet, which might sound an unfortunate quality in a president of the Campaign for Rural England.

But what I mean is that the man is always on the move. If he has never been nicknamed ‘Perpetual’, I’d be surprised.

He was Poet Laureate for 10 years but jobs stick to him like burrs. As well as speaking up for the countryside, he is a professor of creative writing, chairman of the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council and a council member of the Advertising Standards Authority.

He writes novels, following up Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and he’s currently on tour promoting his latest collection of poems, The Customs House, which is why I have 10 minutes on the phone with him before he has to dash.

Where to start? Well, Sir Andrew (he was knighted in 2009 on relinquishing his Laureate duties, which saw him writing in honour of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles) will be talking about The Customs House on Friday at... the Customs House in South Shields.

A coincidence, surely?

“Well, yes,” comes the reply, soft and patient.

“The customs house I’m thinking about in my book is in a painting by Henri Rousseau.”

He likes writing about pictures, he explains, “looking at them and thinking: what does it mean to me?”

The Rousseau painting of the place where duties were charged on imported goods had turned his thoughts to the afterlife. “You have to give up everything to get there, as far as we know.”

The afterlife must have been on Sir Andrew’s mind for quite some time. The Customs House is only the title poem of a collection divided into three sections, of which the first is devoted to war poems.

Some of them, their author confides, are being set to music as the text of a new war requiem to be performed next year by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Next year’s 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is “a happy/unhappy coincidence” as far as his writing is concerned.

Sir Andrew says it was during the last two years of his Laureateship, “when I was being jerked around by what I had to do”, that he had started writing war poems.

“I think it was mainly to do with the fact that my father had recently died. He fought in the war and then stayed in the Army so all my early memories of him are in uniform.”

Some of the most moving poems in The Customs House recall a trip they took to Normandy, where the older man tried to trace his D-Day footsteps and they visited the grave of Keith Douglas, a young poet killed in the Second World War.

Sir Andrew, who turns 61 this month, says he has always been conscious of being one of a lucky generation who have never had to fight for King/Queen and Country. He sounds almost regretful. There’s a poem in the new book about Harry Patch, the last surviving First World War ‘Tommy’ whom Sir Andrew befriended and wrote about at length.

At university, he says, “about a thousand years ago”, he wrote his thesis on the poet Edward Thomas (killed in action the day he arrived in France in 1917).

“I don’t want to sound gloopy but there’s a sense in which I’m in love with them, with (Wilfred) Owen and Douglas and Thomas. I feel very close to them.”

War, as for many other people, is a source of fascination, perhaps tinged with the guilt of the ‘lucky’, post-conscription generations.

One of Sir Andrew’s legacies as Poet Laureate is the Poetry Archive where you can hear poets reading their work aloud. Before he dashes off he mentions another campaign, Poetry By Heart, which is a national competition designed to encourage youngsters aged 14 to 18 to learn and recite poems by heart.

Pupils can choose from an anthology covering 600 years of poetry.

You will find the timeline on the website www.poetrybyheart.org.uk and even if you aren’t eligible to enter, you will find it fascinating. Sir Andrew’s talk in South Shields on Friday starts at 7.45pm. For tickets tel. 0191 454 1234.

He will also give a reading at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham, on November 29.

This coincides with the presentation of the Basil Bunting Poetry Awards, of which he was a judge.

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