Sir Andrew Motion tells John Hinton why he delights in his new role as the guardian of rural England and explains how it brings together aspects of his private, public and professional life
SIR ANDREW MOTION, former poet laureate and considerable man of letters, believes his recent ascension to the presidency of the Campaign to Protect Rural England gives him an opportunity to make things happen. For during his year in office — whatever his many other commitments — he will be campaigning hard.
‘I readily accepted the position because campaigning is on the tin,’ he says. He aims to put his shoulder to a number of wheels — from wind farms to the utilisation of brownfield sites — but his core message, as a vigorous and influential 59-year-old, will be ‘getting young people out and into nature’.
One gets the feeling with Motion, who is well over six foot and has a natural warmth and air of authority, that he is up for any question. An interview is more like a meeting of minds; his eyes meet yours without a flicker of self-consciousness. He may have successfully channelled most of his time and ambition into literature, yet his passion for literature goes hand in hand with his love of nature.
Before deciding to become a writer, he wanted to join the RSPB or the Forestry Commission. Now, as president of the CPRE, he is relishing a chance to flex his muscles for the countryside, the inspiration for so much outstanding poetry — including his own.
His love of nature was encouraged at any early age by his parents at their home in the Essex countryside. His passion for poetry and literature began later at Radley College, when, aged sixteen and without any previous enthusiasm for the subject, a new English teacher introduced him to Thomas Hardy and his masterful poem which begins: ‘I look into my glass…’
‘It was like a light going on,’ he says. ‘I suddenly thought to myself: could I do that?’ He surely could. His ‘gods’ are Shakespeare and Wordsworth and also include many modern writers, among them Philip Larkin.
What he describes ‘as a defining moment in my life’ came at the age of seventeen, when his mother fell from a horse which left her totally incapacitated and in and out of a coma for the next nine years until her death. ‘It was the year before I went to Oxford University and it gave me and my younger brother a real sense of mortality.’ On going up to Oxford, the shadows caused by this deepened, and at the end of his first year he had a nervous breakdown.
Granted a year’s sabbatical from lectures, he ‘soaked up all the literary works I could, including Tolstoy and the Russian giants and all the greatest English poets, including Grey, Housman, De La Mare and Wordsworth’. His vocation was clear from then on and after Oxford he taught at Hull University, where he published his first volume of poetry and became a friend of Larkin, whose biography he was to write following the poet’s death in 1985.
Pictured above: Sir Andrew Motion, new president of the CPRE
Neither of his parents was a reader. ‘My father, who died six years ago, only read half a book in his life. His interests were purely country pursuits — fishing, shooting and bird watching — and he could name everything in our local habitat. He commuted to London during the week but never liked the city and lived for his weekends in the country. He was a very silent man and although he fought in the war, from D-Day to the Falaise Gap right to the end, only on one occasion would he ever talk about it. So ours was an ordinary middle-class English life with no interest in literature or self-expression.’
Motion realises the countryside is not a dream and that it can indeed be dangerous territory. ‘From being chased by a herd of cows to being bitten by a rabid fox or falling from a cliffside path to the sea below, there is that level of danger and this is something that Wordsworth is absolutely brilliant at — the shudder of feeling very small in the face of something very big. You look at the night sky and think, “I am nothing; I am here for an infinitely small time.” But in a funny sort of way, all this adds to our sense of what beauty is.’
THE INVITATION TO become CPRE president was especially welcome for Motion because it came after his four frustrating years as chairman of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, a quango under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The last two years were spent winding it down, a slow execution which made him very angry and for which he blames people in the department. ‘But the trouble is when you are working with a quasi-governmental body, you can’t start climbing on the barricades.’
In complete contrast, the CPRE offered freedom from bureaucracy. ‘In all sincerity, the day the letter arrived asking me to do this was a real red-letter day in my life. It is completely wonderful because it pulls together so many things I’m interested in. It reconciles my childhood and my late middle age. It reconciles my intellectual intentions with what happens in my heart. And it allows me to carry on a conversation with my parents, whom I still keep in touch with all the time.’
Still, he did pause and ask himself before replying in the affirmative: what would he do as president, and would it be useful? ‘Like Bill Bryson, who I’m succeeding, I’m interested in combining my life as a writer with the things I consider important, so the chance of shifting to the CPRE was tantalising. When issues come up like wind farms, I feel up for being a speaker on that and other matters as someone with a deep love of the countryside since childhood.’
He is more confident about the English countryside than most. ‘I think it is in better nick than many people imagine. I don’t have an instant revulsion to wind farms as some people have against nuclear power stations, but perhaps there should be a mix of resources available.
‘One immediate campaign springs to mind — to call for better use of brownfield sites in country towns where many of these are available. Let’s make as much use as we can of existing buildings instead of just building more.’
Pictured above: Pages from Spear’s Save Britain’s Historic Landscape Campaign
As a churchgoer himself, he would like to make more use of parish churches, many of them beautiful pre-Reformation churches at the heart of every village. Without usurping their religious function, many could be adapted for wider use by local communities, following the lead already taken by Sir Roy Strong, former director of the V&A.
MOTION IS DEFINITE on the indefinite nature of his craft. ‘Writing poetry is never easy because while novels clearly have a beginning, middle and end, it is not that clear cut with poetry. Here, we walk a tightrope between one side of the brain and the other — the side that knows what it’s doing and the bubbly side that doesn’t know quite what’s going on, which is pure and simple imagination. Craft can bring these two sides together but you have to mix them carefully, otherwise the work can be too efficient and cold, or on the other hand too bubbly and vague.’
He loves teaching and is also kept busy running his own online poetry archive. And then there is his own writing to consider. ‘The great tussle is to keep all this in balance,’ he says, smiling ruefully. ‘Actually, I think I’ve found a solution to it, which is to get up at 5.30 in the morning and do about three hours’ writing.’ He is working on a follow-up to his novel, Silver, a tribute to Treasure Island, and ensures there is also always enough time, also in the early morning hours, for writing poetry.
‘Much of the rest of the day can then be spent doing other things. The downside is that I usually go to bed quite early, which doesn’t always meet with my wife’s approval.’
However, he seems happy and settled with his new wife, Kyeong-Soo, a Korean-American who accompanies him on all his travels. He was alone for five years following the break-up of his previous marriage and likes nothing more than showing his new bride of two years the world as he sees it — as well as the literature which runs through it.