The first time I “saw” the Queen I don’t think I actually laid eyes on her. I conjured her out of shadows and hope. I was seven years old, and my mother had taken me to stand among a little knot of locals outside a pub called the Four Ashes in Takeley, Essex, near where we lived: she must have heard that a royal visit of some kind was taking place nearby, and wanted to give a loyal wave. I remember waiting in weak sunlight, watching the ordinary traffic zoom past; it was exciting and boring at the same time. Then a very odd-looking vehicle came gliding into view. Upright, old-fashioned and extremely shiny – with a flag fluttering on a little prong sticking up above the radiator grille. Like a cross between a hearse and a tank. When the driver saw us waiting outside the pub, he slowed down. The crowd cheered. My mother lifted me up. I peered through the back window, where I knew the Queen must be sitting. Was that a hat and a pale gloved hand? I couldn’t be sure, and it was too late for a second look. The hearse-tank was already sliding off into the distance.
I told the Queen about this non-encounter the next time I saw her – and saw her properly on this occasion – which was at Buckingham Palace forty years later in 1999, soon after I was appointed Poet Laureate. I meant it to be a shorthand way of telling her where I stood on matters regal. My parents were not monarchists of the extravagant kind, but utterly respectful of the Queen and the traditions they felt she embodied. My father (who remained in the Territorial Army for a long time after the war) had fought for her and country; my mother, who had lost her own father while still a girl, often said she “knew how the Queen must feel”, following the death of the King. For my own part: I felt respectful too. Respectful, honorable, nervous and interested. The Queen’s coronation had taken place the year after I was born. She had always been “there” in my life. I’d prayed for her every Sunday in church at school and at home for as long as I could remember. But I also felt determined to behave as normally as possible in her company. I was a poet, not a courtier.
As it turned out, remaining “normal” was pretty difficult. I was the first Laureate to do the job for a specific period of time (ten years), and therefore had no previous incumbent to quiz about protocol. But I’d arrived early for my 11 am appointment, and a flunky wearing the operetta version of a RAF uniform had given me the lowdown. Advance across the carpet when the double doors open and your name is announced. When you reach the Queen give a neck bow. Don’t shake hands unless she invites it. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to … By the time he’d finished I could barely remember how to put one leg in front of the other.
But I made it – even though the carpet seemed as wide as the Channel, and was queasy-making with swirling colours. And I managed the neck bow and the handshake OK. I also managed to look at her properly: the astonishingly clear and youthful-looking skin; the defiantly out-of-date hairdo; the good square clothes; the unflashy but still eye-popping pearl necklace. Then the Queen sat down in a comparatively comfy-looking chair, with a table at her elbow on which stood a little silver bell. (The thought crossed my mind that if she were to ring it, the Lord High Executioner would appear and chop off my head.) I perched on a breakable-feeling Frenchified number and – in response to her saying “Yis” a few times, for no reason I could see – told her my story about standing outside the Four Ashes.
She seemed to like that, and the conversation led quite naturally to how I might interpret the role of Laureate. I told her I wanted to do whatever I could encourage the teaching and writing of poetry in schools. She seemed to like that too, but went out of her way to tell me: “You don’t have to do anything”. I said that I’d like to do as much as I could, including writing a few poems for royal occasions, and added that I was conscious of how much her family had liked my predecessor, Ted Hughes. “Oh yes”, the Queen said, more glassily than I expected, “my mother was very fond of him.” I got the distinct impression she wouldn’t mind having a Laureate who concentrated on her own life and times. This, despite the fact that she insisted she didn’t have time to read poetry, because there were always so many state papers to get through.
After fifteen minutes of this the Queen did indeed ring her little bell. But no Executioner appeared – just the man in the extraordinary RAF uniform, bringing with him (as had previously been arranged) the Australian poet Les Murray, who had been recommended to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry shortly before Ted Hughes died. Les had evidently received the same basic training as me (carpet trek, neck bow, handshake) – and before he perched on his also very breakable-looking chair, the Queen gave him his medal. This rather beautiful object, made to a design created by Edmund Dulac, came in a finely tooled leather box. And when Les opened the box (as one would), the medal (as a medal would) popped out of its velvet retainer and fell onto the carpet. At this point I thought the spirit of Alan Bennett must have slipped into the room. Who should pick it up? The Queen? Certainly not. Why? He seemed reluctant. Me? Probably – I was the skivvy around here. But when I bent to retrieve it, Les – quite rightly deciding that it was his medal and he wanted to get his hands on it – swooped down and got there first. It was nothing, really, yet somehow deeply hilarious. I suppose because at least two of us – perhaps all three of us – were still pretty nervous. At any rate, when the fluster was over and we were all seated, the Queen turned to Les to begin his bit of chat, and said simply, “So: Orstralia”. He responded by flying into a headlong description of his native land and several of its creatures, including the duck-billed platypus, which successfully filled the rest of our time together.
After that I saw the Queen maybe one or twice a year for the rest of my decade as Laureate. Sometimes at functions (services at Westminster Abbey and Windsor), and more usually at Buckingham Palace, where I introduced whomever I had recommended for the Gold Medal. (I’d set up a small committee to help me make the choice, and we had our meetings in the Palace, and lunch there afterwards, but the others were never invited to the presentation.) We usually had a few minutes alone before the The medallist was ushered in, and the Queen invariably said the same thing: “I don’t have any time to read poetry.” I invariably said the same thing too-words to the effect that because she’d read at least one book by the medalist she was about to meet, it was probably the case that she read more poetry in a year than most of her subjects. She seemed amused by this idea, and apparently never tired of hearing me repeat it. She also liked meeting the poets: among them UA Fanthorpe, who arrived looking very smartly butch (the Queen never batted an eyelid); Edwin Morgan, whose politics made me surprised that he’d accepted the honor in the first place, and whose concrete poem “The Loch Ness Monster” (I was told on the quiet) had apparently raised the royal eyebrow; and Michael Longley, who got on with the Queen better than anyone else, partly because he had the good idea of bringing with him a photograph of his father receiving the Military Cross from the Queen’s father. “Oh yes”, she said, for once genuinely animated, “I know just where that is; round the back.” Before we left the Palace, she arranged for someone to take me and Michael to stand at the same spot. It was very moving.
Does all this mean I had a clear sense of what the Queen was “like”? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I could see she was sincere, kindly, modest, perhaps a little self-doubting when meeting people who didn’t share her particular interests. No in the sense that virtually all aspects of her behaviour, for reasons that are easy to understand, were a form of guardedness. One effect of this, and of the combination of all these things, was to create the impression that she found small talk difficult. Which in turn meant there was always a sense of strain in our conversations. As if we were always about to run out of things to say. But perhaps that was my fault. Perhaps my own awkwardness made her awkward. At the same time I got a strong sense that – despite her self-deprecating remarks about reading – she understood the value of having such a thing as a Poet Laureate. She agreed that poetry deserved to be represented at the heart of the country’s institutional life, without having to be itself institutional. She enjoyed acknowledging our incomparably rich poetic traditions (the country of Shakespeare and all that). She often enquired about my website the Poetry Archive, and the work I did with schoolchildren.
At the end of one such conversation I asked her whether she would be willing to arrange for the Palace to set up a children’s poetry competition to mark her Golden Jubilee. She liked the idea, and invited the winners to the Palace for the prizegiving: she said it was “good fun”, and it was. I also asked her to visit a school with me, and (as it were) give her blessing to the idea of such interventions. She agreed to this too, and once again seemed to enjoy herself – to enjoy doing something she hadn’t done before. If she noticed that one of the kids let off an extremely smelly stink bomb shortly before she entered the lobby of the school at the beginning of her visit, she kept quiet about it.
And the poems I wrote for her? She never asked for them and, as I say, insisted that I didn’t “have to do anything”. But she always liked it when I did, and told me so by sending a note, or having a word at whatever event the poem was connected with, or – most memorably – by mouthing “thank you” on her way up the aisle of Westminster Abbey to begin the Service of Thanksgiving for her Golden Jubilee. Nothing showy, in other words, and no accompanying invitations to Sandringham or wherever. But that suited me fine. I was honored to be her Laureate, but I didn’t want to feel ignobly obliged. When my ten years were up she gave me a signed photograph of herself and Prince Philip, whom I’d never met. We had no further contact after that.
Andrew Motion was Poet Laureate from 1999 until 2009
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