WHEN Hugh Haughton, Professor of English at the University of
York, heard that Sir Andrew Motion, his friend from undergraduate
days, had written a sequel, Silver, to Robert Louis
Stevenson's Treasure Island, he was worried.
To their mutual relief, however, Professor Haughton, a big
Stevenson fan, loved Silver, and remarked on something
that has given Motion pause for thought, and us a starting point
for our conversation.
"He said that, about three pages in, he realised that
Silver was entirely to do with what my work has always
been about, which was resurrection. You resurrect the original
story, and you resurrect some of the characters, and you try and
find a way of adapting it to make it live in the present.
"I think that there is apparently something in my way of being
that is very interested in locating certain things in the past - by
which I mean both exploring the continuities between things in my
present, and their relationship with things in the past - and also
finding out what it is in the past that I value."
If you have read Motion's memoir In the Blood, you will
recognise this impulse in the startling detail of a country
childhood, a bewildering boarding-school education, and his
mother's riding accident, which put her in a coma for much of his
adolescence, and from which she never recovered.
As he was raised in rural England by parents deeply connected to
the countryside, you can also see that he might care enough to take
over from Bill Bryson the presidency of the Campaign to Protect
Rural England (CPRE), as he did last June. This same urge to
reconnect with his childhood and rediscover its treasures also
motivated Motion - along with his wife, Kyeong-Soo Kim - to return
"I HAD started going again intermittently, because, as a child,
I went a lot, because that's what my parents did, and those were
the sorts of schools I went to. I just took what came, like kids
tend to do - we have the parents we have, and we have the schooling
"I'd been a few times, and I just got so exasperated by hearing
morons trivialise these profoundly interesting and important
things, and give sermons that they really should have been giving
in kindergarten. . . I knew if I was ever going to get any of this
stuff, I was going to get it through some sort of engagement with
the aesthetic. I knew that language would do a lot of the work in
and of itself."
On the advice of a fellow-poet and friend, Wendy Cope, he went
to St Paul's, Covent Garden, where, at that time, the Revd Mark
Oakley was Rector. "He's the best sermoniser I've ever heard,"
Motion says. "And he's funny, and he knows a lot, and he's
In 2008, after three years as the Archdeacon of Germany and
Northern Europe, Fr Oakley returned and was appointed
Priest-in-Charge of the Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair. Motion started
to attend there, enjoying the choir and the organist as well as the
preaching. But when, in 2012, Fr Oakley became a residentiary canon
at St Paul's Cathedral, he decided not to follow.
"I found it a hard place to worship in a regular way, because
it's so big. It's not cosy. It's magnificent, and it's very well
suited to great state things, but if you're like me, and you want
to sink down, it doesn't allow that to happen."
AFTER a pause, he says: "I have to tell you, I don't really
believe in God. I feel a bit of a fraud in some respects. I cannot
say the Creed. . . I do not think Jesus Christ was the Son of God;
I do not believe in the life everlasting. My interest, or whatever
the word is, is not to do with literal truths of that kind.
"What I go and do every week, what I feel very grateful to do -
well, there's all the sorrys for nonsenses you've made of your
life, trying to be better, all that kind of thing. That focusing I
value, but mainly what I do there is sit in a very emotionally
charged way, and think about the ways in which human beings have a
fathomless, topless, and bottomless appetite for devising
structures in which they can think about larger things than
themselves. And I find that incredibly touching.
"So my religion is not a God-down one, but a people-up one. But
that feeling of aspiration, and of gratitude for big shapes of
thought are incredibly, importantly, fed for me by beautiful music,
by beautiful words, by things which have been handed from mouth to
mouth, by hand to hand, and generation to generation."
I ask if his laureate legacy, the Poetry Archive - a scheme to
gather the recordings of poets reading their own work - was fuelled
by a similar sense of the need to preserve things of value for
"Indeed, while it might seem as though my life is a bit of a
mishmash of commitments now - Poetry Archive, teaching, writing and
the CPRE - actually, they all converge on the same point. . . It
has a great deal to do with childhood, and what I learned as a
child: feeling that my identity, my imagination, my sense of my
whole self, depends to a quite peculiar degree on feeling attuned
with natural things - that they are available to me and I am
available to them - thinking of myself as a member of a species
moving among other species."
And does he feel strongly that everyone should be able to
benefit from these things? In relation to both the Poetry Archive
and the CPRE, he talks about access.
"THAT is certainly true. I'm glad you've picked up on that,
because I do feel very democratically inclined about these things.
I said to them, very soon after I started at CPRE, that I wanted my
rock in the road to be about access, because I know the kids in
this street have no idea what the countryside is - they've never
been there. They don't know what there is to like; they don't know
what there is to protect, either.
"I think our appetite for these things, whether it's the
language of poetry, or our feeling of connection with the natural
things, the earth, is very, very primitive and fundamental, and, no
matter how urban we might be, and no matter how much schools might
have knocked our literary appetites out of us, they are
nevertheless very primitive.
"I think that's where language - language as manifested in the
Archive, and the language of speaking about nature - meets. Because
poetic language, whatever else it is, whatever else poetry is, is
metaphorical language, and metaphorical language, by its nature,
partakes of natural objects.
"Historically, this has been a much more obvious connection than
it is now, with the majority of us living in towns. Perhaps that
will change, but I suspect what will happen is that we find natural
things in urban settings become our clichés and recurring tropes,
our eternal truths, our touchstone phrases.
"It's not surprising to find that all those things,
historically, are things that partake of nature, because that's
where people lived. So, all the time, trying to establish what this
primitive appetite might be, this fundamental need might be, poetry
and it, poetry and wherever CPRE go, should go hand in
hand; or they do for me, and I suspect they do for the great
majority of people, whether they realise it or not."
TRYING, as a poet, to connect with, and articulate, these deep
feelings of connectedness did not sit easily with his position as
Poet Laureate. Motion has made no secret of the fact that it was
difficult, both creatively and personally.
"I felt so unhappy, most of my time as Laureate, for a
combination of reasons. Personally, everything in my life was in a
mess, and I felt crushed by guilt and anxiety during that time -
half crushed, anyway; but also as though I must courageously carry
on, keeping going, doing stuff for all of those ten years -
slightly embarrassed, slightly ashamed of myself, and more than
slightly pissed off that I knew all the stuff that I had to do, in
order to make sense of the role, had to be done in a way which
rather went against my natural grain. . .
"Poetically, I found it extremely discomforting. The whole
notion of 'subjects' in poetry is rather a dodgy one. I don't much
like the idea of poems with subjects, but, of course, as Laureate,
you have to foreground a subject."
It was not the subject-matter of his poems during this time that
troubled him, but, rather, the way in which he felt expected to
write. "I felt that I had to go through the front door of the
subject. That's not good for art . . . It's against art in some
quite fundamental way. . . What turned out to be my censorship was
my feeling that I had to write a certain sort of poem, or engage
with subjects in a certain kind of direct way. It doesn't suit me,
and it doesn't suit poetry."
SO, IS he pleased with his latest collection, The Customs
House - his first since he stepped down as Poet Laureate?
"I feel very proud of it, and I feel very liberated by it. And
there are plenty of poems in there that have subjects, of course,
but I didn't feel I had to write about them in that sort of head-on
way. To give an example, there's a poem late in the book about
whales ["Whale Song"]. It's a poem I brooded on for ages, because I
wanted to write about environmental matters, the fragility of
creatures, and I don't suppose anybody reading it would doubt that
it was about that; but I felt it was a much more subtle response to
the subject than I would have found easy to make before."
He has spoken in the past of a desire for his writing to be like
clear water - not, as one might first suppose, to provide simple
refreshment, but rather to enable us to see more clearly the swamp
of our primitive desires clearly enough to recognise and reconnect
with our true selves.
"And, of course, in our lives it gets harder to do, partly
because we fear what we might find, because it hurts so much more
down there. But it also gets more difficult, because our access to
it becomes more tenuous, thinner, because we spend our lives
talking like this, articulating; and, every time we do it, it lays
another little membrane, a distance, another layer over a primitive
Our time is up; so I move to finish the interview, but, with a
characteristically furrowed brow, a thoughtful Motion is not quite
ready to end.
"And this takes us back to God, I think, and this is where I
profoundly disagree with Dawkins and others in his camp, because
there is in us a primitive appetite for this stuff. Even if it's
not true, even if we know, feel, it's not true, to deny that, in
your account of what it is to be a human being, is a very, very
serious flaw. And to have it said as uncompassionately as he says
it, is not good. It's not true to my experience of what it is to be
The Customs House by Andrew Motion is published by Faber
& Faber at £12.99 (Church Times
Bookshop £11.70 - Use code CT264 );
The Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature takes place
from 15 to 17 February at Bloxham School, near Banbury,
Oxfordshire. For details, visit