At the time of writing, our poet laureateship is once again up for appointment. Now, while it’s a great idea to have it time-limited and keyed in to impressive projects as opposed to minor efforts on behalf of our Royalty, it always seems to be a throwback, completely out of context in these universal credit days. I became interested in poetry as a result of the Platignum National Schools competition c. 1972, so I’m even old enough to remember John Betjeman as the Poet Laureate – but it’s the sort of non-job where nobody wins unless they’re already part of the committees and schemes, maybe having a sinecure Fellowship or two where it’s okay to hobnob around the vintage port with likeminded characters. There’s something so eighteenth-century about the whole business that you wonder why it hasn’t been dumped long ago, together with the Spinning Jenny and turnpike roads.
Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than having to write about a Royal event or a national anniversary, to intone on Radio 4 about the Battle of the Somme, or to hang around at official functions being sneered at by politicians who don’t like the arts. I’ve been to talks where a previous Laureate described how the post ruined his ability to write; and on listening to the voice of our first female Laureate recently, she was valedicting like the world was already lost, old before her time. Alas for the days when she read a blistering anti-Thatcherite poem at the Aldeburgh Festival.
What does it do to them, this wretched job? They seem to come out with their minds altered, like people who’ve been through a weird experiment. It can’t be the butt of malmsey or whatever it is. It must be the pressure of continually being on the spot, having to write what you’d rather not be writing after years of putting what you believe in. Having to front projects which take away real writing time, modify what you’d rather say, and make pronouncements on topics you’re not a specialist in. That kind of appointment isn’t a great honour, it’s the same as a day job in the media without the salary. Yet the race is on, with one poet already spouting nonsense about what the post ‘should’ involve, what the ideal candidate ‘should’ be like, what their writing ‘should’ be about, how cultured they ‘should’ be. When poets start telling others what they should be like, perhaps they should be questioning themselves and their own reasons for doing so. If it was up to me, I’d vote for someone genuinely public like Pam Ayres or John Cooper Clarke, although I rather think they’d turn it down.
It’s the New Year already; I’m glad to be under way with another novella, and looking forward to giving a reading in Nottingham on the 23rd January. The Wired Cafe on Pelham Street is a lovely venue, and one which serves excellent fancy coffees and food – if you’re in the Nottingham area, I heartily recommend it. Better still, if you’re there on the 23rd, come along between 6 – 8 pm and join in with a poem of your own! There’s open mic slots available. Meanwhile I promise I won’t be doing any poems about Brexit, the Laureateship, or writing about writing.