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Interview: Andrew Motion

During his years as Britain’s poet laureate, Andrew Motion was often mocked by the press, but now his career has been re-energised and the unlikely source of inspiration is Treasure Island. By Iain Sharp.

Andrew Motion

There’s a scene in Sir Andrew Motion’s first novel, The Pale Companion (1989), where the glamorous mother of the 16-year-old hero visits him at the posh boarding school he attends in the English countryside. “It’s always so noticeable how well-mannered everyone is here. I suppose it’s what we pay for,” she exclaims, blissfully unaware that before her arrival the generally foul-mouthed schoolboys have been engaged in all manner of mischief from bomb-making to buggery. Born in 1952, knighted by the Queen in 2009, and since 2003 professor of creative writing at the University of London, Motion boarded during his teenage years at Radley College in Oxfordshire. His own manners are exemplary. In the last week of August, he will visit New Zealand for the first time as part of a whistle-stop international tour to promote his latest book, Silver, a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

When I phone him at the North London house he shares with his third wife, Korean linguist Kyeong-Soo Kim, he apologises for having taken so long to head our way. He’s likewise contrite that pressure of time will not permit him to stop at Samoa on this trip to pay his respects at Stevenson’s grave on Mt Vaea. “I’ve been to Australia half a dozen times,” he confesses, “but somehow I didn’t manage to get across to New Zealand. The first time was in the early 1980s when I was researching my book about the Lambert family – George Lambert began his career as an artist in Sydney. Later on, I spent some time in Tasmania tracing the tracks of a character who was sent there as a convict in the 1830s.”

Motion’s 1986 study of the dissipated, self-destructive Lamberts covers a lot of territory. Although no longer a familiar name, George Lambert (1873-1930) was, in Motion’s phrase, “the most famous Australian painter of his day”. His second son, composer and conductor Constant Lambert (1905-51), was, among other distinctions, Margot Fonteyn’s lover. Constant’s son Kit managed the Who in their instrumentsmashing heyday. The acknowledgments pages for the book reveal an uncommonly wide circle of acquaintances. Esteemed novelist Anthony Powell and rock legend Pete Townshend are among those Motion thanks for being “particularly kind and generous”. The minor English Romantic artist Thomas Griffiths Wainewright – a friend of William Blake and Henry Fuseli – was transported to Tasmania on charges of forgery in 1837. He died in Hobart in 1847. He was, in all likelihood, a multiple murderer as well as a forger. Wainewright the Poisoner (2000) is one of Motion’s most idiosyncratic works. Fictionalised chapters narrated by Wainewright alternate with sections of factual “notes”.

Motion’s output since the late 1970s has been large and various: 15 volumes of verse, five novels, five books of criticism, three biographies and an autobiography. Unfortunately, many readers know him only from a few poems – far from his best – published during his tenure as British poet laureate. When he accepted the laureateship in 1999, after the death of Ted Hughes, he stipulated that the appointment be for only 10 years rather than life. He proved an unstinting public advocate for poetry. With the help of recording producer Richard Carrington, he established a much-admired archive of poets reading their work. What damaged his reputation, however, was his willingness to supply poems for royal occasions, such as Prince Edward’s marriage to Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother in 2001 and the belated nuptials of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005. Most disastrous of all was the rap poem he wrote to celebrate Prince William’s 21st birthday in 2003, which begins:

Better stand back
Here’s an age attack,
But the second in line
Is dealing with it fine

The BBC news website solicited opinions of the poem from the public. “God spare us from this tosh,” wrote one correspondent. “Is that rap with a silent ‘c’, then?” asked another. Perhaps Motion had delved too deeply into the 600 bottles of oloroso sherry that are a traditional part of the laureate’s stipend when he wrote his toast to Prince William, which is not an offering he has seen fit to include in any of his subsequent collections. His poetical oeuvre as a whole belies the perception of him as a naff royalist toady. When writing about his own family, particularly his three children, rather than the Royal Family, he is movingly tender. Many of his poems display an exceptional flair for describing nature and wildlife. When the mood takes him, as in The Dancing Hippo and The Dog of the Light Brigade, he is also capable of a sardonic wit that reminds you he was not only Philip Larkin’s biographer but also his friend. Motion has repeatedly told interviewers he was proud to receive the laureateship – and just as pleased to relinquish it. He wrote Silver in a burst of renewed creativity that came to him after stepping down from his public role in 2009. “It was a very intense period in my life,” he says. “Within a short time, my father died, I was no longer laureate, I got married again after years of living on my own and I moved house. I felt liberated in all kinds of ways. My relationship with my father hadn’t been a bad one, but it was complicated. I completed Silver in 18 months in a terrific state of elation, getting up early every morning and writing in a sort of trance.”

When Motion was 17, his mother, whom he adored, was severely injured in a riding accident and she never properly recovered, slipping in and out of a coma until her death nine years later. This was one source of complication between Motion and his father, a reserved former army officer. He has written about it, in fictionalised and transfigured form, in The Pale Companion and in his second novel, Famous for the Creatures, and, more directly, in his 2006 memoir of childhood, In the Blood. Silver is set a generation on from Treasure Island. Jim Hawkins is now a widowed innkeeper and his son, Jim Junior, is the book’s central character. When I suggest to Motion he seems to have drawn on elements from his own past in depicting the relationship between the two Jims, he quickly concurs. “Yes, there’s a scene where Jim II is sailing past his father’s country inn, at the start of his voyage to the island, and looking up he spies Jim I in the distance. Really, that’s me saying goodbye to my father.”

This prompts the obvious question: why did he choose to write a sequel to Treasure Island? Was Stevenson’s book a favourite from his boyhood? “I’d love to say I read Treasure Island as a boy,” he says, “but it wouldn’t be true. I didn’t read books at all as a boy. I came from a country family and we did country things instead. Oh, my mother did read a little – Iris Murdoch novels mainly, at about the same pace that Iris wrote them, one a year. But in his entire life my father read only half a book – The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes. A friend had told him it was good, but he never finished it. “It wasn’t until I was doing my A levels at Radley College and I was about 16 or 17 that a brilliant English teacher named Peter Way walked into my head and turned the lights on. In my teens, however, I didn’t want to read books associated with childhood.

It wasn’t until I was at Oxford that I finally caught up with Stevenson. I have a clear memory of reading Treasure Island as an adult. I think Stevenson is one of the great 19th-century geniuses. He’s one of those writers who’s greatly beloved by general readers, but academics don’t find him easy to deal with because they’re embarrassed by strong narratives. They prefer more internalised novels where there’s not a lot happening on a story level, as in Henry James. “Although there’s no mention of a sequel to Treasure Island in Stevenson’s letters, I like to think that Silver by Andrew Motionif he’d lived longer he might have come to it and re-plundered the island. He did write a sequel to Kidnapped, after all. In spite of its richness and sense of completeness, there are ways in which Treasure Island advertises itself as an unfinished work. When the Hispaniola sails away from the island, three pirates are left behind – and so are bars of silver which make up a significant part of the treasure. Long John Silver escapes in a shore boat with the help of Ben Gunn.

There’s a reference to his wife, ‘a woman of colour’. I felt there was enough there to follow up on, although I hope people will find my book a self-sufficient experience.” There are ways in which Silver also advertises itself as unfinished, I can’t help observing. Will there be a sequel to the sequel? “Yes, I’m going to do it,” Motion says with a tone of boyish excitement. “It’ll be set in Spanish America, as it was known in the early 1800s. Texas, most probably. I want Jim II to be taken by the American flora and fauna at that time. As late as 1870, there are reports of herds of bison 50 miles long. Nowadays there are only 600 of these animals left in the whole of the United States. The book will be a sort of western.”

SILVER, by Andrew Motion (Jonathan Cape, $36.99); Motion reads and talks about his poetry archive, Auckland Museum, August 27; and is in conversation with Emily Perkins, School of Music Theatre, University of Auckland, August 29.