Sleeping on Islands by Andrew Motion review – candid stories from the former poet laureate | Autobiography and memoir


For someone who didn’t grow up in a bookish family, let alone a poetic one, the young Andrew Motion lost no time in making up for his lack of connections. Hurtling back from a sixth-form pilgrimage to Rupert Brooke’s grave in Skyros, Motion is delighted to discover that the war poet’s literary executor, Geoffrey Keynes (brother of John Maynard), lives down the road from him in rural Essex. No sooner has the teenager got himself set up with regular invitations to discuss Brooke than Keynes is ogling his body and giving him whiskery kisses.

Up at Oxford and having burnished his fledgling career with the Newdigate prize for poetry, Motion has regular meetings with an ancient but still priapic WH Auden who is eking out his last days at Christ Church. It’s not long before Auden is asking Andrew leeringly what he’d like – which Motion pretends not to understand and requests a martini. Then it’s off to his first job as a lecturer at the University of Hull to try to meet Philip Larkin, the librarian, whose verse comes closest to what the young poet is trying to do himself. There is no lechery this time – Larkin only has eyes for the women he enjoys playing off against each other – but within weeks Motion is going round to Larkin’s squalid home and getting himself appointed as one of his literary executors.

This would all be deeply off-putting were it not for the fact that Motion is candid about what lay behind his desperate poetic glory-chasing. “My need for a mentor … coincided with my need for approbation, and the more distinguished the mentor, the more valuable the approbation.” When he was still a teenager his beloved mother had fallen from her horse and spent the next nine years incapacitated. Three years of coma became something even crueller, a half-life of severe disability that required Gilly Motion to live in a nursing home, communicating with her family through grunts and whispers. This leaves the young Motion alone with his resolutely unpoetic father – an industrial brewer who was proud to say that he had never read a book in his life.

It is this desire to be the centre of someone’s world, or perhaps of the world in general, which lies at the heart of Motion’s lifelong struggle to write poetry. His hunger to hold public positions – to say yes to becoming poet laureate, to serve on this or that committee, to plunge into the sort of busywork that gets you a knighthood – are also the things that have eroded his creative life. This, he explains, isn’t just a matter of lost time, but also lost focus as he got pulled away from his unconscious, the place where writers need to linger if they are to produce work that slips beneath the skin.

This, to be clear, is no misery memoir. Motion is happy to serve up the funny stories and mild gossip that have come his way. As poet laureate he was entitled to payment in the form of a “butt of sack” (a barrel of sherry). In the process he ends up wangling a tasting weekend in Spain, which culminates in a banging hangover. And then there’s the time that he and his wife go to Sandringham for a weekend with Prince Charles. Such is the level of service from the domestic staff that when a guest’s suitcase is unpacked anything needing attention is whisked away and laundered. Next time, Motion vows, he will make sure to take along a big wash with extra stubborn stains.

In a final attempt to get away from the self-inflicted depredations of public service, Motion makes a break for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. By taking a teaching job in a country where he is not much known, he hopes to find a way of returning to that mysterious dreamworld where poetry originates before it is beaten and burnished into communicable sense. It is a rueful way to end a book, in self-imposed exile from the kind of life that he fought so hard to win.

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  • Denis Ava

    Denis Ava is mainly a business blogger who writes for Biz Grows. Rather than business blogs he loves to write and explore his talents in other niches such as fashion, technology, travelling, finance, etc.

Denis Ava
Denis Ava
Denis Ava is mainly a business blogger who writes for Biz Grows. Rather than business blogs he loves to write and explore his talents in other niches such as fashion, technology, travelling, finance, etc.



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