Watching his mother slowly fading away following a horse riding accident ‘cast a shadow’ over a teenage Andrew Motion.
But then along came a brilliant teacher who “turned a light on“ in his head with Hardy, Wordsworth and Shakespeare.
This contrasting despair and hope forged the young poet, who was born in London and brought up in the small Essex village of Hatfield Heath by ‘country people’.
“My parents were absolutely not bookish people,“ says the 61-year-old who went on to become Poet Laureate and was knighted in 2009 for services to poetry.
“My mum read a tiny bit of a book a year, but my father, I remember him looking balefully at me one day late in life, saying he had only read half a book in his whole life and I don’t think he was exaggerating.
“There was absolutely never any expectation I would end up doing what I did. But at school I had a genius English teacher, Peter Way. He just walked straight into my head and turned the lights on in a day. It was a real road to Damascus moment, and I often say ‘You gave me my life’.“ The father of three will be part of the EDF London Eye star-studded special event which celebrates the landmark being erected 15 years ago on May 1.
He will be one of the speakers holding a talk in one of the 32 capsules as it slowly rotates. The former poet laureate will speak on John Keats who was a “quintessential Londoner”.
The other speakers will be historian Dan Cruickshank, gangster widow Kate Kray and film-makers Don Letts and Julien Temple, on men and women who have helped make London great.
Sir Andrew’s most renowned works include The Customs House, which features poems about conflict from World War One to Afghanistan, and The Cinder Path, which began when he was about 16 and of which he says: “They were mostly word eruptions about the sky at night or my girlfriend and ‘why won’t she kiss me?’.
“They are all in the British Library now, so someone will amuse themselves with them one day. The flashiness and desire of youth can be silly but magnificent.“ Darkness entered his life when he was 17, after his mother Catherine suffered a severe head injury, which she never recovered from, passing away in 1978.
He says of becoming a poet: “My mum’s accident was probably the clinching factor. I wish it hadn’t, of course, but it gave me a subject and almost all my poems were about her and missing her. It was a huge shadow over my life and still is at some level. Everything I have done is in response to that.“ He has written about other lives cut short – Princess Diana, Ann Frank and says: “I think the writing of poems for me is to do with the everyday and trying to preserve things or pickle them so there’s something left when you’re not here anymore. I started out trying to freeze my mother and over time it’s become a larger version of that.
“My poems are all to do with what it’s like to be a member of a species knowing we live in time and are not here for very long. They are quite melancholy because of that.“ The graduate of University College, Oxford, who has studied under WH Auden and befriended Philip Larkin while teaching English at Hull University, published his first book of poetry aged 24, and in 1999 was appointed Poet Laureate, following the death of Ted Hughes. But breaking with tradition he only stayed in the post for ten years instead of retaining it for life.
“I was very pleased to do it and pleased to give it up,“ says Sir Andrew. “I felt very proud to do the things I did with it, but it was exhausting and very complicated in some ways. I feel ten stone lighter not doing it.“ It has left the chairman of the Arts Council of England’s Literature Panel, who lives in Kentish Town with his Korean-American wife and cat Missy, free to teach part-time at Royal Holloway, take over as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and work on relaunching poetryarchive.org next month making poems available for download “like music on iTunes“.
“The Internet has been a very good friend to poetry,“ says Sir Andrew. “More people are reading poems now than in the history of the world.“ All this means he wakes up at 5.30am to find the “quiet“ to work on his new series about Afghanistan for Radio 4 as part of the World War One 100 years commemoration.
“I have been interviewing soldiers, mums and dads, girlfriends and boyfriends, and widows to tell the story of what it’s like to come home and use it as a collaborative way of writing poems using their words. It’s quite upsetting a lot of it but feels an important thing to be doing.
So what does he hope to be remembered for?
“I want to die thinking I have written six poems that will live longer than me that people will read in times to come and think ‘I have felt like that’.“
Sir Andrew Motion will be giving a talk on John Keats on May 1 at the London Eye as part of special event, 32 Londoners, to mark the landmark’s 15th anniversary. Details: www.32londoners.com