Oh woe is me, the wretched Poet Laureateship is up for grabs once again! Was not William Burroughs, that ghoulish, gun-toting Beat, right for once when he wrote: ‘A flawless poet is fit only to be a Poet Laureate, officially dead and imperfectly embalmed. The stink of death leaks out’?
But the rusting wheels of official procedure will crank on, have no fear. Some halitosis-breathed toady over at the Poetry Society will whisper a name into some runner’s ear, and that name will be whispered into the ear of the PM’s representative, and that same name - provided that it has not been misheard - will be written out in long hand for the Queen’s representative to squinnny down at through some horn-handled lorgnette...
Yes, When Andrew Motion throws in the damp, sweaty towel after ten ever lengthening years on some unspecified date later this spring, someone will step into those creaking shoes once occupied by John Dryden (he was the first, in 1670) and, later, by such tin-eared poetasters as Colley Cibber, Nahum Tate and the appalling Sir John Betjeman. Why would anyone agree to limpingly eulogise mewling royal babes about which they care not one toss?
Unsurprisingly, a great hue and cry has gone up this time about the 340-year-long exclusion of women from the frame. Surely they too deserve to have their talents prostituted! Some of the sane ones don’t – or at least they say they don’t. Fleur Adcock has ruled herself out. And Wendy Cope, with a kind of characteristically breezy sanity, has said this about the job: ‘the best way for a poet to serve the art is to remain free to get on with writing the poems that he or she wants to write.’ Quite so.
So what better way to greet the coming announcement than by sending the whole thing up? Last week, the official inauguration of The Bow-Wow Shop, an online, international poetry forum, took place at the Foundry in East London. Many poets read their poems on that night, including Dame Polly Syllabix, England’s very first Poet Laureatesse, a character I invented for the sheer hell of poking fun at the absurdities of the Laureateship game. I wrote a speech for Dame Polly, which she delivered on that night.
The question from the start had been: who could best embody the idea of such a ridiculous creature? Which actress had the comic panache to look and sound a bit like a combination of Edith Sitwell and Max Wall?
There was one natural choice: the great Fenella Fielding, veteran star of Carry On Screaming. I sent her the speech, and we met in her favourite café one Saturday morning in Covent Garden, where she does a dance class. She flew at me over our cappuccinos: ‘I just can’t do it,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how. How can I possibly combine those two?’ She was barking at me with tremendously engaging imperiousness. ‘How can I possibly be two people at once?’ I felt cowed, horrified, humiliated. Fortunately, she agreed to read the speech out loud in the café in order to get the tone of voice, that mixture of ludicrously deluded self-importance, tetchiness, vanity and soaringly misguided self-confidence. ‘Is there a near perfect congruence’ she declaimed, flourishing her arm to an ever swelling audience, ‘between the rutting of dogs and the antics of poets? I leave that question to hang in the air, tellingly…’
To judge for yourself whether Dame Polly Syllabix truly deserves to be the new Poet Laureatesse, whether that exalted position is robust enough to contain her superabundant talents, look at her performance on YouTube. Just tap in her name.
And now, having breathed life into this wonderfully impossible creature, Fenella tells me that she is quite keen for me to do more. She told me so, last Saturday, as we talked in the middle of Endell Street, defying the worst that the Saturday morning traffic could throw at us. I told her that I was now thinking of writing a full-length monologue for stage or television. ‘Do it,’ she said. ‘Just do it. While it’s hot!’ And now it’s done.