10th November

The Call of the Royal

My first instinct on receiving the card was to put it in the bin. Nobody ‘commands’ me to do anything. Then I read it again more carefully. It was the Master of the Household who had been commanded by Her Majesty to ‘invite’ me to the palace, so that was all right. I dug out and pressed the lounge suit, selected a sober tie and clean shirt, and hopped on a flight to Gatwick.

The occasion was a reception to celebrate contemporary British poetry. I wondered if I would be alone, but Her Majesty had been very inclusive: several hundred poets were in attendance. Not for nothing did the words ‘contemporary’, ‘British’ and ‘poetry’ adorn the invitation. Scattered throughout the queue of more conventional versifiers were many of my friends, the contemporaries – the ‘old contemporaries’ as we styled ourselves when we were writing in the trenches: the working-class monotonists, the radical republican repulsivists, the post-colonial explosionists, the anarchist indecipherabilitists and of course the Scottish nationalist heedrumhodrumists. How lovely it was to see everyone!

Naturally some had had momentary qualms about coming, but felt they should show face for the good of the poetic school to which they belonged. Quite right too. As Her Majesty wittily remarked to me when I was coming up from my second bow, ‘Show some solidarity, please.’ And so we all did, but by invitation, not by command.

A few had the bad grace to refuse to attend. One joked – in poor taste, I think – that she couldn’t afford the bus fare. Another complained that he was too busy. Really? Show me a poet whose diary is so full that he can’t cancel a library visit or two to attend a royal reception, and I’ll show you a fraud. A third asked me, to my face, ‘If you’re prepared to accept this invitation, is there anything to which you will not stoop?’ I assume he meant an honour, which is highly unlikely to come my way, so the question is academic. I find the suggestion that I have compromised my principles offensive. As I have already said, if I had been ‘commanded’ to attend I certainly would have boycotted the event.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Subscribe here for more stories & music