Les Murray at the Palace

The Queen shook Les by the hand and told him she was going to give him the medal now, immediately, because in the past, when she’d met other poets like this, she’d sometimes forgotten to hand it over. With Ted Hughes, for instance—and in those days protocol required that anyone leaving her presence had to walk backwards until they reached the door, so as not to seem discourteous. After Ted had managed this manoeuvre, bowing all the way, the Queen suddenly remembered his medal and called him back to hand it over, which meant that once he’d pocketed it, he had to walk away from her in reverse for a second time.

Anyway: here was the medal for Les now, in a beautiful slim leather box. The Queen passed it to Les, and Les opened the box to look inside—whereupon the medal, seeming to have a mind of its own, leaped from its blue velvet bed; and dropped onto the carpet.

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The three of us stood gazing at it for a moment. Who was going to pick it up? The Queen? That seemed very unlikely—in fact I wondered if she’d ever picked up anything in her life. Les? That also seemed unlikely, but for a different reason: the tailoring. Me, then. I began to reach down—only to find Les, who was presumably thinking, “That’s my bloody medal”, beating me to it, with no audible damage to the suit.

The Queen indicated where everyone would now sit: her in the armchair beside the little table with the buzzer, me in the gilded number at her side, and Les opposite in an equally frail contraption. Its bandy gilt legs grew bandier, held, and Les leaned forward, waiting as instructed for the Queen to begin the conversation. It took a while, as though she was considering a large number of possible openers and couldn’t decide which would be the most suitable.

“Well,” she said at last, in a voice so like her own, so regally old-fashioned, she might have been teasing herself. “Well, Ostralia.” Les creaked a little further forward. Could he reply now, or was there more coming. No. That was it. He took a deep breath and let fly with his answer.

“Oy yes, your Majesty,” he said. “Australia’s a beautiful place with beautiful cities Perth and Melbourne and Sydney with the Sydney Opera House and beautiful country as well Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef and then there are wonderful creatures too the kangaroo of course the Aboriginal people have many different names for the kangaroo and then there’s the kookaburra and the echidna and the duck-billed platypus which is especially interesting because it has a kind of homing device in its nose that allows it …” He rushed on for what seemed like several minutes, looking around more and more wildly for a main verb, then realised he was never going to find one and came to an abrupt halt.

There was a silence, broken only by the creaking of chair legs. “Very interesting,” the Queen said at last and stabbed the Bakelite nipple on the table at her side. Whereupon the double doors swung open once again, revealing the same natty-looking airman: he looked slightly flushed as though he’d been leaning over despite his extremely tight trousers, listening at the keyhole.

Les and I stood up, shook the Queen’s hand, then made our neck-bows. It felt rude, so at the door we swivelled round and bowed again, after which the airman closed the doors behind us. A South American ambassador and his wife were already on the launchpad, waiting to be fired in next; they both looked pasty-faced with terror. Les and I raced outside, tore off our ties, and vanished across Green Park to look for a bar.

This extract from Sleeping on Islands: A Life in Poetry by Andrew Motion (Faber & Faber, 2023) is reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. Les Murray, Quadrant’s Literary Editor from 1990 to 2018, was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1998 and received it from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in June 1999; Andrew Motion was Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009.


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