BBC Radio 4

    Andrew Motion: Coming Home


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    Editor's note: Poet, Andrew Motion uses conversations with British soldiers as the basis for a series of new poems reflecting on what it is like for British soldiers to come home after their long and dangerous campaign in Afghanistan.  Hear Coming Home on Radio 4 on Sunday, 9 November at 4.30pm.


    In April this year my producer Melissa FitzGerald and I visited the British Army camp at Bad Fallingbostel, forty kilometers north of Hanover. Our plan was to talk to members of the 7th Armoured Brigade – the Desert Rats - as they ended their final tour of duty in Afghanistan (‘Operation Herrick 19’), and to see what they felt about ‘coming home’. Later, when I got home, I would receive transcripts of our conversations and use them as the starting point for a series of new poems, which I envisaged as a form of collaboration between me and their subjects.

    Margaret Evison and Andrew Motion

    When we landed at Hanover I still had only the vaguest idea how this would work. But as we drove up the autobahn, and saw the remains of the old pine forest of northern Germany thicken around us, I began to think this was going to be an even more intense time than I’d anticipated. For one thing, I realised we were following almost exactly in the steps my father took when his regiment came this way in the spring of 1945. For another, as we came onto the camp itself and felt the peculiar power of all enclosed communities begin to assert itself, I knew I was about to come face to face with extreme emotional states of one kind or another.


    Extreme states that were very well-controlled, of course – the army is very good at that – but probably all the more remarkable for being so well-drilled and rigorously reserved. Relief. Pride. Sadness. Excitement. A very strong and strangely-mixed brew, which existed at an equally strange distance from the world I usually inhabit.


    In the course of our time there we talked to about ten people – junior and senior – as well as two medics and a padre (and, when we got back home, to the mother of a soldier who had been killed in Helmand in 2009). Each in their own way had very powerful things to say, but by and large the soldiers were very reluctant or actually unable to speak with much candour about the bad things they had seen. Comradeship, yes; the beauty of the landscape yes; pleasure at being home (and also the frustrations of civilian life) yes. But not death and destruction. Yet in each conversation I felt the pressure of these un-said things very strongly. Every voice seemed to be haunted by difficult memories.

    Major Wendy Faux


    When I got back to England and began reading through the transcripts of these talks, my first instinct was to look for a linguistic richness that conveyed these ideas. Then I realised I was looking for the wrong thing. The expressions that most interested me were in-between the sentences I had heard spoken. They were implications, not bold utterances. The pity was in the pauses, the silences, the suppressions; the poetry, if there was to be any, had to catch these things, and not hunt for eloquence.


    With this in mind, I then set about editing, rearranging, adding to, tweaking, ventilating, and shaping the things I had heard. It was an extraordinary experience. In fact I can’t remember when I last spent a more enthralling few working days. Everyone I spoke to had been profoundly changed by things they had seen and done in Afghanistan. Listening to them, I felt that I had been changed a bit too.


    The Gardener

    Dr Margaret Evison

    In Memory of Lieutenant Mark Evison

    We spent

    many hours kneeling together in the garden

    so many hours

    Mark was

    he liked lending a hand

    watching Gardener’s World

    building compost heaps

    or the brick path with the cherry tree

    that grows over it now       the white cherry

    where I thought       I mustn’t cry

    I must behave

    as if he’s coming back


    It was just after Easter

    with everything in leaf

    he is so sweet really

    though worldly

    before his time

    I kissed him and said

    See you

    in six months       and he turned round

    he turned round and said


    I opened the garden for the first time

    the National Gardens Scheme

    you know

    what gardens are like in May

    and this man was hovering

    outside the front

    as we walked down the side passage

    he said

    I’m a Major

    I said

    O my son       he’s in the army

    sort of brightly


    Then no one was there

    so I went

    and I gardened all day

    how slow       how satisfying

    I felt next morning

    he was struggling for his life


    He would be home

    with three transfers

    in three different planes

    and if he died they would ring me

    and they would go back

    and they would not keep coming

    my daughter Elizabeth and I drove to Birmingham

    my mobile       there       on the dashboard

    we had worked out the times of the last plane

    and we arrived

    and they still hadn’t called me

    and he was still


    He was lying       he was

    with this


    with this big plastic hole

    sort of

    a bandage over a hole

    just like



    The reindeer       the wild reindeer

    giving birth in the snow

    with the rest of the herd scarpering

    they have seen the eagle above them

    but the mother stands still

    what am I going to do       what

    a bit restless       and everything

    but starting to lick her baby

    with the eagle       watching


    Quietened       that is the best word

    to describe it       I felt quietened

    seeing the hills below

    as we came into Kabul

    I was thinking

    Mark lived in a very green place

    and here everything is purple

    orange       Turner colours I call them

    In my imagination he is never dead

    bandaged       lost       never dead

    with my love


    nowhere to go

    I was thinking

    thousands of lives

    in an instant

    and the molecules starting again

    and the mountains never changing

    how was I



    but for a moment

    I was

    then losing height

    with the brown earth rushing to meet me.






    Poet, Andrew Motion presents Coming Home on BBC Radio 4


    Listen to Coming Home

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