The Mitchell principles
Adrian Mitchell may be 65 in a few weeks' time, but he doesn't look as if he's about to retire. His hair is grey, but his face is bright-eyed, watchful, restlessly energetic, prone both to fits of giggles and to great seriousness - like a schoolboy who has just discovered what is wrong with the world, and is keen, and definitely optimistic, about setting it to rights. He may have settled into a comfortable north London house filled with books, toys, paintings by friends, photographs of his expanding family and purring cats, but he is still, self-deprecatingly, protesting about it. As he recently wrote in "Moving Poem": I'll call my new house Reality, Or maybe, Bourgeois State, Its name will be burned on a slice of wood And screwed to my garden gate And he certainly hasn't stopped working: his new play, a version of The Snow Queen, is about to open at the Unicorn Theatre in London, he is publishing three new books this year, working on a trilogy of Greek myths for Japanese theatre, and preparing for another stint working in South Africa.
But then Mitchell's work has not followed the conventional arc of young radical to what he calls "crusty old git". One of the curious things about Heart on the Left, his forthcoming new collection from Bloodaxe, is the consistency - though not the sameness - of the poems. From the Sixties protest poetry anthem "Tell Me Lies About Vietnam" to the recent "Give Me Time - Autumn Is at the Gates", whether expressed by Mitchell's alter egos The Ape Man ("happy to be hairyhappy to be hairynext best thing to having feathers"), Volcano Jones, or Gerard Stimpson, whether the subject matter is Mitchell's wife, cat, some elephants, or Iran, the message is the same - angrily and lovingly in favour of peace. As he most simply put it, "Peace is milkWar is acid". Mitchell though, sees change in his work, or at least the shape of it.
"When I started writing, I felt I needed to write protest poems all the time, and also that I always had to use set forms. As I've got older, I've got more relaxed about form, and also happier about writing about more personal things, and writing for particular people. I can write more about my mother and father for instance - I wish I'd written more for them when they were alive."
It is true that Mitchell's most recent collection, Blue Coffee, is solid with personal dedications for all sorts of people, including his dog Ella, and that the whole volume, in contrast to "For Beauty Douglas", which was named after a symbolic victim of apartheid, is movingly dedicated to his foster-daughter Boty Goodwin, who died young. But haven't the political and the personal always been inextricably mixed in his work?
"Oh yes, of course, otherwise I couldn't write about them. I couldn't have just sat down and written a poem about Victor Jara, for example (the murdered Chilean activist and poet). I wrote about him because his widow and children came and lived with us, in our house."
This inclusiveness, the tendency to bring the world to his house, and share his house with the world, extends to Mitchell's work for children. Quite a lot of it is simply the same as his work for adults - "Stufferation", surely the most imitated poem in the English language, appears in almost all Mitchell's volumes, for example. His new children's volume, Balloon Lagoon and the magic islands of poetry, features old favourites such as "Nothingmas Day" and some new poems to elephants and Dennis the Menace, but it also includes some of his toughest, saddest animal poems, and "One Bad Word", which tackles racism. He will read "Giving Potatoes" to a room full of adults, and expect them to join in the chorus. He has, he says, "no inhibitions about making an adult read a poem just because it was originally written for eight-year olds".
Mitchell has, in fact, great respect for the voice of a child, and is often searching in his work for a way of saying things as simply and clearly and unpretentiously as children can. One of his favourite poems seems to embody his ambitions. It is about the threat of nuclear war - something Mitchell says he still feels passionately about, "something people pretend has gone away and which just hasn't" - and it borrows the voice of a child, his niece Ruth, to deliver its message: A child is singing And nobody is listening But the child who is singing Bulldozers grab the earth and shower it The house is on fire . . .
Mitchell seems to like the poem particularly because he can credit his niece with the words. "I just wrote down exactly what she was saying - so simply and clearly. I couldn't have made that up."
He doesn't just seek to speak like a child; he retains an uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of a child, be it the bewildered victim of "Back to the Playground Blues", the defiant kid practising "Dumb Insolence", ("They don't like itbut they can't do you for it") or the cheerful, briefcase-sized "two-minute girl". His empathy - and probably some of his pacifism - comes, he thinks, from still-open wounds he suffered at his first school where the classes were big and unspeakably cruel things happened to him in the playground. When Mitchell says he wants school class sizes reduced to 12 he means it in the same way that a political refugee believes in the work of Amnesty International.
This passion, and his deceptively simple language, has made Mitchell a teachers' favourite. He's happy about this - happy to be read, particularly aloud, happy to be imitated and enjoyed - but he maintains an absolute injunction on his work being examined. Exams, he says, are an admission of intellectual failure, a method of sorting the sheep from the goats which has been shown not to work. He would like children to learn about poetry instead, by exposure to lots of it - the difficult and old with the accessible and new - and by writing it, by discovering it, as in his marvellously lively "Thirteen Secrets of Poetry", as a series of private treasures.
Similarly, he makes no concessions to the national curriculum and does not seek to increase his sales by allowing his works to be set books. These things strike him as wrong, and he will have no truck with them. He is not, though, going to be tricked into being "a crusty old git" by taking an unrelenting dissident position. "I just don't like talking about things I dislike. I want to talk about the positive things." And he won't be drawn into any kind of bitterness - not about the literary establishment's lukewarm treatment of him, the awfulness of critics, even Philip Larkin, whose prize "crusty gittiness" he clearly loathes. He can find spleen only, surprisingly, for the Royal Academy "Sensation" show, mostly because of its gratuitous cruelty.
Art, for Mitchell, is still a serious matter. "Of course," he says, when I ask if poetry can really change people. "Of course. It changed me. It can change the way people see the world and feel about the world. What could be more profound than that?" Adrian Mitchell's apparent youthfulness surely comes from this enduring faith. The enemies he made so young have not gone away - he has, unsurprisingly, little faith in the Blair Government - but his poems record mostly the allies he has met on his journey. His work has always dealt with that sticky and embarrassing stuff, pure feeling, making him friends with the uninhibited - but, at 65, it is beginning to get him some literary recognition, too.
Famous for saying that "most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people", he has the satisfaction of seeing the rise and rise of performance poetry. It is not surprising that he is not about to retire. You don't retire from a life lived by principle - not when there is, as Mitchell puts it in "Blue Coffee":
My family, my friends, my
My writing, my books, my
And new unknown people
To be gently discovered
There is so much love to
Blue Coffee Bloodaxe Pounds 8.95. The Balloon Lagoon Orchard Pounds 9. 99. Heart on the Left will be published by Bloodaxe on Adrian Mitchell's birthday, October 24. Kate Clanchy's Slattern is published by Chatto and Windus