Nick Major

I half-expect to hear Sean O’Brien before I see him. He is perhaps the most-decorated British poet of the last two decades. Among numerous other awards, he has won the Forward Poetry Prize three times - no-one else has won it more than once - and the T.S. Eliot prize. Absurdly, I entertain an intimidating image of him striding through the doors of the National Library of Scotland like an army general, only the sound of his boots on the marble floor and the heroic clink of his medals against his chest preceding him.

As it happens, I am reading O’Brien’s Collected Poems in the NLS café when I glance up to see a robust man in his mid-sixties, dressed in black and with a trimmed white beard, standing a few tables away. He is looking tentatively in my direction. Of course, he is not wearing medals but something more revealing: a beret. O’Brien is in town for the unofficial launch of his ninth collection, Europa, at the Scottish Poetry Library. He throws his continental hat down on the table; it is a clear statement of intent.

O’Brien is considered a poet rooted in the landscape and dreamscape of northern England, but he is a defiant European in art and life. He is also no stranger to Scotland. In 1990 he took a writing fellowship at Dundee University and relocated from Brighton to Newcastle, where he is now Professor of Creative Writing. He and his partner, retired editor Gerry Wardle, frequently holiday in the Cairngorms. His Scottish connections go back further: in the late 1970s, O’Brien was studying for a PhD at Hull University; the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn lived nearby and became his mentor.

O’Brien was born in London in 1952, but Hull was where he “came to consciousness” as a young boy with a reader’s greed for books. Both his parents were interested in the arts. Before his father moved to England, he published poetry in Ireland, and his mother was a successful teacher. “There were always poetry books in the house,” he tells me, in a soft growl, “from when I was five or six, I read anthologies with Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling and T.S Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats and so on.

“When I was fourteen I got very interested in poetry and this coincided with being taught by a great English teacher called Mr Grayson, who introduced Eliot’s Preludes and Prufrock and some early poems of Ted Hughes to a group of fourteen-year-old lads, most of whom had no interest whatsoever in poetry. I thought this was the most interesting thing I had ever encountered. And that was that. Later on, I started reading Philip Larkin and Auden. Hull Central Library had a magnificent poetry stock which was augmented all the time; there was stuff from the tradition, but also contemporary poetry coming in. So, I was in there two or three times a week.”

He lived in the Victorian district of Anlaby Road. When he wasn’t reading, he was out exploring the streets. “The city was very badly bombed [in World War Two]. It was per capita the worst bombing of any city in Britain. It lost a huge percentage of its housing stock. There were bomb sites everywhere and lots of wild back gardens to play in.”

In poetry collections like Ghost Train (1995) he returns to these broken landscapes, and they still dwell in his psyche.

In Europa, there is a poem called The Chase, about a pub set in “a flyblown nowhere, birches, ponds, /with HGVs parked up in laybys full of rubbish…” Other poems explore how Europe’s violent past has transfigured the present: From the Cherry Hills is about the foreboding smell of petrol in a Serbian enclave of Bosnia Herzegovina; in Wrong Number the narrator walks around Berlin in the late 1980s and buys one toy mouse “from hundreds/ Dangling from the ceiling by their necks/ Like miniatures from Plötzensee/ Where men were hanged on hooks with wire…”; there is also a poem about his great uncle, Private Harry Reed, who fought and died in the First World War.

O’Brien is a Europhile, but he is not a sentimentalist. In his poetry, Baudelaire’s ideals of “luxe and volupté” sit side-by-side with nightmarish visions. “I think those two elements are inextricable from one another. Everything we might wish to celebrate or enjoy or remember or admire takes place on the same ground as centuries of the most awful slaughter and cruelty. You begin to suspect you can’t have one without the other. It is certainly true of Europe, which is a battlefield from the coast to Russia, from Denmark to the toe of Italy and into Greece and Spain.”

Now that we are on to Europa, I ask him if he was inspired by Dunn’s

1982 poem Europa’s Lover. “I wasn’t thinking deliberately of Douglas’

long poem, but it was certainly something that I found very suggestive and inspiring both when I first read it and when I’ve returned to it.

It has an amplitude and confidence which was not altogether typical of poetry in mainland Britain at the time. There is an expansiveness to it, and a willingness to look into other literary traditions.” Along with Dunn, poets like Auden taught him the merits of being “formally various.” It shows in Europa, where the poems range from three variations on a Shakespearean sonnet to bawdy light-hearted ballads like Mecklenburgh Square, written to “put a bit of leavening into a sombre mixture.”

He stresses his indebtedness to Dunn, who helped him with the practical matters of getting published and the technical side of writing. “He had a strong sense - this is very unfashionable now - of poetry not just as a vocation but as a craft, as an accumulating body of skills.” I ask about that interjected “unfashionable.” How can poetry being anything other than a craft? As part of his teaching, O’Brien reads reams of juvenilia. There are some “very gifted” poets around, he says, but “some of the work I read seems to have confused the role of being a poet with the task of writing poetry. Some of it seems to have confused the idea of form with a sense of constraint.

I’m reading a lot of stuff that is of impassioned attitude, and I’d like to read something more durable…as somebody once said, there’s nothing more old-fashioned than the avant-garde.”

O’Brien is a deeply political poet but avoids polemic. The imagination must be free to do its own work. It should not be cosseted by ideology. But surely it was a conscious decision to make Europe the cynosure of this book at this particular time? “I don’t think it is a decision, so much as an affinity that emerges whilst you’re writing a number of poems. The subject gradually discloses itself. It happens that the poems in Europa were written between the spring of 2015 and the winter of 2017. They were written in the awareness of the 2015 UK election result, of the EU Referendum result, and the brewing re-emergence of the extreme right all over Europe. The book doesn’t talk about those matters directly. It goes at them sideways. The poet George Szirtes said, it is important to write from inside the subject rather than about it. [You should] try to avoid using the material as a vehicle for the expression of moral opinions.”

The structure of the book posits England as an intrinsic part of Europe; moreover, it suggests that imagining anything different is close to impossible. “As far as I’m concerned, this is Europe.

Scotland is certainly Europe. There has never been much doubt about that. But England is also Europe, at least to people of my way of looking at things. It is inescapable, nor would I wish to escape it.

So, England is part of the same terrain.”

And what of those people who do not possess his way of looking at things? “They’re not leaving Europe, they’re just moving into the box room. England is a very strange country. Some of it is very contemporary; some of it stopped in 1947 or 1954. You go to places and you are aware that some people are quite happy that, in some sense, the train has stopped with local affairs and preoccupations. There is something attractive about that, but like everything else it has its obverse, which is a kind of sensibility…you can imagine some ancient dead couple sitting up in coffins full of Marmite, reading old copies of The Daily Express. There’s that sort of England as well.”

The predominant imagery of Europa concerns how our different histories

- our memories, the countries of our minds, the rubble of our world - shape us in the here and now. “I’m interested in the past, and the ways in which the past did not develop. This is sometimes referred to as nostalgia, which it’s not. Nostalgia can be a kind of anaesthesia.

But what I’m talking about is a sense of roads not taken.” For O’Brien, the political road the UK – England, in particular – has taken is a mad betrayal of its past and future. Europa is an imaginative reorientation that reveals a truer picture of ourselves as Europeans, whether we like the fact or not.

Europa by Sean O’Brien is published by Picador, £9.99