Interview: Reverend Dr Malcolm Guite, Girton

Nathaniel Darling 25 April 2014

I was actually born in Nigeria, so although everyone calls me Malcolm, my first name is Ayodeji, a Yoruba tribal name. I was brought up there for the first ten years of my life, but with my parents, who were both expats, still referring to this other place I didn’t even know about—England—as home. My father, ever the wanderer, went and got a job in Canada, where we then moved.

When I was in my mid-teens, my parents decided I was losing my British identity, so I was sent off to boarding school in England. I used to fly back home in the summers, so I had a strange kind of adolescence divided between being an English school boy and this sort of Canadian teenager in the holidays.

I wasn’t sure which country I really belonged in, but I made a discovery and won a scholarship in rapid succession. The discovery was real ale, which of course they don’t have properly in Canada at all, and the scholarship was to read English at Pembroke here in Cambridge, and that decided me: I fell in love with Cambridge, and I’ve never quite escaped its gravitational pull.

I was a sort-of atheist shading into agnostic when I arrived. Because I absorbed a huge amount of wonderful poetry, a lot of which was Christian, I could say of myself, as CS Lewis said of himself, that my imagination was baptised before I was, and the rest of me just took a little longer to catch up.

In my final year, I did have a real experience of God’s presence and became a Christian. I was helped by, at that time, a young and unknown but utterly brilliant curate called Rowan Williams. I went off and did other things—I was a school teacher in a big comprehensive in St Ives. It was only gradually as I began to work on a part time PhD about John Donne that I realised God was calling me to be a priest as well.

In my late teens the double whammy of discovering Keats and falling in love meant that I just had to try poetry. I’ve been in love with language and words ever since. I think the discovery of my own voice as a poet has been from the desire to keep the singing line that I loved in the old poets, but to try and show that music with a contemporary rather than archaic voice. That’s the great challenge.

Being a priest and a poet feels a very natural combination now. It didn’t at first. When I was first ordained, I was on the Oxmoor estate in Huntingdon, which was very busy and demanding, so sonnets didn’t quite seem to fit there. But I also discovered that the thing you’re trying to do as a poet, which is to communicate a meaning that clarifies and heals, God helps you to do as a priest anyway. And I still feel in some ways I can do more offering someone communion as a priest than I could ever achieve as a poet.

A lot of modern poetry can be quite difficult, jagged and rebarbative; a lot of modern poetry deliberately eschews form or beauty, and is almost deliberately trying to put the reader off. Frankly, I think we’ve had enough of that. I think you can be profound without ceasing to be beautiful; you can deal with sorrow without losing form.

The first record I ever bought, which I bought second-hand in the very late sixties, was Bob Dylan’s “Highway Sixty-One Revisited”, and I almost feel I haven’t heard a better record since. At that time I liked Byron, and I liked Tennyson, but I found modern poetry quite difficult to read. I began to find in the lyrics of Dylan and Cohen, that was where the poetry was. I still regard Dylan as the paramount genius in both words and music of the twentieth century.

I’ve never bought this ‘high versus low’, or ‘classical versus popular’ thing: music is music. Louis Armstrong said there are “two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.” That’s how I would think about it. I don’t know how to do this miraculous thing that the [Girton] choir does every Sunday, so I’m in awe of that. I feel slightly like a beggar at the gate of this palace of music, letting sound spill into my bowl, but knowing that my bowl isn’t very big. When I listen to anything by Dylan or Van Morrison I actually know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and I’m eager to get up on the stage and do it myself.

To have a chaplain is to acknowledge that a university education is about the whole person—body, mind and spirit. I see my role as a Chaplain to help people stay in touch with the spiritual dimension of their lives, whatever their faith or lack of it. I never take it upon myself to drum something into them. However, of course I am a Christian, and I believe it profoundly. People know that if I’m going to draw water from a deep well to offer them something, that’s the well I’m drawing it from. I tend to work on that positive thing: I believe I can trust there’s a loving God because I see him loving to the bitter end on the cross.

In a secular age, I don’t think the religions are in competition with each other. Ultimately, everyone who wants to point to the transcendent, who wants to say there is more than the material—all of us who want that in modern society are on the same side.

I ride an old Harley Davidson motorbike, and I like the sense that I’m exposed to what’s happening on the road. I think one ends up riding and driving better, the more you’re a vulnerable road user. The more we’re vulnerable ourselves to the blows of what might happen, the more sensitive and compassionate we can be to others.