James Fenton has been shot at, kidnapped, forced to eat his own dog and even dabbled in West End musicals. He's also the most talented poet of his generation. David Jenkins talks to him about love, death, war - and Imelda Marcos. Portrait by Paul Quinn
Where to begin with James Fenton?
He's the recipient, this year, of the Queen's Medal for Poetry, and the man who rode the first North Vietnamese tank into the Presidential Palace when Saigon fell in April 1975. He's a trustee of the National Gallery, intimately involved with the choosing of that institution's new director, and the one-time film critic of Socialist Worker, slapped over the wrist by the comrades for an over-enthusiastic meditation on the joys of the Carry On series. He's the Antiquarian of the Royal Academy, and a man who was kidnapped in Belfast by the IRA - his captors took a vote on whether to shoot him; it was decided, 5-4, that he should live.
'I went out there,' Fenton says, in his grave, measured voice, 'and Marcos fell. And that was sort of coincidental. Though to some it seemed?…'
His voice trails away. He's sitting beneath a pergola in the remarkable garden he's created at his house, six miles from the centre of Oxford. A heron is honking, bees are buzzing and sunlight is playing on his massive head. Not that it's out of proportion; there is, as his friend Christopher Hitchens says, 'a lot of James'.