The Invention of Dr. Cake by Andrew Motion

You could fit what I know about Andrew Motion onto a postage stamp: ex-poet laureate, author of a chunky biog of Philip Larkin which lurks on my shelves waiting for the right moment to be read, and an erudite commentator on documentaries I watch! However, apart from being a poet of note, he also seems to write in different genres, and I stumbled across this nice little book in the Sue Ryder charity shop recently. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the book (which came out in 2003) was fiction or fact, but it certainly sounded intriguing and so I couldn’t resist…


“Dr. Cake…” is a book that immediately unsettles, as Motion with straight face introduces it by stating that he needed a change from thick, realistic biographies and that a certain character had caught his eye. This was one William Tabor, who Motion supposedly came across while researching his book “Wainewright the Poisoner”. The latter was a notorious painter/poet/murderer and Tabor himself was, according to Motion, a minor poet as well as a doctor. Tabor had published verse in his youth and then abandoned this for medicine, only returning to verse very late in his life when he undertook to complete Keats’ abandoned “Hyperion”.

But the focus of the story is not all on Tabor; he will be our narrator, but the tale he will tell is of his encounters with one Dr. John Cake. The bulk of the book consists of documents left behind by Tabor, relating his various meetings with Cake and also his funeral in 1844; the documents are apparently edited by Motion but the story is Tabor’s.

And a fascinating one it is too. Tabor is a reformer, trying to improve conditions for the poor and writing scholarly works on the subject. Having spotted that Dr. Cake was of the same turn of mind, he contacted his fellow medic and was invited to his house in the depths of Essex to discuss their findings. However, very little of the medical is discussed, as it turns out that both doctors have a poetic turn of mind. Cake is a man in poor health, dying of consumption, yet he seems anxious to discuss the art of verse with Tabor, despite the strain it puts on him. His house is certainly a singular one, with a linnet in a cage and goldfish in a bowl, and a very protective housekeeper called Mrs. O’Reilly who seems to have a very close relationship with her employer. As the men discuss poetry and poets, it seems that there is a mystery about Dr. Cake and something he wants to communicate to Tabor before he dies – but what is it?

And thus it is I come to speak
The Truth with this last breath:
we spend our lives pursuing Life
But only find our death.

(Motion or Tabor or Keats?)

To say any more about the book would be to spoil the fun, and it’s going to be difficult to discuss this at all without giving too much away. So if you plan to read it, and want to approach it with no preconceptions (like I did) then LOOK AWAY NOW! So, it’s safe to say that this is indeed a very clever work of fiction, in which Motion imagines a situation from the past to be different to how it actually was, and this is the story of the consequences. It involves Keats, who is obviously very important to Motion (he’s written a biography of him which is very highly rated), but it covers much more than just the life of Dr. Cake and the mystery surrounding it.


Central to the book is Cake and Tabor’s discussions on poetry. Cake is of the opinion that most poets burn out – he cites later Wordsworth and Coleridge to support his argument; and he feels that it is best to either die young or stop writing when you feel the inspiration going and take a different path in life. Tabor does not necessarily agree, hoping that Wordsworth will find his muse again. It is this debate that occupies most of their brief time together and leads Tabor to the view he has by the end of the book. I shan’t say any more – nothing is conclusive at the finale but it’s certainly an intriguing conceit that Motion has come up with, and one that allows him plenty of scope to discuss the pros and cons of writing poetry all your life.

So Andrew Motion has actually produced a rather wonderful little volume. At 142 pages it’s concise enough to tell its story, discuss its main point, intrigue and entertain without boring the reader or overstaying its welcome. A discussion of the merits of poets and their longevity could be dull as ditchwater, but this certainly isn’t. Tabor/Motion-as-Tabor is a lyrical narrator, capturing the beauty of the world around him, as well as the emotions the poets go through. “The Invention of Dr. Cake” is something of a meta-title as the titular medic could be said to be invented by himself, by Tabor and by Motion! Nevertheless, this was one of those joyous and serendipitous charity shop finds and I’m so glad I stumbled across it.