Wenlock Poetry Festival

Two years ago, I had an amazing three days as poet in Residence at the Wenlock Poetry Festival. There hasn't been one since, and a lot of us have missed it, so this year's one-day event was very definitely the next best thing. As usual, the WPF inspires small numbers of saints into huge amounts of work to contrive memorable events. Liz Lefroy has always been the presiding spirit of the busk, intelligent, witty and welcoming, tactfully steering huge numbers of performers through a series of five minute slots. This one went on for three hours, had little tastes of music in between, and featured a mouth-watering succession of performers, all of whom kept to time. Just amazing. Plus, it was at Priory Hall, next to the Church Green, with all doors open on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Carol Ann Duffy's gorgeous, corny line about "Wenlock is the perfect place for poetry" has never been more true.     

Feel Free

Just at the moment, waking up in the morning is a supreme pleasure. I get up, go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and settle back into Zadie Smith's latest collection of prose pieces - "Feel Free." It doesn't matter what she's writing about - dancing, hip hop, movies, book reviews, her own novels. Whatever the subject matter, the approach is lively, intelligent and honest, down to earth but never stupid, and often hilarious. She feels and sounds like a warm human being, but there's always something to set you thinking, a fresh insight that hadn't occurred to you before she actually put it into words. This book isn't going to last for ever, but I'm going to miss it when I actually get to the end.  

Making the Case

Sir Martin Donnelly, once Liam Fox's chief civil servant, has described leaving the EU as "like swapping a three-course meal for crisps." Fox is not impressed, dismissing Donnelly for sticking to the patterns of the past. and what does the future look like, in Fox's view? "Confidence, optimism and vision will always deliver more than pessimism or self-doubt." Whether or not that's true, Fox would have benefitted from attending an Arvon writing course, which would have taught him that a snappy concerete image will always beat a string of abstract nouns. 


A few weeks back, I was raving about the dramatic increase in the quality of TV drama. Oh dear. One by one, they disappoint me, settle for the easy cops and robbers route, simplify the issues, let characters lose all consistency and the plot lose plausibility - so long as it makes a good Tv moment. Cos we're peasants, and we'll settle for anything, right?

The saddest betray of all was Kiri, which in moments was a stunning look at what social workers do and what they have to put up with. But the denouement was all over the place. (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't watched it but plan to, look away here.)

Kiri has been illegally taken off by her biological father, from whom she then got separated, and killed by persons unknown. In the last episode, it turns out she was killed by her adopted dad, who couldn't bear that she was going off with her biological dad after all they'd done for her. Only snag is, biological dad knows nothing about this. He told the police that he and his daughter got separated, and he was looking for her all over. If they'd agreed to go off together, surely he'd be sitting outside her house, engine running, waiting for her to skip into the car.

If I pick this up on one viewing, surely they could afford to have somebody (unpaid amateur playwright like me, for instance) to go through the script looking for implausibilities, before they spend thousands on spurious political demonstrations that they don't need?      

House of Cards

Oh dear. i'm not sure if I ever finished series 4 of House of Cards, but since there's a whole virgin series 5 maybe I should go back to check, except that now we have the Spacey stories, and maybe that changes everything. It certainly doesn't help  when he and Underwood and Clare are having a tense discussion and he says "We can't afford to be weird with each other."   

But it's not just that. The manipulation, the ceaseless exploitation of others, the fits of simulated rage - it's all got very mechanical. The imminent defeat which will magically be transformed into a last-minute victory. As they go through the motions but I feel I've seen it all before. Maybe this has just gone on long enough, and the Spacey scandal is a twisted kind of favour in disguise. The early days, when Zoe Barnes was around, are a lively, tense memory, but maybe that is as good as it was ever going to get. 

Boy with a Topknot

I read one of Satnam Sanghera's memoirs, and heard him speak at a conference in Durham. I think he's a really sharp, intelligent writers, and he's interestingly different in arguing for the benefit of having a day job. Unlike almost any other writer you're heard of, he actually doesn't want everything in his life to be dependent on his writing.

So I was looking forward to the TV drama based on his account of his estrangement from his Sikh background, in parallel with his belated discovery that both his father and sister were suffering from depression. That would have been quite enough, because he explores that development with tough honesty, ready to acknowledge the ways in which he's been selfish and blind.

But of course that isn't enough. We couldn't end up with grim truths and hard-won wisdom. We have to have the cute romantic finish, the phone-call from Wolverhampton station with the girlfriend who's - look! just behind him - and happy-ever-after before the credits can roll. Richard Curtis has a lot to answer for.  

Poetic Licence

Poet A wins an Exmoor poetry competition - until someone points out that his poem is very similar to one by poet B. He tries to explain. "I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used poet B's poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn't entirely my own work."

Fair enough, you might think. Strange types these poets, at the mercy of the sub-conscious, never knowing whether or not the gold they're producing is their own, or an echo of someone else. But then you look at the facts. Both poems have 18 lines. 16 of those lines are identical. The two that have been changed - very much for the worse - allowed poet A to slip in an Exmoor reference which wasn't in poet B's. Otherwise, it's ninety per cent theft.   

Triolet Workshop

A triolet (variously pronounced triolette, or triolay, according to taste) is an eight-line form, where one line is repeated once, and another repeated twice. so that's five of the eight taken care of, as soon as you've written two lines. Not a lot of room for manoeuvre. At Ledbury on Sunday an American poet, A.E.Stallings was running a two-workshop on this eight-line verse form. Well, I thought, that’s got to be either rubbish or brilliant. It was brilliant. Totally riveting.  For 45 minutes she took us through a range of examples – Wendy Cope has a great one about poets being Byronic – offering little gems of insight, poems memorised off by heart, and occasional shafts of dry wit – “villanelles are generally much more fun to write than they are to read.”  And then we had 15 minutes in which to write our own. and then she worked around the group, us reading our poems, her commenting on rhythm, punctuation, rhymes – and possible other rhymes. I’ve never heard another poet so hooked on the beauty and variety of rhymes - sheer heaven. This is one of the few verse forms I've never attempted - just didn't think it was worth it. but on Sunday I managed three in a a day, and they won't be the last.  


Poetry Day

Well, it was for me. This afternoon we had the Great Get Together, on the church green in Much Wenlock, in memory of Jo Cox. a random assortment of Labour Party supporters, friends and progressive sympathisers had this bright idea of a picnic, sandwiching an hour of very assorted entertainment - belly dancing, a sixth-form girl singing, and me doing my poems - including the ballad of Jo Cox. it wasn't slick, but it was varied, positive and enjoyable, and brilliant weather showed Wenlock at its finest - a real pleasure just to be sitting around in the sun.

And in the evening, I was off into Shrewsbury to hear Luke Wright perform at the St. Nicholas Bar, which fancies itself and charges £4.00 for a bottle of beer. but that didn't really matter, since he was the reason, the main act and a totally sufficient excuse for putting up with almost anything. He's always entertaining, witty in his chat as well as in his poems, but there's areal technical interest in there - I loved his affection for the broadside ballads, his recognition of the value of what they were doing alongside an honesty that concedes their poetic failings. I don't like everything he does equally - the liopgrams seem to me artificial, clever but a bit pointless, and my fogeydom doesn't settle for some of his looser rhymes - but he has enormous energy and a real feel for words, and has the whole programme totally memorised - unbelievable.

So that was it. A beautiful, enjoyable day, with wall-to-wall poetry. More, please.   

Born to Kill

Sad how TV won't even look at any drama unless it's got some sort of a crime involved. Born to Kill is somewhere in the middle of the heap, not brilliant, not terrible. it's got some pretty crude psychology underpinning it - son of murderer turns out to be psychopathic killer, just like his dad - but a rivetting performance by the lad himself, who's clearly one to watch. Out on the fringes, though, is Daniel Mays as an ex-policeman going through a tricky time. He's a really good actor but he's made a mistake. This is a crap part, lousily written, which makes him look like a pathetic wimp and doesn't give him the chance to build anything of any interest. A tough reminder, as if we didn't know, that it has to be there in the writing or it won't be there at all. 


And here it is - Ali Smith's Brexit novel. Who could resist? My wonderful local library branch is still able to answer most of my requests, and here comes Ali's latest, for a bargain 60 p. As always, it's a treat. Lots of witty jokes and wordplay, a deep love of humanity, and much appropriate sadness about the way the Brexit debate has sioled us all. It's not just the decision; it's the manner of the argument, the bitterness on both sides that it leaves, whatever the outcome. and as I'm reading, i know I'm in good company, that Ali's suffering along with the rest of us, while also sharing her thoughts on the artist Pauline Boty. So it's thoughts, diary, essay, at times a poem - in fact, it's hardly a novel at all, but who cares? thanks, Ali - we need you more than ever. 

Days Without End

I've known for some time that Sebatsian Barry was a writer worth watching, but "Days Without End" really is special. It doesn't sound that appetising. Two gay soldiers involved in a violent war with Indian tribes - still interested? the subtlety and detail with which it's written is just fascinating. As I read through I kept keeping note of particular passages which struck me - describing what it was like for a young man to put on a dress and dance with soldiers; the sensation of driving rain; how it feels to be carrying out a massacre of defenceless civilialns; the effect of Famine on an Indian tribe. Versatile, yeah? you feel he can do anything and make you believe it. A book to treasure. 

Breaking Point?

This is the title of the poetry booklet I launched in Much Wenlock this evening. It was a gorgeous night, though the attendance was small - as ever, there was a long list of people who really would have liked to come, but...what mattered is that those who were there did want to come, were interested in the poems and the issues, and stayed to eat, drink and talk about them.

The poems are all about migration. The idea was to look at migration from various angles - historical, geographical, psychological and political. there's a tone of research that's gone into this - thorough reading of the Guardian most days (and the filing system that results from that) as well as books and TV programmes. There's even a poem called "Chorus of the Trolls" using some of the tweets received by Lily Allen and Gary Lineker.  

I know I'm not like most poets. I'm happy to make use of information - sometimes in some detail; I like regular forms - so there's sonnets, a ballad rhymed couplets and a villanelle; and i'm not shy about political commitment. I think the Farage side of the leave campaign was despicable, and am strongly opposed to the explicit hostility to migrants which has resulted from the campaign. So there. I'm not, of course, on the front line, but Wolverhampton city of Sanctuary are, and the booklet is being sold to raise money for them. £72.00 in the first week, which is not a fortune but is better than nothing. 

Civilised LRB

It's a bonus of retirement that I think I have sufficient time and money to maintain a subscription to the London Review of Books. that lets me in for some serious reading, some of which I can anticipate. In the issue I'm currently reading, for instance, I'm not surprised to find David Bromwich on how to respond to Trump, or Michael Wood's take on Moonlight. what comes as a massive bonus, though, is the obscure stuff I wasn't expecting - Rory Stewart on the accounts of Aleppo written in the eighteenth century by two Scottish brothers, who lived and worked there for years. Even better is a glorious essay on Hogarth, which starts from the obvious satirical stuff which I knew already, but moves on to some gorgeous, warm portraits I had never heard of - which are fabulously reproduced. Hannah Osborne and Thomas Coram, on p.10 of the LRB of Feb 16th. I take my time, I learn new stuff, I feel wiser and happier about the world. I know - I'm very lucky. 


There's so much drama on TV which doesn't quite make it - works hard, briefly promises, but just fails to convince or goes over the top, that it's a treat to welcome something that just feels totally right. Turning the whole of a novel into one 90-minute chunk feels like a huge risk, but for me the version of Zadie Smith's NW shown on BBC 1 was entirely convincing. Real characters, dialogue and situations. A huge range of background and character, but rooted in an utterly real London - part of whose identity depends on that rich variation within limited space. The friendship of the two main women, tied together but different in so many ways, was sympathetic and detailed, drawing you in. A mix of moods, no dull or stupid moments, just an hour and a half of sensitive intelligence and absorbing viewing. Such a treat. 

Trump Aftermath

Owen Jones and Naomi Klein are on the same page. No, they really are. In today's Guardian, two of my favourite gurus are piecing themselves together after the result of the US election, and - like they do - looking forwards. Last year in my Christmas circular I picked out their books as highlights of my year's reading - The Establishment, and This Changes Everything, both ambitious, patient, incurably optimistic. So I know what they'll say. They'll say don't despair, that's what the enemy wants you to do. Keep thinking, work together, find issues where there are leverage, and make change - like people do, all the time, sometimes an inch at a time. I know they're right, but God, it's hard. 

Elena Ferrante

While the fuss has all been about the unmasking of the reclusive writer, I've carried on with the real work, and just kept reading. it's been a total pleasure. This sequence of Neapolitan novels are advertised as a portrait of female friendship, and they're certainly that, but so much else as well. snippets of post-war Italian history, the changes in the neighbourhood, politics, business, and the whole drama of Elena's emergence as a writer - not simply a triumph, but an up/down helter-skelter ride. I've just finished the third one, "Those who leave and those who stay", which looks as though it's just about leaving home or not, having the nerve to break away from a poor Naples neighbourhood. But as it goes on it intensifies, and becomes about other kinds of leaving and staying - adultery and marital betrayal. And as Elena goes through shifts of contradictory feelings and behaviour, we're with her all the way, soppy as that sounds. there may well be tough-minded women out there saying that this is nothing like how it really happens, but I was and am totally convinced. If you're looking for something to read, log on to the library website, and all four volumes are sitting there waiting for you.   

A fistful of poets

Yes, more poetry. We are so lucky. Thanks to the glory of literary festivals (Birmingham and Wellington, Shropshire), I get to see four poets in four nights - Wendy Cope, Benjamin Zephaniah, Liz Berry and Moniza Alvi. If none of those names make any sense, take it from me that's an enormous range - between rhymed and unrhymed, comic and serious, political and sensual, contemporary and traditional. I'll get to hear each of them read their work and talk about it, and often in the talking there's a little nugget dropped which makes additional sense in understanding poems I already know. Can't wait.  

National Poetry Day

So, of course, I wrote a poem. Well, I knew I was going to, for a couple of days. First there was Jeremy Hunt at the Tory Party conference, confident that in no time at all he'd be able to staff the new approved, no-foreigners NHS. No surprise there. He knows about this stuff. He's been responsible for more British doctors leaving the NHS than anyone in history, so presumably you just turn the switch the other way, and it's all hunky dory.

then I remembered an amazing snippet from four years ago. Hunt was in trouble over the B Sky B negotiations, because he'd been cosying up to the Murdochs. Michael Gove, another Murdoch acolyte, toured the Radio studios in Hunt's support, saying why he should keep his job. Because he was intelligent and far-sighted? Oh, no. Because he was a terrific Latin American dancer, and did "an amazing lambada." You couldn't make it up.

That gave me my central image, the fluent, agile Hunt, dancing out of trouble. So I sat at the breakfast table in my dressing gown, finishing off the coffee and toast as I scribbled a twelve stanza account of Hunt's career - all rhyming, over 20 rhyme-sounds, but none of them with "Hunt." Cut it down to 8, send off a couple of begging e-mails, and that evening I'm performing it at Liz Lefroy's poetry evening in Shrewsbury. That was my part of National Poetry Day, and I had a ball.  

Suddenly, poetry is hot...

Poetry on the box. Who'd a thunk it? for years, telly averts have used doggerel which makes you want to curl up and die. Now Nationwide have the nous to use good poets like Hollie McNish, writing decent poems, which are about real people and not just flogging mortgages.

And now BBC of all places, has two hours of poetry on a Saturday night. Amazing. Railway Nation has a varied relay of writers, getting on and off the London-Glasgow train, just like Auden's Night Mail. Liz Berry, sly, observant and affectionate, picking up on the little horses in the Midlands landscape, but also on the vitality of two girls in her compartment. Andrew McMillan, sounding lyrical and intense, in the course of simple observation - we don't get that every weekend.

But after that comes Kate Tempest, sweeping in like a hurricane, somehow remembering a varied, detailed, humane monster of a poem with music, Let them Eat Chaos. Totally breathtaking.