Friday, 20 March 2015

GREAT HAPPENINGS

I'm writing this on the day of the eclipse and the vernal equinox.

Here in Cumbria there was a fair amount of cloud playing hide and seek with the moon so the eclipse was a case of now you see it, now you don't.  Nevertheless it was impressive.  There was that weird light you get with an eclipse and it seemed as if the moon was swallowing the sun.  I was reminded of R S Thomas's poem "The moon in Lleyn": "the serpent / digests the egg."

Words by the Water began in winter and ended in spring.  There was snow on the mountains but during the week daffodils started to emerge with some conviction and on the last day a wild plum tree was in blossom in the car park.

The festival began for me with my first night poetry reading.  Thank you to everyone who came - it was lovely to see you in the studio theatre.  My reading served as an introduction to the Out of Time exhibition in the theatre's Friends' Gallery.  A cross border collaboration in more ways than one.  My poems, Horatio's photographs.  I'm from the English side of the border, Horatio from the Scottish side.  After my event I was back in the studio to hear Blake Morrison read from his fine new collection Shingle Street.

There's always a real buzz about the theatre during the festival.  Thousands of people come for events throughout the week.  I enjoyed catching up with friends and meeting new people.  I heard talks on the Arts, Politics, the Peasants' Revolt, literary visitors to Mirehouse, the Middle East and on landscape.  On impulse I bought too many books.

I chaired the last speaker of the festival, Rose Mitchell, with her beautiful book of maps selected from 700 years of cartography (both real and imaginary) in the British Archives at Kew.  After her talk the crowds melted away.  By 7 o clock only the hard-working staff from Bookends were left, packing away their remaining unsold stock.

When I had sorted out the exhibition catalogues for the theatre box office to sell during the remaining time of the exhibition (it will be taken down on April 7)  I walked out of the deserted foyer and across the empty car park.  It felt like school after the last day of term.

But there in the car park was that wild plum blossom heralding spring.  And in my head were the memories of the people I had met during the week and the stimulating words and ideas I had heard.

The festival is over for another year but the dates are already booked for 2016.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

OUT OF TIME AND MORE

This is going to be a busy week.  On Wednesday we'll be setting up the exhibition of poems and photographs for Out of Time, then on Friday I'll be reading the poems in the Studio theatre with Horatio's poems projected onto the wall behind me.  Friday will be the first day of Words by the Water, Keswick's annual literary festival.

I'm writing this on St David's Day and a few daffodils have made an appearance in honour of the patron saint of Wales.  I very much enjoyed hearing the first National Poet of Wales, Gwynedd Lewis, on BBC Radio 3's Private Passions at lunchtime today.  This is a lovely programme, an upmarket version of Desert Island Discs.  It's like listening to a private conversation between Michael Berkeley and his guests and the choice of music is always surprising.

Earlier this week the David Cohen Award was given to the poet Tony Harrison, whose intelligent, gritty and controversial work has always engaged with things that really matter.  He's 77 and planning a new book to come out when he's 80.  He admires Matisse who did some of his best work in his 80s: "I'm hoping to have a ninth decade like Matisse", he said.

The David Cohen doesn't have the razzamatazz of the Man Booker, the Whitbread or the Costa - perhaps because it doesn't have to advertise anything.  But, unlike the more well-known prizes, it's probably the literary award most worth receiving because it is given for a lifetime's achievement, not just for one book.  Two poets have won before - Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney.

The winner is given the additional Clarissa Luard Award to donate to a literary charity.  Tony Harrison has donated his to the Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere.  Much appreciated, I imagine, after Arts Council England withdrew its funding for the Trust's contemporary poetry programme.  Ironically, the Clarissa Luard Award is funded by ... Arts Council England.

Can we hope for some Grasmere summer readings after all?