Sunday, 15 March 2020

WORDS BY / IN THE WATER

Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, Festival of Words and Ideas


‘The Lake District is so beautiful because it rains a lot’, Cumbrians say by way of consolation.  Last week was not the best for weather – strong winds and persistent rain most days, but fortunately not enough water to breach the flood barriers in Keswick. 

We had to wait until Friday for the sun to come out and Derwent Water to become calm and reflective.  In the morning I walked to Friar’s Crag with a friend, accompanied by birdsong.   There were bright points of yellow flowers on scrubby gorse and a couple of clumps of primroses in flower beneath the trees.

Through the prism of poetry was the billing for the poetry reading at Words by the Water.  I was due to read with Alwyn Marriage and by February I had started to  worry: one of the festival organisers had told me that only about half the tickets for the reading had been sold.  ‘Well, that’s reasonable. It’s enough to go ahead’.  Behind the voice did I imagine a tone of resignation that poetry blight would strike?  Last autumn I had urged the organisers to put on the poetry reading and assured them that there would be a good audience.

But those Cumbrian last-minuters did turn up on the afternoon of 11 March.  The Circle Gallery with its lovely views over Derwent Water and Cat Bells was full – and more than full.  Officially the gallery seats thirty but I was delighted to see extra chairs being brought in.  A few latecomers got in free because the box office computer refused to print any more tickets.

The theatre staff had arranged the chairs in a semi-circle - ideal for a poetry reading.  Alwyn and I each read in two slots.   I mixed poems from my two recent collections – Trace and Alphabet Poems.  I like a few props so I had big letters for A, J, Q and Z, and some pictures. I had to buy a whole cabbage from Booth’s to get a cabbage leaf for ‘Edward Weston photograph’ and a broom from the ironmonger for my final poem (‘Puck’ – ‘Now it’s ended and I’m here with a broom’).  Alwyn read a variety of her work, finishing with her narrative poem ‘Chiara’ about St Clare and St Francis.  Her husband, Hugh, read the words of St Francis. 

What a difference a week makes.  When I travelled to Cumbria on the 6th extra hand-washing seemed to be the only obvious difference between life before Corona virus and life after.  As the week went by we noticed a few more empty seats – was it the weather or the virus that had put people off?  By the end of the week news came that the last day of the festival (today, as I write) had been cancelled because all the speakers had dropped out.   The man at the bookshop said, ‘The next few months are going to be very lean’.  If there is one positive thing we can do at this extraordinary time it is – support local businesses, including local indie bookshops.  They need all the help they can get.


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