Christopher Reid. Bridlington Poetry Festival. 10-06-11

Christopher Reid is a fine poet, and he didn’t need to win the Costa Prize to prove it. His reading at Bridlington poetry festival was mostly from his collection of poems, A Scattering. This collection is a beautiful tribute to his wife and an unflinching account of her illness, her death and his grief. It is deeply moving, a collection of poetry which is both complex and accessible- a rare gift. He is not a performance poet, there is no reason why he should be, and to attempt to “perform” any of these poems would do them a disservice. He read simply, from the heart, and even doing this much must have taken a lot of courage given their subject matter. He movingly described the collection as poems that he had tried to make out of a bad business. I was very glad to have the chance to hear the poems spoken in his own voice and to see the man I almost felt that I had got to know from reading them in the flesh. He has said that they are his best work, and I am only sorry that he had to suffer such a dreadful loss in order to produce them. They are a single minded, direct look at emotional distress- the writing of a man who is facing deep feelings and tremendous loss and has the courage to analyse and express his grief and his reaction to it. Already the collection is both admired and loved and I am sure that it will stand the test of time alongside the expressions of grief in Wordsworth’s Lucy poems and Tennyson’s In Memoriam.

He also read some new work, dramatic poems which will be set to music in an opera. I felt that these really did need an actors voice before I could judge them properly. I wish him every happiness and success in the future. I don’t know him of course, but anyone who has read A Scattering will understand why I feel that I need to say that. He is also a very generous and incisive workshop leader as I found out the day after this reading. I wasn’t surprised. This is someone who has edited Ted Hughes after all. As far as I’m concerned recommendations don’t come much higher than that.

A few days after the reading I listened to Robert Bathurst read the whole collection on radio four. He read them quite beautifully but strangely there was also something lost from the reading given by their author. I was glad to have heard them in what might be thought of as their original voice. Halting, diffident, almost puzzled sometimes, but beautifully sincere with every phrase pointed perfectly.


Ian and Andrew McMillan. Bridlington Poetry Festival. 10-06-11

Ian and Andrew McMillan’s appearance at Bridlington poetry festival was a delight. There was plenty to make you think, and much to make you laugh. In his introduction to Ian McMillan John Wedgewood Clarke described him as a force for good and I am absolutely sure that everyone in the audience went home feeling better for having been there.

Andrew McMillan’s work fascinated me. In some ways it is like his father’s, there is the same concise wit and accessibility, but this has been thrown up against a romantic sensibility to produce something utterly different. I particularly liked the poem he read about a man who survived the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, went home to Nagasaki and survived the second blast there, and finally died of cancer as a very old man. This is a true story from which Andrew takes the idea that perhaps miracles are possible, just not forever. I’m sure that he has a great future as a poet. Having a dad like his is a good start and a great way to learn and develop by observation and experience, but that’s all it is- just a start. I shall look forward to seeing more of his work in the coming years.

Once we were in the hands of Ian McMillan we could sit back with his son and enjoy watching a master at work. He has been performing his work for a few decades now since he started out on the live poetry circuit in the 1970’s and my goodness it shows. His timing is assured and he has a perfect sense of his audience and how to keep the momentum of a set going and build an atmosphere. By the time his audience were treated to his classic Barnsley version of Genesis, which begins “Nowt……. Summat.” we were putty in his hands and ready to laugh at anything. The bright entertaining surface of his work, and his skill in delivering it, is allied to a sharp observational sense of the absurdities and tragedies of everyday life- poetry which is all around us. “You don’t have to make it up” as he says, and this duality makes his community work a great success, bringing poetry to unexpected places in order to celebrate a brewery on its closure, or describe a miners feelings about working anywhere else but down the pit. He gets some criticism of course. The following morning a fellow workshop participant described him to me rather snootily as a “professional Yorkshireman” but there is a lot more to him than that. There is warmth, thoughtfulness and humanity there too when you look beneath the surface. The people, and the society, who he reaches out to in his work need him and long may he continue.

This was an evening of thought provoking fun. Father and son make a great team. Hearing their work together provides interesting contrasts and they compliment each other well. It is also touching to see that they are obviously very proud of each other. It is good to see a tradition being passed on and taken forward in a new way. It happens in folk music, so why not poetry?

Simon Armitage. Bridlington Poetry Festival. 12-06-10

The Orangery at Sewerby Hall is a light and airy setting for a poetry reading, a nice place to listen and a small enough venue to feel intimate. This was the first session of the very first Bridlington poetry festival and they had the good sense to book Simon Armitage for it. The chattering classes were out in force (who’d have thought it in Brid!) and there was a sense of occasion. Simon Armitage is good company when he gives a reading, he is funny, friendly and down to earth. He has had plenty of experience at it now of course, his first collection was published in 1989 and he has been writing, broadcasting and winning prizes ever since, but like his work he has stayed young and fresh and vigorous. His experience and knowledge is well beyond that of most of his audience but he wears it lightly and never makes you feel that you are being talked down to. He is able to tell anecdotes which he will almost always have told before and still make them new and interesting. It was a carefully judged performance. He didn’t take questions, which was a shame, but I wasn’t too disappointed as we would have had less time to hear him read. There are some writers who you really need to hear as well as see on the page, as an extra layer of understanding and meaning is gained from hearing the rhythms of their own speech and listening to the words in their own accent, and he is one of them. He said at one point that he has never travelled far (he still lives in West Yorkshire close to where he was born) but that obviously doesn’t count the miles that he clocks up inside his head.

Not many writers are capable of being witty and profound at the same time and it is a delight when you find one who can manage it. I love the way that his work suckers you in by being entertaining before delivering a knockout punch that makes you think. The shout, which he began with at Bridlington, is a good example of that. Accessibility is an underrated virtue when it comes to poetry, there is something very special about work which is thoughtful and packed with ideas, but still easily comprehensible. It means that there is a way into the poem for everyone and you can run with it as far as you want. The best of Roger McGough’s work is like this and in some ways Simon Armitage reminds me of him.

This was a lovely evening, relaxed, thoughtful and entertaining. At the signing afterwards I was even able to tell him how much I had enjoyed his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although the worried look in his eyes when he thought I might be about to go on a bit sent me scuttling off pretty quickly. Five pounds well spent.