Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of CanterburyDr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the star names already booked to appear at this year’s Marlborough Literary Festival in September – to talk about the war poets during the centenary year of World War I.
A poet himself, Dr Williams will be appearing with the philosopher AC Grayling, author of more than 30 books and founder of New College of the Humanities, the UK's first independent arts university, and Jenny Uglow, the publisher, critic and biographer whose subjects include Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and William Hogarth.
Announcing their names, the LitFest says: “This year will be our fifth anniversary and we very much hope you can celebrate with us. The dates are Friday 26 to Sunday 28 September. So write them in your 2014 diary as soon as you can.
“While we put together our programme, no one can accuse us of 'dumbing down' as we bring you some of the deepest thinkers of our time.”
And it adds: “We are especially thrilled to host Dr Williams here as Marlborough was the town where Siegfried Sassoon spent his formative years. This former Archbishop has been an outspoken force for justice and fairness in our society, with particularly strong views about the evils of war.
“He was once arrested for singing psalms as part of a CND protest and more recently expressed his disgust at British policy on Iraq.”
In fact, 63-year-old Dr Williams, now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, hit back at Christmas at what he described as “disturbing” comments made about food banks by Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith.
The Work and Pensions Secretary accused the Salisbury-based Christian charity The Trussell Trust, which has provided emergency food parcels in Cambridge – and Marlborough too -- of being politically-motivated and scaremongering by blaming welfare reforms for the rise in the number of people it helps.
But Dr Williams, who is the patron of Cambridge City Foodbank, which supported 2,390 people in crisis last year, declared: “It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers -- but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.
“The real scaremongering is the attempt to deny the seriousness of the situation by – in effect – accusing those seeking to help of dishonesty as to their motivation.”
And Dr Williams added: “I would urge the Secretary of State to visit any Food Bank he chooses and to listen to the accounts of what is actually happening.
“It may not change his policies but it might at least persuade him not to attack the motives of hard-pressed volunteers and generous donors.”
Carol Ann Duffy at Marlborough College's Memorial HallThey applauded often – and cheered too – when Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and her remarkable musical partner John A Sampson appeared on stage at Marlborough College’s grand Memorial Hall on Sunday night.
The audience was packed with students of all ages attending the redoubtable College, where former laureate Sir John Betjeman was educated – how many of them knew that? – and where Kate Middleton too excelled at hockey before becoming our future Queen.
But there was no reference at the Marlborough LitFest star event to either by 57-year-old Duffy, born in Glasgow’s Gorbals, the first female laureate to be appointed by the Queen, the first Scot too, appropriately under the Acts of Union dating from 1707 and 1800.
Indeed, though she read, all dressed in sombre black, a poem relating to World War I, any reference about appearing in an immaculate venue dedicated to those who died in the trenches was denied reference or comment.
And though she has declined to welcome Prince George into the world with a poem of celebration, there was nothing “royal” on her programme too, all very much a repeat of her performance at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and other LitFest events around the country.
John A SampsonThe honorary laureate post, in fact, makes no stipulation as to what a Poet Laureate is expected to write about. So Duffy’s programme, almost a modern musichall double act with Sampson excelling on a variety of strange instruments – his brilliant blast on a hunting horn stopped anyone snoozing at the start -- now appears to be a show for hire.
Is that what we expect?
If anyone understands poetry, then it is today’s kids, especially those at a privileged public school, perhaps untainted with texting, and they certainly enjoyed the jokes and gentle jibes with which Duffy kept them laughing.
“When Meryl Streep was Prime Minister” was perhaps the best, but there were digs too at Nick Clegg selling his soul, and poems where she bought a kidney with her credit card and wrote to the Queen in praise of Brian Clough.
Duff started by reading poems that reflected her own schooldays, in particular one about King Midas, whose golden touch truly resonated in today’s corrupt world of bankers whose excesses have sadly heralded our economic disasters.
Her poem on mythological Tiresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years after killing a monster snake, brought to life some amusing insights in today’s world of sex change and same sex marriage.
More interestingly, Duffy retold the story of how an anti-violence poem set for a GCSE exam, which was banned from the curriculum because of a misguided complaint by an invigilator that it extolled the use of knives.
The exuberant uplift that poetry needs was not to be found in Duffy’s monotone voice, her straight face showing hardly any of the pent-up emotion evident in the poignancy and innate wisdom of her words and phrases.
Only at the end did she unbend a little while reading a remarkable poem entitled Cold, which concerns the death of her own mother and in which she imagines meeting her for the first time at the fatal moment.
And then going back in time with her mother to earlier days, a chilling experience in what was nevertheless an evening to remember, certainly for the students.
It would be interesting to read what their verdict was – and whether it might inspire another Poet Laureate from Marlborough College as time goes by.
Carol Ann Duffy by Ben PhillipsSo, that Carol Ann Duffy.
Poet Laureate for a few years (no it's not Andrew Motion anymore. Or John Betjemen). Looks like a Serious Proper poet in the photos. In real life (and in her poetry) a wry humour and, although her words can be 'deep', she quite enjoys a frivolous heckle.
Her event was the finale of the fourth Marlborough Lit Fest last night, as she performed with John A Sampson - a musician who shares that wry humour with a huge streak of silliness.
The venue was the Marlborough College Memorial Hall - a place I last was in for an Abba tribute act. And half the audience was last in it for a school assembly, probably.
The Mem Hall is like a huge drawing room - long brown patterned curtains, table lamps at the top of each row of seats and glass lanterns hanging from the celling. We entered through what looked like a confessional box. So the stage was set for a religious Victorian* recital.
And indeed there were recitals of music and poetry though not as the Victorians would have known it. John opened with Charge of the Light Brigade performed on a herald's trumpet, which may have been some kind of obtuse reference to our local Lord Cardigan. (Or I might have made that connection because I saw him earlier that day, volunteering to keep the charge of shoppers in order at a National Childbirth Trust sale).
This trumpet was the first of many, increasingly obscure instruments during the performance. A great introduction by John, wonderful in its simplicity: basically a few tunes followed by 'and here's Carol Anne Duffy.' And really that's all the intro she should ever need but...it says something about the popularity of professional poetry today that the top poet in the country is not universally recognised, or had not packed out this event. As one of the co-ordinators of the Swindon Poetry Festival (which starts this Thursday) said at this year's launch: 'Even Carol Anne Duffy can't earn a living from poetry and has a second job.' Don't get me wrong. It's the biggest venue in Marlborough and was very busy but the Abba tribute band was busier.
Anyway, I'm on my seventh paragraph and nothing about the poetry so far.
For the first bit, CAD opened with a selection from The World's Wife, an anthology that featured mythological characters, reimagined with modern lives and a spouse, and spoke with the wife's voice. The best thing about hearing CAD read her own poems are the enlightening introductions, the meaningful delivery and the nugget of insight into where her personal politics lie. So, for Mrs Midas: 'being married to [gold touch] King Midas would be a nightmare. Mrs Tiresias: the punishment of being turned into a woman for seven years is 'a bit like being poet laureate.' Mrs Faust: on Faust selling his soul to the devil was 'like Nick Clegg.'
And I really liked that CAD didn't assume any knowledge - I wasn't expected to know who any of the characters were or what high jinks they'd got up to, Carol explained all this in her preambles. Too much of poetry (and art), I find, revel in being deliberately obtuse.
Then more from John. He asked us if we knew where one of his exotic looking instruments was from. I can't remember the correct answer but I do remember someone heckling 'Swindon.' That's what you get from a student audience - training themselves for stand-up comedy nights. Tickled CAD though.
CAD read from anthologies Rapture and her latest, The Bees. She recited her poetic response to the stripping of her twenty five year old poem Educating for Leisure ('written when Meryl Streep was prime minister') from a GCSE syllabus, leaving in its place an empty space except for the statement: 'This page has been deliberately left blank.' The cutting of her poem was so hilariously wrong footed that it needed a repost in the shape of a poem to cover all the angles (see Slashing arts funding is like burning the Mona Lisa warns the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy) However, that kind of bad press is just the thing to make reading poetry popular again...
The Bees, by the way, is about 'the buzz of anxiety about bees, the canary of the mind.' The poem, The Human Bee tells how humans have been needed to pick up the slack in some parts of China, where bee colonies have collapsed. Other themes included the devastation of Hillsborough (Liverpool), A Secular Prayer and, er, being advised by the Post Office not to write counties in addresses anymore (okay, so that one had a deeper meaning of loss of place and regional identity).
The evening finished off with a beautifully emotive piece about CAD's mother, Premonitions, which remembered her relationship backwards from the time of her mother's death. Wonderful. I wanted to thank her for sharing something that was so personal but was also - like poems are best as - so universal.
Then the students who surrounded me leapt like practised gazelles up the padded (but still uncomfortable) wooden benches**, discussing how they were going to stave off the teenage hunger pangs, whilst I walked back to life my middle aged numb butt.
*The other, more knowledgeable (smug), chronicler tells me it was built as a WW1 'memorial' and therefore can't be Victorian in style. In the words of the student populous: whatever. I won't let the facts get in the way of a good analogy.
**The other, more knowledgeable (#sigh), chronicler tells me that the benches are listed and there was a battle a couple of decades ago with English Heritage to allow them to be padded.
Jeremy Strong by Ben PhillipsWhen I was seven, Saturday morning TV offered two choices: the anarchic Tiswas on ITV – home of frequent gunk-ings, custard pies and the dying fly dance – or BBC's Swap Shop, where the producers' idea of anarchy was Noel Edmonds wearing loud sweaters and Cheggars saying wey-hey a lot.
These days, Saturday morning TV is wall-to-wall cookery shows, so this Saturday morning I took my seven-year-old, Milo, to Marlborough Literature Festival at the Town Hall to meet Jeremy Strong, the author my son's favourite series of anarchic novels, based around the characters in 'My Brother's Famous Bottom...'.
For the uninitiated, these fast-paced, quick-witted books follow the antics of a fairly normal boy, called Nicholas, and his family of crazies (the nuttiest of whom, by far, is his dad, Ron, although gran comes a close second.)
There are nine books in the series, and the titular Famous Bottom doesn't actually appear until book four, but has – apparently at the insistence of publisher Puffin – appeared ever since.
In the flesh, we (well, I) found Jeremy Strong to be mainly Swap Shop, with only the merest hint of Tiswas. There was, for instance, little mention of the word 'bottom', save for an admission that the first 'bottom' book had probably sold so well because it had the word in the title.
He was very keen to support and encourage young authors, of whom there were many in the audience – Milo included. (Later, I discovered that his website reflects this, with a Krazy Klub for kids and Key Stage Two resources for teachers.)
So, he's more Posh Paws than Spit the Dog. But once in a while, the ludicrous streams of consciousness that make his 77 children's novels (no, I'm not claiming to have read them all – I'm generalising) shone through, and when they did, Jeremy had members of the audience – young and old – in stitches.
His tale of minding his baby sister as a child – which struck a chord with Milo, who has his own six-month-old sibling thrust on him from time to time – went from amusing to chortletastic, as he embellished the facts to have the baby being thrown from her pram and entering orbit, where she can still be seen today, in the earth's upper atmosphere.
Similarly, his answer to a question from the floor about what inspired him to become a writer started as a story about the desire to please a favourite teacher, before developing into a fantastic yarn about the older teachers, who prowled the corridors like dinosaurs, and in fact were dinosaurs, and whose fangs dripped with drool that burned a hole in the page, the desk, the floor, the earth, through which the young Jeremy fell, ending up in Australia.
“It took me four weeks to get back,” he told his enraptured audience, “and when I got home my mother said: “where have you been? Your tea has gone cold.'”
Anyway, an hour in the company of Jeremy Strong flew by, and Milo – not a lad normally known for his patience – was more than happy to queue for almost half an hour to meet his literary hero.
And when he did, and handed over a copy of the latest book - the jubilee-themed Mr Brother’s Famous Bottom Gets Crowned – to be signed, he delivered an unintentional one liner that makes me chuckle every time I replay it in my mind.
Pen poised over the frontispiece, the author asked “Who's it for?” To which Milo replied “me”.