I went to Aldeburgh in the rain. In the drizzle. I went for the big poetry festival – the one the Poetry Trust puts on every year, with money from the Arts Council which will no longer be forthcoming after this year’s cuts – and at the last minute, because there was some stuff I had to do there. Never you mind. So I went, although I was tired and stressed out and not feeling at all like it, and all I really wanted was a cosy time at home with my nearest and dearest, or whatever can be mustered of them these days. I wanted a rest, a break, some coddling.
But Aldeburgh – lo and behold, lots of good things did happen there.
1. Good friends.
2. For literally the first time in several years, I workshopped a poem.
3. Amazingly, I had a poem! Apparently it wasn’t bad.
4. And got to workshop some other people’s poems. It’s easy to forget how you do in fact miss something; you just get used to it not being there.
5. Good red wine and a lit fire and food.
6. Even the four hours or so I spent trudging around Aldeburgh in the drizzle on Saturday, feeling progressively more pointless and out of it – without the budget for the poetry events (even with the funding, £7 for the very cheapest reading!) and no one to run into and have a chat with – was probably good decompression time. I knew I needed it; that was one reason I went, as it’s possibly my last chance for a bit to escape from London.
7. The sea, the sea. A flat grey line below a flat grey sky, and punctuated with little fishing boats. And up close, bracken and grasses. And the insolence of the seagulls which is so different from Hackney insolence.
8. Fish & chips. Had some. Really good.
9. Kay Ryan, I did manage to hear her read – a real treat. In person she is like a little sort of garden gnome, in her little jacket – almost like a jerkin with sleeves – and grey trousers, with what looked very much like a pair of wellies. (Wellies, onstage! You couldn’t do that in London.) (I told this garden gnome thing to a friend. He’s a bit of a wag. He held up a finger and said: Would you say she was…. gnomic…?) So Kay Ryan read her gnomic and technically shining little jewels of poems, from her new Carcanet selected edition, Odd Blocks. It was wonderful to hear how these tiny, spare, stylised, formally perfect poems flow so naturally out of her actual speaking voice, with its inflections and rhythms. And she herself was charming, light, delighted, and completely unlike anyone else. Very refreshing.
10. More good friends. I was really feeling the good-friends thing. Sometimes it’s good to know they’re there.
11. And a pub full of others, and the drink flowing, and everyone happy – and suddenly there’s the legendary Gerry Cambridge, who changed my life in some small way a few years ago, when he asked me to review Ted Hughes’ letters for The Dark Horse.
12. And finally. What was really, really great was to be seeing all these people in a little pub with a 7-foot ceiling down some old steps at the end of a tiny road, under a big sky, next to the sea. And not just the usual, London people, either.
There was more, but that’s for tomorrow.
One thought. Although the tickets are expensive – it’s a well-heeled and older-than-they-are-young crowd – and a slight feeling I just couldn’t shake of being somehow crucially out of my element during those few hours when I was trudging and had nowhere to go, and no one to not go there with, and for some reason I couldn’t even find anyplace that looked convincingly like a coffee shop where you could sit down properly, and read a book – and the fact that this isn’t the kind of event you could really call ‘inclusive’ in any way the Arts Council currently recognises – I was ultimately bolstered and buoyed by it. It is a Good Thing. It brings poets from far reaches, so that people (who have the entrance fee, train fare and the price of a B&B) can hear them read. It brings people from all over the country. It boosts the local economy, and encourages and helps the secondhand booksellers to sell their poetry books. It focuses on the poetry itself, on readings and books and workshops on craft. I mean, the subsidy serves the art form, helping Britain to have better poetry. It’s really worth remembering to think of it that way.
It’s also wonderful that, as well as its music festival, Aldeburgh gets its poetry festival too; that the town and the art forms can both multi-task. That our musical little art form gets its weekend at the seaside. It’s going to be a real shame not to be able to go back again next year, if they do have to fold – just as I was getting into it.
Oh – and Nancy Gaffield won the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize for first collection, for her very interesting Tokaido Road – that’s great news for her, and it’s two of the last three for CB Editions. There’s nothing on the web yet, so I hope I’m right! But this is what I did hear.
You just have to love that there is still an arena in which news takes several days to reach the web. It’s the poets. “I can’t put my press release up now, I’m in the pub.”