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LIterary Festival 2013

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy misses out on the true meaning of Marlborough

Carol Ann Duffy at Marlborough College's Memorial HallCarol 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 SampsonJohn 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.

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Carol Ann Duffy – not at all stuffy

Carol Ann Duffy by Ben PhillipsCarol 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 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.

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Saturday morning fun with Famous Bottom author at Marlborough Literature Festival

Jeremy Strong by Ben PhillipsJeremy 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”.

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Charles Dickens’ love for his Queen revealed amid the class war clash still with us today

Charles Dickens fell madly in love with Queen Victoria.  And on her honeymoon night with Prince Albert he went to Windsor Castle and rolled in the mud in dire protest of what was happening in her bedroom above.

It’s a true story of Dickens, the rebellious republican writer, protector of the poor and his passion for his adored young Queen who ruled Britain at its most powerful period that was revealed at the Marlborough Lit Fest on Saturday.

And unveiling the saga, Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ award-winning biographer, provided a poignant echo of the Victorian  political clash of the classes still remaining in austerity-hit Britain today.

She quoted Queen’s Victoria’s personal farewell to Dickens written after his remarkable and relentless refusal to present himself to his sovereign over a period of 30 years in what was an unprecedented rejection of royal commands.

But the two most famous people of the age finally met at Windsor Castle -- when Victoria was 51 and Dickens 58. It was March, 1870, and within weeks the creator of of Oliver Twist, Mr Pickwick, David Copperfield, Scrooge and Little Dorrit was dead.

But undoubtedly not forgotten.

In her journal Queen Victoria wrote: “He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy for the poorest classes. He felt sure that a better feeling and greater union of the classes would take place in time.

“And I pray earnestly that it may...”

Claire TomalinClaire TomalinAs Claire, 80-year-old biographer of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy told the packed Town Hall audience at the start: “The story I have to tell is quite special about Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria – writers and royals”.

She explained how Sir Arthur Helps, clerk to the Privy Council and adviser to the Queen, repeatedly tried to bring the pair together. He saw that the names of Dickens and Queen Victoria were going to become iconic – “And he was right,” she declared.

Dickens was a man of super-human energy and productivity who had raised himself from obscurity to world fame in an era of poverty and hypocrisy while the Queen won the love of her subjects by her longevity, representing stability as the nation’s economy and political power triumphed.

But what Helps didn’t know was what Dickens was up to when Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 and how he went to Windsor Castle for their honeymoon night.

“Dickens, who was married with young children, suddenly realised he was passionately in love with the young Queen,” she revealed.  “He had one of those extraordinary fits of hysterical passionate feeling that overcame him at various times in his life.

“He and an artist friend, Daniel Maclise, on the evening of the wedding went up to Windsor together.  They went into the park and walked beneath the lighted windows where they assumed the young Queen and her husband were.

“And Dickens laid down in the mud and rolled in agony at the thought of this and how it couldn’t be reversed. Passing people were quite surprised to see this happening.”

Dickens went to write letters to friends exposing the torture he was undergoing, in one to his best friend John Forster he announced:  “I am utterly lost in misery and can do nothing.  My heart is in Windsor, my heart isn’t here.

“The presence of my wife aggravates me. I detest this house.  I begin to have thoughts of the Serpentine or the Regent’s Canal or the razors upstairs, of poisoning myself, of hanging myself, of abstaining from food to starve myself to death.”

Yet Dickens spurned all the royal invitations to Buckingham Palace in the following years, refused to perform one or more of his public readings for her or present one of his celebrated charity stage plays for the Queen, giving a variety of regretful reasons and excuses.

Her Majesty, who is known to have read Oliver Twist and dipped into the Pickwick Papers, countered in 1857 by taking a royal party to the Gallery in Regent’s Street, where Dickens was performing his latest play.

She wrote in her diary that it was “most touching, admirably acted by Charles Dickens,” the production being full of “reckless suspense” aided by charming scenery with additional music.

She returned home at half past midnight, and an equerry subsequently told Dickens:  “The Queen and the Prince were delighted with the dramatic treat last night.  I’ve hardly ever seen Her Majesty and HRH so much pleased.”

Claire Tomalin pointed out: “When the Queen sends for you, you don’t say No.  It is absolutely extraordinary that a writer should refuse invitations to go and see her.”

But Dickens went further, rejecting too an offer from the Queen of an honour and even refusing to help raise funds for the Albert Memorial after the Consort died in 1861.

When they eventually met he was white-haired and stooping, deaf and, though etiquette required him to stand, the Queen relented and they sat on a sofa together for half an hour discussing a variety of subjects.

The Queen especially want to know “why it is no longer possible to find good servants” and Dickens suggesting “the education system might be unhelpful”.

Claire added: “I can’t help wondering whether he recalled rolling in the mud outside her bedroom 30 years before.  Perhaps not.

“He knew what made him great was his writing and that was what he wanted to be remembered for.  Yet he was puzzled by the Queen’s evident wish to show her respect for him.

“And he would have been pleased if he could have known what Queen Victoria wrote in her journal when she heard of his death very shortly after.”

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Literary Festival launch reveals top ticket sales for a fourth weekend of success

Mavis Cheek and Sir John Sykes raise a glass to the success of this year's LitFestMavis Cheek and Sir John Sykes raise a glass to the success of this year's LitFestThe great and the good packed into town hall last night (Friday) as guests at the launch party for the fourth Marlborough Literary Festival, which is already running ahead of last year’s ticket sales.

Novelist Mavis Cheek, who chairs the festival, was there to greet them, in particular Fay Weldon, the feminist novelist who inspired many women to write and is now Professor of Creative Writing at Bath University.

Mayor Councillor Guy Loosmore with Robert HiscoxMayor Councillor Guy Loosmore with Robert HiscoxMarlborough’s mayor, Councillor Guy Loosmore, wore his great chain for the occasion, alongside his mayor wife, Fiona, as they mingled with guests, among them directors from major sponsors Brewin Dolphin and Robert Hiscox, of the leading insurance company that bears his name.

Former mayors Nick Fogg and his wife Edwina joined the throng together with Shirley Pryor, newly-elected chair of Transition Marlborough.

Introduced by Sir John Sykes, a committee colleague, Mavis Cheek profusely thanked all the sponsors of the festival – “This wouldn’t be possible without your money,” she said – plus her formidable committee and army of volunteers on duty at more than 20 events.

“The team that runs this festival is fantastic,” declared Mavis.  “None of us gets paid a groat and though sometimes we have the odd tipple.

“Already this year our ticket sales are 10 per cent ahead and that is a very good thing to be able to announce.  Thank you all for coming.  Now go out and tell the world about us.”

Fay WeldonFay WeldonMavis CheekMavis Cheek

Fay Weldon with the Mayor, Councillor Guy LoosmoreFay Weldon with the Mayor, Councillor Guy LoosmoreOrwell authority Prof Peter Davison with his wifeOrwell authority Prof Peter Davison with his wifeLast year's Mayor Edwina Fogg flanked by local author Sorrel Pitts (r) and  Gerald IsaamanLast year's Mayor Edwina Fogg flanked by local author Sorrel Pitts (r) and Gerald Isaaman

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Fay Weldon reveals that the speed of life itself is just one of the problems writers face

Fay WeldonFay WeldonLife today moves so fast that authors find their novels out of date if they take up to three years to create one, Fay Weldon, the doyenne feminist author of more than 30 novels, revealed at theMarlborough Literary Festival last night (Friday).

She warned too that authors had a difficult time making money, claiming that some publishers’ contracts restrict earnings, a cause she has joined union action to fight against.

And she added that Amazon now filled its warehouse with remainder copies and books bought from library shelves, selling them for a penny a time but making a profit on the postage and packaging.

Still writing at 82 – she has also produced five stage plays and TV adaptations of her novels The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, The Cloning of Joanna May, as well as Upstairs, Downstairs --  Fay was in reflective mood talking to journalist and biographer Valerie Grove.

After references had been made about Downton Abbey, she said:  “Writing about the past is a kind of cowardice in a way.  “That’s because of the difficulty in writing about the present now, as times change so fast, attitudes change so fast, what is important one day is not important the next.

“I’m a fast writer but for many writers that by the time you have got a commission to write a novel that suits the person who writes the blurb and the one who designs the jacket, which for some people can take three years.

“By the time this happened your novel has no relevance to what is going on today.  And so you will find that today a lot of writers are writing about the past, or the recent past or going into the future.”

She explained her own prolific career due to the fact that after her first novel was published she was offered three-year contracts demanding a novel a year, even a six-year contract on the same basis.

“It didn’t occur to me that you didn’t have to do this – I just did,” she said, adding  that she would have written anyway, though not necessarily in the same pattern.

“And I’m still doing a book a year, this present contract three books in two years,” said Fay, now Professor of Creative Writing at Bath University.

As to the payments writers received, she revealed:  “I have been involved in union activities when writers were getting a very hard time from the publishers, who were refusing to pay for this, that and the other.

“They were getting contracts which looked normal but which actually were done to make sure the writer would never get any money from writing their books -- or so it seemed to me.”

A questioner said it was a “real insult” that Amazon was selling books at a penny a time.

Fay pointed out that these could be a remaindered book or those Amazon had bought from shelves of current and closed libraries, which now filled their warehouse.

“They get rid of them at a penny a time making their money from the cost of postage and packing,” she said.  “You can look inside some of them and see library stamps and see how often they were borrowed.

“And then you could find your books on Amazon at a penny after about three months.  But you can’t worry about these things too much.  You just have to put up with it.

“There is a much deal with e-books where you will get 25 per cent of whatever they cost.”

Cold comfort having dinner with Prince Charles

Fay told one amazing story of how she was invited to dinner with Prince Charles at St James’ Palace after she had given £5,000 to his charity, The Prince’s Trust.

The money had come from the Daily Mail after it published what she described as a manipulated an article she had written and  reproduced quotes she never made under the headline My Facelift Saved My Marriage.

“Then I had a letter from Charles saying, ‘What can you have done to get money out of that vile newspaper?’  He invited us to dinner in St James’s Palace.  It was so cold.

“It was snowing outside and all the windows were wide open.  And one was wearing all one’s silks, not woollies, which was a great mistake.  There was not even a single bar electric fire.”

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Slashing arts funding is like burning the Mona Lisa warns the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann DuffyCarol Ann DuffyDamaging cuts to arts funding by the government have been described as “totally barbaric” by Carol Ann Duffy, the 57-year-old first female Poet Laureate who is a star performer at Marlborough’s literary festival on Sunday.

In the swirl of the political party conferences, it is perhaps inevitable that someone born in Glasgow’s Gorbals who describes her upbringing as "left-wing, Catholic, working class", has warned of the danger of slashing grants to arts organisations.

“Not to actively support culture by at the very least giving money to it is the equivalent to burning the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, ”Duffy declared when presenting the 2013 Society of Authors Awards.

In comments that received little publicity as part of the austerity agenda, she said the government appeared “younger and more sassy, with a Prime Minister who plays The Smiths”, but it was proving to be even more damage to the country’s culture than the Tories of the 1980s.

Tourists, she pointed out, knew they were visiting the country of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and JK Rowling” when they came here and, she added: “I think the arts are who we are in Britain.”

Presenting £70,000 to writers in grants from £1,500 to £8,000, the Poet Laureate, who was appointed to the post in 2009 and wrote her first poem tackling the scandal of MPs’ expenses, said these were tiny sums of money.

“But the sense of being valued and cared for can be the difference between the books being written or not,” she added.

Culture was a huge contributor to the country’s economy and ought to be safeguarded rather than cut by Culture Secretary Maria Miller. “If not we will have a country full of Tescos and not theatres,” she protested.

Duffy, who believes that poetry is “our national art” and “the music of being human”, was herself the winner of a Scottish Arts Council award for her collection Standing Female Nude in 1985.

Since then she has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Whitbread Poetry Award, the T.S Eliot Prize, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and been honoured with a CBE.

Her poems are studied in British schools at GCSE, A-level, and Higher levels. In August 2008, her Education for Leisure, a poem about violence, was removed from the AQA examination board's GCSE poetry anthology, following a complaint about its references to knife crime and a goldfish being flushed down a toilet.

The poem begins, "Today I am going to kill something.  Anything.  /I have had enough of being ignored and today/I am going to play God."  The protagonist kills a fly, then a goldfish.  The budgie panics and the cat hides. It ends with him, or her, leaving the house with a knife. "The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm."

Schools were urged to destroy copies of the unedited anthology, according to newspaper reports, though this was later denied by AQA.

Duffy described the decision ridiculous, insisting: "It's an anti-violence poem.  It is a plea for education rather than violence."

Carol Ann Duffy is appearing at the Literary Festival, sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, at Marlborough College on Sunday (7.30pm).

For tickets phone 01249 701628.

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