They 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.
The 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.