Marlborough LitFest weekend starts on the Thursday in first gear and by Friday evening it is motoring full throttle. It is in the best best sense a ‘long weekend’ to savour.
My Thursday started listening, courtesy BBC Radio 4, to the current Poet Laureate on the launch of the good ship RRS Sir David Attenborough – a poem called Ark.
Its first five words sound quite calm and Biblical. But then it grows in urgency – becoming a very fiercely phrased plea to save the planet from human depredation and climate change.
It starts “They sent out a dove…” and the first stanza describing the dove’s return, ends with it ‘wobbling’ home “…a yard of fishing-line binding its feet.”
Later on Thursday morning I watched school children from Marlborough St Mary’s dressed as their favourite characters from books and stories, dance their hearts out. It was fun to watch. They danced to the Black Eyed Peas’ I gotta feeling – a pop song that really does make you want to dance. Just don’t go online looking for their pop video!
My LitFest Thursday ended with the appearance of the previous Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, in the College’s packed Memorial Hall – lots of LitFest goers, massed ranks of College students and some rows of St John’s students. Miss Duffy stepped down as Poet Laureate in May.
As expected, Ms Dufy trod deftly through some of her more adult poems. Not all the teenage students present escaped a brief attack of embarrassment.
Duffy’s reading began, as she told the audience, with a Gorilla and would end with a monkey. Gorilla has been described as ‘her parting shot’ as Poet Laureate at President Trump. It describes her encounter with a gorilla at a zoo and ends: “With a day’s more evolution, it could even be President.”
The poem I enjoyed the most was titled Anne Hathaway and concerns the oft quoted fact that in his will Shakespeare left his wife Anne their ‘second best bed’. Duffy told us that some academics thought this showed his disregard – or worse – for his wife.
I had always been taught that it merely reflected the custom of the time that guests always got the best bed. Duffy agrees, but fills out this notion with a much more satisfying reason why Anne was bequeathed this bed in her husband’s will.
It was, Duffy tells us in Anne’s voice, “The bed we loved in…” – while their guests “…dozed on, dribbling their prose” in the best bed. Brilliant.
She also read us some of her hilarious but thoughtful ‘Mrs’ poems. Mrs Aesop (who suggested her husband – with whom ‘sex was awful’ – write a story about ‘a cock that wouldn’t crow’), Mrs Darwin (who went with Mr Darwin to the zoo and saw a chimp that ‘reminds me of you’) and Mrs Faust (whose first name, Ms Duffy quipped, was Melania and whose husband ‘didn’t have a soul to sell’).
She ended with poems from her latest collection Sincerity – described by one reviewer as ‘…an artwork of comic excellence and melancholy beauty’. It includes, with a farewell laureate’s wave, some small-p political poems that sometimes verge headily towards large-P political.
The final one she read was the mischievous poem The Monkey, about a real monkey she encountered in Marrakech and with which she bonded as it took over her life there – becoming almost a baby in her temporary home. It was she told her Marlborough LitFest audience ‘…a perfect metaphor for my life’.
It ends: “All best wishes to the new Laureate. The monkey is mine.”
Then home to watch terrifying climate change reports on ITV’s News at Ten from drowned land and drowned homes in the Solomon Islands and Sir Richard Attenborough interviewed beside the Antarctic research ship that bears his name – passionate and so supportive of the younger generation’s new anger over climate change inactivity.
Friday and LitFest changed up a gear – with this year’s Golding Speaker: the Booker Prize winning novelist Ben Okri. His most recent book – his eleventh novel – is The Freedom Artist. The cover of the hardback asks the question: ‘Who is the prisoner?’
Although I have read this extraordinary and moving book, I went with a quotation in my pocket from an interview Okri gave to French Television’s English service: “It’s a fictional warning. An essential warning about the slow erosion of our freedoms. For me also a very deep warning about what is happening to truth in our times.”
“More than that, I think it’s a cry, a plea, a reaching out into the mind of a reader and hopefully shaking him at the scruff of the neck and saying look at what this world is becoming on our watch.”
His most recent direct engagement with events – an angry, despairing tug at the scruff many necks – came with a long poem he wrote about the fire at Grenfell Tower, which is close to where he lives. A poem written at four in the morning: “I just wrote and wrote and wrote – it was my scream.”
Interviewed before a packed Town Hall by literary journalist Alex Clark, Okri began by talking about William Golding – who was brought up in Marlborough and whose family sponsor this event.
“William Golding is one of those solid and persistent presences in world literature.” Okri mentioned that while some of Golding’s books were darker all were ‘very tough books’: “I love him for that. I never met him – I wish I had.”
Alex Clark asked Okri about the complex form of The Freedom Artist: “We’re very strange and the deeper you look at us as human beings – the tools, the forms are just not good enough, so you have to smash them.”
And we were off on an amazing and inspiring roller coaster that got us much closer into the mind and art of this wonderful writer: “The novel is a conceptual world that you immerse yourself into.”
Below its surface, this allegorical novel is highly political and its author gave us hints of how he engages with what he termed ‘the mess we’re in today’: “Culture cannot come from a material life…we’ve got thinner in spirit.”
Can, Clark asked, we find our way back? “I’d like to say yes, but it’s a difficult journey. We have to reverse many of the ways we see the world.” And, quite properly, we were back to the melting ice caps.
“We are creating a world that is dying – because we are dying. We need to be aware of the consequences of what we’re doing to ourselves and to our world.” Gently chided for being negative, he responded: “I am a positive man, but…”
Alex Clark pointed out that at one point in The Freedom Artist books are banned – to which Okri responded: “I think a world without books is the beginning of hell”. A fine sentiment to launch a LitFest filled with good books and their authors.
This is a very personal choice of Marlborough Litfest’s many events. Coming soon: Saturday and Sunday’s fare.