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Poetry and emotion

On Friday evening I went to hear poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading some of her work as part of the Durham Book Festival. She’s a poet whose work I only know a little, but what I’ve read I’ve enjoyed and I’ve been particularly struck by some of the pieces she’s written since being appointed poet laureate in 2009.

She began on a sombre note, reading Last Post, written to commemorate the passing of the last veterans of World War One. But there were moments of humour too, as in her poems she explained, she often seeks to subvert, to irritate.

Michael Gove and the handling of English GCSE results this year sparked her ire, his name spat out, pantomime villain style to the audience. It’s not the first time she’s been involved in an education row. In 2008, her poem Education for Leisure was removed from a GCSE anthology after a complaint by an invigilator about its reference to knife crime. In elegant style, she responded with a poem, Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, which cites Shakespeare in defence. The audience laughed and clapped at this one.

Accompanied by a player of assorted pipes, a sort of fool to her queen, she lightened the mood with some readings from her collection The World’s Wife. Here she takes inspiration from stories and myths and give them a feminine twist , often as giving voice to the wife or partner, as in Mrs Faust or Mrs Midas, both of which she read this evening. I was delighted to be able to get a signed copy of this collection too.

She ended the evening with a poem called Liverpool,  inspired by the Hillsbrough report. The last phrases were accompanied by the melody of “You”ll never walk alone.” I’m sure my cheeks were not the only ones dampened by tears.

I love poetry for that. For its power to capture a moment and make it resonate. I think we turn to poetry at times of celebration and of loss, when there’s more emotion that we want to give meaning. Perhaps what I like best about Carol Ann Duffy is that she doesn’t use the clever words, but the ordinary, everyday language to sound that resonance.

Carol Ann Duffy was in town as part of the book festival, but also because she has been involved in writing the scenario for a  new ballet of Rapunzel, performed by BalletLorent.

During the poetry reading, she revealed that she’d seen it the previous night and someone in the audience piped up “Wonderful”. I was glad I’d got tickets for the following performance as what I saw had me in raptures and tears.

I don’t see much ballet and it’s years since I danced myself, but there is something so incredibly moving and expressive about bodies in motion. I admired it at the Olympics, the endless grace, power and control of the athletes, but perhaps in dance it’s brought even more sharply into focus by the story telling.

When we think of Rapunzel, we think of the princess in the tower and her long hair. But the roots of the story as told by the Brothers Grimm are often forgotten. This production goes back to the dark origins of the fairy tale, with a woman wasting away for want of the rampion (a kind of vegetable, known as rapunzel in German) that grows in the witches garden.

When he’s caught stealing it, the wife’s husband makes a terrible deal and promises the witch their first born child to escape punishment. The child, is, of course, Rapunzel.

This is quite simply a stunning production that draws on the emotions of love and loss, motherhood, growing up, losing and finding a child. I would encourage anyone with even the slightest interest in dance to go and see it.

The dancers tackle any number of challenges. The female costumes which have a kind of flexible hooped skirt become part of the storytelling, wrapping and unveiling. The simple metal sets are wheeled and turned to become the tower in which Rapunzel sits and swings and dances around the ironwork high above the stage like a monkey. It’s more like beautiful climbing than traditional ballet.

I was particularly struck by the talent and enthusiasm of the younger members of the cast who bring real joy and delight to the openings of the two acts.

The senior members really were outstanding, bringing to life two lizards who act as the witch’s familiars, and the witch herself who tackles whips and even skates as part of her performance.

In dance, they tell the story with the whole of their bodies, each emotion played out with movement, from the strong and powerful, to soft, loving and sensuous. In the second act, as parallels are drawn between two sets of characters who are suffering the loss of a child, the principal dancers express that loss with every movement and sinew of their bodies. The simple movement of a dancer’s foot was heartbreaking and again brought me to tears.

I consider it a sign of an excellent performance if there’s a moment of silence before the applause. It shows the audience needs a moment to adjust, to reground themselves in the here and now, having been truly immersed in the story. There were two such pauses this evening, one after Carol Ann Duffy’s reading and another after the finale of Rapunzel.

Ballet Lorent are touring with this production, currently in Hull, then returning to Newcastle next year, before taking it to London and Oxford. I’d thoroughly recommend going to see it.

Hullaballoo

That was my favourite word on Tuesday. It sounds like a tree full of chimpanzees with a bowl of trifle.

A perfect word for a day of travelling north on the train. Watching the waves and the rain through the window. Arriving in Edinburgh to the skirl of the pipes and a bustle of excitement at visiting the Book Festival.

Meeting Lesley in a whirl of a hug and setting off walking, talking ten to the dozen. Drifting through the street theatre, finding a warm café and settling down with cake and coffee and more chat.

Dodging the raindrops and ducking into the gallery in search of art and landscapes and portraits that looked freshly painted. Smiling at Vincent’s silver trees and light shadows between the clouds on a hillside.

Parting with plans ready made for another meeting. And then solo, finding my way through the street magic to a quiet enclave of tents, books and stories.

My favourite writer greeted with affection by an appreciative crowd. Remembering the last time we were together in this place when two mischievous authors tested the skills of the sign language interpreter.  Mr Gaiman tells his enraptured gathering of short stories that won’t stay short. Of the old country over the duckpond. Of the older country that sank and the even older one that blew up.

Speaking with affection for one of his best loved characters and how she came about. Mixing the inherent sexism of language, with the essence of a myth of the beauty of death. “It’s a great job. It gets you out and about. You get to meet people. You get to meet everyone.”

Of the unprompted applause when he speaks of The Doctor’s Wife and the best ever answer to the question, “What’s your favourite book?”

And stories, stories, stories. Those told and loved. Those waiting for the right moment. The rare one that came dream bound and perfect. Going to Hell in a hot air balloon. Vikings sailing to Jerusalem. A wild head full of dark, bright imaginings and always the promise of more.

And later still, more writers, more words from Dark Angels Jamie Jauncey and John Simmons. Words loved and hated. Words mangled out of meaning. And the clear sharp minds that cut through like a skater on a lake. A reminder that writing should be kind, human. That being a writer is about simply being. Right now in the moment.

When I return home, much later and more weary, a million shades and colours dance in my dreams.

A Day to Die For – book review

I’m currently reading ‘A Day to Die for’ by Graham Ratcliffe, the story of a May night in 1996 when eight climbers died on Mount Everest.

It was my privilege to meet Graham when I worked as a journalist. Breaking the news that he’d succeeded in becoming the first British climber to reach the summit of Everest twice was the proudest moment in my journalism career.

This story about a previous summit attempt is absolutely gripping. I started reading it as I was waiting for an appointment and I was really sorry when I had to put it down. I’ve been devouring chapters during my lunch break and cannot wait to get back to it.

It is a hard story for Graham to tell. He was on the mountain that night, preparing for his own summit attempt and feels that with a little more knowledge of what was happening, he and his team mates could have saved some lives.

I’m only part way through, but I know that the events of that night, the worst disaster of Everest’s history, raised a lot of questions and it’s taken a long time for the facts to be made public. Questions around the commercial aspect of Everest expeditions; about decisions taken by the other team leaders and what was known about the storm that cost so many lives.

Knowing one of the people who was there does give me a real interest in the story, but I think it goes far beyond that. It’s certainly well written and takes you right into the heart of this amazing, beautiful and treacherous place. I don’t pretend to understand the world of extreme climbing, although I’ve been known to shimmy up a climbing wall or two. But I do begin to have a feeling for the drive and commitment that such a challenge involves.

I liked Graham instantly I met him. And I found him very inspirational. Climbing Everest requires the same dogged focus and dedication that he’s applied to tracking down the facts about that tragic night. I was a very minor part in his story, but I’ve often thought about his calm determination and drive as I’ve taken on my own physical challenges.  It’s good to know he’s still out there, dreaming of mountains.

The news story I wrote and the award winning website I worked on at the time have long since disappeared into the ether. Other people I also had the pleasure of working with, including Alastair Leithead and Olwyn Hocking played a far greater part in spreading the news of his successful expedition. But here’s what the good old internet looked like in 1999 when he finally succeeded in his amazing quest.

A new favourite author

Something great happened this weekend. I read a wonderful book. It’s called Stardust and was written by Neil Gaiman.

It’s a fairy tale for grown ups. Think about that for a second. Think about the effect that fairy tales had on you as a child. They opened up new and magical worlds in your imagination. Filled them with wonderful, weird, brave, loyal, scary or cunning characters. Fairy tales took you on a journey. They left you scared and anxious in the deep dark woods. They made you smile and feel smart if you worked out the riddles. They transported you out of reality for a while and lingered like the memory of a warm summer day when you eventually had to return to real life.

That’s a pretty rare and special experience for a grown up. So thank you Mr Gaiman. And I’m sorry I didn’t get round to reading your work sooner.