I’ve wanted to go to the Ledbury Poetry Festival for some time and after bumping into the festival’s artistic director Chloe Garner at the T S Eliot prize party finally got my wish. I was invited to interview Ali Smith about her ‘Desert Island poems’. The date, 13 July, clashed with the Idler festival at Fenton House in Hampstead, but you can’t have everything.
On the way from the station I got chatting to Fiona, like me dragging a small suitcase. She was looking forward to seeing Margaret Atwood read later that evening, but was also coming to see Ali Smith. ‘Think of a good question to ask,’ I instructed, semi-seriously. Fiona demurred, saying she would be far too shy. She went off to her hotel while I found the festival green room on the first floor of a medieval building with a floor so wonky and sloping that just walking across it felt like being on board ship.
On the way to the community hall where the event was taking place I spotted Ali. She explained that she had come up with 28 poems and suggested that we play a sort of ‘poetry bingo’, and ask the audience to shout out numbers. This worked extremely well, with Ali reading and discussing poems by Hardy, Shakespeare, Keats, Larkin, Stevie Smith and TS Eliot. Of course a smartypants had to shout out ’28!’ right at the start, but since the choice was ‘Little Gidding’ with its lines: ‘What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning’ it proved apt.
Ali read beautifully and commented profoundly on all her choices, and in between I threw in a few questions, such as was it important to her to have a role model when starting out, and does it matter that Larkin was piggish? Yes to the first – Liz Lochhead was a teenage inspiration (‘A girl! Scottish, like me!’) – and a defiant No to the second. When it came to questions, a hand waved near the front of the audience – ‘Is that Fiona?’ I said. She’d come up with an excellent question – about writers and social media – after all. Finally Ali read the list of the writers we hadn’t managed to cover within the hour, including Elizabeth Bishop and Rilke – how I’d’ve loved to hear her thoughts on those.
Owen Sheers was on next, interviewed by Chloe, discussing his latest collection. ‘The Green Hollow’ was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. Sheers described interviewing the inhabitants of the village in the making of the book and read sections that vividly conveyed their voices and the magnitude of the tragedy.
At the reception afterwards (Owen had decamped to the pub) I got chatting to Margaret Atwood and confessed that I’d once interviewed her years ago over the phone and she’d seemed rather terrifying to a young journalist. She looked surprised to hear that and actually couldn’t have been more affable. (Close up, she has remarkably beautiful skin.) The reading was sold out and Atwood’s witty, taut and clever verse wowed and amused a rapt audience.
That night I was staying in the same house as Atwood, together with a Scandinavian folk trio. The evening wound up with a lengthy sing-song; turns out she has an ear for a traditional tune. Sadly I couldn’t stay around for more of the festival as I had to get back to London the next morning, having been given a free ticket to On Blackheath on the Sunday. So less than 24 hours after singing folk songs with Margaret Atwood, I was watching Grace Jones perform a fabulous set of all the hits with costume changes, masks, headdresses and skyscraper heels, punctuating each perfectly delivered song with hilarious and rude banter. Jones topped it off by hula-hooping throughout the entire final number. Two incredible fierce and funny ladies in one weekend. Amazing.