Boyd Tonkin: The value of high-scoring words
The week in books
Friday 02 July 2010
In 1815 Walter Scott, in his capacity as Sheriff of Selkirk, helped to arrange a football match in the Scottish Borders between the men of Ettrick and Yarrow. He even wrote a poem to mark the game, though some may wish that he had not. It concludes: "Then strip, lads, and to it, though sharp be the weather,/ And if by mischance, you should happen to fall,/ There are worse things in life than a tumble on heather,/ And life is itself but a game at football."
Such Scotty doggerel reveals that, even in the age of Keats and Wordsworth, an august name could turn in a truly duff performance. On the football field, we now need no reminding of that fact. Look at the recent record of poetry in the nations of the UK, though, and it boasts many more peak achievements – and far fewer embarrassing pratfalls – than does almost all of British sporting life.
Yet, in common with other forms of writing in these lands, world-beating results go unsung by politicians and under-supported by sponsors. Grossly inflated by the hot air of media hysteria, sports culture in Britain over-promises and under-delivers. Our literature – with poetry up front - does just the opposite. Give it an inch of recognition and acclaim, and it will give you back a mile. How refreshing, then, to see that when Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham was asked to name a favourite book, he chose not some risk-free airport potboiler but the Collected Poems of Tony Harrison: one of several ranking bards that make Britain today almost a Brazil of verse.
Starting today, the Ledbury Poetry Festival in Herefordshire will bring in its lavish annual proof that the art thrives on home soil, and also benefits from visiting voices. On the British side, it numbers among this year's stars Christopher Reid, Fleur Adcock, Don Paterson, Philip Gross and Gillian Clarke. A line-up of overseas strikers includes, from the US, former national poet Billy Collins, with Beat hero and Doors associate Michael McClure. From outside the Anglosphere, attendees can catch Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi from Sudan, Corsino Fortes from Cape Verde, and even a group of poets from the United Arab Emirates. (Full programme and booking at www.poetry-festival.com)
Such jamborees display the wealth of our words. Do the folk who hold the purse-strings ever hear, or care? Evidently, now is hardly the time to ask for corporate or government wallets to open any wider. With arts funding (of which literature in any case receives only a widow's mite), the cheese-paring has already begun. We know that Public Lending Right, which gives authors a modest but symbolically vital reward for library issues, will fall by 3 per cent (to £7.45 million) this year. And, by the way, the demand that Arts Council England immediately impose a 0.5 per cent cut on all bodies that it backs will mean that Ledbury Poetry Festival loses £285 from a £56,955 grant.
This thin carpaccio slicing is just the hors d'oeuvre. The real red meat of cuts to the bone will be served in the wake of this autumn's detailed spending-reduction plans. Unless they swiftly acquire high-level champions with clout, those regions of literature that – like poetry – need extra help beyond the marketplace may suffer serious pain.
Libraries, meanwhile, will certainly close across the land: collateral damage in the war on local-authority expenditure. On such a treacherous pitch, even ministers may feel that they can do little good. But they can avoid needless harm. It's welcome news that authors – with many poets among them – will continue to visit schools without paranoid "vetting and barring" procedures.
Elsewhere, the Byzantine new points-based visa scheme for international artists coming to Britain has led to hold-ups and exclusions that make organisers' life a misery: it needs an urgent review. More generally, the mood music ought to change. All British writers do their bit towards a vastly successful export industry that – in terms that even populist MPs might grasp – scores abroad with a style and frequency our soccer plodders never match. What a change it would make if our political masters could bring themselves to acknowledge that now and again.
Treasure beneath Cornish seas
Children's publishing abounds in formulaic franchises, cooked up by cynics as rip-offs of well-loved lines. It's rare to hail a sequence of novels for young readers that owes its longevity to the simple fact that the audience adores them on a level beyond all hype. I noticed the warmth of word-of-mouth raves for Helen Dunmore's Ingo soon after her first book about an undersea Cornish world came out in 2005. The ardour of fans for her eerie domain only seemed to swell over three later novels. Now Dunmore (above) has signed with Harper Collins for a fifth book about mer-creatures and their human friends. Teen vampires, beware – this marine magic could quench yours.
High time for anarchy in the UK
Almost uniquely, the first half of this year has given us experience of government by all of Britain's three largest parties. Impressed? I thought not. Now, more than ever, might be the time for the many refugees from politics-as-usual to explore the sturdy self-organising, co-operative tradition of peaceful anarchism so winningly represented in the writings of the late Colin Ward. Colin's life will be celebrated at a memorial event on Saturday 10 July, scheduled for 2pm at Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1. As well as contributions from family and friends, there will be a screening of Mike Dibb's film of Colin in conversation with the wonderful nature writer Roger Deakin: another much-missed voice of unofficial truth, and another visionary inspired by rural Suffolk. Any admirer of the free spirit in our life and literature who would like to chip in towards the cost of the event should send a cheque to Five Leaves Publications (CW), at PO Box 8786, Nottingham NG1 9AW.
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