Page Turner: Sailing to Byzantium with Sir Bob

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I've been having a Yeatsian week. First off, I went to the British Library for Josephine Hart's Poetry Hour. The novelist has been promoting poetry since 2004, charming the likes of Jeremy Irons, Juliet Stevenson and Ralph Fiennes into performing for free. Hart introduced key themes from W B Yeats's work and life, and Harriet Walter, Dominic West and Sir Bob Geldof read a generous selection of the poems to a glam media crowd. Hart's ever-smiling husband, Maurice Saatchi provided the astonishingly huge spray of white roses on the stage, quite dwarfing the bouquet presented by Hart's Virago publisher, Lennie Goodings.

Walter ("Leda and the Swan") and West were both excellent readers (West's "The Song of Wandering Aengus", "Sailing to Byzantium" and the less well-known "Adam's Curse" being particularly good) but for me the revelation was Geldof. His gruff demeanour and Dublin tones were a perfect fit for Yeats's cadences. I've never heard the grudging admiration, horror and sadness of "Easter 1916" captured so well, as Yeats struggles to honour, among other heroes of the Uprising, his love rival for Maud Gonne.

At the drinks reception afterwards, I buttonholed Bob. You must have been force-fed Yeats at school, I said. Absolutely not, he replied; in fact it was Milton's Paradise Lost that first got him into poetry: "You've got this fantastic character, Satan, who's basically looking at God and going, 'I could do that job'." Yeats, said Geldof, is much more down to earth than he's given credit for. "I can't stand all that bollocks!" he laughed when I brought up Yeats's famous occultism. "He was the sort of bloke who, when people talked to him about Ireland or politics, would be looking across the room at some girl and going 'I'd give her one'." But what about his desperate, largely sex-free relationship with Gonne? "Jesus! He must've had a permanent hard-on for about 50 years," marvelled Geldof.

After that, what could I do but check out the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy, filled with such things "as Grecian goldsmiths make / of hammered gold and gold enamelling": cups (including the "Holy Grail"), book covers, reliquaries, jewellery, inlaid boxes and icons. Amazing treasures, singing down through the centuries "to lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come."