Mr Zeit Geist and the force of nature

Michael Glover reports on poetry and gusting northerlies from the surreal tableaux of the Hay Festival
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The Independent Culture
Someone should have warned Ted about this. Just moments after some rather awkward, tongue-tied youth who is masquerading as the literary editor of the Sunday Times announces that Ted Hughes has been given the 1996 Sunday Times Award for Truly Exceptional Literary Excellence Indeed because he is a "force of nature" - or some such tremendous force of cliche - someone else lets the four winds out of the bag, and the big marquee (aka the "Festival Theatre") starts getting shaken about like a brace of ferrets in a stinking hessian sack.

Can Ted, though a force of nature himself, hope to compete against the forces of nature? Of course he can't! He tries a little counter-bluster at first; he endeavours to shout down the elements with a few scattered literary references - "the boy stood on the burning deck" etc. A hopeless task, of course. The most intriguing aspect of the occasion is the wonderfully post-modern lectern that the festival has rigged up for the Poet Laureate's use: legs of scaffolding, and a reading surface of clear perspexthat enables us to watch the shadow of Ted's finger trailing, line by line, across the script of a translation of Ovid with which he begins the reading.

David Puttnam, giving the first Dilys Powell Lecture on film, experiences similar elemental problems, but he, being a film-maker who has travelled much in Asia with the weathermen, is not in the least discomfited by all these buffetings and groans and creaks. No, it makes not the least difference to the quality of his lecture, which is quite abysmal - platitudinous and poorly expressed into the bargain. It is only when Puttnam begins to spar with the audience during question time that we get the measure of his intellect and his compassion.

The poet Christopher Logue responds with just a touch of irascibility when a woman at the back asks him what he thinks about a phenomenon that she clearly regards as one of the forces of nature. "Could you please tell us what your attitude is towards Zeitgeist?" she says, dreaming her way into the midst of some metropolitan literary salon. Logue, who has been sitting sideways on to the audience as if about to take the first train out, screws up his face in fury as if it were a ball of plasticine. "I have never met Zeit Geist," he replies, tweezering the word apart with a quite meticulous display of personal distaste, "so I don't know how to deal with him." He then leaves it to Craig Raine to give a more extended and intellectualising response to the question.

Logue is a poet who likes to read his poems sitting down. He told us as much at the start of his reading: "Sorry about all this fuss," he said as jobbing furniture-heavers shifted chairs and tables here and there about the stage, making it seem as if Logue might be orchestrating a chess match against himself with unusually large and eccentric pieces "...but I like to do it sitting down."

With his hair sticking straight out from his forehead like a loose bundle of kindling, and wearing what looked like a brand-new pair of jazzy Beano socks, Logue was a terrifically forceful reader of his own poetry - histrionic, fidgety, impatient, frenziedly engaged when the need arose (it often did). Especially good was a poem about the Labour Party, which, as he explained, had been unfashionable for years and now, all of a sudden, had become quite fashionable again. It was the one containing the line: "I shall vote Labour because I want to shop / In an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow".

Some time later something snapped. It was during the dying strains of a debate about the desirability - or otherwise - of American cultural hegemony between a couple of scratch teams from the New Yorker and the Sunday Times. The New Yorker was beating the Sunday Times hands down thanks, in part, to the fact that the British were being silly and supercilious and tiresomely ironic, and, in part, to the fact that Salman Rushdie was putting in a strong performance for the Americans by reading bits from Catch 22 in order to remind us all what defining cultural presences these American writers so often were.

Yes, it was just at the point when I was beginning to ask myself why Rushdie was playing at being an American for the evening that my attention drifted off, and I decided to push my way past the knees of John Cole, John Birt, Peter Carey, Lord Owen of the Balkans, Meg Riley and others, and out into the cold evening air. A samba band was playing in the car park, and I followed the music. A wind was getting up, but the rain held off - I heard someone say that it felt more like the 131st of February than the 32nd of May. That seemed to make a little sense at the time.

Goffee the Clown was strutting, to and fro, across a field in front of a huge crowd of townspeople, looking, all trailing robes and tethered head, quite fearsomely druidic, and holding, at arms' length, two sputtering fireworks with which he seemed to be conducting a great blast of choral music that was coming from everywhere and nowhere. The samba band sashayed into the field to join him. There was a full moon, brazen as brass, in the night sky. A hugely complicated firework on a wooden scaffolding was lit, and the giant representation of an open book began to explode and, a little later, burn quite fiercely. Goffee climbed up on to the scaffolding to address the assembled multitude. He ranted and raved for 10 minutes. Not one word was audible.

Meanwhile, just a few hundred yards away, VS Naipaul settled his fine Panama hat back onto his head and was chauffeured out of the festival car park, pleased with himself for all that he had said to Paul Theroux and Bill Buford - and all that he had refrained from saying. Or had that happened a little earlier that day?

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