Vice and verse

Richard D North, gets caught in the crossfire of poetry and petunias in Ledbury

It's nine o'clock these nights before the sun leaves off warming the faces of the houses of Ledbury, nestling as it does on the west side of a range of hills which becomes the Malverns. The town is at the eastern edge of Herefordshire, and this is the polite side of the Marches, which lean their shoulders westward to hold the lachrymose Welsh at some distance from the unfeeling English.

I look across at the town most nights when I'm in the county. I see the wooded hills, but can't make out the town hall in which hangs the certificate that proves that a local prep school master, WH Auden, made a marriage of convenience (hers, not his). At the town's fringes there is a sprawl of quite pretty, but rather despised, new housing which has enticed a Tesco to join the longer-serving Somerfield. As a town, it's no more inappropriate a place to host a poetry festival than any other.

Down the road at Dymock, Robert Frost persuaded the literary journeyman, Edward Thomas, to write the poems which have attracted people, without much startling them, ever since. They're not of the first rank, any more than are most of the works of the small folio of poets who visited each other in that place at that time. But they have moved people, and have attracted a small industry of visitors and walkers. Last week there was a fine old row when it was found that one of the paths trod reverently for its literary associations had been planted over by its farmer-owner.

Perhaps inspired by the worldliness of the monks who taught him at Malvern, William Langland wrote Piers Plowman, his satire on the ways of the world and the church, notionally based on a dream begun in a field at Colwall, just up the road from Ledbury. A local ploughman writes self-deprecating doggerel there now, and starred in a warm-up for the festival after judging the town's famous ploughing match last autumn.

If longevity is anything to go by, Langland's poem is by far the most important thing to come out of the region. The nearest modern equivalent is the work of John Masefield, after whom was named the comprehensive whose pupils are a big part of this week's festival.

Masefield did write about his childhood Ledbury. His Wonderings and The Land Workers are not a bit what you might expect from the country's leading maritime romancer. Long and grand, they speak of Ledbury's drunkenness, poverty and bigotry, and of human nastiness on a scale that makes you proud to be alive in our own milk-livered times, a bit over a century later. He celebrates a rustic town in which great things happened; he especially loved the horses towing logs through the streets. And he doesn't pretend to have suffered himself; he merely notes that even in so small a town, there was a quarter of unimaginable bleakness.

There remains some nastiness, though incest is famously more of a feature farther north in the county. The young of the town still hang about more or less as menacingly as Masefield describes, and in the picturesque cobbled lane he writes about, windows get broken by yobs much as they always did.

Oddly, the young leave the hanging baskets alone, even those which adorn the market hall, in whose lee a great street party will be held tonight. Why they should fail to target these hideously ebullient blooms, I can't say. I am tempted to down a few myself. Ledbury is only the worst of the towns round here for this sort of thing. The garages of Hereford are awash with them. You can't get into a pub without fighting past them. But in Ledbury's high street, there is a very special outburst of shouting petals. They are offensively cheery, appallingly gay, violent in their perkiness.

This year, with any luck, Ledbury will win the region's round of the Britain in Bloom competition, instead of running-up as it did last time. The judging is set to coincide with this weekend's grand finale of the poetry festival, and only total success will allow the town to relax into something like subfusc for following summers. God knows what excesses failure might induce.

By the time you read this, the festival will have spread popular poetry all across the town. The organisers, by the way, have set their faces against the high-falutin', at least in the inaugural year. But there is just time to enter today's poetry reading competition, a minute precursor of which, in a local pub, was really the precursor to the present convulsions. And tomorrow, you can argue the toss with five well-known poets, including Danny Abse, as they defend their favourite poem in a balloon debate. And those are just the bits of the weekend I'm chairing ...

The first annual Ledbury Poetry Festival runs until Sunday. Call 01531 634156 for details

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