Most of you probably know that I am a huge fan of Ways with Words, the literature and ideas festival that’s held at Dartington Hall in Devon every July. It was started in 1991 by Kay Dunbar and Steve Bristow, who ran it every year until they took a back seat this year, handing it on to their fantastic staff, Leah, Jane and Phil, to keep up the good work
I again enjoyed chairing some of the events. As long as one does the homework properly, ie reads the books and thinks about how to introduce the speakers and ask some pertinent questions, this is great fun. I thought I’d tell you a little about two of the events that I chaired, and the Oversteps Day I organise and chair each year.
Sean Borodale‘s last collection, ‘Bee Journal’, was sheer joy to someone like me who kept bees for many years. His new book, ‘Asylum’, takes a subject that is likely to be more challenging for anyone with an aversion to being underground. The whole audience was also particularly sensitive to the theme of speleology, as we were meeting on the very day that the divers in Thailand were attempting (successfully, we were relieved to hear) to rescue the boys who had been trapped in a flooded cave for nearly a fortnight.
‘Asylum’ is based on the thirty miles of subterranean caves, mines and quarries of the Mendip Hills. Never would I have imagined that the ground below our feet is full of poetry; but having read ‘Asylum’, I can vouch for the fact that it is. Sean’s poetry is muscular, honest and uncompromising — and I recommend it highly.
Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, though he will be moving at the end of next month, to take up the post of Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge. He is also a poetry-lover, with a keen ear and discriminating mind. In his recent book, ‘The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry’, he has selected and presented twenty-nine poems, from all ages and in all forms, in each case then going on to a wide-ranging discussion of the work, his response to it, and his personal and faith journey. It makes riveting reading, and because practically all the poems are ones I have loved for years, reading it was like meeting up with old friends and forming an even deeper acquaintance with them.
The poems Mark chose are certainly not all, in any obvious sense, religious; and some of them would be considered by some people to come into the ‘difficult’ category. But, accompanied by Mark’s wit and wisdom, no one could fail to enjoy and be inspired by this anthology and the essays following the poems. This was borne out by the fact that there was a long queue at the signing tent after the talk; and I reckon that practically everyone who attended the event was moved to go straight to Waterstones to buy Mark’s book and get him to sign it.
Because of the stunning weather all week, it looked as though some of the audience numbers were slightly down this year, probably because of the temptation of sandy beaches and cooling sea not very far away. That was not the case, however, with the Oversteps Day, at which we had larger audiences than ever, and as the room filled up for the first session, we had to go out in search of extra chairs to accommodate everyone.
In the two morning sessions, ‘A Warm Welcome’ and ‘Too Good to Lose’, I introduced the poets whose books had been published by Oversteps this past year, including some who had also published with us before. Included in these morning readings were Paul Surman, Ian Royce Chamberlain, Melanie Brandon, Rebecca Bilkau (pictured reading above), Hilary Elfick, Sue Proffitt and Jane Spiro. Then in the afternoon we had two themed events: ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘Where on earth?’, at which the morning readers were joined by Jennie Osborne, Christopher North, Susan Taylor, Simon Williams and myself.
The audiences were enthusiastic about the day, several claiming that, although the Oversteps Day is always enjoyable and inspiring, this was the best one yet. I am therefore truly grateful to all the poets who read so well, to the audiences for their appreciation and applause, and to the staff at Ways with Words for granting us this wonderful platform each year, on which to share some of the best of contemporary poetry.
Now I’m looking forward to Ways by the Water, the sister festival that takes place in the Lake District in March each year.