If the Nazis had invaded Britain, they would have earmarked Walthamstow Assembly Hall as their kind of architecture: a severely plain neoclassical front with impossibly tall columns. Not the only use for that sort of building of course, but it was slightly strange to approach on a dark and windy evening, with light streaming out of those tall windows and crowds of people hurrying to get in, for the evening of poetry lined up. And not just any old poetry reading: the place holds 800 and it filled up.
The event was billed "an audience with Carol Ann Duffy with music by John Sampson". But first up was Warsan Shire, the new Young Poet Laureate for London, perhaps not announced beforehand because the appointment is so recent. She stood behind the lectern, striking in a simple black dress and giant frizzed-out hair, and read three poems with just a line or so of explanation. Strong stuff that deserves to be read in print too, to get a better understanding of those alarming images she deals with.
Carol Ann Duffy has a dry sense of humour and her poetry is of course a pleasure to read, as it was to hear her read it. Pieces from The World's Wife remain a strong part of her output. We got a little insight into the meaning behind some familiar pieces, the odd throwaway lines (Mrs Icarus) and even a couple of unpublished pieces. Although she is the Poet Laureate, the title carries no job description and she evidently feels under no obligation to write about the royal family. Making fun of Nick Clegg (like Faust, selling his soul to the devil) comes no closer to an official line, thank goodness.
This main part of the event was set up as a double act with the above mentioned John Samson. A big man in a three-piece suit, he does a sort of foolish musical comedy act, playing a variety of very small pipes mainly for comic effect. He can play very fast and typically throws in a few drawn-out bum notes for a laugh. "The Queen didn't want him so she gave him to me" quipped Duffy dismissively, but in fact she's been performing with him for a least ten years so the apparent indifference is just part of the act. There was little sign of rapport between the two, but she had him play along to a couple of the poems, so we have to assume her deadpan demeanour and his funny noises are an intentional combination. Perhaps he is there to illustrate her conviction that men are basically useless. Actually, a fair part of the audience was amused - they clapped along and even sang to a rendition of the Isle of Skye (or perhaps it was Mull of Kintyre) - but not everyone was pleased with this diversion from the main attraction. I just wished she would stick to reading.
This is the 100th post on London Sidelines. A milestone, or time for something new? Click on the post title to go to the comments form.