Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nectar for the ears

Carol Ann Duffy and LiTTLe MACHiNe, Tuesday 9th October, 7.30pm, Manchester Town Hall, Banqueting Room

Words by Jennie Shorley. Photographs by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew.

Manchester Town Hall. The oak-panelled Banqueting Room at dusk. Draughts sweep from huge stone fireplaces, floorboards creak with age. There may even be some twinkling of chandeliers. This scene awaits the opener to the Manchester Literature Festival, in this temple to our great city. Seems fitting. Bit chilly.

There is anticipation in the air. From the shadows, the solitary microphone on stage, and behind it, instruments sit. And a champagne reception, for the notable. Well, this is the Poet Laureate, after all. There is a sold-out crowd. Arriving early, they absorb, suitably impressed, the Victorian Gothic surroundings.  

Carol Ann Duffy is Manchester’s star, living, working and writing here for 17 years. She is also the poet chosen by the queen, OBE, CBE etc. Her opening words: “I very much like being Poet Laureate and living in Manchester, as opposed to being Poet Laureate and living in London.” Quite right too.

Tonight though, she is, as she says, the warm-up act for LiTTLe MACHiNe, a poetry band with superlative reviews from poetry royalty, Gillian Clarke: “I swear the Bard himself has joined this band.” More of that later, but now Duffy takes to the stage, books in hand. Up first, The World’s Wife, an earlier collection, writing the wives of famous mythical troublemakers, and “characters of my schooldays”. She unfolds the tales of Mrs Midas, Mrs Teiresias, Mrs Faust. Poetry when read aloud can sometimes jar, fail to come to life, and it would be easy to daydream in these surroundings.

But she has us hooked; these are really funny, and sharply drawn. The male-female clashes gain the best laughs from the audience, with Duffy acknowledging that this is somewhat of an easy win, Mrs Darwin’s final retort heralded as “very cheap I know”. Duffy is informal, conspiratorial, and welcoming into her world. Hardly a smile flickers, and then she brings home the endings with great comic timing.


Duffy moves on to The Bees, her latest collection. The worker bee, creating honey from nectar, is the symbol of civic Manchester, woven into the pageantry of the building in which we sit. This is, I’m sure, not lost on the audience. Duffy’s poem Virgil’s Bee connects us all to the thread of poetry history through these creatures, through Sylvia Plath to Shakespeare and back to the great Roman himself, Virgil. Further down the set list, The Human Bee draws this theme back to present-day environmental urgency; this poem lamenting the lack of bees in China, which means that children are tasked with pollinating flowers: “but I could not fly and I made no honey”. She moves on to the recent Liverpool, a tribute written as the results of the Hillsborough Enquiry are published. She has taken us seamlessly from myth to here - and now, from comedy to much more serious concerns.

And from here, to music. I do not know what to expect, and Duffy somewhat raises expectations as she introduces her choice of accompaniment tonight: “It’s a long time since I’ve heard something so exciting in poetry.” LiTTLe MaCHinE are a poetry band, and photocopied word sheets are found on our chairs – perhaps some of the anticipatory shuffling is the fear of audience participation.


Possibly aware that, at a poetry gig, the Laureate is a tough act to follow, the band starts up with a medieval poem, and it is immediately apparent that they can follow Duffy, they are great. Poetry choices span Sappho to Larkin, through Shelly, Byron and Blake. It is fun too, there are many laughs, and as musicians they are talented, their styles as diverse as their poetry choices, from blues to folk, to rock, and back again. The band shares with the Laureate a knack for comic timing - a skull, dramatically grasped during the Mediocritie in Love Rejected, switches to maracas partway through the song.

On to Shakespeare, “the Pete Townsend version”, to Byron, “the great sex tourist of the 19th century” - the distance of history renders these poems fair game for some musical fun. But I can see a Duffy poem, Mean Time, in the song sheet, and I am nervous, as, I presume, are the band.

But it is beautiful, and strange, to hear Carol Ann Duffy’s words, this time as written again by someone else. This swiftly gives way to their last song, Philip Larkin’s High Windows, with all the exuberance of the always good value “swearing bit”. An encore is requested, which leads to my favourite song of the night, the four-line The Poet Offers His Wares. The plight of the poet captured in the calling sale of 4, 3, 2 and 1 liners, to anyone buying. Tonight, we certainly are. The gig ends on a high, a wonderful opening night, nectar for the ears.

Jennie Shorley Carling has degrees in Classics and Ancient History, and works for MMU Business School. She is currently undertaking a PhD and like writing words and making things. She Tweets @JSho_CfE.

You can also read one of our Young Digital Reporters review this event by clicking here.

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