A bus rolled into Bath recently and that bus contained some pretty precious cargo. 4 poets, a musician and a publicist who works tirelessly at making sure we get the best literature in our hands. I was overjoyed that this bus was stopping and those within would be hosting an evening that I would get to be a part of.
First and foremost, why was the bus making this trip? Well, this was a calling point on a much longer journey devised by Carol Ann Duffy, in which Independent Bookshop Week and Poetry (I feel it should have a capital ‘P’) would be celebrated. Those sitting in this bus, including Carol Ann herself, would travel the length and breadth of the country, or ‘Shore to Shore’ you could say – and hey, wouldn’t that make a handy name for this journey?! Second on the list of places to stop was Bath and the bookshop I work at, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, we were proud as punch to be working with this bunch as their booksellers for the night.
And now you want to know who tumbled out of that bus don’t you? Well as mentioned we had the one and only Carol Ann Duffy, always an honour to welcome the poet laureate to your city and shop. Jackie Kay, the new Scottish Makar was along for the ride (be still my beating heart – regular Dog Eared Readers know how I love her) and with her Gillian Clarke, the national poet for Wales. Imtiaz Dharker climbs out next to stretch her legs, a poet highly regarded by many and studied by our up and coming brightest brains. Then who do we have here? John Sampson is with them also! Not a poet but a professional musician who has worked several times with Carol Ann in the past and can move a person with his music in the way these poets do with their words. And the person driving the bus? Well that is the one and only Camilla Elworthy, who works for Picador, is a total delight and one of the most passionate people I have met within the book industry. See what I mean about those in the bus? This is a gang you want to be a part of!
Now our evening of poetry and music was to be held in the Central United Reform Church, a fine old building in Bath that let sunlight stream down through the stained glass windows on to our poets warming up on the stage. While setting up yet another poet arrived and oh, what a real treat this was for everybody, R V Bailey had came along to join in with the celebrations. Each stop on the Shore to Shore tour was set to have a different guest poet join in and I felt like we had won the lottery with ours. When the audience was informed that she was joining the names they had seen advertised when buying their tickets an actual communal gasp of delight was heard!
Now with this event being linked to my workplace I must confess I wasn’t actually meant to be working that night. We are a big family at Mr B’s and hold a lot of events, so we spread those nights out amongst us so that the others go home and get to do the hugely important business of reading on their sofa with a cup of tea at hand. When I spotted I had not been put down to work that evening I did what is not often heard of when people are talking about their jobs and I begged to be swapped in with somebody – LET ME WORK! – there was no way I was missing this!
The night began with some music from Sampson, leaving astounded faces all around as he played a variety of horns and whistles, sometimes even two at a time! He then proceeded to be something of a compare, welcoming each poet to the stage, but a normal introduction would not suffice, oh no. With the royalty of the poetry world we had it was only fitting that each received a trumpet fanfare!
Each poet brought something completely different to the audience, we went from one spectrum to the other, laughing one moment to crying another. Gillian Clarke began proceedings. I’ve never heard her read before but I found I could close my eyes and be taken to another place with her poetry, it felt deeply descriptive and it was as if I was being rooted in her landscape as her words wrapped around me in the wind. Next came R V Bailey and 15 minutes of poetry that could have converted anybody who is not a reader of this art form. I looked around the room to see not only the audience but also the other poets falling deeper in lyrical love with her at every word she uttered. One poem recalled the time she used an emergency road side assistance phone – I laughed so much I actually began to cry and was alarmed I might be making squeaking noises! When she left the stage the applause was like little I have heard for a guest at an event.
The tears were for a whole other reason when it came to the next performance. The joy at seeing Jackie Kay read again was enough to make me a little weepy eyed to be honest but for the whole she had me laughing, the whole audience in the palm of her hand as she chatted to us in between poems. Loud, passionate applause followed her performance of Extinction (Link to her reading it at another of the events here, you MUST watch!) and then finally she finished with a poem about her mum and dad. This had me in floods, I tried unsuccessfully to do the whole biting your lip, thinking of other things technique to keep the tears at bay but her words got in the nooks and crannies as she is such an expert at doing. Before I knew it she was going off the stage to rapturous applause and we were taking an intermission to my HORROR – I had to go man the book stall with red eyes and tear stained cheeks! Luckily a lot of the audience were in the same state and it was a delight to see and hear the excitement created by the night so far. As any bookseller will tell you the fiction section is always what draws people into the shop and poetry can often end up some what over looked. To see the enthusiastic hands all reaching out to grab so many different collections made my heart sing (and flutter slightly as I tried to keep up desperately with the demand!)
The trumpet heralded once more and it was Imtiaz Dharker next with poetry that I want to compare to a deep red wine, full of body and something I wanted to sit with, take my time over. I didn’t actually own any of her work before this evening but I knew before the night was out this would change (read her writing on the night itself here). And last, but by no means least, Carol Ann Duffy. She read from several of her collections, including The Bees which is a personal favourite of mine. For two of her readings she was accompanied by John Sampson who played while she spoke. This was done with stunning effect in a poem that she wrote as a tribute to the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives so tragically in the Hillsborough disaster.
Once again I sat sobbing, worried that I was going to have to face the public a snotty, emotional mess but the poets saved me! They all returned to the stage for a wonderful and rousing poem read by Carol Ann that resulted in signs being held aloft by our poets and sections of the packed out church shouting out ‘Elvis’ ‘Shakespeare’ and more to much hilarity.
The night then sadly drew to a close but something happened that I have never, ever seen at an event before – a standing ovation from every single person who had attended. It moved me to be involved with such a special night and it clearly moved the poets as well. After a chatty, happy signing queue whittled away, the poets headed off for their supper and I packed the few remaining books into boxes I thought how lucky I was to call that my work for the evening, it was an honour to hear those women speak.
If you missed this tour you can luckily get your hands on this gorgeous ‘Shore to Shore’ book (a signed copy is now in prime position in my flat!) The book is filled with brand new poems from the four touring poets and the guests from each evening. Each poem looks at bookshops and the importance of them and the place they hold in our community. This deserves its spot on book shelves by fans of poetry and/or books and the lovely world of bookshops themselves. Join in the magic!
(If you want a little taster of the night Picador had this great video made of the Bath journey, click here, my hair is visible and my voice in the back ground at one point – how exciting for you!)
‘Shore to Shore – Off The Shelf, A Celebrations of Bookshops in Verse’ Edited by Carol Ann Duffy £20 (Picador)
If you would like any details of the poets above own individual books just let me know and I would be more than happy to put a list together so you guys can look them up.