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Tony Harrison and Tom Paulin at Woodstock Poetry Festival

posted on 17 Nov 2015

Tony Harrison and Tom Paulin at Woodstock Poetry Festival

Sunday 15th November - another unseasonably mild November evening - and we've just arrived in Woodstock, Oxfordshire for the last events of this year's poetry festival. The venue for Tony Harrison's reading looks oddly dead, lights on but no people and a Town Hall caretaker who denies all knowledge of the reading. Great. Having spied a trail of people who look like poetry types we just have time to find the unposted alternative venue - the town's church. Inside its pretty packed and, we're told, the venue had to be changed because the crowd is so big. That's good news - but a bit of signage might have been a nice idea....?

Our mild irritation soon evaporates however when Tony Harrison steps up to the pulpit and begins his reading. No chat, no interview, just a choice by Tony of poems he wants to read. He's a small man and he's an old man now, 78, but all of that is insignificant when he plunges into his poetry which allows his undiminished personality to come through. He reads from the cycle of poems about the death of his mother and father, he reads reflective poems about his childhood and he reads his war poems - all in that fabulously textured Leeds working class accent.

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Harrison is one of those poets who can make you laugh, make you sad and make you angry at almost the same moment. He's now a small man but he has a huge sense of humanity and he is confident in his values. His politics drive the work - he didn't read from my favourite poem 'V' but his progressive beliefs are clear. He is also an atheist and the irony of him declaring this commitment from the lavish church pulpit was delicious.

There were plenty of people who wanted a book signed at the end and I inevitably get stuck behind a couple who are braying at each other like a pair of middle class donkeys but Harrison is gracious to everyone and does not begrudge his time, dedicating his signings unstintingly. 

A great poet and I'm delighted we got to see him.

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Then it's on to the Woodstock Social Club for an evening of poetry and Irish folk music. Tom Paulin and Bernard O'Donoghue are the poets and Mick Henry and Nick Hooper will be the musicians. We track down the social club and find one of those odd crossover places - half snooker club and half pub. Not my natural environment and so I'm feeling uneasy. I didn't need to though because if you go past the bar you'll find a really great events room - a nice venue for small gatherings and for folk musicians - a modest stage and professional sound and lighting. The seats give plenty of leg room and the bar isn't so packed that its disruptive. All good.

However, there's a bit of a disappointment on the way - Bernard O'Donoghue is unwell and wont be there. He's not critically ill but not well enough to read - so Tom Paulin will read his stuff too. The three of them do their contributions in strict rotation over two short sets and everyone has a pretty good time and they build the banter between them. I've always liked Tom Paulin since I first saw him as the uncompromising critic on a BBC Arts Review programme back in the 80s (or was it the 90s?). He has a rich Northern Irish accent - less metalic than some - and a sly understated wit that makes him sound both friendly and frank at one and the same time. He reads his own material best - inevitably I suppose - but he has an instict for the populist move too and reads some selected poems from Yeats - Sailing to Byzantium and The Wild Swans At Coole - go down a storm.

We drive home at the end of the night - 90 minutes in a fine drizzle - but with no thoughts for anyhting other than what a good time we've had.

 

Terry Potter

November 2015