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Faber Social, Corn Exchange, May
“So, poetry, that’s a room clearer.”
When an interviewer from BBC Radio Sheffield fired the gambit to Yorkshire’s unofficial poet laureate, Simon Armitage, he hadn’t done his research.
The poet recently walked the Pennine Way and was put up in pubs and village halls and stately homes in exchange for a few live readings.
Perhaps the hosts loved how Armitage can turn even the most banal events into gripping prose. Once a week, he revealed at this Faber Social event on holiday from London, he likes to write about something seemingly insignificant.
So his snappy readings, at perfect tempo, included the sonnet, I Kicked A Mushroom - about, yes, booting over fungi.
It mattered not that Armitage had forgotten the event theme: books and place. His work is rooted in his native county.
Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, whose waspish style raises as many questions about Scottish identity as it answers, read with the same vivid voice he hears when he writes dialogue.
With the skill of an actor, he took us to the Ayrshire parish where English priest Father Anderton has been posted, into the lives of rebellious teenagers Mark and Lisa, in Be Near Me.
After the break came two women whose reading suffered for the long passages they chose. Linda Grant, the only non-Faber author, came before Irish dame, Edna O’Brien, whose pursuit of truth once saw her books burnt in her native Ireland.
O’Brien, now in her 80s, has just finished her memoirs. She read Simmers, which the New York Times once reviewed under the headline, “pint of virtue, pint of vice”.
The former convent girl confessed to having to sit down to read: scars remain from the time she performed Our Lady Of Fatima in a school production and keeled over before the Bishop of Galway.
Things never faltered for O’Brien here, who spoke engagingly and with gravitas. The night would have benefitted from more discussion, however. Perhaps some questions from the audience or an interviewer. Surely, with the writer appearing in person, it is a waste not to hear more about the ideas behind the work?
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