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I Missed David Gascoyne!

Kathy Bell

I was a new mother and had just moved to Beeston. Of course one of the first things I did was to join the library. There I found the ‘Poets in Beeston’ leaflet which advertised regular poetry readings. I was delighted. Not only had I escaped from the countryside where local cultural delights were limited to W.I. meetings and morris dancing (both enjoyable, but insufficient), I had found myself in a cultural oasis. There was poetry in Beeston.

I still regret missing David Gascoyne. He’s a poet who has interested me for a long time: on the edge of the 1930s mainstream, always doing something unexpected. I still think, regretfully, that had I moved to Beeston a couple of months earlier, I would have heard him read. But I found poets who were new to me. The first, a month after my arrival, was Amryl Johnson, a terrific performer of her work who wrote for the voice. She brought the language, sights, tastes and smells of Trinidad and London to a restrained but highly appreciative Beeston audience.

The restraint of the poetry-reading audience amused Leon Rosselson, who sang at Beeston a few years later in a gig shared with Michael Rosen. By this time my children were at primary school and knew who Michael Rosen was. They were quite cross at not being allowed to attend. At least, the next morning, I was able to present them with copies of Rosa’s Singing Grandfather and The Golem of Old Prague, inscribed by the authors. And for myself there were Leon Rosselson cassettes. I hadn’t heard of him before but his song Wo sind die Elefanten? made me a fan for life.

The lure of the bookstall was a hazard of Poets in Beeston. There were intervals – I think wine may have been provided, courtesy of the sponsoring bookshop – to lessen customers’ resistance. I did my best to limit myself to one book per reading. I didn’t always succeed.

While the series had its chart-toppers – the stars of the poetry world had lower booking fees in those days – it was often the lesser-known poets who delighted most. I hadn’t heard of Gillian Clarke in those days but I’ve watched out for her work ever since. I may have bought only one of her books at the reading but I’ve made several purchases since. Then there was Hugh McMillan – an excellent reader of his work; I had to buy his most recent book but I needed Tramontana as well; the cover was designed by Alasdair Gray.

This could easily descend into a list of unintended purchases, none of which I now regret. The books I bought are on my shelves and continue to give me pleasure. It could also become a very long list of poets. I’ll pick out just a few: U.A. Fanthorpe, who read with her partner and fellow poet Rosie Bailey; Sophie Hannah, an engaging young reader with technical virtuosity; Mimi Khalvati who made me understand how ghazals work. It was the best education in contemporary poetry I can imagine. I was a season-ticket holder and went to almost every reading from May 1989 until the series ended – and I’ve missed it ever since. Even when I was too broke to buy a book at the reading, it would usually go onto my Christmas or birthday list.

I’ll end by mentioning another poet I missed. Benjamin Zephaniah‘s visit clashed with a family trip away at half-term. I gave my ticket to my daughter’s form-teacher, a scientist by training who had never heard of him. When I returned, she told me how brilliant the reading had been. I think she bought every book that was on sale. She introduced her class of 6 and 7-year-olds to Zephaniah’s work for children – so instead of hearing Zephaniah read Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas, I experienced my daughter’s rendition. In those days, before the rigours of the literacy hour, a teacher’s chance encounter with a poet could lead to a whole class’s enthusiasm for his poetry. I don’t know if that could happen now.

I don’t know if there will be season-tickets for the revived series of Beeston Poets – or whether there will be wine. I expect there will be a bookstall and that I’ll be tempted to purchase books. I fear I shall, once again, succumb – and so should everyone else.

Eds: There will be wine, there will be a bookstall, there will be some form of season ticket…

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