Clarissa Eden once complained that the Suez Canal flowed through her drawing room during the autumn of 1956. I feel much the same about poetry, which has this month brought turbulence and crumpled balls of paper into every room in our house.
My wife, Susannah Herbert, runs the foundation responsible for the annual Forward Book of Poetry – an anthology of the best of the year’s poetry, as chosen by the judges of the Forward Prizes, which I’m told are the bardic equivalent of the Oscars. I’ve avoided the stuff since declaiming it Nigel Molesworth-style at school: “You have to sa the weedy words and speke them beaitfully as if you knew what they meant.” Nonetheless, I obediently trotted off to the Southbank Centre prize-giving on October 1 to applaud the heirs to Fotherington-Thomas.
Leavened by artists, film-makers and actors, it was unexpectedly jolly, boosted by a speech in which Jude Kelly, the bomber-jacketed creative director of the Southbank Centre, vowed to make poetry “as popular as sport”.
Which sport did she have in mind? With admirable realism, Kelly suggested “women’s football” but a game involving dismembered torsos might be more apt, given the poetry establishment’s reaction to Forward’s decision to open the prize-giving to the ticket-buying public for the first time in years – and to invite actors to read the contenders’ work.
No sooner had a picture of the actresses Helen McCrory, Juliet Stevenson and Natascha McElhone appeared in the Evening Standard above the headline “Live performances to light up poetry prizes” than the purists on social media cried foul. “This is wrong, wrong, wrong,” raged one poet. “No actor will be reading my f***ing poetry, thank you, and whichever media whore organised this can sod off,” declared another. A third called for a Poets’ Union. The prizes’ organisers were “denying voices to writers”, poets had “never been so insulted” and since so few poets could earn an income except by performing their work, an entire generation was doomed to starvation.
Our attempt to leave the party was slowed down by a large Scotsman, who, though swaying, held his brimming glass of wine so steady that the surface tension never broke. He was speaking slowly, leaning a little closer to my wife with every word.
What had he been trying to say, I later asked her suspiciously, fearing the worst. (Poets are traditionally licentious, despite all that innocent “hullo clouds, hullo sky, hullo sun” malarkey.) She grinned. The Scot was the ultimate poetry insider; not only had he edited the winning book but, a poet himself, he’d won three different Forward prizes over the years. He had wanted to share some advice. “I. Hope. You. Know. What. You. Are. Doing. Is. Unpopular.”
Despite my suspicion of poets, I had very much hoped to meet one of the writers shortlisted: Steve Ely, a Yorkshireman described on his book blurb as “a former Sunday League footballer, revolutionary socialist and secondary school headteacher (who) hunts with dogs”.
Ely’s first collection is rich, I’m told, in powerful knotted language, imagery, imagination. But the lines that captured my attention are from his sonnet to Arthur Scargill, the militant miners’ union leader who led his members to defeat in the strike of 1984-85.
“You brought them health and Palma de Mallorca, Cortinas on the drive and kids in college, Reading Marx and Mao and The Wealth of Nations.”
My criticism is purely historical. The miners’ leader who improved conditions was not Scargill, last heard of resisting calls by the few hard-pressed remaining members of the National Union of Mineworkers to evict him from an expensive union-funded Barbican apartment. If there’s any justice in poetry – and there isn’t, because his book didn’t win a prize – Ely should write his next sonnet to Scargill’s predecessor, Joe Gormley.
I have never cared much for horses. So it was with trepidation that I agreed to go to a dude ranch in Montana.
Riding is, after all, pretty much the only entertainment on offer at these places. Scanning the website of the Elkhorn Ranch – a reassuringly expensive but spartan establishment that is essentially unchanged since my mother-in-law went there in the 1950s – I could discern just one other amenity on site: a muddy swimming hole fed by icy mountain streams.
The last time I had been on a horse was some 15 years ago. What was supposed to be a romantic evening ride had ended with me in an undignified heap in a low hedge. It was not an experience I was in any hurry to repeat. But riding like a cowboy turned out to be – relatively speaking – a doddle. My mount, name of Olly, was both good-tempered and sure-footed as we plodded from one spectacular mountain vista to the next. I wouldn’t call it riding exactly. It was more as if Olly consented to let me sit on his back while he wandered around for a bit. But there were no unscheduled dismounts and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it.
There was more good news on my return to London. All this equine activity – added to the fact that the ranch was teetotal – meant I’d lost a few pounds. Suddenly I felt as if I had stumbled upon the perfect exercise regime. Instead of grunting unhappily in the gym every week, why not take up riding? It offered the perfect combination: the horse does the work, you lose the weight.
There was only one snag. Riding establishments in London set weight limits – presumably to spare the nags – and the limit in Hyde Park is a ridiculous 75kg. So while it’s still my plan to take up riding, there is now an intermediate stage. Before buying the jodhpurs and hard hat, I am going on a crash diet.
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer