Sunday, 16 October 2011

Aldeburgh: 1989–2011(?)

Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, was the place we used to go to for our summer holidays when I was a child. And stay in a boarding house run by a Mrs Turner. Year after year after year. Every time, the suspense on the way there: would the car get stuck on Sutton Bank? Every time, a trip to the café in Goathland where there was a talking mynah bird. Every time, some unplanned, unexpected event (a plane crashing into the sea, after the pilot had ejected, was a star turn). What possible reason could there be to go anywhere else?

Aldeburgh (above), on the Suffolk coast, is where an annual poetry festival is held. Year after year after year, on the first weekend after the clocks go back, this is what happens: people go to the seaside to hear poets read and talk and discuss, eat fish & chips, walk by the sea. I read there myself in, I think, 1995, as one of three readers for the London Magazine (Peter Bland and Deryn Rees-Jones being the others), then run by Alan Ross. In the evening we gathered for drinks at the house of Herbert Lomas and then Alan blew the whole reading fee on a meal for us all at one of the restaurants.

Alan died ten years ago. Bertie Lomas died last month. Aldeburgh, astoundingly, renews itself each year: it has a policy of not inviting poets back (however well they’ve behaved), so has a new line-up each time you go, including poets from outside the UK (this year, from Albania, America, Australia, the Bahamas, Ireland, Jordan and New Zealand). Among those who go to listen to the poets there are, I suspect, regulars: they go to Aldeburgh as I was taken to Filey in the 1950s. And the place itself doesn’t change, much. But as well as new poets there are new visitors each year. And the mix of continuity and change creates a place from which you can expect both the familiar and the unexpected. (In around 2007 one poet at Aldeburgh happened to mention to another poet the name Francis Ponge; and the conversation continued; and the result was the CBe bilingual edition of Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, the only UK edition of this writer. Each year there are many other such encounters.)

The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is organised by the Poetry Trust – ‘one of the UK’s flagship poetry organisations, delivering a year-round live and digital programme, creative education opportunities, courses, prizes and publications’, which is website-speak, but they do in fact deliver. And they are remarkably inclusive: witness the constantly renewed programme; witness the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, the history of whose winners and shortlists shows a far more open-minded outlook (in terms of gender, publisher, etc) than, most conspicuously, the Forward Prize.

But as far as I know (and please god there are, as they say, ‘continuing discussions’), this could be the last Aldeburgh. In March this year the Arts Council cut all secure funding to the Poetry Trust. Given the year-upon-year accumulation, the connections already made and there to be built on, the blend of discrimination and openness to the new, the continuity, this is vandalism.

I find it hard to believe this. It’s like my mother telling me no, from now on there is no Mrs Turner, no talking mynah bird, no Filey, no summer. She’s testing me. It cannot be right. Aldeburgh is simply there, each year, an essential part of the calendar. You don’t have to go, of course; you could give it a miss this year and go next year or the next. Except now, maybe not. 4th to the 6th November: see you there.

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