9 July 2009 Entry: "Hailstones, suprises and Prizes"
I managed to make my way to the headquarters of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in Webber street from Waterloo underground, without getting wet in the unpredictable thunderstorms. I arrived in good time for 5pm on Tuesday 7th July and was made welcome by the staff; it was a single story building that had one been a primary school (I guess) with parquet flooring, walls lined with bookshelves and plastic chairs in a half moon facing a low stage. The back drop was vibrant posters of the short-listed books: John Agard’s Young Inferno, Allan Ahlberg’s Collected Poems, Sharon Creech’s Hate that Cat, JonArno Lawson (ed) Inside Out poetry anthology and of course, The Ropes.
Sipping fizzy wine as the audience gathered I had a lovely conversation with Lindsay MacRae, a children’s poet with Puffin, and one of the judges. She enthused about The Ropes, and said she’d used it very successfully with groups of students, which made up for the fact that The Ropes didn’t win the prize. John Agard won with his funny, up-to-date retelling of Dante’s poem: Young Inferno. He gave a wonderful reading from it and then was ‘in conversation’ with Jackie Kay, last year’s winner. Suddenly the heaven’s darkened and dropped tons of hailstones onto the roof, drowning out Jackie and John’s conversation, and leaking through the skylight to drip onto my feet and the man sitting in front. One of the staff kept coming over to mop the floor and dab the man’s jacket with a wad of tissue.
When I first arrived, they explained they used to hold the Award Ceremony in The South Bank, but it was too big and expensive. My companion, writer Pauline Melville, and I noted that poetry is still the poor relation to prose in this respect, but also felt it kept even the famous poets grounded and unprecious, as they laughed onstage at the deluge and impossibility of conversation. The book table, run by Newham Book shop, did good trade and they snapped up the five extra copies I had brought with me. I appreciate CLPE might want a face and name they can attach the prize to, rather than give it to an unknown publisher. I am just delighted to have been shortlisted: it helps bring the book to a wider audience and shows that a group of independent judges thought it had enough good qualities to merit the award. One CLPE member said she thought that having two ends ‘boys and girls separated, was sexist.’ I thought she was missing the point. It is a well known fact that boys and girls don’t identify with each other at this age and might have different concerns. The two beginnings to the book might make a good starting point for a group discussion on this issue. I also wanted to address the notion of boys as reluctant readers, and was conscious of creating a signpost: Look, this is just for you! A cover aimed at boys.
Elizabeth Hammill was there from Seven Stories, a supportive presence for me, as she had been so encouraging about The Ropes. As well as John Agard there was his wife Grace Nichols, and their daughter, and so by chance was Fred D’Aguiar, a contributor to the Ropes. My friend Pauline knew them all because of the Guyanese connection. Fred, John, Grace and Pauline all come from Guyana, in South America; a small country in terms of population: 700,000, but great in terms of the writers it produces. John Agard put his drive to write down to his thorough and supportive Roman Catholic teachers. Pauline said colonialism taught Classical Education long after England’s State sector had moved to a more ‘liberal’ style. What does that tell us about language and writers?
As part of my cultural trip to London we visited an exhibition called Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery: a selection of well known figures, politicians, tennis players and others including Sir Elton John and Sandi Toksvig, were all invited to choose another half dozen people who inspired them, to be put on display. It was fascinating. In the evening we went to A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Globe. I was so excited - it’s been one of my desires to see a play there. The noisy, non-traditional crowd made it feel very authentic, I felt it must have been like that in Shakespeare’s day. The play was very energetic and played for laughs, set in the 1920s period, so the emphasis was on the bright young things, the lovers who get in such a muddle in the wood, instead of the strange and mysterious fairies. I just loved hearing Shakespeare’s words on the stage he wrote them for. I want to see more.