by Alan Taylor
Jo Shapcott and Christopher Reid
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AT the Book Festival poets, like ospreys, are rarely sighted. Two of the best of British, Jo Shapcott and Christopher Reid, demonstrated what audiences are missing with a diverting and affecting reading in which words were weighed like carats.
Shapcott, whose latest collection is called On Mutability, read poems about baldness (“a naked scalp experience”), anti-bubbles (ask a physicist) and the joy of urination. The last mentioned was called ‘Piss Flower’ and bemoaned women’s inability to emulate that “golden arc thing men do”. Having said which, Shapcott is, not least by her own admission, clearly a pee-er of renown. The winner of this year’s Costa Prize, Reid read from A Scattering, which dwells on the death of his wife Lucinda. Several poems were set in Crete
where the couple spent a last holiday while others described with “as much documentary clarity” as the poet could muster his wife’s final days. Reid then read excerpts from a long and amusing poem in which a man who works in a London publishing house meets an old flame for a reunion lunch in a Soho restaurant. All, as Reid intimated, does not go according to plan, hence, doubtless, the BBC’s interest which has filmed it with Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. It’s scheduled to be broadcast in October.
A hot Janice Galloway opened by challenging her audience to throw ice cubes down her cleavage, an easy enough target. Ostensibly billed to talk about short stories she was soon in lecture mode, giving advice on parenting and recommending reading matter in a tone that was half-humorous, half-scary. It is a peculiarity of some writers to emphasise words in speech by over-articulating them no one quite rolls her Rs as Galloway does as you might on the page by printing them in italics. The result is to make you feel like an idiot. That is not to say, though, that there was not a lot in Galloway’s galloping hour to enjoy. The stories from which she read, for example, produced gales of laughter and nods of recognition. However, her reading of a poem in honour of Edwin Morgan, who taught her at university, was toe-curling. Apropos the Book Festival, the best line came from her 18 year-old son. “Why do folk go to that kind of thing, mum?”
Perhaps he ought to have gone to hear Oliver James, the clinical psychologist, who has taken a pasting for his new book They F*** You Up. In it he attempts to show how best to raise children to the age of three. Thanks to a misleading newspaper story James found himself caught in the crossfire of the “Mummy Wars”, in which women who go out to work are pitted against those who choose to stay at home. Insisting he is not against working mothers, James who sounded as if he could do with some psychological help himself insisted that the government should abandon Trident and pour the money it saves into helping hard-pressedfamilies. What a dreamer.