On Chairing

On Chairing

One of the delights of being behind the scenes at Hay is being asked to chair or present the sessions. This can be nerve-jangling, especially when ‘the book’ in question doesn’t appear or you have less than a day to read it. But even then the warmth of the audiences, the congeniality of one’s fellow writers, and the sheer fun of the occasion makes the job invigorating.

So far this year I’ve been chairing poets or writers on poets. As one myself this is no hardship because all but one have been good friends and the one exception – the Bombay poet Arundhathi Subramainian (try saying that fast, twice, with confidence on stage with half an hour’s notice) – is such a superb poet that I hope she soon will be.

Most fun – if that’s quite the right word for the subject matter – was the conversation with Simon Armitage on his translation of the 15th century anonymous epic The Death of Arthur. It’s a work that puts King Arthur firmly on the European stage, invading Italy and enjoying dominion over the continent from the Baltic to the Pyranees. In this version Arthur is not a nice guy, his last act being to order the slaughter of his nephew Mordred’s children with Guinevere while Arthur was fighting the Pope. Since I have just finished a very long and very different Arthurian book, Simon and I could have chuntered on for hours.

Each performing writer wants a variation on the art of introduction. While Simon Armitage needed a conversant, Tishani Doshi, Rhian Edwards (terrific first collection Clueless Dogs just out) and the aforementioned Arundhathi need a compere. All three were reciters rather than readers of their poetry and so the task was to make the stage show flow.

Matthew Hollis was not presenting his own poetry at all but giving a condensed and illustrated rendering of his account of the last years of Edward Thomas, All Roads Lead To France, that won the Costa Award this year. Matthew must be the only person to edit the winning book one year (he is Jo Shapcott’s editor at Faber’s) and then win it himself the next. Matthew’s talk was so self-contained that he was not even inviting questions so from the chair all he needed was a sympathetic introduction to set the scene and explain to the occasional audience member who was there by chance what they were about to hear.

By nice symmetrical accident my three sessions for the second half of the festival are not of poetry but history and politics: a change of gear. I’ll report.