Not Glastonbury, but … finding poetry at a village festival just up the road
It was the weekend of Glastonbury. But unaccountably we took a wrong turning, and ended up just five miles away in the next village to ours, at an event called Feltonbury instead. It’s been staged in the Northumberland village of Felton for a number of years, and includes music, art, and even some poetry.
On a blissfully warm day you could find some shade in the Poets Café, within the village’s art gallery, where six local - ie north-east poets - performed during the afternoon. Before they began, however, a band was commencing their set in the gallery courtyard. I was astonished and delighted to find them opening with the title track of Sgt Pepper – a nod, perhaps, to the Beatles vibe represented on the Feltonbury festival logo.
That Beatles vibe continued during the set of the final poet of the day, Aidan Clarke, whose poem ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ refers to another song on the Sgt Pepper album, She’s Leaving Home, which looks at both the pain and the right thing of young leaving the nest. It ends: “She’s leaving home, bye bye, / is ultimately/ painfully, / amazingly / a triumphant cry.”
I hadn’t come across Aidan Clarke before. He’s difficult to summarise. If I was having a stab at it, I would say surreal humour. But he’s more than that. ‘London Fire’ finds him walking backwards through history, from a fish and chip place in Paddington, “between Tyburn Tree / and the discovery of penicillin” towards the Great Fire of London:
The Great Fire of London Walk is easy.
First you burn with love for the tumultuous city.
Then you walk slowly through the hopes and fears
of all the years.
He marvels at the migration of birds –“This is the last time / I go on holiday with my mother” (‘Flying South for the Winter’), and ‘The poetry of pottery’ – “once broken / the pieces are indestuctible”. He ends the pottery poem by saying “Here’s a fragment of my soul,” a phrase he repeated in the inscription of my copy of his collection Poems for No One.
David Roe is a well-known poet, in Northumberland and beyond. He’s also a chimney sweep, although remarkably not the only chimney-sweep poet in the north-east. He’s frank about his dyslexia, and how it doesn’t bother him. He has a commanding, confident presence, and delivers a variety of poetry, both comic and lyrical, such as one about an early-morning walk along one of the branches of the Tyne at Haltwhistle. His microbiological poem ‘Bedtime’ -There’s a rainforest in my belly button, / that’s what the scientist said” – would make an excellent inclusion in a children’s poetry anthology, if it hasn’t been snapped up already.
Mandy Maxwell is a no-nonsense, gritty poet, originally from Scotland. She professes to belong to Glasgow – “to tea in the park, to pee in the park” – but confesses at the end of the poem that she’s really from East Kilbride. Nothing wrong with that, of course. She’s tough on dog walkers who don’t deal properly with poop, but warm with audiences, and her poem ‘Mummy, are we rich?’ is touching and endearing.
Whitley Bay’s Steve Lancaster is a master of wordplay, with a penchant for erotic poetry, sometimes with odd connections. Thus the noted Lake District fell walker Alfred Wainwright pops out in a poem about bodily rambles and explorations, and another laced with come-hither language turns out to be about a habit made notorious by Tory Iain Duncan Smith when he was caught at it on camera on the backbenches of the House of Commons. Picking your nose, Steve’s talking about.
Roy Matthew Heath is Morpeth-based, but originally from Hull. He’s another master of variety, opening with three linked poems about the birth of a granddaughter, before delivering ‘Mouth of the Humber’ about his old stamping ground, and ‘Northumberland Lady’, his love letter to the topographical Northumberlandia, created from mining spoil, that you can glimpse from the train, or if you prefer, visit and wander about her nether regions: “You captivate me … your uncut, unkept place, as nature decreed … a sister to the Angel …” Steady, Roy! But I know what he means; I’m a big fan, too.
A late addition to the line-up was Olya Bowers, who opened with a passionate cry: “I can’t stand a poet who rants”, and also told a long story about meeting one of American’s leading Communists, who had shaken the hand of Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, and another chap who had gripped the hand of Neil Armstrong, first astronaut to walk on the Moon. Olya regarded it as her own claim to fame, in a way - and fair enough.
The poetry event’s organiser Ian Williams had been listed to perform, but nobly stepped aside for Olya, although he did deliver one poem at the end, by popular demand. By that time the Poets’ Café had filled up nicely. I stepped outside, into the blazing sun, and rejoined my missus in the main music arena, where hundreds of folk were gathered to enjoy a succession of bands.
Remarkable to look at this picturesque village, apparently well off the beaten track, and reflect that until recent decades the A1 used to thunder through here. It may not be on the main road any longer, but Feltonbury is certainly a destination that we’ll be returning to next year.
Listening to festival buskers on the old bridge at Felton Photograph: Gillian Freeman