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Beach treasures: an Aldeburgh postcard from McMillan and Crowe

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Crisp packets thrown from ships; sodden, torn-up bits of newspaper; plastic refuse found on the beach. Detritus is not the sort of thing you would necessarily associate with the excellent Aldeburgh poetry festival. But how rubbish can become treasure is the subject matter of Pilotage, the exhilarating result of a collaboration between poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan and eco-artist Fran Crowe, and the Aldeburgh festival’s first poetry commission.

In launching their delightful limited edition booklet of words and artwork on Saturday afternoon at the famed Aldeburgh Bookshop during the festival, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, McMillan, in between checking on the unchanging score from Barnsley – a goalless draw in the derby with Doncaster - said that the initial walk in May along the beach to discuss the project with Crowe had been “perhaps the coldest, wettest, most appalling walk in the history of western civilisation”.

Undaunted after such an inauspicious start, the opening poem, ‘What We Did’, in the collection explains:  “We found things that could have been older than my children. / We noted that the same colours came up again and again. / We were alone on the beach except for the beach’s gifts to us. / We imagined people in passing ships gazing at us.”

McMillan, talking about the experience of finding poems on the beach, said: “What Fran taught me is, you don’t have to alter it. You just have to find it, and present it.” In the foreword to the pamphlet he adds: "I hope this pamphlet will make you want to find, and write, and photograph." His restless curiosity and appetite for speculation reveals itself in works like 'Crisp Lives', in which he imagines the stories behind four differently flavoured, discarded packets of crisps. 

Crowe talked about how the great European rivers discharged their rubbish into the North Sea, and how much of it ended up on East Anglia beaches. She found the collecting of rubbish “very addictive”. She added in the foreword: "Being with Ian has made me see, and above all, hear  things differently. I love Ian's way of collecting without the necessity of objects or photographs." 

Pilotage, with its focus on the beach and the finds there, seemed an ideal first commission for Aldeburgh, even though much of the festival – itself described as “a national treasure” by at least one poet at the weekend – has moved a few miles inland, to the splendid Snape Maltings.  



ALDEBURGH, on the edge of East Anglia, feels a long way from anywhere. It also feels, to this first-time visitor, a little different to other poetry festivals, in the way it prides itself on freshening up its lineup each year by mixing well-known or international names with lesser-known voices and exceptional newcomers, in an inter-connecting series of readings, workshops, discussions, craft-talks, close readings, performances and exhibitions.

Thus on Saturday morning at the main reading in a packed Britten Studio at Snape, we had an Irishman, an Englishwomen, and an American -  Conor O’Callaghan, Alison Brackenbury and Robert Wrigley. O’Callaghan told his audience: “There are parts of England in which I feel especially Irish - and Aldeburgh is one of them, to be sure.” He introduced some Twitter poems – including one about “friggin’ Wigan pier” - that were printed sideways and explained: “In Ireland we call that experimentation.” Wrigley, from Idaho, said he felt “invigorated and intimidated” by the honour of appearing at Aldeburgh. He described his current home state as “not anywhere”, adding that “it’s possible to be 900 miles from home, and still be in Idaho.” Brackenbury, who grew in the countryside of Lincolnshire, and now lives in Gloucestershire, felt no need to tell any jokes about her roots.

O’Callaghan also spoke about the complex emotions he experienced while watching someone reading his poem ‘Wild Strawberries’ that was posted above a urinal in a gents at Aldeburgh, saying it was quite nerve-wracking. I remembered reading that poem in just that location, and at that moment felt complex emotions too.  

Brackenbury read poems about lapwings, starlings, 9/11, and conversations she had with Edward Thomas’s daughter, Myfanwy, who said her father’s voice was “clear and quiet”: “I hear him singing in the dark.” 

Wrigley’s poems were amusing and human, about missing his novelist wife when she went off on book tours; his three-year old daughter picking up her parents’ emphatic use of language in moments of stress; and stealing his student’s idea of a poem about a ventriloquist’s dummy, and assigning it an unsettling role in a bedroom triangle. And this thought of his is well worth remembering by poets who complain that they are short of inspiration: “The world is an onslaught of the possibilities of poetry.”   



KIM MOORE loves trains, particularly the one from Barrow to Sheffield - even though the toilet smells “like nothing will be clean ever again” – because “in a train there are no choices … just one direction you must stick to”.  She can see the best in what may appear the worst of times: ‘In Praise Of Arguing’, written after getting married, when “one half of the house hated the other half … it was a glorious, glorious year”.  

Four young poets with pamphlets took to the Britten Studio stage on Saturday afternoon – Moore,  Ritchie McCaffery, Shazea Quraishi, and Luke Yates – each with something remarkable about them. McCaffery’s pamphlet, Spinning Plates, iincludes a poem about an underground copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that survives Dunkirk. The poems in Quraishi’s pamphlet, The Courtesans Reply  - partly inspired by the Kama Sutra – are each written in the voice of a different courtesan. Quraishi said that after growing up in a Muslim culture, she found the expression of female sexuality in a joyful way “very interesting”. Luke Yates wore a bright orange top, and his pamphlet, The Pair of Scissors That Could Cut Anything, includes, as you might expect, references with a surreal air to topiary and hedge trimming. 



DURING the readings several audience members were discreetly and silently snapping away on their mobile phones in the Britten Studio, even though officially only the approved festival photographer was meant to be taking pictures. It’s not unheard of for organisers to seek to control the images presented of their festival, and too many camera clicks at a reading can certainly be obstrusive, particularly at a festival like Aldeburgh, where poets expect to be heard with an attentive hush. Write Out Loud was disappointed not to be allowed to take pictures. C’est la vie.      





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