Carol Ann Duffy and Little Machine, London, 2015
A packed Emanuel School hall in Battersea, the stage lit with flickering candles and draped with red roses, the Dark Rose for Christmas album artwork provided an atmospheric backdrop. A silver-grey wig waiting for a head, a lively audience waiting for a poet and a band. The Emanuel Close Harmony Octet opened the evening with suitably evocative pieces: ‘The Roses on the Tree’, Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Crown of Roses’ and ‘A Spotless Rose’ by Herbert Howells. It could only lead to poetry and Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson were welcomed to the stage, black clad and sombre for ‘Last Post’, a haunting trumpet call followed by a moving poem: “You walk away; drop your gun… and light a cigarette… If poetry could truly tell it backwards,/ then it would.”
The wartime theme continued with ‘An Unseen’, in response to Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Send-Off’, in which love and loss entwine: “Down the quiet road, away, away, towards/ the dying time,/ love went, brave soldier, the song dwindling;/ walked to the edge of absence.” John Sampson took up a recorder to evoke Christmas Eve in the trenches, his haunting ‘Stille Nacht’ over Carol Ann’s strikingly visual “The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky./ Silver frost on barbed wire, strange tinsel,/ sparkled and winked.” (‘The Christmas Truce’). The combination of sonorous melodies and words was a reminder of the power of music, how songs have long been used in war as acts of resistance and endurance.
Duffy changed the mood with an amusing introduction to ‘The Counties’, a “poem of protest against the Post Office”, recalling the childhood delight of claiming a book by writing her name and address in full on the flyleaf – ‘… the universe, the solar system’ – and in her case, with Catholic parents, ‘Near God’. An alliterative celebration of English county names and significance, soon to be overlooked by postcode-only envelopes. There will be rebellion in the counties for sure.
Duffy thought it appropriate to read ‘Mrs Schofield’s GSCE’ in a school hall, which was written in response to her ‘Education for Leisure’ being removed from the GCSE syllabus for referencing knives. She explained with dry humour the background behind Mrs Schofield, which in turn recounts acts of Shakespearian violence with the opening lines, ‘You must prepare your bosom for his knife,/ said Portia to Antonio in which/ of Shakespeare’s comedies?’ The disgraced ‘Education for Leisure’, meanwhile, had “been arrested, taken to a small dark room and pulped and shredded”. The Guardian had phoned to ask if Duffy had anything to say in its defence but “fortunately they didn’t print that”. Her humorous response to Aesop’s fables (‘Mrs Aesop’), which she found annoyingly moralistic as a child, included a John Bobbitt-style ending (“You can Google that,” she told the younger members of the audience).
John Sampson then introduced his impressive range of instruments with wit and virtuosity: “I wanted to show you my crumhorn” was met with a “No!” from the poet laureate. He entertained the audience by playing two recorders at once, in harmony, introducing his goat’s horn named Daisy and several other instruments. Following jokes about government cuts in school music departments, Sampson donned the waiting wig to play Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’; or rather a fast-paced, cut-back version of it. He whipped off the wig – “Mozart is gone for ever!” (“I preferred him,” said Duffy.) She then explained, rather apologetically: “The Queen gave John to me. She didn’t want him anymore. I have to take him round for a decade.” They make a memorable stage duo.
She finished her well-rounded set with ‘Liverpool’, the tolling of football cathedral bells echoed by sombre recorder notes, and an exquisitely moving poem for her mother, ‘Premonitions’ with ‘Silent Night’ again played behind the reading. Time once more re-spooling, in her mother’s garden, “where a bee swooned backwards out of a rose. / There you were,/ a glass of lemony wine in each hand,/ walking towards me always …”
The second half of the evening proved equally rich and entertaining, opening with the school choir processing into the hall for ‘This Little Babe’ from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Time next for Little Machine to take to the stage, introduced by Steve Halliwell – “the first half was amazing so we’ll do what we can.” Walter Wray, Chris Hardy and Steve proceeded to fill the hall with six of Duffy’s poems written to be set to music plus some seasonal surprises, from reflective to raucous, accompanied by the school choir on some songs and the support of the poetry-fuelled audience. First up, ‘December’: “These nights are gifts, our hands unwrapping the darkness to see what we have.” Backscreen images enhanced the mood of each piece, as did the high hall curtains, swaying in a ghostly draught. Chris Hardy introduced ‘Advent’ as the first of the poems they’d put to music – “One last, silvered leaf fails to fall/from its tree… and you will sing to your child on Christmas Eve” – enhanced by fine vocals from Chris and percussion accompaniment from Janine Swan and Martyn Barker.
Little Machine changed the mood with a blast of paganistic rock, ‘The Lord of Misrule’, with its “base peasant” beat and a medieval backdrop or two. “Believe it or not, the poet laureate wrote those words, she asked us to make it really mad.” It’s a definite contender for the Christmas charts.
The curtains continued to sway along to ‘The Mistletoe Bride’ and the ‘The Bee Carol’ (“Silently on Christmas Eve,/ the turn of midnight’s key… feed the winter cluster of the bees”); picking up pace with Wray’s Presley rendition in ‘Elvis’ and the choir lining the stage for the rousing finale, ‘Oh Hogmanay’. The audience was encouraged to join in – “so raise a glass for me and do not grieve” – and did so in gusto to celebrate an evening of poetry, song and Christmas cheer.
For more winter tour dates and a chance to buy Dark Rose for Christmas go to http://www.little-machine.com/list/gigs-and-events/. And Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems (Picador 2015) is a fine addition to any Christmas list.
Alison Hill's third collection, Sisters in Spitfires, which celebrates the women who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary during the second world war, was published in October 2015 by Indigo Dreams. Alison also writes plays and runs Rhythm & Muse events in Kingston. More details at www.alisonhillpoetry.com