• Thu. May 30th, 2024
Carol Ann Duffy at a book signing

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Few of the guests at the Edinburgh International Book Festival have the creative freedom or the boldness of Carol Ann Duffy. However, as a former Poet Laureate and one of the UK’s most celebrated writers of the past forty years, Duffy carried her fame with ease. The event in the ECA’s Baillie Gifford West Court on the evening of Thursday 17th August was a sell-out. In the row opposite me, I spotted Jackie Kay, Scotland’s former makar.

After Duffy swaggered on stage with musician and long-time collaborator John Sampson, Nick Barley, director of the EIBF, appeared to personally thank the poet for being a “stalwart” of the festival for the fourteen years he’d run it. Duffy, wearing all-black, seemed unperturbed.

Sampson, also dressed in black, kicked off the event by playing Duffy a grandiose introduction on the fanfare trumpet, before moving onto the crumhorn, and then two recorders at once. While pretending to be irritated, the audience could see Duffy’s smile break through when no one was looking.

The poet then stood up, speaking in a languid, but clear RP accent. Her demeanour, mannerisms, and voice suggested a New Romantic Severus Snape. At a wooden lectern, she began her poetry recital with free verse pieces from The World’s Wife, published in 1999. The collection was a retelling of Western myths from the point of view of wives, including “Mrs. Midas”, “Mrs. Aesop”, and “Mrs. Faust.”

Duffy performed with great dramatic flair while keeping her monotone drawl, with long, drawn-out non-rhoticism. The poems from The World’s Wife read like the stories they parodied, in parts like prose, but with incredible imagery bursting through quite matter-of-fact first person narratives. Her twists on the traditional, patriarchal mythology were clever and well-thought, and throughout each poem a strong feminist spirit resounded. Many oohs and ahs came from the audience at the end of each. Certain lines had the crowd in fits of laughter, thanks to Duffy’s dry delivery.

Touching on her “Mrs. Faust”, Duffy made a political point by saying it could be retitled “Mrs. Sunak, Johnson, or Melania”. The poem, of course, concerns the wife of a man who was so greedy he sold his soul to the Devil: Duffy’s twist being that Faust had no soul to sell.

She read one more poem from that collection, a beautiful love poem entitled “Anne Hathaway”, before returning to her double act with John Sampson. The Dunfermline musician put on a white wig and told the audience he was Mozart before playing one of the composer’s pieces. His slapstick persona provided catharsis to Duffy’s dour glare.

The poet then moved on to her most recent collection, Sincerity, released in 2018. She explained to the audience one folk etymology of the word sincerity, which posits its Latin meaning as “without wax”. This referred to the practice of filling in cracks in statues with wax, meaning those without were more “truthful” or sincere.

She cycled through several poems, including “Clerk of Hearts”, “Elephants”, a poem about her daughter leaving home, a poem dedicated to Tracey Emin (Duffy’s “favourite artist”), and a comical poem about a monkey. The poet’s gift at wordplay or, as she puts it, using “simple words, but in a complicated way”, shone throughout.

Sampson gave another brief interlude, this time on woodwind before Duffy spoke about her time at the University of Liverpool. She described being in the city for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, which killed 94 (of an eventual 97) Liverpool fans on the day, due to poor policing, and remembered hearing the church bells ring out 94 times the following day. She wrote the poem “Liverpool” twenty-five years later when she said “some justice had finally been delivered”. As she read it, Sampson accompanied her on the recorder.

Duffy followed her poem on the Hillsborough disaster with two more poems of grief, the first about Princess Anne grieving the Queen and the second about the death of her own mother. Sampson accompanied this with a slow rendition of O Danny Boy

After reading one more poem on reconnecting with her daughter during lockdown, Duffy spoke a little to the audience. It was hard not to detect a hint of sarcasm as she said, “How lucky we are to have these hours at the best book festival in the world” (referring to Brian Cox’s line in the obligatory promo video that plays before each of the over 500 events). 

She read one last poem before the event finished with a rendition of Hallelujah by Sampson on brass with a piano backing track, with the middle-aged audience encouraged to join in for the chorus. A little unsure of themselves, the effect was of a ghostly choir, Sampson’s brass accompaniment adding a Coronation Street-style ambience. As the song finished, Duffy, maintaining her drab flair, bowed to the audience’s applause, holding hands with Sampson, before the pair exited stage right, through the door from whence they came.

Image “CAROL ANN DUFFY AT THE GALA THEATRE DURHAM” by summonedbyfells is licensed under CC BY 2.0.