By Freddie Bruhin-Price
This week, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, a sell-out crowd gathered for the final event of this year’s ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Friends’ series. This special Christmas evening included jazz, poetry and a performance from a group of musicians called LiTTLe MaCHiNe.
Following a jazz interlude, stand-in House Poet Clive McWilliam welcomed the audience to the festively-decorated theatre. Clive then introduced Poet Laureate and Creative Director of the Manchester Writing School Carol Ann Duffy to the stage to read her annual Christmas poem for 2015, ‘The Wren Boys’. The poem is about a group of Irish boys hunting for a rebel wren, “the size of a lost child’s purse.” The Wren Boys, in “green-laced boots, daft caps, red neckerchiefs,” are contrasted against “settled snow,” before Carol Ann asks, “could they find that feckin’ wren? As they thrashed, poked, joshed and groped…” The poem received a very positive reception, after which Carol Ann praised the poem’s illustrator Dermot Flynn.
Next, Clive welcomed poets from the Manchester Writing School to the stage to read from their own work. First was Martin Kratz. Martin is currently working alongside Carol Ann to judge the Manchester Children’s Book Festival’s Poetry Together competition. The cross-generational contest is thought to be the first of its kind and carries a £500 prize.
Speaking to Humanity Hallows, Martin discussed the competition and his creative influences. He said, “Being a parent changed everything, including my poetry.” On the night, he read from two poems: ‘Ada and the Spiderhouse’, and ‘Post Natal’, which described a “maternity ward manned by a skeleton crew of midwives.”
Next Clive introduced Vicky Stannard. In ‘Years Later’, Vicky reflected on the changing dynamics in our relationships with loved ones, with whom we are sometimes “too familiar to shake hands, too awkward to kiss.” Mark Pajak was up next. Mark, who has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, began with a poem describing battery chickens with “their feathers stripped to stems, their scraps of scrotum skin,” and their “2000 stacked cages” as “engines of clatter and squawk.” His final poem, “Cat on the Tracks,” told the tale of a cat on a railway line: “The world lit up like a page, the train a sentence before the full stop.”
Clive then introduced Christine Sanders. Christine read three poems which contained themes of loss and nature. She described her love of walking in the poem ‘Where I’m Led’, which demonstrated the beauty of simplicity: “How beautiful this world is, and how easily it can slip away… So hold on.”
Finally, Clive took to the stage one more time to read from some of his own compositions. His poem ‘Boxer at Rest’ impressed with sonorous lines like, “In this deep sleep my childhood fist still misses your face and breaks a window.”
Following the intermission, Clive introduced the four-piece poetry band LiTTLe MaCHiNe. The band performed their album A Dark Rose for Christmas, a collaborative project which involved putting Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry to music. The lyrics used on the album include poems from Carol Ann’s Twelve Poems of Christmas series, as well as five new pieces penned by the Poet Laureate specifically for the band.
Taking to the stage all dressed in red and black, the quartet, led by singer and guitarist Walter Wray, opened with the atmospheric ‘December’, complete with Carol Ann’s words: “The train rushes, ecstatic, to where you are, my bright star.” They followed this with the bass-driven ‘Advent’, with its catchy chorus of “gold carols, this dark advent, the hurt heart hearkening… Lo! He comes with clouds descending.” Introduced by the band as “the Christmas single,” the next song, ‘Elvis’, tells the story of the narrator opening the door to a carol singer and being greeted by Elvis Presley.
After the ethereal soundscape of ‘Christmas Eve’ came the highlight of the evening, ‘Lord of Misrule’ matching Carol Ann’s lyrics with an Ian Dury-style vocal delivery from bassist Steve Halliwell. Another highlight of the set was the sing-along ‘Hogmanay’ which benefited from the party whistles the band had distributed amongst the audience before they began to play. The song was such a success that the band revisited it for one last chorus following their closing number, ‘Single Bed’.
To find out more about LiTTLe MaCHiNe’s music, see their website.
To find out more about the Manchester Children’s Book festival Poetry Together competition, visit the festival blog.
Freddie likes the music of New Orleans and the occasional cup of tea with Old Bull Lee.