The Bell Jar

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

A Jury of My Peers

Crown

Either it was a token of approval from HM the Q, a validation by The Establishment, an opportunity to preen – or a sign of exclusion and alienation. For the majority of us who got the (yes) gilt-edged invitation to the Queen’s celebration of contemporary poetry, it was a source of one unanimous cry: WTF?

I went. Am I a hypocrite republican? Yes. Respect to those like Luke Wright who without histrionics, declined the invitation. But here’s a surprise: it was a real celebration of British poetry. The guest list was arbitrary, but clearly put together by people who know our world. Of course plenty of fine poets, small press publishers, festival organisers and activists were missing. Even that big old room wouldn’t take every fine poet in the UK, every valiant small press publisher, everyone who runs a festival, every activist. We could all name people who should be there and weren’t, but you’d be hard pushed to name anyone who was there and shouldn’t be. It was a fair sample of our poetry nation.

Lemn Sissay was there, a graduate of the Manchester care home system and bright comet of poetry world, full of love and energy. Rody Gorman spoke insistently in Gaelic to Prince Philip. John Agard, firebrand speaker and (oh joy!) token man on the performance bill, was there. Tiny Sally Evans, maven of the Scottish poetry scene, Romani poet David Morley; Michael Horovitz, veteran beat poet, was there alongside Geoffrey Hill, arcane Oxford Professor of Poetry. Joelle Taylor and Dreadlockalien, stars of the festival stage, were as vividly there as Forward winner Michael Symmons Roberts and TS Eliot shortlister Helen Mort. Young poets like Martha Sprackland: old poets like Anthony Thwaite. Movers and shakers like Niall O’Sullivan, Dean Atta. Festival organisers like Chloe Garner of Ledbury.

No-one was grand-standing. No-one tugged their forelock. And when John Agard stood to read his Alternative Anthem, and when Liz Lochhead read Bairnsang, the room shook with real laughter. The words took hold of the room and SANG. It was done with a wink, and a roar of joy in what poetry can do.

What poetry can do…. The Queen walked through the room. She was small and purple and oddly unremarkable. The source of celebration, the source of interest and pleasure, the power lay not with her but with the massed bodies who hold in their heads the best words we can make in English, in Gaelic, in Scots or Welsh. Behind her I saw a room full of people who have made it their life’s work to speak of love, and pain, and the difficulties of human relationships – of politics, and of friendship and laughter, and war.

Difficult people, troubled or crazy people, hurt and joyful people, but always spokespeople. Our work is to speak of life, and all the curious incidents in it. This was one of them.

A celebration like last night’s should come from someone representative of the people of Britain, not someone to whom we are even nominally subject. We deal in words, and that ‘nominally’ is a big and unconvincing word.

But I went into the palace proud, and I came out proud. It was the same sense of deep peace and bright laughter that I’d have at Bang Said the Gun or Bad Language in Manchester. Proud, then – not because of any passing recognition from That Family, but to be part of this family. This tribe, this gathered clan, this group of people who stand up for love, who tell it like they see it, who continue in spite of indifference or opposition to tell their truth. My kith. Thank you for having me.

11 comments on “A Jury of My Peers

  1. Suzanne MacLeod
    November 20, 2013

    Good for you and your kith, Jo. And to think I went weak at the knees when sharing an elevator with Valerie Singleton!

  2. Keith Parker
    November 20, 2013

    Confirms my belief in republicanism. The honours system which includes the granting of a place at such receptions is a corrosive part of the class system in Great Britain sad to see poets being collaborators.

  3. Pseu
    November 20, 2013

    What a fine gathering! But, were you offered jolly nice tea and cakes?!

  4. paulsands
    November 20, 2013

    Without judgement or criticism I’d love to get a feel of the extent of any unease that was felt accepting the invitation to this event

    • Jo Bell
      November 21, 2013

      Paul – it really was a big deal, I got no sleep the night before and was almost decided not to go. As a committed republican I did feel it was wrong to go, and admired the stand of those who politely declined. I went through curiosity and ego; also I did want to be in a room full of poets I know and love. I wanted to stand up and be counted with them. I didn’t curtsey or kowtow and was astonished that so many of my peers [sic] did. I didn’t waver for a moment in my views of royalty but I was civil – and seeing equally committed republicans like Jonathan Davidson and Ian Duhig there, plus Carol Ann Duffy who has made the laureateship work for British poetry in all sorts of previously unimagined ways – all of this at least made me feel that I was not alone. But I felt embarrassed and would have been ashamed, had it not been for my pride in the poetry nation who were there, and those who were not.

  5. Penny
    November 21, 2013

    A lovely true account of a fantastic evening. Thank you!

  6. Penny
    November 21, 2013

    ps, nor did I curtsey. Last time I looked it wasnt 1957.

  7. Calum Kerr
    November 21, 2013

    Beautiful.

  8. Caroline
    November 23, 2013

    Thank you it was good to read about it. I confess, I’m against the mainstream flow of thought, I am a great supporter of the Queen, having observed her for a long time, and hope she ‘comes back into fashion’ at some point, or at least royalty does. Or there wouldn’t be a splendid room at Buckingham Palace to have fun in. So glad everyone, or most people, had a good time. Caroline Carver

  9. martinvosperwrites
    November 24, 2013

    I’ve been surprised and disappointed by the vitriol some have expressed about this event, so it’s refreshing to read such a sensible and grounded review, Jo.

    Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and beliefs, and I respect the choice of those who decided not to go as strongly as I defend the rights of those who wanted to attend, without fear of criticism on either part.

    To draw a parallel: personally, I have no religious beliefs, yet I wouldn’t expect accusations of being hypocritical if I chose to attend a friend’s wedding that happened to be held in a church.

  10. KW
    November 30, 2013

    Well written and considered Jo, and good to hear that there really was some thought behind the decision (I wouldn’t have expected anything else) – and well done to you for receiving an invitation in the first place. BUT .. no selfies with Her Majesty!? Not even one photo of you shaking the hand in gloves, not a single camera shot of a fur-lined purse over the wrist, no snap of you beaming under a golden arch, not a quick pic of Prince somebody looking befuddled and bemused? In that I’m disappointed. ;)

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This entry was posted on November 20, 2013 by in Writing exercises.
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