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And the winner is …?

At the Royal Festival HallWe huddled, we looked out for friends or people we knew, we stood around holding our tiny £5 plastic glasses of wine. But mostly we sat and listened, as Ian McMillan instructed us, but with very little murmuring or whooping, as the T S Eliot Prize nominated poets in turn did the long walk to the podium. (On the way home with poet friends Julia and Charlotte, we decided that ‘the walk up’ must feel like an eternity.)

What happened (I apologise for the sketchiness, especially my accounts of the first half readers, I didn’t take notes so these are my impressions as I recall):

Daljit Nagra entertained us with a five-hander sort of ‘rehearsed reading’ of a chapter from the Ramayana. They used a nice chunk of the stage and kind of shook things up a bit.

Moniza Alvi followed on without blinking, as if headlining with a crew of readers pretending to be monkeys and buffalo was the most normal thing in the world. Her reading was quiet and understated.

Maurice Riordan admitted he was a bit nervous, and fiddled with the water bottle rather a lot. Nevertheless a little vulnerability can go a long way, and he warmed up.

Anne Carson was sadly indisposed, and for some reason a video link was beyond the capabilities of the RFH, so we had an apologetic Ruth Padel standing in. I didn’t envy her.

Last before the break was Michael Symmons Roberts, still my favourite to win even though he’s already cleaned up the gongs this year. Drysalter is top of my wishlist. Maybe I’ll wait for the next edition with the ‘Winner of the TS Eliot Prize’ strapline – tee hee.

Dannie Abse opened the second half and the audience clapped and ooohed as if no-one could believe he can still read so beautifully at his age…. reminded me of when people used to say of my mother ‘isn’t she MARVELLOUS’ when I told them how OLD she was, as if they were looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course, Dannie Abse IS marvellous… but that’s probably not relevant.

Helen Mort isn’t 90, quite the opposite (I leave you to work out what that is) and she took the stage by the scruff of its neck. Although her poem ‘Scab’ had left me unmoved on the page, the sincerity in her voice pulls you in. A good reading.

George Szirtes began with a list poem about colours, which I confess I struggled to concentrate on, but then it was quite warm in the hall, and middle of the second half is a difficult spot, as many people are starting to look at their watch and check the train times. Sorry George, I don’t think my account has done your reading justice.

Ah, Sinead Morrissey. Having never heard her read, I loved her accent and the way she performed virtually from memory. I confess I find poems to do with childbirth a major turn-off, but the one she ended with was compelling and moving, and seemed much shorter than it probably was (for me that’s a positive, in case you were wondering).

Robin Robertson appeared rather stern, like a tetchy headmaster – no hellos, just straight into a poem in that dour Scottish delivery, making Don Paterson sound like Daljit Nagra. But to his credit, he softened up and even drew a few laughs. A poet friend said afterwards she was won over by his choice of poems, going for the more personal.

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  1. I love your comment about Dannie Abse – more particularly, the references to his age. Reading some of the comments on Twitter and Facebook it’s clear, and I suppose understandable, that people want their favourite person, rather than the best collection, to win. One of these days, I must get to the event. I wonder if any of the readings will be posted on YouTube?

    • Hi Josephine, not sure about YouTube although if not that would be a good suggestion for the organisers for next year. I do think it was a shame we didn’t see Anne Carson read either, even if no live link, how hard would it have been to ask her to do a short video that could have been played back? They had the big screen up after all. As to the ‘favourites’ I suppose that’s inevitable. I think it’s good the prize isn’t given out on the same night as I think the temptation to be swayed a bit by audience reaction might be hard to resist for the judges.

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Robin Houghton 2021
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