Yesterday I read at Newcastle's Morden Tower as part of the celebration of Basil Bunting's fiftieth anniversary year of his modernist masterpiece Briggflatts. It was the first time I had climbed the legendary stairs and ventured inside. The building is charged with an uncanny sense of the extraordinary. This is a place where poetry happened in the North and today, it is a place where poetry happens once more. The Tower began its literary life when Tom and his wife Connie Pickard started a series of poetry readings in the sixties. They have hosted Heaney, Adcock, Ginsberg, Darling, Raworth, Smith Creeley, MacSweeney, Silkin, Cutler. The list goes on and indeed, on, including favourite authors I never imagined walking around the Toon. Angela Carter for one! What a wonder it is to think of all these writers making their way up those stone steps and perhaps, stumbling out into the nightlife of Newcastle. Where and what did they drink?
Bunting gave his first reading of Briggflatts in the Tower, Dec 1965. It was an instant success and sitting in the space, I imagined his trill Northumbrian r's rrrreverberate about the rrrrounded stone walls, the firrre crrrackling and the rrroom rrrrapt. Nobody reads an 'r' like Bunting. I first heard him on a Bloodaxe CD, sat on my bed listening through my first decent pair of circumaural headphones, stock still. It was unanticipated, unmitigated poetry in its most musical and expansive form.
Listening to Bunting read is an encounter I'll never forget. The only poets to come close since are, interestingly, both women. Katrina Porteous whose reading of The Wund an' the Wetter with the accord of those small pipes mesmerized me. Then Alice Oswald's sustained reading of Dart is still, for me, one of the most exciting moments to happen in the history of poetry. Though I do keep reading in hope that something new will hold my attention just as tightly. Pressing 'replay' more times than you dare to remember is a sure sign you've struck gold. The evening before this reading, I was part of a young generation celebration of Bunting, reading a selection of new poems. After our Morden Tower reading there was an almighty celebration at the Mining Institute. It included a brilliantly spiky and jaw achingly funny reading from Tom Pickard. There was music from Jude Murphy, who sang one of my favourite ballads beautifully, 'Bonny at Morn'; Bill Lloyd, who performed a range of traditional folk ballads plus a composition of Briggflatts to music and Richard Dawson, who needs no introduction. He blew the roof off and sent waves through the open-mouthed and open hearts of the audience.
This was an incredible way to celebrate the fiftieth year of Briggflatts in Newcastle and to observe the relevance of both Bunting's and the Pickard's monumental contribution to local and global literary heritage. A great, great honour.