Features Festivals Published 21 July 2012

Latitude 2012 (3/4)

Our Lit Editor's third report from this year's Latitude Festival sees her hurled into the thick of the poetry offerings, from the wilds of Kate Tempest to the quiet repose of John Osborne's shed.
Carmel Doohan

Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients is the highlight of the weekend. Somewhere between a protest song and a heart breaking novel, she weaves tales of people with good intentions losing their way. “He’s seventeen now…twenty five now…” Comprising a cello, violin, keyboard and sax, her band don’t so much back her as engage in conversation: free form jazz meets hip hop as her voice fades out to allow them an interlude in which to speak. This is a story of ordinary people and their ordinary pain. Epic moments of nothingness are interrupted with “So now it’s Tuesday…” Her every word drips in rhythm; every scene is like a poem to the glorious but unrelenting ongoingness of life.

Calling for and delivering a savage honesty, she paints a world where the things that matter are not those we are used to counting. The girl who works behind the bar – “Don’t compare herself to others, believes everybody has their own strength.” Tempest has the ability to humanize – “He orders a whisky and water off somebodies daughter” – then use that empathy to take the audience to places of shocking violence – all the while insisting on the humanity of both victim and perpetrator.

“Brand new ancient, same as it ever was.” Witnessing the awful inevitability of so many lives, she turns to the Greek myths – “Sometimes they came down among us and raped us.” Via a breathless skewering riff on Simon Cowell – “the divine God of natural selection” – she sings of our folly: “Holy hour on a Saturday evening,” as we cry “Give me my glory,” we have forgotten who we are. Driving home her message – full of righteous, beautiful anger – to operatic violin, she asks us to look at the God’s we are choosing and who our stories of epic risk and transformation belong to now.

I don’t know if I’m getting her power across: She is throwing sheets of paper down as she hurtles through them. She stops and says – “no, you haven’t met them yet,” backs up and re-starts – “so now it’s Thursday.” She is maybe twenty two, short, not skinny, wearing a nondescript T-shirt and combats. Mid-song she sneezes and puts her head inside her shirt to wipe her nose, still rapping. “The Gods are doing PGCEs, having physio. The Gods are on the bus.” The music rising behind her she is pulling together the power of our ancient myths and populating them with screw ups and thugs. Calling out “conviction is a heavy hand to hold but come on grip it,” she is incredibly alive, tearing herself in two to tell us this story. To tell us we are Gods – capable of great evil and brutality – but also all the love and passion there is. When the entire tent gets to its feet to give her a standing ovation, she says with genuine surprise “I didn’t think this was gonna work here.”

John Osborne’s poetry is faltering and humble and all the better for it. Also telling tales of the very ordinary, he reads from his collection about British seasides. “The ocean is the opposite of a traffic jam / never further away from Costas at Welcome Break.” “Screaming our tits off contrasts with the tranquillity of breaststroke.” Each word carefully chosen to feel random, his poems elegantly shuffle along, perfectly encapsulating life’s tiny tragedies. I get a seat at the front for his longer piece, John Peel’s Shed, in the literary salon later that afternoon. Again rambling and appearing to be going nowhere he builds up a recognisable and deeply honest world; a world where bitter loneliness and great hope coexist. Neither stand-up nor poetry, like much of the festival, the piece is not unlike live radio. Sweating with the effort of these gentle tales, sipping from a can of beer and often stumbling, he plays records and chats, telling us of his telesales job, his Smiths epiphany and his love of radio. Somehow, by the end people are wiping their eyes, not all with laughter.

Translunar Paradise – poetry without words. Photo: Alex Brenner

Theatre ad infinitum’s Translunar Paradise is a work of poetry without words. Memories of an elderly couple’s relationship, through times of war, joy and suffering, are conveyed through dance and mime; an incredible amount of detail and personality are expressed solely through movement. Young and old versions of the couple are played by the same actors, the older incarnations represented by dour, flesh-like masks which they put on and remove. This technique is horribly affecting: we see these two youngsters,  passionately in love, disappear into older versions of themselves, faces that seem capable of expressing no emotion at all.

Falling in love is the big epic of our time, but here we are shown the finding and losing of love that repeats itself, the patterns of hidden within a long relationship. The tiniest mimed gestures (a tap on the arm or a shake of the head) break hearts and destroy worlds. Ordinary domestic details take on the enormity they steadfastly deny and the fragility of our very existence is howled out in the accordionist’s aching ballad.

The climax is an incredibly moving kind of Jitterbug; as the couple swing each other in and out, their arguments morph into embraces. Like Tempest, they are able to make, for a moment, the very substance of life appear on stage. The finding, losing, searching and hoping is all here: an all-encompassing dance where everything, even death, melts into one glorious but almost unbearable whirl.

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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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