Through the ceiling

Friday 7th October 2011

SOLD out, both gigs: tonight’s qualifying event and the grand final tomorrow: five hundred people cheering, whooping, stamping their feet and doing Mexican waves. No, neither rock concert nor sports arena; not a talent show, campaign rally or awards ceremony. This is a poetry event.

I first met Humphrey Carpenter in 1994. He’d been appointed Literature Festival director for the following year and popped in to the dress rehearsal of a youth drama production.

“Are you all right? I gather you had an accident.”

The kind face, the tousled hair, the musician’s pulse.

This a few hours after I’d come close to death, or at least severe injury. Clambering around in the roof void of a church-turned-community-centre, I lost my footing and was suddenly hanging from a beam, high above a table laden with amplifiers and other technical equipment.

The brain is a remarkable organ. All other functions shut down for the briefest second, enabling the body to react instinctively, to concentrate on survival. I have no memory of the impact, of crashing through the plasterboard ceiling, only of the hands gripping, the lit room below, voices gasping, a couple of girls giggling.

Humphrey and I became close friends, collaborating on many crazy schemes: Ralph Steadman’s I Leonardo adapted for a promenade performance; a musical of Posy Simmonds’ children’s book, Fred; writing workshops in prison; street theatre; a giant book for impromptu verse from passers-by; the nightly Festival Club with jazz, cabaret and Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime broadcast live.

It took him only two minutes to decide that Cheltenham should host the first UK Allcomers Poetry Slam. He gave us the Town Hall, following Seamus Heaney, who’d just been named Nobel Laureate.

“The nice thing about being a writer is that can you can make magic happen,” Humphrey once said, and often did.

This is our seventeenth UK Slam. Poetry will be celebrated, loud and proud, beyond the rafters. The roars of applause will go through the ceiling.



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