Ted Hughes: a Tribute

Ted Hughes March 1993
(CC-BY-SA Breakingthings)

Bath Literature Festival
The Forum, Bath, 28 February

I confess that I mostly chose this event to go to because it included Kate Tempest and I keep missing her Bristol shows. But I also like Ted Hughes’ poetry and was interested in what a tribute to him would be like. The answer? A bit uneven and yet also staid. But Kate was really good.

The audience had been expecting Melvyn Bragg and Jonathan Dimbleby, which perhaps explains the make-up of the crowd (largely older than me, and very white upper middle class, but then it was Bath) – they actually groaned when the panel change was announced. Personally I bought my ticket after this change was made. It might have been enough to put me off even the chance to see Kate Tempest. I know Bragg and Dimbleby are supposed to be beloved national icons but I find them very dull.

The event was hosted by Bel Mooney, a writer who co-founded the festival 20 years ago, which was when she first met Ted Hughes, who opened that year’s festival in the Forum, the same venue hosting his tribute. She spoke warmly of him as a man and as a writer, hitting all the right notes of celebration and admiration.

Actor David Robb also had a few reminisces of the great man to share before reading out some of Hughes’ poems. It was a little strange to hear a voice so familiar (Robb plays Dr Clarkson in Downton Abbey) recounting these poems I first read at school, but he did a good job of bringing the words to life, albeit in a very traditional manner.

But of course his reading only seemed traditional because I knew what was coming next. Tim and I first encountered Kate Tempest in a TV show of Glastonbury backstage performances years ago, before she became the darling of 6 Music, and on the back of that bought one of her early Sound of Rum records, but it was only recently that we realised this Kate Tempest we keep hearing on the radio is that same rapper/performance poet we were so impressed by in a late-night TV slot. Now we know and have missed many opportunities to see her in tiny local venues. So it goes.

Tempest is mesmerising. Genuine and a little awkward when not performing her work, she paid tribute to Hughes (which, touchingly, she largely directed to Frieda Hughes, Ted’s daughter) before reading an excerpt from her work Brand New Ancients, which won the Ted Hughes Award in 2013. When the whoops and cheers died down, she read “School”, a short funny poem to break the mood before the real showstopper. Introducing the poem “Ballad of a hero”, she asked us all to remember that there are bad things happening in the world right now, that we are at war without acknowledging it. Her frustration at not being able to do more about it was apparent and perhaps it wasn’t the right audience for her impassioned plea for “More empathy, less greed”, but it touched me at least. However, it was the poem itself that had me in tears. Incredibly moving stuff.

I felt it was disjointed, to move from that enlivening, passionate performance to another old-fashioned reading of Hughes, but I guess that’s what most of the audience was there for. Irish poet Tom Paulin selected extracts from Hughes’ letters, mostly recounting his travels. There were some wonderful phrases about the places he went and the people he met, but rather too much fishing talk for my taste.

The last speaker was Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and a writer and artist herself. She explained how her poems are her “little life rafts” and talked a little about her father, before reading a handful of her poems that were in different ways connected to him. She was a very engaging, enjoyable speaker and clearly someone who has had to come to terms with the fact that her parents tend to out-shadow her own life and work.

At the book signing afterward I was able to speak very very briefly to Kate Tempest and now want more than ever to see her at one of her own gigs. I’ll be keeping a close eye on her website for forthcoming shows.

The Bath Literature Festival runs until 8 March.