Saturday 7 February 2015

My T S Eliot Prize Shortlist Reading, my Paris Retreat, Charlie Hebdo Attacks


Here is the recording made by the Poetry Book Society of my reading for the T S Eliot prize shortlist event at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 11 January 2015. I was first on the huge stage so was very nervous. I was lucky to have made it too, as I'd just spent a month on a writing retreat in Paris and was there during the terrorist attacks. So I'll never forget that week, and was still feeling shell-shocked as I took part in the TSE events.

A siren went off for about half an hour on that morning of Wednesday 7 January. I was writing at the time and wondered what it was for. Was it the river police? Was a boat overturned on the Seine? I later glanced at Twitter and saw Charlie Hebdo everywhere and the word 'attacks' and 'Paris'. I had no idea who they were until then. The killings took place just over the river, about a mile from my garret in the Latin Quarter just by the Jardin des Plantes, and the next few days were very tense. I hardly dared go out and when I did everyone on the streets would jump each time a police car whizzed by. It was in this strained atmosphere that I tried to finish my poems and to practise the four poems I had decided to read for the T S Eliot Prize readings: 'Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier', 'Kissing a Jaguar', 'Ortolan' and 'Emmanuel'.

Luckily, I decided to come back the evening before, instead of on the day as planned, of the massive 'Je Suis Charlie' support march, which would have prevented me gettting to Gare du Nord that Sunday of the readings. I was sorry to miss the march but did hear the Notre-Dame 'Grand Solemnel' bells ring after two minutes' silence on the Thursday, to commemorate the dead. The two bourdon bells are only rung on special occasions. I opened my windows although it was freezing and listened to the low stately peals of Emmanuel and Marie, which always have an emotional impact. I'd heard them on Christmas day and hadn't expected to hear them again so soon. So when I finished my reading with my poem 'Emmanuel' the poem had gathered extra significance for me.