National poetry day.

Douglas Adams wrote in The long, dark tea-time of the soul that no language has ever coined the phrase “as pretty as an airport.”  He wasn’t wrong, and that was long, long before the horrors of September 11th and the use of aircraft as weapons of war.

National Poetry Day UK (3rd October) found me in Dublin airport, unfeasibly early in the morning, soaked from an autumnal downpour and clutching a pristine, unsullied passport.  Don’t laugh, but I hadn’t been on an airplane for over 6 years.  Having 4 babies by Caesarian section in less than 5 years does cramp one’s style somewhat in relation to jet-setting.  Holidays currently involve packing 200 kilos of baggage, buggies, balls, bouncy chairs and a couple of bottles of brandy into the Ford and shoving the kids in the middle somewhere, only the tops of their heads showing.  The ferry visibly sinks in the dock when we drive on, passport-less and toting our own body weight in snacks and drinks. 

At the airport, however, it’s all significantly less jolly.  “How lucky we are,” my neighbours mutter, “Look how short the security queue is today.”   I stare dismally down the long, snaking line of  bleary-eyed humanity that stretches as far in front as I can see.  It is a little like a scene from an evacuation.  Dignity has gone out the window.  Clutching plastic bags of toiletries and using the other hand to hoist up their drooping pants, the victims shuffle passively onwards in their sock-soles, belts and laces trailing onto the ground.   This is a short queue? 

Into the swinging black sacks are flung huge quantities of still-usable items;  the last dregs of a soft drink, shampoo in a container above the size-limit, perfume, lipstick, make up.  My re-sealable plastic bag is the wrong size, it must be a sandwich bag size, I am informed.  But I like really big sandwiches. I like giant baguettes overflowing with brie and hedgerow jelly, parma ham and gruyere.  My sandwich wouldn’t fit into that tiny bag!

A non-verbal gesture of goodwill- a stranger reaches into the shallows of his tiny cabin bag and silently hands me a sandwich bag.  I am delighted and reassured by this act of random kindness; I have been tutting and inwardly shaking my head at the wanton discarders of half-full perfume bottles, I am clutching onto my (almost empty) Estee Lauder moisturiser as if it is the last cosmetic on earth.

On the other side of the metal detector (which I fail, due to a humiliating 50 cent coin wedged in the farthest, tightest recess of my ass-pocket) comes another surprise.  The moisturiser has been detained behind the x-ray machines.  It has been selected for “random testing”.  I know it is due to my epic metal-detector failure, drawing attention to myself.   Just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me! 

Pointing the tube towards me, the officer holds one end while I unscrew the cap.  What is supposed to happen now?  This is an unknown scenario.  Does she believe that spores of anthrax will billow out into my face, or that a really tiny snake will emerge and sink its fangs unerringly into my wrist?   She squeezes a dab of moisturiser onto a strip and observes it closely for a moment.  “Thank you, have a good journey.”  I put my shoes back on and reflect upon how much safer I feel now, knowing that everyone’s sandwich bag is of the correct dimension. 

Later, at Senate House in London’s Bloomsbury, a loud shout’s distance from Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own”, I attend the Wasafiri National Poetry Day reading.  It has been organised to dovetail with the Afro-European Literary Festival running in the same venue.  It is a logical, practical marriage of interests, as Wasafiri magazine specialises in bringing the voices of the less-mainstream to the fore.

I don’t know much about poetry and even less about post-colonial black poetry from the far-flung reaches of what was once the British Empire.  The poets are new to me; all masters in their field.  The readings vary from dry to wry to impassioned.  I struggle with some of the accents, dialect words, abbreviations.   Much of the work speaks of lands far beyond my scope and yet I am struck by the universality of the themes; still-born baby, dying father, warring parents.

The final poet is the world renowned Merle Collins.  Tiny and fluent, she explodes onto the lectern.  She reads about the horrors of war on the tiny island of Grenada, about love and about loss.  She reads of her bewilderment on first meeting the new political correctness of her reception in England, decades ago: “Hwhat is dis ting?” she wonders in her strong Grenadan accent.  “Hwhat is dis ting?  This ethnic minority? …..In South Africa we have the tiny minority, but do not call them ethnic, we call them white….In my mouth this word ethnic sounds like nigger…?”

She reminds me of the words I absorbed in the years of my own childhood in Portadown, Northern Ireland;  Fenian bitch, Taig, Papist, Remember 1690, Fuck the Pope.  Now, fifteen years into the slow, glacial grind of the Peace Process, I am not a Fenian, nor am I a Papist; I am a Nationalist- the civilised, politically correct word spat out with venom, just as angry, but less honest than the words of my childhood. 

Indeed, there is a resonance to our experience, the elder statesman at the podium, and me, tucked in the back row of the auditorium, and no doubt to many others in the room.

After the applause dies down and Ms Collins steps from the stage, the winners of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize are announced.  There have been 450-odd entries.  In my category, a shortlist of five.  I do not win.  My friend squeezes my arm in silent sympathy, we applaud Gita Ralleigh as she walks to collect her prize, the icing on the cake, the culmination of the evening.  Maybe I will walk to the podium next year, maybe I will never make a short-list again. 

In the meantime there is wine and pizza and an ancient friendship to be cemented in the bitter incense of cigarette smoke as a gentle October drizzle falls upon the awning at Old Amalfi in Bloomsbury.   Things could be a lot worse.  And it was bloody good pizza, too.

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