Malinslow, a name hard to say correctly after more than three beers, was a town which sought prominence through its annual poetry festival and used to gather a decent supply of the well-to-do, as well as a number of dishevelled brillianteens, to listen to readings of original verse by leading poets at its annual festival: sometimes bards from the States and other continents could be encouraged to attend by promises of large cheques and a decent lunch or two. Not bad for those used to living on the thin air associated with having your head in the clouds searching for a misplaced career.
This year Sir Oswald Clarkson, a coal miner’s son from Lancashire, was the guest of honour and booked to give the final reading of the evening. His seminal work, “Thoughts Toward a Conclusion” once battled it out with steamy romances in the best-selling lists. A man of self-confessed sensibility, Sir Oswald had been brooding of late because his pen had run dry, vocabulary withered and, on the quiet, he was having some difficulty in maintaining the air of mysterious brilliance so necessary in the world of cutting edge creativity. This ‘reading’ was a welcome chance to restore his image.
Although his accent had mulled to the fruity purr of the media classes he maintained a faint Lancastrian edge to underline his status as the son of hard-working folk: no mean feat for someone who had lodged in the plumpier areas of London with a succession of wives over the last thirty years. Indeed, his wives had provided the majority of the means by which he was able to sprinkle bon-mots over various dinner tables with other literati of the period.
So here we were then, with Sir Oswald facing a packed hall in the middle of Malinslow, and peering alternately down on the paper before him and the crowd ahead. The Duke of Brookshire, paid to appear but still a trifle more bored than normal, had given a clichéd but thorough introduction to the bard and had done a reasonable job of raising the hall’s sensibility towards a level of consciousness. Hush settled over the room and faces looked expectantly up at the lectern and the distinguished figure behind it. He raised his head and, peering over his bifocal glasses, began to read…
He then bowed to the audience and sat down. The Master of ceremonies, seated beside him and with a growing sense of bewilderment said “Hope ! ?” “The truth is not long-winded” said the sage and with a pleasing air of mystery, leant down to gather up his bag. After a few moments it dawned on the assembled throng that this was it: the whole enchilada, nine yards, performance, cake, meal or whatever you like to call it. He had chosen his word with care and now it was spoken. The silence lasted for a few more seconds and then a murmur rippled through the hall. A failed dieter, with a temper shorter than some, shouted, “Outrage” while a less aggressive voice from the front of the hall said, “Was that profound?” Others comments were of a quality a polite man cannot repeat, even in print.
Sir Oswald, with commendable calm, a characteristic of the noted seer, paid no attention to the noise and, indeed, seemed about to leave the stage. The Mayor, seeing the occasion collapsing into unrest, waved his arms in desperation. “Short and sweet” said the Duke, his morale rising at last, as the threat of disorder became evident in the hall. Pains across his chest stopped the Mayor in his tracks: he was having one of his panic attacks and he heard his strangled voice as he leaned towards his deputy saying “Stop his cheque. Stop his cheque”. “He only accepted cash” replied the embarrassed official. “Five thousand pounds for a single word,” he thought to himself, “That is poetry indeed.”