Field Report: Famous Seamus, Scarey Carey, and an un-chic Greek

The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. That’s a mouthful no-one’s going to enjoy. Like chewing a mixture of ashes and dogshit.

I’m here to see Seamus Heaney and Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke read. It’s in the Sheldonian Theatre. I’m on floor level; can’t see up to the Balconies properly. Reminds me of The Rock. “Your unit is covered from an elevated position, Commander.” Hope no-one has any kind of assault rifle. That would be bad. They could take out a Nobel laureate. That would show those imperialist Swedes.

Okay, straight up. I have no fucking clue who Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke is. Like everyone else, I’m here for Heaney.

Audience report? Everything you’d expect: distinguished academics (though I’m having a hard time spotting Paulin & the rest of the Oxford Murphia); serious-looking young men; those keen girls drawn in by the dazzle of poetry, who have luminous hair and a complexion that just makes you feel terrifically melancholy about the grubbiness of the rest of life. Once again, I cannot but recall The Rock: “Losers always whine about doing their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen”.

To my surprise, there appear to be middle-aged PRs here. I didn’t know they existed. This punctures my Logan’s Run theory of publicity girls, which means my fantasy of rescuing an especially attractive one from her too-youthful doom also must deflate. Goodbye, Chloe. I never knew you.

John Carey sternly tells us to switch off our mobiles, and not to move until the poets have left the building. I feel like I’m being told off. He introduces the poets. I feel like I’m being told off about Heaney. I remember his lectures. It was like being told off about Milton.

Heaney starts to read. It’s a little disappointing.

He’s tricky nowadays. Nothing since Seeing Things has really grabbed me. He feels a little too much like an institution. When you hear him deliver his own work, even the early stuff, it feels a bit too right – Heaney looks like a poet should, and sounds like a poet should, and it’s all a little soporific. It’s hard to express properly. A contrast – a pair of friends chose one of Heaney’s early poems to be read at their wedding: an uncle of one friend delivered it, I think, and it knocked me sideways.

Perhaps he should play up his vocal resemblance to Frank Carson? This could enliven his delivery, and would lighten the burden of dignity. Those Nobels drag you down.

We get told off about Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, then she reads. Looks like a short Frank Zappa, has a thick greek accent. Long pauses when she can’t find the poems she wants in her book. Not fun.

The poets get to talk about translation a bit. They are, of course, like pigs in shit. I wish people would shut up about the mysteries, complexities and tensions of translation. Here’s a fucking Larousse. Get to work.

Another Heaney reading – from his new version of Antigone, The Burial at Thebes. It’s okay, but I’ve still got a sceptical head on. Anglo-saxon words, firm lines – just put in a dialect word and tick the last box.

Thinking about it, there’s more to be said about Heaney and The Rock. There’s that odd, jarring moment in the film when one of the mercenaries, an Irish-American, accuses Connery of being an ‘English Bastard’. Mistaken cultural identities, the clash of celticisms, the ambiguities of racial histories. There’s a book in that. If you get a deal, give me five per cent. Here’s the title: “The Turf and The Rock”.

We close on his elegy for Ted Hughes. That wakes me up. It’s the best moment of the afternoon.