At school I was shy and hated speaking in public. I remember having to give a five-minute talk to my class on railways: the idea of it terrified me, and the execution was even worse. The fact that I knew next to nothing about railways didn’t help. I was on the wrong track from the outset.
A couple of weeks ago and roughly 60 years later, I performed my own poetry four times in a week, to four different audiences. I am not boasting: it just happened like that. But it shows that if you’re born shy, it may not last. This may be good news for someone.
The first performance was on a Friday at Halesworth, at what is known in some quarters as a Poetry Café. Originally this group of mainly Suffolk poets led by Mike Bannister met at an actual cafe – Pinky’s – but it burned down a few months ago. So now we meet upstairs at the White Swan, while pool and darts are played downstairs. So I guess it’s a Poetry Pub.
Yes, I’m a Suffolk poet, though I live in Norwich. The second reading was at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft, which is still a Poetry Café, though it’s really a theatre foyer – a smaller gathering run by the genial Ian Fosten, who used to live and work (as a URC minister) in Norwich, which is where I first met him.
At the Seagull I have also been known to sing my own songs, a phenomenon which my teenage self would have viewed with horror.
My third outing in this fearsome week was on the Tuesday at Jurnet’s Club in Norwich, where a Norwich poetry group meets. It’s not a real café either: it’s the ancient undercroft of the Music House, rumoured to be the oldest house in Norwich (it’s on King Street, once called Conesford Street). And it was once owned by the Paston family.
Which is a rather a neat link to my final outing, which was two days later at the Maids Head in Norwich. No poetry café, this, but something much grander. The event was a celebration dinner organised by the Paston Heritage Society, of which I am a trustee, to mark the anniversary of the first mention of the Maydes Hedde in a Paston letter, on 22 November 1472.
For this I not only had to perform but also dress up and, truth to tell, I still don’t like doing that. Between courses we performed a number of poems and some excerpts from the famous Letters – and enjoyed some excellent food and wine.
In all this I steered clear of railways. I don’t know why.