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In praise of two poets

Posted on 1 May 2009 | 10:05am

There was me, post Damian McBride, thinking that the media might rely a little less on anonymous briefings (sometimes so anonymous as to exist only in the imagination of the journalist), but I got into a cab in the early hours, my phone having been on mute for the duration of the Sport Industry Awards, to find a couple of messages asking if there was any truth in the reports ’emanating from within Number 10′ that I had advised Tony Blair against Carol Ann Duffy becoming poet laureate on the grounds that she was a lesbian?

Now first of all, apologies for the length of that sentence above. When I trained as a journalist on the Mirror, I was advised the shorter the intro the better, but the internet has changed all the rules, and I’m tired because I hate late nights.

Second, the answer is No. To the journalists who called, please take that as my response to your inquiries. At least they asked. Most never bother … hear something, write it, worry (well, actually don’t worry too much) about whether it’s true later.

I am no longer spokesman for Tony Blair, but may I also dismiss the suggestion that he was opposed to Carol Ann Duffy on the grounds of her sexuality. News to everyone, I suspect. It won’t stop some from saying it, I don’t suppose, because … you know the one about facts not getting in the way of a good story. I might also point out, on this the twelfth anniversary of his election as Prime Minister, that TB’s record on gay rights is a good one. Like a lot of other parts of his record. But for now, let’s stick with poetry.

A more welcome poetry-related call out of the blue came recently from Charles Wardle, former Tory minister who I got to know reasonably well when he made a principled stand against his party’s horrible immigration policy under that ‘nice’ man Michael Howard.

He wanted to send me a book of poems by his daughter, Sarah Wardle, written while she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act three years ago. Sixty four poems on the theme of madness might not sound the easiest of reads, but ‘A Knowable World’ is a lovely book, troubling but also inspiring, and I can see why her Dad is so proud of her. In between episodes of being unwell, she writes, teaches poetry at Middlesex University, does reviews and readings and shows that even when mental illness can be severe, it is possible to make a big contribution.

One of her previous books, SCORE!, included poems from her time as poet-in-residence at Tottenham Hotspur FC. I look forward to a poem on the injustice of the Carling Cup extra time/away goals nonsense that stopped Burnley from getting to Wembley this year. But more on sport later, when I will do something on last night’s awards. See this as a name-dropping alert! Joe Calzaghe and Jensen Button to warm you up.

Meanwhile, good luck to Carol Ann Duffy. She is already a well-known name in our house, because of GCSEs. I know that a part of her new job will be to promote British poets and poetry. In that spirit, I point you to ‘A Knowable World. It is published by Bloodaxe Books at I will leave ‘proper’ poetry reviews to others more qualified than I, but I know sufferers and non-sufferers alike would get something out of it.

Meanwhile, I am glad to hear Charles Wardle still thinks the Tories lack coherent, informed immigration policies. All the best to him and his daughter.

  • Hilary

    I quite like the poetry of the phrase ’emanating from No 10′, it rather conjures up the ‘smell’ of McBride. I would guess it’s a bit like bad eggs. Yuk.

  • Marion Pearson

    Sadly I have just finished your book The Blair Years. I live in Kharthoum so it was a quintisentially English retreat! I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to getting All In The Mind when I’m back in the UK. I was a Tony Blair fan in 1997 and campaigned for the Labour Party at college: but lost it for a cynicism about politics. Reading your book made me realise how much the media affected my views. I was watching the news yesterday and there was 25 seconds of a politician and two minutes of pundits discussing and giving their opinions … how can this political filtering be reduced? The filtering is obvious here in Sudan – the ‘free’ press is so filtered that the newspapers only contain the banal (bit like the Mail)

  • Micky Plowright

    GCSEs!Oh my God, don’t remind me. I think there should be more of a focus on teaching poetry through primary schools and into secondary school. Most kids get put off poetry because the first real go at it tends to be for an exam, which is like torture. Poetry should be a far bigger part of the English curriculum all the way through.

  • Samantha Marsh

    Yes, a big step that she is a lesbian, but don’t overlook that she is also the first WOMAN poet laureate.

  • Andrew

    Well done for giving Sarah Wardle a plug, she’s been very brave to write this book.

  • Claire Ashby

    Thanks for writing about Sarah’s book – I’ll get hold of it, seems like something Mind could stock.

  • Julia Braun

    The alleged homophobia on your and TB’s part didn’t ring true, but thanks for clarifying. When you live with discrimination every day, nothing surprises you…

    That book sounds interesting, I’ll make a note of it and have a look.

  • Jane A

    I just find this level of journalistic ineptitude staggering. I’m not going to even try and list out the contributors to the Labour governments since 1997 who are gay, but you don’t have to look far from TB’s inner circle to find he was supported by and a supporter of key advisors who would fit (if people were that crass) that particular pigeonhole.

    I’ll be on the look out for more retrospective coverage: “TB unkeen on new Archbishop of Canterbury because he seems a bit religious.”

    Glad you have distanced yourself from the nonsense, AC. I shall hunt down the Sarah Wardle poems, too. I’m glad you passed that on because I wasn’t aware of her, and she is to be congratulated on her openness and bravery.

  • Mike

    Sounds like bollocks. Never been a big fan of New Labour, but they did great things re: gay rights. There’s also an interesting interview with Blair in the latest Attitude magazine.

  • Rebecca King

    Good to see Sarah Wardle being supported by her father and you, to promote her poetry written while she was sectioned. It can be a time when a great deal of work is written, but sadly is often overlooked. A copy of ‘Reflections of a Multiple’ is winging its way in the post to you. Hope you enjoy my poetry. For anyone else who is interested, it is available through my website

  • Rebecca King

    Good to see Sarah Wardle being supported by her father and you, to promote her poetry written while she was sectioned. It can be a time when a great deal of work is written, but sadly is often overlooked. A copy of ‘Reflections of a Multiple’ is winging its way in the post to you. Hope you enjoy my poetry. For anyone else who is interested, it is available through my website

  • Em

    This is an example of the facts not getting in the way of a yawner. Can’t journos think up better stuff? It’s funny how “they” believe you were and still are the power behind the throne. If poetry were truly important today, instead of embarrassingly bad journo stories, the Mallorys of our time would write of this, and, in three centuries from now, kids could be writing essays on the Alastairean cycles.

    In the mean time, I love the idea of heads of state choosing poets-in-chief. It somehow makes me feel hopeful about politics.

    I’ll ask Terry what the whole Burnley nonsense was about. Commiserations.

  • Em

    Do journos tend to bother you with silly rumours on the cusp of slow news days? Today programme had at least two filler stories this morning — dark matter (like that’s news?) and a Kazuo Ishiguro story with a rather weak and non-time sensitive angle.

  • Gary Enefer

    Dear AC

    Interesting how your book gets to Khartoum. It must feel great to be read all over.I spent a year in Africa and visited khartoum Marion -got the train to Darfur in 1985.

    It is very sick of someone to spread these lies that AC and TB would be homophobic.

  • Nicki Hodges

    Well done Carol Ann Duffy. Was interested in the book of poetry by Sarah Wardle as she taught me poetry at Middlesex University and I was there when Sarah was sectioned. The book of poetry that came out of it was amazing and goes to show how good writers are at making creativity out of diversity and using their life experiences in their work. You will be glad to know that Sarah is still teaching at the university and I wish her all the best with her collection.
    (I had no idea that she was the daughter of a Tory, however, but I won’t hold this against her!)

  • Alina Palimaru

    Nice cue for me to comment on the Tories’ proposed immigration policy. I looked it up and… there’s nothing to comment upon! They typed up a few very vague sentences that hint at some questionable decisions on the matter. But they are not firm about their stance on the issue. Oh well, what’s new?

  • dee

    Alistair, how do we re-introudce the feel good factor and get some balance back into our media reporting? I ask because it seems to me we need to find a way of encouraging people again and this constant Doom and Gloom reporting is not only tiresome but its unhelpful. I am not suggesting that the situation we face is not serious, but I am suggesting, this is May Day, over the weekend, thousands of people will attend May Day Fairs and Celebrations. Surely we need to emphasize the positive aspects of our economy as much as the negative if we are to drive ourselves away from this depression. Has it just become to easy to report the obvious and to difficult to find and report on the positive?

  • Alan Quinn

    Dee, that’s easy. Just gather together the clowns that are advising GB and shoot them. Whether it’s MP’s expenses or the Gurkha’s it’s one bollock after another. It’s another example of university educated pricks who have no experience of actually running anything or little experience of life outside their comfortable surroundings giving crap advice, not hinking things through and panicking.
    Sorry about the language.

  • CPW

    Seems strange to me that every major media outlet in the UK suggested that the prospect of CA Duffy’s appointment to the laureateship in the late 90s met with reluctance at Number 10, thinking it wouldn’t play well with middle England.

    If you were serious about rebutting the claim then you might have given some rationale for Motion’s election in the late 90s and why TB thought he was the better candidate.

    Simply asserting that there was no anti gay sentiment in the choice isn’t good enough – if your probity were unquestioned and your word your bond as you seem to suggest in many of these posts then you could perhaps get away with that level complacency.

    As it stands the only people convinced by your assertion are those that didn’t need any convincing in the first place. If there were more doubting Thomases among your disciples we might actually enter into the realms of adult debate,

    Perish the thought!

  • Sarah Wardle

    Thank you so much for giving my book a plug! I hope that Burnley go up to the Premiership to be with Spurs next season. Carol Ann is a wonderful choice. I have long admired her poem, ‘Standing Female Nude’.

  • Marek

    Are you still looking in the mirror admiring your dyed hair?

    Forget it, we all remember what you did.

  • Jane A

    @ CPW, re your comment: “If there were more doubting Thomases among your disciples we might actually enter into the realms of adult debate”

    I am going to try and explain where I stand on this vexed issue of AC’s “disciples” who allegedly concur with what he writes, come what may.

    The regular contributors – and I am happy to be one – are both regular and contributors, because we each have a shared set of interests somewhere along the line, be it common political view, raised awareness of mental health, films and books, sport and football, etc. They’re just mine, by the way.

    That does not me a poodle make. Nor my respected friends on here.

    If I write that the rebuttal of the allegations re Carol_Ann D made perfect sense to me, its because it did. If it didn’t cut the mustard, I would say so. I am nothing if not feisty.

    I’m not a yes-person but I reserve, amongst all my other inalienable human rights, the right to agree with my friends from time to time. So sue me.

  • Jane A

    @ Sarah Wardle

    How impressive to see you on here after your mention in AC’s blog. I am really keen to track down and read your poems ; I work for a mental health Trust and am always very keen to read anything which raises awareness of mental health. Am loathe to post my email address into the ether but would be lovely to make contact with you -perhaps we could find a way to do that if you read this?

  • Marion

    Writing when sectioned? – wasn’t Alexander Pope in a mental institution when he wrote some of his famously good stuff? I’m always surprised that poetry isn’t more popular in schools – even if only because it is shorter than most novels!

    Local papers in the UK seem to me to have quite upbeat stories (ok, some of them go on about bypasses a bit too). Why is it that the nationals are so down on everything; like their view is more important than the story itself. This must have started before AC was spinning for TB.

    Gary – nice to hear from someone who has been to Khartoum. I haven’t been on a train yet, but given the safety record of “Suddan Death Airways” I may give nationalised transport a miss. It is a bit warm here at the moment – I’ll be glad to get back to Blighty to cool off next week!

  • james

    The comments on this blog are a bit of an echo-chamber for Alastair so I’ll attempt a slightly more dissenting view at the risk of being shouted down:

    Some people seem to be asking why the media is being so negative at the moment and what can be done to inject some positivity…..firstly I think with the greatest financial crisis since the 30s coinciding with the cusp of a potentially lethal global pandemic it’s a bit naive to expect a generally positive slant to the media at the moment.

    Secondly you’ve only got to see the BBC’s ‘100 first days’ for Obama as an example of how, despite this general gloom, at least some of the media HAVE been focusing on positive stories, but I think the complaints here are actually more about how they haven’t been positive stories for Labour. And I’m sorry, that’s not down to the media, it’s due to this current slow motion car crash of a Government.