Latitude Festival: Poetry, Literature, Theatre and Dance @ Henham Park, Suffolk

Of course, Latitude’s about more than just the music, or indeed the comedy – and with special stages for literature, film, drama and dance, you could easily spend three days wandering around without once seeing a band or a comedian.

Latitude always plays host to an overwhelming number of poets, mostly on a strict 20-minute turnaround; and once the wheat is sorted from the chaff, there’s much to admire.
Simon Armitage was a joy to listen to, balancing profundity with a lightness of touch; and technical expertise with a true spirit of accessibility. With a wily nod to the setting, all of his readings were thematically linked to music; whether about drunken ex-punks, Radio 1 roadshows, or the simultaneously bewitching and faceless phenomenon that is the iPod.

At the other end of the spectrum, T.S. Eliot’s notoriously difficult The Waste Land was read in velvety tones by the actor Roger Lloyd Pack. Miraculously, he managed to make the poem far more accessible than on the page; partly thanks to his use of different voices and cadences to signify the different strata of society being examined in each section, and partly via his opening warning to simply let the words wash over you. He clearly knows his stuff: this is probably the single most useful piece of advice for appreciating high Modernism. Needless to say, mild tutting and eye-rolling met anyone who shuffled out partway through.

The ongoing, if rather tongue-in-cheek, feud between the highbrow poetry tent and the middlebrow literary tent was very much in place this year. Robin Ince kicked things off by accusing the Latitude poets of “rifling through John Cooper Clarke’s bins”, and Kevin Eldon took things one stage further by introducing us to his alter-ego, the earnest but very bad poet Paul Hamilton. Dressed in chinos and a pale blue shirt, he read a selection of his own atrocious poems and a selection from the fictional Scottish author John McSmith, probably the world’s only proponent of Highland science fiction verse. Nabokov himself would be befuddled by such trickery.

Often more of a soapbox than a place to educate and inform, the literary tent played host to the likes of Vivienne Westwood, preaching to the converted with a clutch of well-intentioned but slightly half-baked theories on educational and environmental policy. Murmurings within the audience suggested a strong sense of doubt over what qualifies a fashion designer to wax political, but the asymmetrically-coiffed fashion students packing out the front rows lapped it all up enthusiastically.

Far more grounded in reality were the readings from the touching biography of Edwyn Collins by his wife Grace Maxwell. Both appeared on stage, Edwyn still struggling with movement and speech after a series of devastating strokes in 2005, but positive of mind and admirably free of self-pity or bitterness. The old clich of rock music as therapy was turned on its head, as Grace recounted how remembering facts about music, previous tours and high jinks, and even learning how to sing again have helped Edwyn recover his memory and sense of self.

Controversy hit the literary tent in the shape of artist Jake Chapman, who was interviewed by Miranda Sawyer in the Literary tent on a rain-splattered Sunday afternoon. Visibly hungover, Chapman came along to talk about his new book, The Marriage of Reason & Squalor, a twisted re-reading of Mills & Boon that is purposefully poorly written and convoluted. Slightly defensive and endearingly egotistical, Chapman was an engaging subject in spite of his lack of energy. It’s when he talks about his art, though, that he’s most interesting. Asked why he and his brother Dinos re-made Hell when it was destroyed in a fire, he simply replied that it was never meant to be of its time, or was somehow accidental: being given the chance to re-make it only brought it closer to perfection.

Theatre buffs would doubtlessly have been excited by idea of the drama on offer both the National Theatre and the RSC were represented this year, as well as dozens of other troupes but sadly the position of the theatre tent made it hard to enjoy the acts. Sitting just a stone’s throw from other, much noisier tents and stages, it was often almost impossible to hear what was going on, even in the front rows and with radio mics for each performer. A shame, as there was clearly much to be appreciated underneath the ambient noise.

The small, floating waterfront stage played host to a number of classical music, opera and dance acts, not least an audaciously diverse triple bill from the Sadler’s Wells dance ensemble, crammed into just one hour an austere contemporary piece (The Art of Not Looking Back); a traditional, though still breathtakingly elegant excerpt from Swan Lake; and the tremendously exciting breakdancing of Psycho Stylez. Middle class father to six-year old son: “Now, did you APPRECIATE the PERFORMERS?” Poor child, but we suspect he did.

And aside from all of this, we encountered self-help groups (the School of Life, providing classes on everything from how to talk to strangers to the art of better lovemaking), science lectures (from Guerilla Science) and even knitting lessons (at the Keep & Share tent). Entertained, edified, educated and exhausted, we can’t wait for next year.

More Latitude: Day 1

More Latitude: Day 2

More Latitude: Day 3

More Latitude: Comedy Highlights

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