I'm posting this because:
1) This is the school I attended
2) Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate also attended this school while I was there
3) Stafford does not seem very proud of this school, and I find that puzzling. It was an excellent school, so why does Stafford not want to laud its merits? Anyone would think they were hiding something!
Winning linesAt 14, Carol Ann Duffy was determined to be a poet. Today, she is a literary star who has been compared to Larkin. Despite her success, Peter Forbes finds that, with her taste for caravanning and her passion for gambling, she remains resolutely down-to-earth
The Guardian, Saturday 31 August 2002 Article historyAs Carol Ann Duffy makes coffee to accompany the rather rare experience of being interviewed, The Marriage of Figaro is playing in the room. She has just finished a libretto for The Magic Flute for Opera North, due to be premiered next April. It's a cut above the average poet's commission and Duffy says: "It's just the most marvellous work I've ever been asked to do. I'd like to do them all now" - the Mozart operas, she means. Her appetite for work is legendary and she keeps raising her game. So why not? After the success of The World's Wife (1999), her book that brought a huge new audience, a friend was rash enough to suggest that perhaps she'd earned a break, a bit of resting on the laurels. He was severely reproved, perhaps in a tone learned from her strict convent-then-grammar-school education: "I'm busier than ever - it is a vocation, you know."
Duffy is a Scot brought up in the Midlands, politically left-wing, in a gay relationship, and with a wonderful feel for idiom and contemporary culture, especially low-life, she has been able in her work to unite timeless themes to a sense of life as it is lived now. The poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who has known her since before she achieved success, says, "I have a particular fondness for her early books; poems like 'Adultery' and 'Warming her Pearls'. There was a mixture of direct address and something slightly surreal, fanciful, tender-hearted and whimsical."
She has been on the school syllabus since 1994, which means that for once a poet is being taught whilst the language of the street is still fresh in her lines. Not surprisingly, she is popular in schools, something that wasn't always the case. In "Head of English", from her first book Standing Female Nude ( Anvil, 1985), she recorded a gruesome encounter at the chalkface where educational Eng. Lit. and new writers meet and often don't understand each other: "Today we have a poet in the class. / A real live poet with a published book. / Notice the ink-stained fingers girls. Perhaps / we're going to witness verse hot from the press".
Her ventriloquism has been remarkable throughout her career. She has been a tourist tout in "Translating the English, 1989" ("For two hundred quids we are talking Les Miserables, / nods being as good as winks. Don't eat the eggs . . ."); an old-style macho man in "You Jane" ("She's borne me two in eight years, knows /when to button it. Although she's run a bit to fat / she still bends over of a weekend in suspenders." In "Fraud" she brought Robert Maxwell gruesomely back to life. What we have of these male voices may be all we're going to get. Her recent voices have been women and she says: "I now probably wouldn't write a poem like 'You Jane', because although it was based on a real person it might come across as a stereotype. I doubt I would now write a poem in the male voice."
The name Larkin often comes up when Duffy is discussed. She is, of course, in many ways Larkin's antithesis, but they do occupy the same niche in their respective eras. Duffy is the poet of the multicultural noughties as Larkin was the bicycle-clipped representative of the dowdy, repressed fifties. The critic Justin Quinn has noted how many of Duffy's poems echo themes of Larkin's - you can pair them off: "Larkin's 'Posterity', Duffy's 'Biographer'; 'Ambulances', 'November'; 'Mr Bleaney', 'Room', etc". The Larkin/Duffy story has taken a surprising turn recently. Duffy's new book has a long poem set in her girls' school of the 1960s, "The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High", an allegory of the rise of feminism, sweeping away dowdy post-war austerity and buttoned-up emotional sterility. And here is a fat new Larkin book, recently published, Trouble at Willow Gables, girls' fiction written for private entertainment. Duffy's last word on Larkin: "As anyone who has the slightest knowledge of my work knows, I have little in common with Larkin, who was tall, taciturn and thin-on-top, and unlike him I laugh, nay, sneer, in the face of death. I will concede one point: we are both lesbian poets."
Standing Female Nude was quickly followed by Selling Manhattan (Anvil, 1987). What instantly attracted attention here were the brilliant monologues, giving voice to characters such as the "Psychopath": "When I zip up the leather, I'm in a new skin, I touch it / and love myself, sighing Some little lady's going to get lucky / tonight." Her technique is absolutely distinctive and has been much copied. Using lashings of slang ("dough", "stash", "readies") and a buttonholing style ("squire"), it grabs the attention.
As her books came out through the 80s and 90s, although this voice was always present, there was a steady move towards the elegiac, the more personal. Duffy's third book, The Other Country (Anvil, 1990), is dominated by nostalgia and sense of rootlessness: "Now, Where do you come from? / strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate". "The Darling Letters" demonstrates her universality: these are the love letters that are kept "in shoeboxes away from the light": "Once in a while, alone, / we take them out to read again, the heart thudding / like a spade on buried bones."
Mean Time (Anvil, 1994) continued in this nostalgic vein with the addition of poems about broken and budding relationships. It contains what are perhaps her finest short lyric poems. The title poem, "Prayer" ("Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer / utters itself") is a sonnet and a prayer for faithless times. Does she think that in a secular society poetry to some extent takes the place of religion? "It does for me: I don't believe in God." Then came The World's Wife (1999), with her new publisher, Picador.
Duffy's rise rather wrong-footed the Oxbridge poetry establishment. The first issue of the Oxford little magazine Thumbscrew (Winter 1994/5) carried a critical essay by Simon Brittain. He concludes: "By employing simplistic language and overstated imagery, Duffy is perfect for those no longer accustomed nor inclined to close reading". But according to her supporters, he comes to this conclusion by ignoring her best poems.
In person, Duffy's mild, sympathetic manner belies the ferocious, fire-eating tone of many of her poems. There is no trace of Scots (she left Glasgow at six) in her voice, rather a Midlands-cum-Liverpool intonation but minus the classic Scouse twang. Modest personally but exceptionally confident in her writing, she has an infectious sense of fun and can talk dirty with the best of them; she has the best repertoire of street slang in poetry. She is very loyal to longstanding colleagues in the art and has helped many younger poets through teaching on Arvon courses, editing the anthology Anvil New Poets 2 (1995), and generally tipping editors in the direction of new talent. Colette Bryce, Kate Clanchy and Alice Oswald are among those who have received her support and encouragement. This is not a case of the poet admiring her own reflection in the pupil. There are poets who write in Duffyesque but the ones she has supported are originals, none more so than Alice Oswald, whose poems offer a defiantly rural counterpoint to Duffy's city muse.
Carol Ann Duffy was born in the Gorbals of Glasgow in 1955. Her mother's parents and her father's grandparents were Irish. She has four brothers (to whom her new book is dedicated) and she is the eldest child. Her father worked as a fitter with English Electric (later GEC, and now Marconi). The family moved to Stafford when she was six. Her father was a dedicated trade unionist and became a local councillor and Labour parliamentary candidate in 1983. He also managed Stafford FC in his spare time. The relative anonymity of Stafford suited her: standard middle England. "Market town, church, football team, River Sow, great indoor market, Cannock Chase for picnics, Izaak Walton's cottage, piano lessons every Saturday morning with Mrs Bear, Brownies, Cubs. I stopped being a Glasgow girl."
She has turned most circumstances of her life to good use in her poetry. At her convent school, she says: "They did nothing but lists, relieved only by the Latin Mass. We had one 'poet' who came once - a local eccentric who recited 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' by heart, holding a daffodil, and fainted in the middle." Her poems abound in lists, if not always the ones she was taught at school ("... I've seen my fair share of ding-a-ling, member and jock, / of todger and nudger and percy and cock, of tackle, / of three-for-a-bob, of willy and winky; in fact, / you could say, I'm as au fait with Hunt-the-Salami / as Ms M Lewinsky."
Besides the list-making nuns, she did have two inspiring English teachers at her secondary schools: June Scriven at St Joseph's Convent School and Jim Walker at Stafford Girls' High School. Duffy kept in touch with Scriven until her death this year and regrets that her foremer teacher was not able to read the "school" poem, "The Laughter at Stafford Girls' High", in the new book. At school Duffy absorbed the English canon but her teachers' knowledge stopped at Dylan Thomas. Duffy wanted the contemporary. She found it in the local bookshop, where on one shelf she could browse and buy (with the proceeds of a Saturday job) the Penguin Modern Poets series. These writers - Neruda, Prévert, Aimé Césaire - had a stronger influence on her writing than the English poets she studied at school.
At 14 she decided she was going to be a poet and gambled everything on this. When she began to publish, her parents would ask "Yes, but what's your real job going to be?" And it wasn't the critical acclaim that eventually reconciled them to the poetry job but "a medal from the Queen" (she was awarded the OBE for services to Literature in 1995 and the CBE in this year's New Year Honours).
Duffy's strong sense of direction and vocation has always impressed. Andrew Motion says: "She is extraordinarily well balanced, in her work and in her life. She knew what she needed and where to find it". When Duffy was 15, June Scriven typed up a manuscript of her poems and sent it to Outposts, a well-known publisher of pamphlets. A copy found its way to Bernard Stone, the maverick poetry bookseller and publisher, who became a good friend and published several of her poetry pamphlets over the years. The next year in Stafford she met Adrian Henri at a gig by his band, the Grimms, and decided she wanted to be where he was. She applied to Liverpool University to read philosophy and went up in 1974. Liverpool was then a city of painters and playwrights rather than poets and she became friends with Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, had two plays performed at the Liverpool Playhouse, and wrote a pamphlet, Fifth Last Song, in collaboration with six painters, who provided illustrations.
She lived with Henri until 1982, gave readings, and published two pamphlets. Henri said of her that she "seemed to arrive fully formed. She was obviously talented, and was always going to make it as soon as she found the right direction". Liverpool made a deep impression on her and she still supports the football team. The Liverpudlian novelist Beryl Bainbridge has said: "Although she has only 'lived' in Liverpool as opposed to being born and bred in that city, it seems to me that her verse beats to a rhythm that I recognise."
The publisher of her first four books, Peter Jay, of Anvil Press, believes that despite her forays into drama she never really wanted to do anything other than poetry. In this she resembles Tony Harrison, another northern poet from a working-class background. For one who began so young, her mature style was slow to develop. In the pamphlet written whilst still at school the poems are romantic, tinged with surrealism, and there are slight traces of the Liverpool poets. Her rise to literary celebrity began in the early 80s when, living in London, she became a writer in residence in east London schools, was awarded a C Day Lewis Fellowship and, most significantly, won the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition with "Whoever She Was" in 1983. That year, Jay was a judge of the Greenwich Poetry Competition, which Duffy won with "Words of Absolution", a poem about her grandmother. Jay then heard her read and invited her to send a collection. Standing Female Nude was published in 1985. For Roger McGough, who had known her from her early days with Adrian Henri, it was a revelation: "She was a strong person, funny and sharp but we'd assumed she was under Adrian's influence; Standing Female Nude showed that she was more formed than we had thought, a poet all along." From this time on she was regarded as a star in the small, tight, contentious world in which poetry reputations are made.
Through the late 80s and early 90s Duffy was one of the busiest poets on the circuit. She took residencies, gave readings, visited schools, encouraged younger poets on Arvon Foundation courses, was the Guardian's poetry critic 1988-9, and every three years or so came a new book, always stronger than the last. She looks back on that paying of dues with something of a shudder: "As Larkin put it, 'the readings pretending to be yourself; pretending that the poems you've read countless times are being read for the first time or the last; the dinners afterwards.'"
In 1995, after 15 years on the London poetry scene, she decided to become pregnant and to raise a child without the involvement of a father. In 1996 she moved to Manchester where she lives in the leafy suburb of West Didsbury with the poet and novelist Jackie Kay in a house with a largeish, child-centred garden. Her daughter Ella has had a huge effect on Duffy's life and the move to Manchester was partly with her upbringing in mind. Duffy loves the north of England and says, "I measure the north/south divide every day to see if it's getting wider." She and Kay have recently acquired a caravan to make it easier to explore their beloved Lake District. Scotland and Ireland are also on the holiday circuit.
Duffy is a keen gambler and the wager appears often in her poetry: from "Poker in the Falklands with Henry and Jim" (1985) - "We three play poker while outside the real world shrinks to a joker" - to "Mrs Beast" in The World's Wife (1999) - "I watched those wonderful women shuffle and deal - / Five and Seven Card Stud, Sidewinder, Hold 'Em, Draw". In a recent pamphlet, A Woman's Guide to Gambling, she outlines a poetic strategy for betting on horses: "I go for the sound of the words, the beauty they hold / in the movement they make on the air."
She is a romantic who is currently obsessed with Mozart, a believer in high art who loves the tang of the street. She has an exalted sense of the nobility of the poet's calling but becomes uneasy when poets put on purple robes: "I don't like poets to be like priests, as though you were hearing the Mass: I know where that's coming from because I went to Mass as a child." In this context, she once said: "I'm not interested, as a poet, in words like 'plash' - Seamus Heaney words, interesting words. I like to use simple words but in a complicated way."
A strain of nostalgia for childhood and the mysteriousness of its contours runs through her poetry (she once quoted André Breton with approval: "childhood is the only reality"), and this has been brought into a new focus through her daughter, for whom she has written many poems. "Childhood is like a long greenhouse where everything is growing, it's lush and steamy. It's where poems come from," she says. She believes that "having a child turns you into an echo - the child is the real living voice". She articulates this feeling in the title poem of her second children's collection The Oldest Girl in the World (2000): "Truly, believe, me I could all the time see / every insect that crawled in a bush, every bird that hid in a tree, /... Can't see a sniff of it now". These days the sharpness of Ella's perceptions feeds back into Duffy's poems. So, unlike those writers for whom children and writing are the great incompatibles, motherhood is a boon. She says: "The pram in the hall, Connolly's Enemy of Promise - I think for a woman writer a pram in the hall is not the death of art."
She doesn't feel that artists living together necessarily have to be a bomb waiting to go off in the manner of Plath and Hughes. She has lived long stretches of her life with poets and is very down-to-earth about poets and relationships. "I think it's just what your job is. You meet people at work, and I'm more likely to come across people in poetry and literature." She and Kay met on an Arvon course, the poetry world's prime dating agency. Christina Patterson, director of the Poetry Society says: "They're both exceptional. As a partnership it seems a very enviable one: it's a household bursting with intense literary activity, happiness, and pleasure of all kinds; they're both exceptionally warm and kind and natural people."
Most poets probably start from a feeling that their life isn't on a par with their imagination. The force of their work comes from realising their imagination in a concrete form. But isn't there a danger that if you succeed in art and life, life seems the more important? "It is," says Duffy, emphatically. "I think Larkin minded when the muse went away but I couldn't care less if it did. I don't think in my case it would abandon me because it's part of how I see things."
The World's Wife (1999) was the watershed in her career. She widened her audience and perhaps slightly bemused some of those who'd followed her until then. The harrowing personal note of The Other Country and Mean Time was replaced by a roistering, wickedly spiced burlesque. As Peter Jay says: "She wrote The World's Wife to entertain herself and to entertain others, and it succeeds." The book is thematic, every poem being in the voice of the wife of a great man of history, fiction or mythology: Mrs Aesop, Mrs Midas, Queen Herod, Anne Hathaway and so on. It caught the imagination of readers and has sold more than 35,000 copies, making her one of poetry's biggest sellers. For Motion it was "a very brave thing to do. There's always a danger that a book with an overriding idea runs the risk of being the servant of that idea, that you overrun the idea to get the book, but in The World's Wife there's enough petrol in the engine to keep it running." A few men think the poems are a bit too anti-men but Motion says: "There is a sense that as a member of the gender one is under attack but I didn't feel her face was turned against me."
It is hard for anyone, male or female, to resist the book's best jokes. For instance "The Kray Sisters" sets up a sisterly version of the revisionist attitude towards the Krays - they were kind to grannies, didn't touch little girls, kept the district orderly. Then, there is a scene from their prime, when "we'd leant on Sinatra to sing for free". Of course, the reader is thinking: Sinatra with his mob connections; then it hits you that this is Nancy Sinatra, singing the feminist anthem "These Boots are Made for Walking".
In her new book, Feminine Gospels, Duffy hasn't tried to write the daughter of The World's Wife. She says, "When you've finished a book, you're standing in a different place; the landscape has changed". The narratives in the first part of Feminine Gospels play on ideas of gospel truth and tall stories. The element of exaggeration in the idea of tall stories is taken literally (one is even called "Tall"): the poems start with a simple idea and extrapolate it to extremes that tell us something about the times we live in. She is also writing in her own voice again. "The Map Woman" takes up the strain of the "identity" poems from The Other Country, and marries it with the more expansive style of The World's Wife poems. "White Writing" turns Montherlant's aphorism "Happiness writes white" (often quoted by Larkin as a justification for the gloom of his poetry) on its head; "No prayers written to bless you, / I write them white."
The "tall story" poems were under way before September 11, when its shadow "fell across the process". Many writers have agonised about the ability of fiction and poetry to cope with the enormity of the attacks. Duffy's technique is up to it. In "Loud" a woman hearing the news from Afghanistan howls with rage and the howl is heard all round the world. In "Work" a woman doing her ordinary chores becomes the whole weight of work in the world. And perhaps most tellingly of all, in "Tall", a woman outgrows the earth's atmosphere but is still able to reach down to the surface to intervene in the course of the disaster:
She looked back and howled.
She stooped low
and caught their souls in her hands
as they fell
from the burning towers.
Life at a glance:
Carol Ann Duffy
Born: December 23 1955.
Education: 1962-'67 St Austin RC Primary School, Stafford; '67-70 St Joseph's Convent School; '70 -74 Stafford Girls' High School; '74 -77 University of Liverpool (BA hons philosophy).
Partner: Jackie Kay.
Children: One daughter, Ella, 1995.
Awards: 1988 Somerset Maugham Award; '89 Dylan Thomas Award; '93 Forward Prize; Whitbread Prize for Poetry; '95 Lannan Literary Award ; '99 Signal Children's Poetry Prize; 2001 NESTA Award.
Poetry: 1985 Standing Female Nude; '87 Selling Manhattan; '88 Home and Away (ed); '90 The Other Country; '92 I Wouldn't Thank You for a Valentine (ed); '93 Mean Time; '95 Selected Poems; Anvil New Poems (ed); '99 The World's Wife; 2002 Feminine Gospels.
Plays: 1982 Take My Husband; '84 Cavern of Dreams; '86 Little Women, Big Boys; Loss (radio).
For children: 1999 Meeting Midnight; Rumpelstilskin and other Grimm Tales; 2000 The Oldest Girl in the World.
Honours: 1995 OBE, 2002 CBE.
· Feminine Gospels is published by Picador on September 6, price £12.99.