George Szirtes
Downham Market Library

George Szirtes

George Szirtes has published over a dozen volumes of poetry, the most recent of which, Reel (Bloodaxe, 2004), was awarded the T S Eliot Prize in the same year. Trained as an artist, he has written for children, for composers and for the stage. His own website and blog are at

March 6 - 17, 2000

The residency was the equivalent of just over one full week. Most of the practical arrangements were put in the hand of another librarian, Linda Scott, who did a fine job generally. The way it panned out was that I would work with two classes at Hillcrest Primary School, which would entail four half-day visits, two half-days at the school and two at the library. These would be with ten and eleven year olds. I would undertake two half-day surgeries at the library, do a half day session with regional librarians, and undertake two evenings readings / talks and revisit the school.

The school workshops were very good. The class teachers were present throughout and helped and the children were enthusiastic and well behaved. I set them something to do on the first visit and followed it through in the second. On my return they performed their pieces. The local paper came down and took some photos.

The surgeries were fascinating. These were in the new library and I had a desk by the entrance. The library clientele seemed to be made up exclusively of the old and of young mothers, and I was relieved to get visitors at all. There were about twelve over the two sessions, all pensioners. Norfolk is a popular retiring place and only about half were genuinely local. These old people mostly had lives and travels they wanted to set down on paper and we had a good time talking about how that might be done. I am still in touch with a couple of them. There was also a group of three young children from the Plymouth Brethren, accompanied by their teacher, the children quaint, earnest and friendly. They wanted copies of my riddle book

The pub reading was essentially an all-welcome open-mike performance gig to introduce John Row. I did a couple of spots no longer or shorter than anybody else. People sang, recited verse, and John had flown in two black rap poets from Ipswich, It was a nice evening, sort of cosy and communal. A couple of people from outlying writing groups came to read.

The evening at the library was on St Patrick's Day. The audience consisted of two people plus the two librarians. We chatted a bit then asked them if they wanted me to do the professional thing, and they said yes, so I did. It went very well. I talked mostly but read a few poems too and it was one of those nice occasions when the words came quick and light and set each other off. It was sweet of the two members of the public to come. I got the feeling people didn't go out much in Downham, and if they were going to go anywhere on St Patrick's Day it was going to be to the pub.

When I talked to people it was clear they were glad someone had come to listen to them and talk to them.. They were friendly and, for all their advanced years, mostly new to literature. The teachers in the school were intelligent and supportive and the children were clearly brighter than average. The librarians are loaded down with management-talk, poor things, and I will have seemed a rather exotic bird to them. I think I might have been well employed hanging out in the market square handing out leaflets and verses on paper.

The results? About sixty children with new ideas and some nice writing which will be displayed on the library wall, about a dozen older people with a slightly clearer idea about how they might go about realising their ambition of writing life down, a few visitors to the library passing a strange sight: a desk with a man behind it, some display of books behind him, and a notice saying 'Come and chat about reading, writing, the life and the universe or anything else'. Some readers in the local paper noting that a poet came to work with some children at one of the local schools (photo posed in the usual way, surrounded by children, pointing to something in a book), a pub with some bemused but entertained customers including one ex-poacher who wrote a nice bucolic verse about hunting who said to me: 'You write from the heart" which pleased me as much as anything. A dozen librarians some of whom will have gone back to thinking about throughput and stock and a few of whom will remember trying to translate a passage of Hungarian with a bit of semi-scholarly help,. One of them invented a fine adjective for our times: 'poshbeckhamy' which I shall treasure.

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