Until Friday, I was a WOW virgin. Now I am already blocking out dates in next year’s diary to make sure I don’t miss it. The Women of the World Festival has been running since Wednesday and ends today. So if you’ve not been to anything at WOW (which I keep mistyping as WOE, rather worryingly) and you can push aside other demands and commitments, make a dash for the Southbank as this will be your last chance until 2015. I am shocked that this is WOW’s fourth year, yet the first time I have attended any part of it.
Five of us had a Girls’ Night Out on Friday attending the WOW Laureates’ Night.
Did you know that for the first time in history, all five poet laureates in the UK and the Republic of Ireland are women? Isn’t that amazing? The event was sold out. The QEH was packed. We cheered, we clapped, we sat in awed and appreciative silence. I cried. I suspect others did too. Poetry is the new rock ‘n’roll. There were too many stand out moments to list. Carol Ann Duffy’s two tributes to her mother hit personal nerves, especially as the Londonderry Air/Danny Boy was played in accompaniment to one. It was one of the pieces of music we chose for Mother’s funeral. She was a girl from Co Derry. Another that made me tingle was Sinéad Morrissey’s Genetics, and after the performances had ended it was her book with that poem that I bought. The personal made the first great impression, but by yesterday morning I was ready for a wider appreciation, and the poem that was sounding in my head, and is sounding again today, was Gillian Clarke’s Six Bells, commemorating the 1960 mining disaster. I had read it before, and found it beautiful, now its full strength became apparent, and I love the way it captures the ordinariness of life that goes on when something major happens, and those ordinary things embody the significance of the moment and acquire significance themselves.
Six Bells
28 June 1960

Perhaps a woman hanging out the wash
paused, hearing something, a sudden hush,
a pulse inside the earth like a blow to the heart,
holding in her arms the wet weight
of her wedding sheets, his shirts. Perhaps
heads lifted from the work of scrubbing steps,
hands stilled from wringing rainbows onto slate,
while below the town, deep in the pit
a rock-fall struck a spark from steel, and fired
the void, punched through the mine a fist
of blazing firedamp. As they died,
perhaps a silence, before sirens cried,
before the people gathered in the street,
before she’d finished hanging out her sheets.

Gillian Clarke

All the poems she read were so visual, creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy. We were WOWed.
Knowing there were still tickets for Sandi Toksvig’s Mirth Control last night, I made a last minute decision to get a ticket. I had been working in Westminster, and had my bike, so made a quick detour to the Southbank. At the desk in the QEH I could hear a quiet debate going on behind a screen. The voice sounded like Clare Short’s, though I don’t know if it was. Malala had spoken earlier in the day. I was beginning to understand that away from the entertainment side of WOW there were serious, ground breaking discussions and events bringing women from around the world together in the same room. You name it, it was on the agenda: the Politics of Afro Hair, FGM,immigration, becoming an MP, porn, comedy. And that’s just for starters.
I don’t know quite what I expected from Mirth Control. It was billed as ‘an electrifying night of comedy and music inspired by great women’. I imagined, I think, that it would be light with sharp edges. But I think it would more accurately be described as sharp with light edges. It opened with SheBoom, of whom I had never heard, but I should love to hear and see them perform again. This’ll give you an idea why.
An ongoing theme was women’s contribution to war, linked to the commemorations re the Great War, but also looking at what women did in the Second World War. There was a lot of music, including one stunning piece by a woman called, I think, Elkington, about the journey through the mist of the HMS Verdun bringing the coffin of the Unknown Warrior to England. It was performed by the all women WOW orchestra, and ably conducted by Sue Perkins to the astonishment of the people behind me who were expecting a comic turn. If there is one issue I had with last night it’s that if there were programmes for sale, I missed them. I learned of two women composers but I have already forgotten their names. I have also forgotten the name of the conductor who works in Sydney, Australia, but I think I’ll be able to find that firly easily. Jessica Something. Elkington’s daughter Mary was in the audience. Her mother’s music was nearly lost, but fortunately someone found a collection of music scripts in a second hand shop in the 1970s and bought them for £3.75.
Sharon D Clarke sang that song about gathering lilacs, We’ll Gather Lilacs, while the screen filled iwth a roll call of women who have died since WOW 2013. There was some booing when Thatcher’s face and name appeared, which even though I loathed the woman, did not seem right. I wanted to see Mother’s face and name there too, but instead I said it my head over and over and toasted her from my water bottle.
Jeremy Hardy, honorary woman for the night, made a plea for women and men to be able to be themselves, and a few goodish jokes.
Sheila Hancock read a poem by Vera Britten, and the show came to an end with a foot stomping, double bass twirling rendition of Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves, led by Hannah Waddingham with the Hackey Community Choir and Voicelab grooving behind her in the suffragette colours, followed by Sharon D Clarke singing We’ll Meet Again.
I came home tired and thoughtful. And determined to be part of WOW 2015.

14 thoughts on “WOWed

    • Astounding aren’t they? I looked at the site hoping I could book to see them perform, but I couldn’t see any dates. Let me know if you hear anything, won’t you.

  1. Thank you for this, I cried, of course. I did know about WOW (always remember when it’s too late), but had not heard this poem.
    And in return, I urge you to listen to R4’s Great Lives – Hertha Ayrton. I hope I am introducing you to someone new. I, myself, hadn’t heard of her until hearing the programme. Amazing.

    • It’s an amazingly evocative poem isn’t it. I think Gillian Clarke is a superb and subtle poet. I hadn’t heard of Hertha Ayrton so I shall check her out. The programming of WOW is often frustrating and unclear until the very last minute what is going on. We were very lucky to see the WOW laureates. If you like poetry it might be worth seeing if there are any tickets left for the shortlisted poets up for the TS Eliot prize at the RFH on 14th January. It’s a great event, ably hosted by Ian McMillan with tickets costing around £15.

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