The two powerhouses of poetry took one side of the stage each, with musician John Sampson between them providing some tuneful interludes.
All three have recently finished a larger tour, along with National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, and Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry winner Imtiaz Dharker. But this event focused on these two remarkable voices, once partners, now (since Kay’s appointment earlier this year) respective poet laureates of Scotland and England.
They would read poems, Duffy said, which “talk to each other”, and so they passed themes between them like a relay of words: childhood, politics, love, parents, womanhood. It also gave Kay, who has been such a generous host to other guests since the start of this festival, a chance to take centre stage with her own work.
The event brought contrasts to the surface: Kay’s easy laugh, her ready evocations of her life and family through her poetry, and Duffy, more serious, keeping the audience at a distance. But there were similarities too, a shared cleverness, compassion, an ability to hit the poetic nail on the head time and again.
Both read a few of their Greatest Hits, but there was new work too, speaking directly to the times: Kay with a poem in the voice of Nigel Farage – “Before Brexit, people used to fall about laughing when I read this,” she said, “after Brexit they cry” – and Duffy with poems about emigration and a poignant evocation of Liverpool written after the publication of the Hillsborough Report.
AL Kennedy’s latest novel, Serious Sweet, is also, in its way, a novel of the times. At once a political novel and a love story, it follows John, a civil servant in the Department of Work and Pensions, disillusioned by government cuts, and Meg, a bankrupt accountant, through 24 hours.
Kennedy says she enjoyed writing John’s rants, because they allowed her to rant too. But, like her, he has a conscience, one minute wishing “to put everyone with an MBA in a burning warehouse”, the next chastising himself for going against the principles he still has.
London, where Kennedy lived for five years, becomes a character in the novel. Drawing on her impressions of her first year in the city, she said she “spent a year looking for acts of kindness between strangers”. “When you look for that you find it, and it changes how you think about people.”
Kennedy is never less than illuminating on the subject of writing. Do writers have an obligation to address the times, an audience member asked. “It depends on the writer, but if you have got a louder than average voice, and are somehow taken seriously, one can hope to push Project Civilisation a fraction of a millimetre in the right direction.”
The day began with two writers from Europe, whose novels address difficult times and pertinent subjects. Steve Sem-Sandberg is Swedish, but has spent the last seven years living in Austria, much of it researching his novel The Chosen Ones, which tells the true story of Am Spiegelgrund, the clinic in Vienna where children who did not fit the Nazi ideal – the disabled, gypsies and others – were taken to be euthanised (in fact they were killed and their bodies experimented on). The story is still not well known; a member of the audience described how she was taken to the hospital recently as part of a guided tour of the city and told nothing of its dark history.
Icelandic novelist Sjon likes to gather information too. His new novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, gave him the opportunity to open several of his history files: the story of the Spanish flu, which devastated Reykjavik in autumn 1918, the Icelander’s thirst for silent films, and the secret history of homosexuality in Iceland, a subject not discussed publicly until 1978. “There are invisibles in all our histories,” he said. “One of the reasons we have literature is to read between the lines in official history.”