Someone should have warned Ted about this. Just moments after some rather awkward, tongue-tied youth who is masquerading as the literary editor of the Sunday Times announces that Ted Hughes has been given the 1996 Sunday Times Award for Truly Exceptional Literary Excellence Indeed because he is a "force of nature" - or some such tremendous force of cliche - someone else lets the four winds out of the bag, and the big marquee (aka the "Festival Theatre") starts getting shaken about like a brace of ferrets in a stinking hessian sack.
Can Ted, though a force of nature himself, hope to compete against the forces of nature? Of course he can't! He tries a little counter-bluster at first; he endeavours to shout down the elements with a few scattered literary references - "the boy stood on the burning deck" etc. A hopeless task, of course. The most intriguing aspect of the occasion is the wonderfully post-modern lectern that the festival has rigged up for the Poet Laureate's use: legs of scaffolding, and a reading surface of clear perspexthat enables us to watch the shadow of Ted's finger trailing, line by line, across the script of a translation of Ovid with which he begins the reading.
David Puttnam, giving the first Dilys Powell Lecture on film, experiences similar elemental problems, but he, being a film-maker who has travelled much in Asia with the weathermen, is not in the least discomfited by all these buffetings and groans and creaks. No, it makes not the least difference to the quality of his lecture, which is quite abysmal - platitudinous and poorly expressed into the bargain. It is only when Puttnam begins to spar with the audience during question time that we get the measure of his intellect and his compassion.
The poet Christopher Logue responds with just a touch of irascibility when a woman at the back asks him what he thinks about a phenomenon that she clearly regards as one of the forces of nature. "Could you please tell us what your attitude is towards Zeitgeist?" she says, dreaming her way into the midst of some metropolitan literary salon. Logue, who has been sitting sideways on to the audience as if about to take the first train out, screws up his face in fury as if it were a ball of plasticine. "I have never met Zeit Geist," he replies, tweezering the word apart with a quite meticulous display of personal distaste, "so I don't know how to deal with him." He then leaves it to Craig Raine to give a more extended and intellectualising response to the question.
Logue is a poet who likes to read his poems sitting down. He told us as much at the start of his reading: "Sorry about all this fuss," he said as jobbing furniture-heavers shifted chairs and tables here and there about the stage, making it seem as if Logue might be orchestrating a chess match against himself with unusually large and eccentric pieces ". . .but I like to do it …