It has been an unqualified delight, even if it is mildly absurd: I have been chairing the judges for this year’s Forward Prizes for poetry, wallowing in some quite extraordinary writing. It has been like gorging on champagne truffles every day. We are nearly there. Winners are emerging. But the absurd aspect is that everybody being judged is already a fine poet, with much to say and fine technical skill; so, winnowing down to ‘winners’ relies on personal prejudice and chance mood on one particular day. That’s horribly unfair and I think all the judges feel it. So why have such a prize? Because the hullabaloo and coverage will draw people to buy poetry books, just as all those beach ‘summer reading’ lists, however predictable, send people back into bookshops. Poetry was the great British art, and still is. So if you are buying for the sun lounger, please, please include some new poetry: look at our shortlists, or ask the bookstore for advice. The entries are written in a huge range of ways about a vast range of subjects; from religion to Brexit, to violence in Africa. What connects it? The intensity of the writing — modern poetry is shots of espresso to the frothy white lattes of fiction, or a rich, reduced bouillon to the slop of watery canteen gravy. Drink up.
Who will be the next Tory leader? I keep asking the senior contenders over breakfast after the show or at those now notorious summer parties. And they all say the same thing: she will stay for a couple of years and then it will be somebody we haven’t thought of yet. It’s already too late, they say, for MPs in their 50s and 60s. Predicting politics these days is like juggling greased goldfish… but I pass this on for what it’s worth.
We haven’t begun to understand the phenomenon of online abuse. In the real world, I’m approached to talk about politics by friendly, wryly sceptical and tolerant strangers. Whenever I tickle the angry blue bird that is Twitter, I’m sucked towards a deep pit of paranoia and self-loathing. Now, actual folks and Twitterers might be two separate species — homo sapiens, homo iratus — but I rather doubt it. Social intercourse produces civility; anonymity rips off the smiling mask. So who are we really?
I’ve been doing the round of history festivals — Chalke Valley near Salisbury (whose cathedral, by the way, currently hosts some utterly extraordinary modern sculpture) and Wimpole, near Cambridge. The only trouble with speaking there is that you can’t hear others who are talking at the same time. So I missed the politics of the Koh-i-noor diamond, Hitler’s female pilots, and the astonishing truth about the Victorians and the female orgasm. Maybe next year…
London has been, as Mr Cole Porter put it, too darn hot. Pale-skinned Scots like me behave like elderly labradors, hiding under tables and panting. Citizens perform a zonked stumble, like extras in a zombie film. The pubs are shaken inside-out: crammed on the pavement, empty at the bar. On my Sunday show, David Lidington suggested that plots against Theresa May were down to too much warm Prosecco. Perhaps; but we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of heat exhaustion. MPs I know are blearily knackered and losing all perspective. There ought to be a rule that above, say, 32°C, Westminster is automatically suspended.
My own summer has been dominated by my first solo show of paintings, at the Corke Gallery in Liverpool. As I write we have sold 51 of the 108 pictures. Although I’ve always painted, it’s only in the couple of years after my stroke that I started to take it seriously. The style that has emerged is almost unrecognisable. I don’t believe in ‘abstract’: all pictures refer to something and our brains are conditioned to ‘read’ the simplest lines and most vestigial shapes. But these pictures are less obviously representational and more personal and revealing. I was worried about showing them. But Nic, the owner of the gallery, has done a fabulous job of ordering and displaying them, and the whole thing has been a joy. I’ve made new friends and reignited my love of Liverpool, always crackling with energy and passion. I am more than well-paid in my day job, so all profits go to the stroke charity ARNI. Now I’m back in my studio, sweltering, working on new pictures for new shows — later this year in Cambridge and next year, I hope, in east London.
As somebody who has haunted art galleries all his life, I’ve always been slightly irritated at how rarely painters say in plain English what they’re trying to do. We don’t talk enough about failure, which in turn makes it harder to talk about success. So I’ve written a short book about painting, using my own work as examples of when I’ve got things wrong. It’s coming out in the autumn. I think the technical term is leading with your chin.