Now in its fifth year, the 2014 Wenlock Poetry Festival is the biggest to date, with more than 70 events taking place during this coming weekend.
It offers a compelling mixture of live performances, readings, workshops, literature, art, music and film.
This year’s guests include Simon Armitage, who recently walked the Pennine Way as a modern day Troubador, and John Hegley, who is now billed as a ‘‘friend of the festival’’ – and something of a disciple of the late DJ John Peel.
The Luton Town fan has never forgotten how Peel helped his career by giving him sessions when he was with the Popticians and performing lyrics like ‘‘My name’s John, I’ve got my glasses on’’ and ‘‘My mum lives in a mobile home which might sound odd to some’’.
Always close to hand is a one-line note he made about the BBC star: ‘‘(Peel) was a DJ who was real on the radio’’.
John explains: “He saw me at a club in London – and my mum used to write to thank him.
“Something like that makes you think you are worth it, like holding your hands or giving you a leg up.
“Even though I didn’t see him for years it felt like the humanness of someone saying: ‘Put your foot on here’.
For three months in 1973 John did a job that is all but extinct today – bus conductor.
“Generally people would pay their fare,” he recalls. “Perhaps one person didn’t, once.
“It was an opportunity to perform, though when the bus comes out of the depot at 4am when it’s freezing you wouldn’t feel much like performing then!”
All of the classic lines come pouring back out from the golden age of benevolence in kind.
“Hold tight, are you all right?” he recalls. “Hold tight... move on down’.
“It’s a shame we don’t have them any more when you are a prince of benevolence, handing out help to people.
“It’s like the NHS. It’s wonderful that we have this free service to help each other.”
Then he recalls one of his more political pieces, Straight and Narrow, and lines like ‘‘Once there was a man who was rich, others struggled in the ditch’’.
Though based in London, John likes Birmingham as a city, having been a regular visitor to Waterstones and the mac and enjoyed his time here when he was in The Pajama Game (1999) at the Rep with Ulrika Jonsson.
But he still doesn’t own a computer and even has to ask his partner Mel if she’s a Mac or a PC person.
He goes to his local library to get on to the ‘‘Word Wild Web’’ and to send emails.
Having joined Twitter in 2011, he took his tally to 21 last year when he managed to post five notes of less than 140 characters.
There have been none so far this year – even though he has 7,761 followers.
But he’s an inquisitive soul, asking me as many questions as I am of him and making his own jottings, too.
“I’d always loved writing,” he says. “Still do. I like to play with rhyme and to rhyme with play.
“I think people understand there is another side to it.
“Shakespeare... that is poetry. It is heightened language, not ordinary speech.
“Blowing away the dust (off an old book) is part of it. Maybe you just need to ingest the dust. With the internet, people can just look things up. They never get to see the terrible books and there’s something very sad about that.”
Never married, and with a 19-year-old daughter called Isabella (from a previous relationship) who is now doing voluntary work in Ethiopia, John adds: “Children do like books.
“When I was young we had one shelf and the books didn’t even go to the end, but re-reading is important.
“I then read The Coral Island (R M Ballantyne, 1858) when I was nine. At first I thought it was too hard for me, but then I read it and I thought ‘this is amazing’. If I’d have all of the ones I wanted they would have all been books like Billy Bunter.”
John’s own latest books are called New and Selected Potatoes and I Am A Poetato.
Why the fascination with the humble spud?
“You can enjoy them in many ways,” he says.
“They are versatile, and cheap. And they can be exotic, too.
“Names? I prefer brown skins to red. That’s all I know about them. I peel them sometimes, sometimes not.
“My mum used to make chips and then I used to wipe (the fat off) them individually.”
For now, John is looking forward to Wenlock this weekend and will have his feet on the ground to avoid muddled thinking.
“I like to ask audiences how poems should end,” he says. “Should a dog who fell break its leg or its neck after it did the trick? Some will prefer leg, some will prefer neck and I love it.
“The live thing is so important, that exchange and process.
“Knowledge of your past is also very important.
“The Greeks used to make hot cross buns with dough that wouldn’t go rotten easily.
“Their crosses were for quarters of the moon so that’s a chance to celebrate (Easter) in a different way.
“That’s a kind of almost part of what I would like to see spreading... tolerance, multiplicity.
“Where you are from will help you to know where you are going.”
Before we go our separate ways I wonder what he thought about the hit ITV sitcom series On The Buses (1969-1973)?
“I don’t think I would like it now,” he says.
“Olive (Anna Karen) was a bit of a butt and the way her husband Arthur (Michael Robbins) treated her was quite obnoxious and I think he got away with it a bit too much because it was ‘just a bit of fun’. But the relationship between Stan Butler (Reg Varney) and Jack Harper (Bob Grant) was really nice.”
* The fifth Wenlock Poetry Festival runs from April 25-27. It will feature Frieda Hughes, Olivier Award-winning actor Alex Jennings, David Morley, Elaine Feinstein and emerging young talent including the Shropshire Young Poet Laureate Mia Cunningham.
Headlining on Sunday, April 27, Simon Armitage reads extracts from his latest work, Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way, recounting his travels along the Pennines without a penny in his pocket, giving poetry readings en route in village halls, churches, pubs and living rooms.
The passing of Seamus Heaney is marked with a special event celebrating the achievements of this giant of literature, and three of Holland’s most celebrated writers visit Shropshire including Dutch poet laureate Anne Vegter.
The anniversary of the breakout of First World War forms a theme to this year’s festival, with Shropshire War Poets A. E. Housman, Wilfred Owen and Mary Webb celebrated, while the film drama Severn and Somme recounts the remarkable life of Ivor Gurney, First World War poet and composer.
Poetry and its links to music are explored with a setting of W.H. Auden’s popular poems to songs composed by Benjamin Britten, performed by Utter:Stranger and narrated by Jennings (Prince Charles opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen).
Friends of the festival Jacob Sam-La Rose, David Whyte and Mark Neil return along with Luke Wright, who made his debut last year.
Also on the bill are celebrated writers Daljit Nagra, Anna Saunders, Sarah Law, Andrea Holland, Andrea Porter, Kiran Milwood Hargrave, Helen Tookey and Rebecca Goss.
Children’s events include Cargo of Creativity workshops with poet Sally Crabtree and the opportunity to make tiles engraved with Haiku poetry at Wenlock Pottery.
* For full programme and ticketing information see www.wenlockpoetryfestival.org or call 01952 726829.