Nick Laird and Blake Morrison

Two different writers, two different styles, one common theme - mothers and fathers.  

The Cookstown contingent is here tonight to welcome home novelist and poet Nick Laird.

It's a double bill of poetry and prose at the Castle Garden Room at North Down Museum, where Laird has teamed up with Yorkshire author Blake Morrison to discuss their writing and read their work at the Aspects Literature Festival.

Former lawyer Laird, the author of two novels Utterly Monkey and Glover's Mistake and the poetry collections To A Fault and On Purpose, introduces us to his parents, who are sitting proudly in the front row.

'They haven't seen me read for a few years and I haven't got any better,' he begins apologetically, before telling us that his mother ironed his shirt for the occasion.

The presence of his parents and several other family members makes the self-proclaimed 'skinnymalink' a little self-conscious, as he shuffles from foot to foot. His accent is a strange mix of Tyrone and transatlantic, but as he relaxes into his reading, the Cookstown brogue takes over.
'I love coming home, but I love leaving home too,' he says - and yet home, Northern Ireland, the Troubles permeate through his poetry.

'Cuttings', he tells us, is for his dad - the 'angry and beautiful father', whose head is 'full of lather and unusual thoughts'. Keen not to offend his mother, he introduces us to a new poem for her, 'Condolences'

Love, marriage, even his pug - 'a cross between ET and an Ewok' - are all referenced in his poetry, giving us a tantalising glimpse into his life with White Teeth author Zadie Smith. 'Epithalamium' is a tender, beautifully crafted tribute to a soul-mate.

'And I am Trafalgar, and you're Waterloo, and frequently it seems to me that I am you, and you are me. If I'm the rising incantation you're the charm, or I am, or you are.'

The brutality of the Troubles is hammered home again in 'Conversation'. The poem ends abruptly, shockingly :'How someone else was nailed to a fence. How they gutted a man like a suckling pig
and beat him to death with sewer rods'. There's a collective intake of breath, followed by silence.

'There's no punch-line,' says Laird.'Sorry.'

Blake Morrison is introduced by host Alan Jude Moore as an 'ex poet who's come back to poetry'. The Skipton man, born to an Irish mother and English father, is author of two best-selling memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Things My Mother Never Told Me. He is also a poetry critic and playwright.

Morrison is right at home on the stage, a master of delivery. He chats easily about his parents, the inspiration for both his memoirs, his conversation peppered with humour. 'I've written about mum and dad now,' he says. 'I'm running out of family, my sister's getting very nervous.'

His mother, he tells us, was one of 20 children, 13 of whom survived. But the author was unaware of this until her funeral, when he decided to visit County Kerry to trace his ancestry. There, he met an old aunt who had kept a list of names of all her siblings. Morrison's mother was number 19.

'I don't know how my mum could have called her mum a "lady of leisure",' he jokes.

Morrison's mother passed away at a nursing home in Yorkshire, where once she had attended hunt balls.

In a poignant poem about love and loss he describes her as 'warm and name-tagged, like a pilgrim at journey's end.' For a second time during the evening, you can hear a pin drop, as Morrison recites how he held her hand at her death-bed and pleaded with her to stay. There's a sympathetic chorus of 'oohs and aahs' and a few moist eyes in the audience.

Morrison then reads from Things My Mother Never Told Me and most recent novel The Last Weekend, slipping comfortably into character as he does so.

'I could listen to him all evening,' someone murmurs - but there are book signings to be done and relatives to catch up with.