The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that Damian Lewis rediscovered a love poetry recording he and his late wife Helen McCrory did together at Cheltenham Literature Festival back in October 2014. Well, I was there in the room when Damian and Helen read love poems to each other from The Love Book, a brilliant collection of classic and contemporary love poems that vary from Shakespeare to E.E. Cummings to Maya Angelou coming together in a book as well as in an app. It was a moving and intimate hour with a powerhouse husband and wife team reading poems, teasing each other, and sharing their dynamic chemistry with the audience.
It turns out that when the festival inquired about a possible video recording of the reading in 2014, Helen and Damian said no. Damian tells The Sunday Times:
“When the festival had asked if they could film it, Helen and I had said no because we believe that live events have a unique energy and the cameras would have brought a self-consciousness. After Helen died, Allie and I were reminiscing about the event and kicking ourselves that there was no recording. In fact there was. Not film, but we discovered a very good quality audio recording and got to thinking about how we could share it with a wider audience.”
Today marks exactly seven years from the day Damian and Helen shared with us the magic of poetry. I have been talking about how special that performance since and I am over the moon that the world now has the opportunity to hear the Love Book event in its entirety here. I admit that I have not been able to hear it yet. I am simply not ready. But I know I will come back to it when the time is right.
And now it is my utmost pleasure to take you all back to exactly seven years ago to the event I was extremely lucky to attend on October 12, 2014: Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory read Great Love Poems. I sat down and wrote my personal account of the event just after I attended the festival so it was still so fresh in my mind.
Seven years ago?!?!?! It feels like yesterday!
The Love Book is the brainchild of wonderful Allie Esiri, who explains why she chose to do this project in the book’s foreword:
“It’s not easy to write a foreword for a book about love. The hardest thing is avoiding the cliches. They are everywhere, like drunk uncles at a wedding. Love is blind; love is all you need; love is all around; love means never having to say you’re sorry; love, love, love; let’s do it, let’s fall in love; love is a many-splendored thing. It really is one of the most abused four-letter words in the English language.
But this is precisely why love needs a book of poetry.”
Allie Esiri organized several poetry events at Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2014 and one particular highlight was Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory reading a love story constructed through poems from the Love Book. And, YES, it was SOLD OUT!
Now I have to note that this happened before Fan Fun with Damian Lewis came to life. I was no Damianista yet. I was a relatively newbie in Damian Lewis fandom, totally a Brody widow at the time, traveling to Cheltenham to see him alive and well 🙂 I vividly remember Lewisto putting me in a cab to the airport and telling me not to come back without a photo with Damian. And I was off to Cheltenham!
The reading took place in Times Forum, a huge 1400-seater, and I sat in the stalls. You know stalls are not tiered, so your view may be blocked if some tall guy sits in front of you, in particular if the actors perform in a sitting format on stage. There was a giant screen so everyone could comfortably see the entire performance; however, I really did want to see Damian and Helen on stage. Luckily, it turned out the couple would stand on opposite sides of the stage and read. Hurrah!
Allie Esiri came to stage first and introduced Damian and Helen. The crowd was totally psyched and more than ready for this very original event where Damian and Helen would take turns reading love poems ultimately constructing a story about all different stages of a relationship. Love blossoming… emotionally and sexually… marriage… the secure feeling of being married… decline of a relationship… maybe things are not as good or spicy or sparkling as before… a break up… a death… memory of love once lived but lost…
And they just STORMED it on stage! They were witty, they were sexy, they were playful, doing accents and teasing each other — they were having a good time! Helen even commented:
“If you can’t have fun at a literature festival then when can you?” 🙂
We had a truly FUN moment when Helen read Tennessee Williams’ Life Story in southern accent. Before reading the poem, she apologized to the audience in case there were people from the southern states. Well, being a resident of North Carolina, I believe I qualify as someone from a southern state and I certainly vouch for Helen’s accent. Bravo!
And the huge, enthusiastic applause Helen received led to a sweet back and forth tease between the couple.
Damian told us it would be better if we did not clap after every reading which would create competition between the two of them.
Helen: “Yes, otherwise, there’ll be arguments in the car driving back to London.”
Damian: “One spontaneous eruption of applause to you, God I hate the M4.” (turns out M4 is the road they take to drive back to London.)
Helen: “I can sleep while he is driving.”
Gotta LOVE her!
Damian received his HUGE applause when he read Robert Burns’ A Red Red Rose in Scottish accent. He seemed to be particularly happy about it since his Scottish father-in-law Iain McCrory was sitting in the audience 🙂
Helen gave Damian SOME LOOK after reading Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs Icarus:
“I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute Grade A pillock.”
Damian: “At least she resisted from saying the poem directly at me.”
Gotta LOVE him!
Helen had tears in her eyes when she finished reading the last poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 – if you are not familiar with it, the sonnet is about time, immortality and the power of poetry. The poem is so powerful that it can preserve the essence of his lover forever. And, believe me, Helen was not the only one with tears in her eyes when the program ended.
Helen very graciously thanked for the flowers and said she hoped they have not put us off poetry… What?!?! You two have just given us a brilliant hour full of LOVE. You have made us laugh. You have made us cry. You have made us feel LOVE. What else can we ask for?
Hmmm… maybe you could sign copies of The Love Book for us? 🙂
Oh yes! The wonderful reading was followed by the trio signing copies of The Love Book so everyone could take a piece of this magical event home with them. Here is my precious copy.
Damian talked about this book signing on Desert Island Discs:
“We were at the Cheltenham Literature Festival recently and we sat and signed books. And I could have been her (Helen McCrory) assistant. Clearly, they’d all seen Medea and they all loved Peaky Blinders and I don’t think they knew who I was actually. It was quite nice… for a bit .”
Ha ha Helen was pretty much the center of attention but I definitely knew who Damian was and I had made the trip from the U.S. only to meet him. I had my heart in my mouth thinking I could have a JLaw moment when I meet him for the first time…
…but I am proud to report I miraculously kept my composure when he said “of course, come on over!” to my photo request — I believe I was the first to ask, because Brits are polite unlike me the crazy Mediterranean — and even when he said “I may have a little surprise for you later on down the line” upon hearing I was keen on not watching Homeland ever again after Brody died.
Damian was also very kind to give me and my friend a short interview after the signing which you can see below. My friend is asking the questions and I am filming but you can hear my voice at times.
It is funny that I only knew I was going home with a photo (my husband had told me not to come back without one!) and an interview to share with friends at that moment and had no idea I would kick off Fan Fun only a few months later.
Oh and here is a copy of the local newspaper from the next day. I bought it at the train station on my way to Heathrow. Yes I am still keeping it!
Allie was also very kind to share with me the complete set of poems Damian and Helen read at the event. I am so grateful for her time and generosity. You can find the list of poems the couple read in the order that they read them right here.
Determined to bring her love of poetry to the readers, Allie’s meticulously curated compilations continued with A Poem for Every Night of the Year, A Poem for Every Day of the Year, Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year. And Helen, who loved poetry, was always ready to support her, and sometimes with her husband by her side.
So no wonder that Allie has dedicated her most recent book A Poet for Every Day of the Year to the great Helen McCrory. She has shared the news with Daily Mail:
“‘Helen loved poetry and was brilliant at reading it. I asked Damian for his blessing and he gave it.” <3
You can see more pictures from The Love Book event at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Helen’s fan site gallery.