Maureen Duffy at 80
© John Vickers/University of Bristol/ArenaPAL/TopFoto
By MICHAEL CAINES
I'd like to know if this happens often: a writer in her eightieth year publishes two books, all but simultaneously (OK, within months of one another); one of those books is in prose and the other is in verse.
It might sound like the classic Dr Johnson type of praise – ie, we're not impressed by how well it's done, like the dog's walking on its hind legs, but that it's done at all – but I think it's notable for other reasons, too. For one thing, in the case of the formidably versatile Maureen Duffy, it's possible to say that the publication this year of a poetry collection, Environmental Studies, and a novel, In Times Like These, keeps up a seemingly lifelong commitment to working in these two forms. (That's How It Was, her highly praised first novel, appeared in 1962, while her Collected Poems is dated 1949–84.)
And then there's the work for performance, the campaigning for Public Lending Right and – not least with The Ballad of the Blasphemy Trial, prompted by a case against the Gay Times – in opposition to homophobia and its various mechanisms of control. How do writers like her and Brian Aldiss do it?
Duffy also wrote a biography of Aphra Behn, which is why, when you search for her in the TLS archives, one of the things that appears under her name is a review of all but simultaneous (OK, within hours of one another) revivals of two of Behn's comedies:
"It is, I suppose, one of life's little ironies", Duffy wrote in 1984, in a review of The Rover (at the Upstream Theatre, if you remember that) and The Lucky Chance (at the Royal Court), "that after more than 200 years of neglect and vilification two plays by Aphra Behn should have opened in London within a night of each other . . . ."
There's also, incidentally, in a review of one of Duffy's novels of the 1960s, a nice reference to her "staying-power" . . . .
I'm hoping to attend the day of celebration for this author's own brace of poetry and prose publications at King's College London, on December 6, Maureen Duffy at 80, which promises contributions from both novelists (Ali Smith, Maggie Gee) and poets (Alan Brownjohn, Elaine Feinstein, Ruth Fainlight et al). If nobody else asks, I'd like to know: is there simply a switch in the minds of certain writers that enables them to switch from metred to un-metred and back again?