It’s a familiar Simon Armitage who takes to the stage. Pudding-bowl haircut, ruddy complexion and suit jacket with jeans. I’d last seen him two nights before, talking about Joy Division and Indie on BBC4. I would map him at just over half way on his own transition from Indie kid to national treasure. There’s even the first hint of the apologetic stoop appropriate to the latter.
He opens with a reading of Paper Aeroplane, a riff on the arcane detail of plane boarding privileges that is wonderfully funny, if perhaps a little overlong. Confusingly, it is not included in the collection with which it shares a title.
The format of the rest of the show alternates between a Q&A and readings, mostly from Armitage’s new book of travel writing, Walking Away, but also featuring travel-related poems.
The Q&A, hosted by Lucy Burnett, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing with Leeds Beckett University, the sponsors of the evening, sees Armitage negotiate some rather verbose and convoluted questioning with typical grace and charm.
Armitage concentrates on the story of his two walks: the first (documented in Walking Home) along the Pennine Way from Scotland to his home town of Marsden, the second (subject of his new book) along the South-West Coast Path from Minehead to Land’s End and on to the Scilly Isles.
Common to both walks was the fact that Armitage relied on hospitality, mostly of strangers, for his accommodation, and he gave nightly poetry readings, asking the audience to contribute what they thought the entertainment was worth, placing payment anonymously in a sock. Though he promised his publishers an audit at the end of the second walk, so that the generosity of northerners and southerners could be compared, he admits that he decided this would be too controversial. Instead, he simply admits his trepidation each evening at what non-monetary items he might find in the sock. He concludes with another very funny found poem, listing these items.
Among my favourite anecdotes is how he bottled out of opening his tour at Minehead Butlins, not wishing to go head to head with an Olly Murs tribute act performing that night, though he can’t resist the deadpan aside, “I thought Olly Murs was a tribute act.” He also tells how the custodian of the Coleridge Cottage wanted him present at the uncovering of a wall thought to date from Coleridge’s time, leading to an inevitable disappointment.
Endearingly, Armitage, a Geography graduate, admits that he totally underestimated the Coastal Path, neglecting the fact that many rivers and streams flowing to the sea there meant that there would be a lot of up and down. At least navigation was easy, he comments – just a matter of staying between the large, wet, blue expanse and the constant presence of the fence. However, one penetrating comment from Burnett points out how full of people these ostensibly solitary walks are. Armitage remarks that he in fact found himself noticing more about the landscape when accompanied on his travels.
As well of details of his walks (these will apparently be the last, because, “I’m knackered!”) we do get some background, with a reminiscence about his early attempts to storm Bohemian café society in Huddersfield’s Merrie England coffee shops, and his frustration at his inability to replace Samuel Laycock as The Marsden Poet.
Armitage also takes in his stride questions about his appointment as Oxford Professor of Poetry. He says he no longer sees a dichotomy between creative and critical discourses. But then, Armitage is a man used to straddling worlds: prose and poetry; high art and popular appeal. He should have no trouble encompassing Marsden and Oxford.
By Mike Farren
Filed under: Written & Spoken WordTagged with: author, book review, Coleridge, Creative Writing, festival, ilkley, Ilkley Literature Festival, Leeds Beckett University, literature, Lucy Burnett, Marsden, Olly Murs, Oxford, Paper Aeroplane, Pennine Way, poetry, review, Samuel Laycock, Simon Armitage, South-West Coastal Path, Travel Writing, Walking Away, Walking Home, writing, yorkshire