Nowt wrong with iambic pentameter
On being a northerner and a poet
Simon Armitage, his hair carved into a football supporter’s wedge, and a silver earring in one ear, climbs into a blue Rover, then announces that it doesn’t belong to him. I’m slightly alarmed, thinking he means to go joyriding. “No, I’m not that cool,” he assures me, “it’s my girlfriend’s.”
If I misjudge him, perhaps it’s because I’m from the South, and Armitage, 35, is from the North. Traditionally, the two types don’t get on, as he can testify. When he left Yorkshire to go to college in Portsmouth, he was “glassed in the head for being from Up North”. Returning home at Christmas he “got punched for going Down South”.
But I should have understood him better, because I’ve just spent an hour with him in a wholefood cafe, discussing poetry. And I’ve finished his new book, All Points North, a thoughtful, witty combination of travel writing, autobiography and Alan Bennett-style diary – his first book of prose – which lays out clearly what it means to be a Northerner, to come from the region that begins “where the M1 does its emergency stop. . . where England tucks its shirt into its underpants”.
“The North,” he says, “is a framework for writing about being a poet and living round here – the Northern situation. This is travel-writing in your back yard, round your own fireplace. I wanted to write about the England I understand, instead of the one of men in bowler hats and Union Jack underpants.
“It’s difficult to come up with a notion of what you believe in if you’re English. It’s not like that for the Scots or Welsh, because that is a cause. I was on a British Council tour in Poland with a couple of people from Ireland and one from Scotland, and they were asking questions about nationality. The others laid into the English and I was left there gibbering, I just dissolved in spittle.” (Despite this experience, Armitage has just finished editing The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, with Robert Crawford, which will be published on September 28.)
Home, for Armitage, is Yorkshire. His home village, Marsden, lies a few fields from Huddersfield, an area used as backdrop to countless “Northern” television programmes (notably Last of the Summer Wine). In his book he reports on occasional visits “over the top into Lancashire”, and further afield to London, the Amazon, Iceland and the US, but he always keeps in touch with home, looking up the Yorkshire Post and the Huddersfield Examiner on the Internet.
Yorkshire has been good to poetry, producing not just Armitage but also Blake Morrison, Tony Harrison, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Andrew Marvell – as well as a lesser known poet from Marsden, Samuel Laycock, who, Armitage deadpans, “had some kind of brain dysfunction and moved to Lancashire”.
It was the North which inspired Armitage’s first writing. “I wrote poems when I went to college. I was homesick and in a way I wrote about this area to stay in touch. I think writing is always a form of nostalgia. When I came back I went to writing workshops at what was Huddersfield Polytechnic, but I didn’t tell my friends because poetry has an image for being blousey. It’s not easy to talk about iambic pentameters in the showers after a football match.”
But it didn’t take them long to find out. When Armitage was 27, his first book of poems, Zoom!, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize – critics appreciated his unblinkered insights, his dry wit, and the vivid, energetic use of language. Subsequent volumes were snapped up by the prestigious Faber & Faber, and for five years Armitage presented Radio 4’s poetry series, Stanza. In 1993, he won The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award.
ARMITAGE is fascinated by the overlap between sport and poetry. He writes about Eric Cantona’s retirement to spend more time with his muse, and a poetry-versus-prose cricket match organised by The Times Literary Supplement. Even “watching” the Yorkshire cricket team involves the printed word: he does this on Ceefax. He plays his own football in five-a-side matches against employees of the DSS, relocated from Croydon a few years ago. He describes their vast office, in one chapter, as “a Trojan horse. . . full of clean, white collars from Down South”. The same suspicious motif appears when he mentions the arrival of scouse footballer Ian Rush at Leeds United: “Some kind of Trojan horse sent across the Pennines to damage Yorkshire football from the inside.” The metaphor, says Armitage, represents people’s suspicions, “But that’s not necessarily complimentary to the people who are suspicious.”
He mocks prejudice, but acknowledges that we can all be guilty of it. For six years, he worked for Manchester’s probation service, witnessing much violence and disturbance, and learning to guess the crime by a glance. “There’s always a degree of satisfaction to be derived from stereotypes,” he says, “whether you get them right or wrong.”
Since giving up the probation service to become a full-time writer, he has worked as a missionary for poetry. “I teach a lot in schools, and I get invited to give readings. I have done zillions of them, I’ve been to Eton.” How did he find that? “Splendid,” he says, in a parody of an Etonian accent. Then more seriously: “They were really up for it. Open and spontaneous.”
On his travels, he is inundated with other people’s poetry. “People are usually pretty shameless. You go and do a reading somewhere and they say, ‘Do you want to stay here or in a hotel?’ And if you stay with them, a shoebox comes out and they say, ‘Would you mind casting your eye over these before breakfast?’ You have to leave through a window. . .”
About his own writing he is engagingly modest. “It’s a mish-mash,” he says, produced merely by “bodging along”. A day’s writing, he says, “might not amount to more than crossing a few lines out. The most important thing is thinking time, but that sounds like messing around, or watching the cricket.”
Publishers of science books reckon sales drop with every equation they print. Does the same apply to poems? “I can imagine people flicking past them,” he concedes. But he is perplexed by the paradox that All Points North (published by Viking this week) has already sold more in advance sales than his best-selling book of poems. “And that is all based on the strength of my poetry. . .”
Pretty soon, it seems, Armitage may be spotted in the streets. He thinks not: “Being a well-known poet and being well-known are two different things.” But after this book, he may become a well-known Northerner. This is one stereotype he’s eager to avoid, but it’s hard to see how. “Simple,” he says. “Don’t go on game shows and eat deep-fried whippets.”