Four Readings and a Tombstone

Detail from the cover of "Walking Home" by Simon Armitage

Detail from the cover of “Walking Home” by Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, 2012

We’re waiting for the snow to subside so that we can return to our allotment. Maybe next Sunday, maybe the one after. We’ll resume our digging eventually, but without Lisa, who has moved to Leeds this Christmas, and without Rob, who is leaving for Canada at 4am.

Yesterday Rob was still ploughing calmly through boxes of paperwork in the attic, deciding what will go in the shipping container and what will go in the recycling bins.

With almost a foot on the plane, on his way to manage an organic farm in Nova Scotia, Rob still found time to apologise for not fixing our wobbly shed doors and he proffered some material samples and an enormous can of mysterious expanding fixative that we’re sure to have an accident with in his absence. Photographs may follow.

I don’t envy anyone their packing. I did a lot of it at one time of my life and the very thought of it fills me with dread. I can still see Maryam sitting on top of a pile of boxes in Lisson Street in the Summer of 1995, the day that our various convoys didn’t quite join up properly. Stuff is a responsibility, but sometimes you need it, despite what your long-suffering relatives might say.

When Simon Armitage packed his bags to walk the Pennine Way in 2010, his dad insisted that he was taking too much with him: “You don’t need a coat”, he said. Bit extreme that I thought, walking 256 miles without a coat. And this was just the “day bag” too – there was also a big suitcase, which no doubt his dad didn’t approve of much either. Amongst other things, the enormous suitcase (which quickly earned the name “The Tombstone”) carried the books that he would choose to read from each evening. This was how he would pay his way, as a jobbing poet, who had set off without a penny in his pocket and who was also going in the wrong direction. Instead of walking from South to North as is the usual method for walking the Pennine Way, he had decided to walk from the Northern end towards the village of Marsden, because that’s his home. You have to respect someone who does things back to front because it’s what is right in the circumstances.

I’ve been reading a copy of “Walking Home”, Simon Armitage’s book about this journey, at my home, not so far from Marsden. Although he set off with doubts about his ability to complete the journey, what he hadn’t thought about so much was how a hard day’s walking might affect the poetry readings that he gave in the evenings. Through the course of the book, you begin to appreciate that each reading is an accumulation of thoughts, words and circumstance. You can choose something appropriate to read, based on the location or the host or the weather or any number of things, but you can’t predict who might be listening, how loud the clacking of pool balls might be, or how tired you might feel. He says that it doesn’t always work, doesn’t always come out quite right. For example, an evening in Gargrave left him feeling that he hadn’t quite lived up to expectations: “The microphone isn’t working so I have to shout. At the book-signing afterwards, an old farmer in a tweed jacket and a flat cap says to me, ‘Son, tha looks buggered.'”

The book made me think of the four times that I’ve heard Simon Armitage speak, all on what you might call home turf, in Huddersfield or nearby. I went to all of these readings with Mari, and I guess that we brought a lot of expectations with us. At Huddersfield Library he read from his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We were given fair warning that it was a bit gory in parts, and I remember a lady sitting a couple of rows behind us doing her best to distract her offspring from the said gory bits. He talked about visiting the British Library to work from an old, presumably both valuable and delicate copy of the original poem, only to have the person on the desk look down their nose at him and refuse to let him look at it. He then had what he described as an “Alan Bennett moment” and scuttled away, via the gift shop where he bought a postcard of the manuscript.

I think I had one of those moments myself at the Huddersfield Literary Luncheon, whilst trying to fight my way to the book stall after the readings. Getting a bit fed up of being elbowed by ladies who were obviously far more at home in this well-heeled environment, I suddenly turned away from the book stall and almost stood on Simon Armitage, who unbeknown to me was standing right behind me. “What will my mother say”, I thought, “me standing in front of a poet with my untrimmed mane all over the place.” And I took the only reasonable action and immediately ran away to hide in a corner. My overriding memory of that day is of being a bit on edge – I suspect that literary luncheons are not really for me.

The Huddersfield Literature Festival was a funny do too. There was something about the room that Simon Armitage was speaking in that didn’t quite seem to fit. Whilst reading from “Seeing Stars”, he commented that there are a lot of good first lines in the book. Then he got a bit carried away with himself and started reading the first lines out, just on their own. He made himself laugh. Then abruptly he stopped. “Sorry”, he said, “I know it’s not what you came for”.

What we came for was to be knocked out by a few words read out loud by a humble, softly-spoken Northerner. You see, once you’ve heard it, the expectation is something quite palpable. On the evening of 29th September 2007, I heard Simon Armitage speak in the Longside Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. There were nightlights or candles of some kind scattered all across the gallery floor, and I believe there was a ball of Andy Goldsworthy’s sheep poo sculpture in the middle of the room, rolled together from the contents of the gallery floor each night (or did I imagine that?).

He read ‘The Christening’ and made me cry with laughter – real side-splitting unbridled out-loud laughter. Then, as the light faded, standing in front of the snaking patterns on the gallery window, he read ‘Evening’ and made me cry with the sheer sorrow of time passing and of being long distant from the place and people that are home.

A person who can make you cry in both those ways at the same time is a true poet.

Sorry Simon, if expectations are high, you only have the power of your own words to blame…

All along the Pennine Way, people came out to hear Simon Armitage reading poems in the evenings. In between those readings, a whole bunch of people volunteered to ferry The Tombstone from one stop to the next, making sure that he had whatever stuff he needed, including the right words to choose from. And because a poet knows his own mind, at least he didn’t have to endure the wilds of Cross Fell without his coat.

I think there’s something to be said for being adamant which direction you’re heading in, especially when other people might think you’re going the wrong way. There’s also something to be said for being certain what to take with you, and what to leave behind.

It’s not always easy to choose.

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5 Responses to Four Readings and a Tombstone

  1. Untrimmed manes are the most poetic kind.

  2. I have to confess that, as I write, I have not had my hair trimmed for about 2 years (though occasionally hack at my fringe when it grows over my eyes). My hair may look more ungroomed than poetic aa a result.

  3. Pingback: Four Readings and a Tombstone | weeklyblogclub

  4. Pingback: Learn, Earn, Yearn | weeklyblogclub

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