Wednesday, 24 January 2024
An eager audience welcomed Simon Armitage, the twenty first Poet Laureate, to Hebden Bridge on Saturday 20th January. This prestigious Lit&Sci event had been sold out for many weeks and the waiting list for return tickets was a long one.
He is no stranger to Hebden Bridge which he once described, in his 1999 book, All Points North, as the hippie capital of the universe. He must have visited our town many times over the years, and some in last Saturday's audience at The Town Hall (slightly older hippies now) remember him as a younger poet, about 25 years ago, when he performed (standing up) at The Blue Pig for the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, with another promising writer, Amanda Dalton.
These two friends, looking hardly any older, were back again. Sitting down this time, they chatted in a relaxed way in armchairs. They entertained us royally as if we were privy to a cosy fireside exchange about his writing. Amanda teased out some amazing stories from him interspersed with friendly, light-hearted banter. We soaked up the stories, poems and Simon's reflections on a vast array of topics such as global warming, honeymoon couples in hot air balloons, and the resilient women who work in the Merrie England Coffee Houses.
It was a treat to share the delight in words from a man who spends his life continually searching for just the right one to use and how to place it on the page or the stone. Words that we come across at other times too, when passing his Stanza Stones or while walking over the flagstones in front of the Grange Dean doctors' surgery, while he is back at his potting shed in what he called 'the right valley,' to good-humoured groans from the audience.
No wonder then that in 2019 Simon was made a member of the royal household as Poet Laureate. In answer to Amanda's first question about what the Poet Laurate is required to do, Simon invoked William Wordsworth, the eleventh poet to hold this post, who was told by the then prime minister that, officially, he was required to do nothing as the Laureate, and 'if that was good enough for Bill, it's good enough for me,' declared our guest. Simon is the ninth Poet Laureate since the Lit&Sci began in 1905, and with all that history in mind, it was a real privilege for us to host, at last, a writer of such stature.
In a beautifully understated way, Simon spent the rest of the evening playing down his elevated position in favour of informing us that he was just getting on being him. But as we discovered just 'being him' is an exciting proposition. He came across as an archetypical Renaissance man whose life overflows with plans, projects and amazingly diverse activities that would have had most of us reduced to jelly by lunchtime.
Currently, he is establishing a National Poetry Centre in a landmark heritage building in Leeds, visiting libraries every Spring in a decade-long alphabetical tour of towns across the UK, finishing a modern version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, writing and performing spoken lyrics in an 'ambient post-rock band' called LYR, and writing poems about national events. To think that this is just a glimpse into his life now, makes one realise how dedicated and prolific a writer he is.
We clapped Simon and Amanda with warm and genuine appreciation at the end of a truly memorable night. The applause was for the conversation, of course, but it was also a compliment for the reading of his poems that had created an atmosphere of rapt attention, quiet delight and some whoops of laughter.
After the event, when all the anecdotes and biographical information become a little blurred in the memory, what is never forgotten are the words and images from the poems. They appear in front of our eyes, sharp and crystal clear. The staggeringly powerful words used to describe the polar bear seen on his Artic expedition with the climate scientists or the Betjemanesque image of a working woman in a Merrie England Coffee Houses giving the kiss of life to a Silk Cut on the fire escape. Little frosted over patches in his memory which, as Simon says, he breathes warm air on to, so that they can live forever on a page.
Many thanks to Roger Gill for this report