The road not taken: Simon Armitage on his years as a probation officer

My technique was to act like a decent and caring human being, then hope some of it rubbed off.

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My dad tells me I wanted to be a bus driver when I was little, even though he warned me that, “It gets very busy around Leeds at tea time.” I wouldn’t have minded: the big horizontal steering wheel sliding through the hands, the high seat in the cab. I could have done that, as opposed to being an orthodontist, for example. Can dentistry ever be a calling? Astronaut, yes, fancied that, doing somersaults in zero gravity, drinking packets of stew, being like David Bowie. Footballer, tick; cricketer, tick. I played scrum half for the school for a while but at 14 some of the opposition already had beards and beer bellies, and after one collision with a lad whose nickname was Snow Plough I put that dream to one side. Pop star, tick (Bowie again). More realistically, something outdoors was what I imagined, hence the geography degree.

But to answer the question, I’d have to be honest and say probation officer, because that’s what I actually did for the best part of a decade. I’m not sure I was any good at it, nor was it clear to me what success looked like. My technique was to act like a decent and caring human being in front of people who’d never been exposed to much decency or humanity, then hope some of it rubbed off. Could I ever go back, if I had to? It’s a question I ask myself. Probably not is the answer, even if my qualification is still valid. I’m just not sure I’d now have the gumption to knock on doors on scary streets in Manchester, or stride along prison landings, or sit in the cells beneath a regional magistrates’ court in the early hours of the morning interviewing rattling heroin addicts and sulky adolescent car thieves. Besides which, I’m not certain there’s a probation service to work for any more, at least not like the one I signed up to.

Other than that, a detective. Definitely. I have a suspicious mind, a forensic view of the world. I’m good at problem solving, and on both occasions when I’ve watched Midsomer Murders I’ve guessed who did it within ten minutes.

This article is from our “Road not taken” series

 

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special