Books interview: Simon Armitage

"Sometimes there is nothing sweeter in poetry than a deliberate anachronism"

Giving poetry readings and making documentaries sends you all around the country. What do you do with your time on trains?

I set out with really good intentions. I take a book with me, I take a notebook, and the idea is I'm going to write the greatest poem ever written, or read some very important Russian novel. But quite often I just gawp out the window, and more recently I've started falling asleep on the train - especially going back north at night. In some ways it's good thinking time, which is quite difficult to build into a routine. Sometimes it feels you're just idling, but it's necessary.

What was your incentive with The Not Dead, the Channel 4 film and poems based on the testimonials of war veterans?
What we were doing was to some degree quite dangerous; asking people to re-live their nightmares, things that they were stuck with and hadn't been able to move past - in the case of one guy for 40 or 50 years. I think you could see through the film, when it came to reciting the poems, that it was a moving experience at that moment for [the men]. The opportunity to talk about it in a very condensed form.

I don't know what people do with those poems afterwards - whether they continue to be meaningful for them - but certainly at the time it felt we were doing something effective and useful. Though that's not our brief . . . the brief is to make good telly. And I don't want to get back into being a probation office as I was in a former life.

Is a tragicomic poem - for example "Poodles", from your latest collection - more powerful than one overtly polemical?
It's not my style to meet political subjects head-on but it doesn't mean that I'm any less enraged or inflamed. I would argue you can write a poem on the Middle East, climate change, any current political topic and make it of that subject with just the inclusion of one or two words. We're very sophisticated as readers and very alert to those signals. "Poodles" is a highly charged political poem to me, about Tony Blair, even though on the surface it seems absurd and a little bit comical.

Seeing Stars has one of those dyed and clipped dogs on the cover. Those images first made me laugh, then I was quite horrified.
Well that's pleasing to hear, in a way, because I wanted that to be the reaction to the poems in the book. First the absurdity, but then the recognition that there's something more sinister going on. That, to me, was the saddest of all those pictures. Even the saddle on the horse was actually the shaved fur.

You're also in a band, The Scaremongers. Can you be as subversive with song lyrics as in a poem?
I don't think I can as I'm not talented enough as a songwriter! It's certainly possible. On the other hand, I heard myself arguing recently that music is not available to young people as a source of revolution anymore because of the corporate involvement, and that it has become too commodified. It might just be possible that rock and roll has run its course.

Did you go to many gigs in Yorkshire as a teenager?
I grew up in a small village outside of Huddersfield and if you wanted anything that was new or different it really involved a trip to Leeds or Manchester, and that felt like going to New York. Quite often you were stuck with what was there, what the bookshops happened to be carrying. It was really exciting at school to be setting off to a gig in Leeds. I remember seeing The Jam in the Queen's Hall and lying to my parents about where I was going that night and staying in a café. It felt so subversive at the time.

Last year you made a BBC documentary about technology upgrades. Have you embraced Wikipedia?
I do use Wikipedia and then feel bad about it afterwards, like I've been lazy. Somebody got into my entry a couple of years ago and put in amongst a number of my jobs that I'd been an undertaker's assistant. The number of times I was introduced at a poetry reading and this popped up . . . I left it in there.

You've published numerous collections with Faber, so the type setting is always consistent. Do you write and self-edit your poems in their style?
I did at one point have my computer set up to the Faber page size. I don't like turned-over lines, where if the line's too big and falling into the gutter they move it slightly inside. The visual element of the poem is part of it.

So sometimes you've lost words or changed a rhythm just to fit the Faber page?
Yeah. In some ways that might seem odd but we all work to some kind of template; even a synthetic size can push your mind into territories that you might not have taken it when left to your own devices.

You've translated two Middle English tales, Alliterative Morte Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Does each modernisation of parts of that language require long consideration?
As soon as you start printing [these tales] in books you're doing something quite radical - something they had no knowledge of then. It's a negotiated truce with the past. Sometimes there is nothing sweeter than a deliberate anachronism: in Gawain there are words like "bivouacked", "mollycoddle" . . . "Bogeyman" is in there. The America editors raised eyebrows with some of those.

Every word is scrutinized. You need to be really careful with bits and pieces of contemporary language, they carry such luggage. One word I agonized over for some time was "awesome". It's hard to reclaim now. It's vacuous.

Nothing anybody's ever described as awesome has filled me with awe.
Exactly. And yet in terms of its true meaning it's a wonderful word.

Your 2004 collection, CloudCuckooLand, includes 88 poems named after the constellations. What's your relationship to asterisms and astronomy?
That became a hobby that became an obsession; in some ways like poetry itself, a language that I wanted to read, the language of the heavens. I was making comparisons between star patterns and language patterns and became really quite fanatical about it.

At the time I was living in a house right up on top of the moor; you've got these fantastic nightscapes over the house and I had a telescope, then. After a couple of years I moved down into a valley that was wooded and just didn't get a view, so I stopped reading [the sky]. I'm not sure I could do it any more. In some ways Middle English has replaced that as another language [for me] now.

Will you be seeing the new David Hockney exhibition?
Yes. Rather annoyingly my mum told me the other day that she'd got tickets so I might have to hear about it secondhand. I'm a massive fan and especially since he's moved back to Bridlington [on the East Yorkshire coast]. He's one of my local coordinates.

What do you make of the student protests? They occupied the Arts Tower at Sheffield University, where you teach.
I find it rather exciting that students are politically active, out on the streets with placards after what seemed to me to be a period of dormancy. The extent to which [the protests] then get in the way of other people's learning is a difficult negotiation.

In a few years your daughter may very well have to critique your poems for her GCSE English. Would you give her a hand with coursework?
[Laughs] She's quite alert to the idea, partly because when we starting looking around secondary schools for her we'd go into the English department and there'd be a big poster of me on the wall. There's a couple of poems on the syllabus about her granddad so my gut feeling is . . . with AQA there's two different strands and she'd probably end up taking the other one.

Last year you walked the 264-mile length of the Pennine Way. What have you written about the experience?
A non-fiction book called Walking Home. It's a day-by-day, blow-by-blow, stride-by-stride account of me walking across the fells and giving poetry readings to unsuspecting little communities [in exchange for food and shelter].

I set out on the walk to find out something about myself, about whether I was capable of walking that distance, whether I could endure the loneliness and my relationship with the land. What I came back with was a strong sense of the language of landscape and, actually, a book about people: the kindness of strangers and communities, and the fact that you can use poetry as a kind of currency in foreign places. That people will come out and listen if you've got something to say.

Simon Armitage's new book, "The Death of King Arthur", is published by Faber & Faber.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
Show Hide image

Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game