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8 April 2023

Simon Armitage’s Q&A: “One of my faults is that I look for faults in others”

The poet on losing his father, his experience on “celebrity” Mastermind and his love of sports.

By New Statesman

Simon Armitage was born in Huddersfield in 1963 and worked as a probation officer until 1994. The author of more than 20 poetry collections, he is the UK’s Poet Laureate.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting with my sister on a dining room table. She’s 18 months older than me and she’s holding me like I’m a doll. We were posing for a photograph, which I still have, so the memory might be a false one. We’re soft-focus, as people were in those days.

Who are your heroes?

I don’t have heroes. One of my faults is that I look for faults in others, and the bigger the statue, the wider the cracks. I probably idolised my dad in certain periods of my life. He died two years ago, and the thing I miss most is having no one to share the nods and winks that formed a kind of secret language between us. We were like spies for a non-existent country.  

[See also: Find your island]

What book last changed your thinking?

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. I find it oddly comforting that there have been five previous cataclysmic wipeouts of life on Earth. It puts me in my place.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

I can’t quite get my neck to crane in that direction and at such an angle.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

I went on “celebrity” Mastermind once and made the mistake of choosing “The Life and Works of Ted Hughes”. I really know my Hughes but they’d pulled random lines from poems and only a robot would have known the titles. The person who won had watched every episode of Dynasty or something the night before. I’m not bitter.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A BBC studio, 2017, so I could do Mastermind again. This time my chosen subject would be “What I Watched on Telly Last Night”. I’m not bitter.

[See also: World Poetry Day: The best modern poems]

What TV show could you not live without?

I love my sport. Even darts. I’m one of those gullible idiots who subscribes to several networks to get my fix. 

Who would paint your portrait?

I’ve had my portrait painted by Paul Wright. I use it as the cover image on my website. I’m reminded of what Seamus Heaney is meant to have said when shown a portrait of himself: “It looks more like me than I do.” 

What’s your theme tune?

“The Optimist and the Poet” by Felt.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Poems don’t have to not rhyme.

[See also: The poet Philip Larkin at 100]

What’s currently bugging you?

The trains. Specifically TransPennine Express – now there’s a multidirectional misnomer if ever there was one. The underfunding of train services in the north of England should be an imprisonable offence. If you ever want to know what desolation feels like, go and stand on Huddersfield station. Or “We would like to apologise…”, as it now seems to be called.

What single thing would make your life better?


When were you happiest?

When there were trains.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’m embarrassed to say I think I’d be a detective. Or a spook. I’m still waiting for the tap on the shoulder.

Are we all doomed?

If we’re trying to get from Leeds to Manchester or any point in between by rail, almost certainly.

“Never Good with Horses: Assembled Lyrics” by Simon Armitage is published by Faber & Faber

[See also: The best poetry books of 2022]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue