I am so off the pace with Simon Armitage, the probation officer turned poet and writer, that it is almost a crime (sorry)
I watched an engaging and moving programme that he made about the centenary of the First World War last November but couldn't remember the details so had to look it up...
In a major new BBC commission, acclaimed poet Simon Armitage has written seven new poems about World War I that form the centre of his latest television documentary.
Armitage visits French beaches, German prison camps, so-called 'thankful' villages and remote corners of the Scottish Highlands as he considers the death of over 700,000 British soldiers in the conflict and tells seven real-life war stories. He learns of those who lived and died through it, those who worked and grieved and cried through it, and even those who tunnelled to freedom beneath its very soil. Each story culminates in a poem inspired by Armitage's research.
Featuring readings by both the poet himself and the surviving relatives of those whose stories he tells, this film offers an opportunity to reflect again on that catastrophic loss of life, and to think about how we commemorate the dead for the next 100 years.
Does anyone else remember this??
Maybe I even mentioned it on here but it was lost in the mists of ensuing events, as was my pledge to really get to know the writing of Simon Armitage. I think it was his quiet sincerity that impressed me most, along with a real sensitivity to his subject as he sought out some lesser known aspects of remembrance. As the programme ended I recall saying 'Surely there's our next Poet Laureate.'
And so a copy of Walking Away by Simon Armitage appeared on NetGalley, which is a source of digital books from publishers, pre-publication, that I can read on my Kindle. I made a bit of an idle start because Simon Armitage's previous book, Walking Home, had unfortunately arrived a few years ago alongside something new and bright and sparkly from Robert Macfarlane and somehow the poet's walk was forgotten in the excitement.
The premise and action of both books is that Simon Armitage assumes the role of the troubadour poet, undertaking a three-week-long walk, endeavouring to live off his poetry, meeting people, cadging free beds for the night and giving readings along the way at which a sock (clean...maybe) is passed around for donations. In Walking Away he embarks on the South-West coast path starting in North Devon, at the Butlin's Holiday Camp in Minehead and heading for Land's End and thence the Isles of Scilly.
Some of you must have gone to Butlin's for a childhood holiday... Simon Armitage did, one with the perimeter wire which his dad said was to stop people escaping, and he relives the experience a la 2014 for one night at the start of his journey. If I am honest Butlin's was my dream destination as a child, and obviously my parents' worst nightmare to say nothing of the cost, which is why we stayed with family friends and built sandcastles on those deserted Cornish beaches at places like Tintagel with no shops and no people (the olden days).
Look at that slide. A very young Bookhound broke his front tooth on one of those, shooting down head first and colliding with the child who always had to try and climb up. Or maybe he was the one climbing up, but parents would have to sign consent and children would have to wear hard hats these days.
There are plenty of poetic connections to be found en route, this will soon be Betjeman country after all, but especially with the death of Seamus Heaney soon after Simon Armitage has set off. He is deeply saddened and shares some wonderful memories and anecdotes. Then he has tea with Margaret Drabble who has a home along the way and though he is clearly desperate to ask about the sisterly feud with A.S.Byatt he politely doesn't.
One of the reasons for following a poet's journey in this way has to be their innate ability to see and pin down what the rest of us might not be able to....the poetry in a sandy beach for example, the light, the colours, the patterns, the depth, the gradations.
And the strand ...
'the upper limit of the moon's advances against the earth's reluctance...'
This is not a good advert but I'll share it anyway. The tide line at Woolacombe Sands sadly freighted with its cargo of the unexpected, the unwanted, the discarded...
'Striding along it's impossible not to see it as an inventory of environmental complacency and a catalogue of shame. Plastic netting, cassette tape, oil drums, dollops of tar, a golf tee, dozens of plastic lollipop sticks, hundreds of plastic bottles, milk cartons, a burst balloon, tons of insoluble and indivisible and un-biodegradable waste dumped in the dustbin of the sea and duly returned.'
Recovering from the honest stark reality of that mess, and then reading it aloud and I find the words have a poetic rhythm to them.
On the subject of the unexpected moment...
'a form of immersion, a few moments of particular self-consciousness, a sensory awareness, a recognition of the future memory of this location already developing like a photograph, a scene that will stay in the mind...'
When I thought about that I could scroll through my 'photographs' of childhood Cornwall like a slideshow. For all I might rather have been at Butlin's I think I know which mental album I am most grateful for now.
Forced to take a detour from the coast path it would seem Simon Armitage is also confronted by that bizarre roundabout in Barnstaple (not Bideford) that led to us buying a SatNav out of despair, the Ring of Brodgar one with the chunks of granite in metal crates...
'the roundabout groaning with the strain of a municipal art installation.'
The more I think about it the more I think I would prefer the predictable Welcome to Barnstaple writ large in begonias; there are certain expectations not for subverting, and some things the Shire does particularly well, municipal planting being one of them, installations maybe less so.
Witness Verity at Ilfracombe, the Damian Hurst sculpture on loan to the town for twenty years...the South West jury is still out and likely to stay out.
'It might lack subtlety or seem a touch petulant in its efforts to shock, and at certain angles it does look like the cover image from a teen-oriented graphic novel in which zombie robots stalk the planet. But desperate measures call for daring actions; tourist numbers are up, and a pound is a pound...'
Poets often need to be alone and Simon Armitage occasionally pulls his expensive hat down over his head and sneaks off out the back way in order to hear 'the nuances of the sea and the language of the coast,' to compute the colours... turquoise, jade, teal, petrol, indigo, but then the novelty wears off being Billy No Mates and he is glad of company again. Except, for all its kindness, the company is frequently very keen to tell him how dreadful the next bit of the walk will be, and his spine is already objecting, whilst his boots are in tatters. That glue doesn't work, I've tried it too.
But the walk goes on and the readings continue, sometimes to a few, sometimes many, with Simon Armitage wondering about the life of the words after they are spoken...whether perhaps occasionally they 'find a hitching post in someone's memory' or do they 'pop against an eardrum' and are lost forever. And throughout the journey the walking poet is never afraid to shine a light on his own weaknesses and foibles, more than willing to confess when he looks or feels a complete numpty. I do like a bit of humility in a poet don't you...
The suitcase akin to the size, weight and shape of a 'Galapagos tortoise', is transported ahead each day on a journey of its own, people drop in and along and then out again until the destination is finally reached.
Frankly I was dreading the poet's eye seeing the shame that is Land's End, the tackiest tourist attraction ever, and then taking his pen to it. In the end, with his eyes on the journey's final stage over on the Isles of Scilly, Simon Armitage was quite restrained, turning only partial vision on the mess, and I have to admit the rocks themselves are really nice.
So what an excellent read Walking Away has been, an astute and intuitive look at the landscape with the quirks of the English understood, spotted and mixed in but in the best possible way, by someone who clearly sees himself as belonging...as one of them. Though I still have Walking Home, the earlier book to read, if there is a sadness it is that Simon Armitage declares this to be his last long walk. Maybe he could do a series of short forays or something, just to keep his eye on us all and keep up the commentary, because he has an invaluable and very special eye.
I'm now into the poetry collections and still with this in mind...
Except here's a thing though... Simon Armitage may be the only person known to mankind who is able to pass this...
...Doyden's Folly (as we know it in these parts) near Port Quin and not say the words, Poldark, First Series and Dwight Ennis's House in the same sentence. In fact not say the words at all, any of them in any order, the rest of us wouldn't have been able to stop ourselves.