Last Sunday (28 February) we (husband Gerard and I) went to see Simon Armitage at Bath Literary Festival, reading from the anthology he and bird enthusiast Tim Dee have put together: The Poetry of Birds. I love birds and I love Simon Armitage’s poetry and I’m sure I’d have loved Tim Dee too except that when we got there Simon Armitage was cancelled. That is, he was unable to be with us but lovely Helen Dunmore took his place. Lovely she is, but we had our hearts set on Simon Armitage so we got our money back and then looked for ways to redeem the morning. We quickly found them in coffee and cake followed by a joyous half hour in that book paradise which is Topping & Co Booksellers.
I first encountered Mr Armitage at On the Border, a series of poetry readings which take place in the Drill Hall, Chepstow. He was appearing with Owen Sheers, and if I am honest – though at the risk of hurting Mr Armitage’s feelings – it was Owen Sheers I wanted to see. (If you want to know why read Resistance.) I didn’t know anything about Simon Armitage save that Gerard owns every book he has published and never misses a chance to hear him read from them and get them signed.
We set off for Chepstow by way of Cheltenham’s shops which were full of rubbish, it being just before Christmas. The rain poured down bringing darkness with it. The drive alongside the Severn was a lovely, eerie, ghostly experience. The river was on our sinister side, and I knew that gleaming amongst the debris at its lapping edge were the bones of river pilots, mariners, and ferrymen. From those bones their forms would rise to prowl the misty littoral, the between-life-and-death, like the souls Aeneas saw pleading and wailing on the bank of the Styx: huc omnes turba ad ripas effusa ruebat.
Chepstow was a bit like that too, caught between life and death. The streets were empty except for a group of rugby-drunk youth who staggered out of the darkness, shouted, and disappeared into the icy rain. We walked up the shuttered high street and down the shuttered high street looking for somewhere to eat. We were in despair until on the downward turn we discovered a congenial bar where our spirits were raised by veggie burger and chips.
The Drill Hall was much bigger than we expected. We were very early and the first of the audience to arrive. The helpers were still setting everything up but put the kettle on and sold us coffee and bottles of water at rip off prices of around 50p an item. The hall was ferociously heated by radiators suspended from the ceiling; I’d never seen a heating system like it and very welcome it was. On the stage was a painted backdrop of Chepstow, its bridge and castle and so on. We walked around the echoing hall looking at old photographs of the same and whispering: it’s far too big, they’ll never fill it, we’ll be sitting in the front two rows with vacancy pressing against our backs and our faces pink with embarrassment for the poor poets.
By the time the readings began the place was packed. Our poets arrived, girls (and perhaps a few boys) swooning as Owen Sheers passed like (as Rosamund Lehmann said of her baby brother John) young Mithras. Owen Sheers read and was wonderful. There was an auction of hand written and original poems donated by poets who had previously appeared On the Border. After an interval, during which Gerard apologised in advance for inflicting his favourite on me, Simon Armitage stood up.
And I was hooked. He gave us poem after poem, poems beating with life, with meaning, with form and sound and voice. And what a range of structure, of subject! To be honest, and at the risk of hurting Mr Sheers’s feelings, I fell for Simon Armitage’s poetry like a red kite falling from the sky to feed.
I hope Mr Armitage has recovered from whatever it was that prevented him from appearing in Bath last Sunday. I shall certainly be on the look out for the chance to hear him read again. In the meantime, there’s more poetry on the border to look forward to. You can see the programme at http://www.poetryontheborder.org/
For more on Simon Armitage see http://www.simonarmitage.com/ - look out for details of his Pennine Way adventure this summer, when he will be walking by day and reading by night.