Walking Away: Simon Armitage reviewed by Rosamund Fairclough
This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.
The intro is a slide show of photographs showing the poet on his journey around the South West Way. As the audience members take their seats, they look up at a revolving display of beaches, walkways, signposts, sculptures, boats and – unaccountably – a slug.
A bespectacled and softly tailored Simon Armitage takes to the stage suddenly, and launches into a poem about a hierarchy of travellers boarding a plane. Couched in the language of the airport tannoy, it identifies social status as cruel and funny simultaneously. The packed house roars with laughter and the ice, if there was any, is broken.
This is what we expect from Armitage’s work: to be made to laugh by the most intelligent and finely crafted poetry on offer. After fifteen volumes of poetry, two novels, four stage plays, translation and radio work, film and lumps of rock hewn with his words we can always be confident he will never disappoint us. Tonight is no exception.
After the blisters elicited by the Pennine Way had settled, Armitage began to burn afresh with a restless curiosity, he explains. The south west coastal path seemed to form a sort of partner to the previous venture: instead of walking home, this time he would be walking away. “I got a road atlas and a ruler,” he says, “and worked out that the southern coastal path was the same distance as the Pennine Way.” He had thought to relate the journey to the ancient relationship between poetry and the sea. Instead he found he was using the word ‘blue’ way too much. He also encountered the fact that wherever the sea has an inlet from the land, there is a significant dip from the cliffs on either side. “I should have known this,” he smiled, “I have a geography degree. I was going up and down like the Grand National.”
Newly appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Armitage feels he has now reached a stopping point in which to examine his devotion to poetry. Creativity and criticism, he argues, are no longer separable. The crossover is necessary and comfortable. “No more walks,” he says. “No more prose.”
So these two journeys will stand as the sum total of Armitage’s walking books. He had, he says, intended to carry out an audit comparing the generosity of people from the north compared to the south. But he came away from both journeys realising that the experience of taking poetry out to audiences reinforced “the goodness in people”. Which bit of the South West Way made the most impression, an audience member asked. “I slept in the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft.” he says, with a shudder, and goes on to describe the individual character of each of the Scilly Isles. “St Mary’s had just got its first traffic light. Only a temporary one, though,” he says, and the evening draws to a close with the customary sound of his audience laughing, the only sound we would expect from a performance of the north’s son of similitude. We can only hope he doesn’t like Oxford. enough to become one o’ them southern types.
Rosalind Fairclough read Theatre at Dartington, and is a poet, performer and dog walker whose work has been collected into anthologies by Other Poetry and Otley Word Feast Press. She has been a reviewer for Book Time magazine and for the Ilkley Literature Festival, and enjoys reviewing as a way to sharpen her prose. She gains inspiration for her writing while doing the washing up and walking in the Yorkshire countryside. She suspects some of her poems were found growing near footpaths while out and about and is worried the dog may be a better poet than she is, being so much lower to the ground. Her first pamphlet, The Flank of a Fish, is available from Otley Word Feast Press www.owfpress.com