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North & South - - Columns -

Nos­tal­gia and word play with Paul Lit­tle.

For a time – par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s – New Zealand was reg­u­larly vis­ited by per­form­ers whose pop­u­lar­ity in their own coun­tries was hard to credit. These now all-but-for­got­ten names that filled town halls up and down the coun­try in­cluded the likes of fake Rus­sian bass Ivan Re­broff (who was ac­tu­ally Ger­man), cardi­gan-wear­ing Ir­ish crooner Val Doon­i­can, and chirpy English ver­si­fier Pam Ayres. Boney M are still do­ing it.

In what was ob­vi­ously in­tended to be a ca­reer-end­ing calumny, Sam Hunt was once dis­missed as the “Pam Ayres of New Zealand poetry”, ac­cord­ing to a re­view quoted in The Ox­ford Com­pan­ion to Mod­ern Poetry in English. Ayres, in­ci­den­tally does not fig­ure in The Ox­ford Com­pan­ion etc, so the charge is ipso facto in­cor­rect.

Per capita, New Zealan­ders bought more of Ayres’ books and record­ings of poetry than any­where else in the world. Well, we say “poetry”… Ayres, who was born in 1947 in the poet­i­cally named Stan­ford in the Vale, a vil­lage in Ox­ford­shire, writes and per­forms hu­mor­ous light verse that makes her lis­ten­ers feel all is well with the world. Her work ex­presses no neg­a­tive emo­tion stronger than rue­ful­ness, as in her much-quoted lines:

“Oh, I wish I’d looked af­ter me teeth, And spot­ted the dan­gers be­neath. All the tof­fees I chewed, And the sweet sticky food. Oh, I wish I’d looked af­ter me teeth.”

She is al­most cer­tainly the only pro­fes­sional poet to have launched a ca­reer by win­ning a TV tal­ent show, in her case the Bri­tish Op­por­tu­nity Knocks in 1975, “sand­wiched be­tween a man singing ‘You Are My Heart’s De­sire’ and a woman who played the squeeze­box”, ac­cord­ing to one report.

Lo­cally, she ap­peared on many of the now- de­funct TV va­ri­ety shows such as those hosted by chefs Hud­son and Halls, and Ray Woolf. Her sense of hu­mour was right at home in these sur­rounds. She ex­plained to the TV chefs that she was in town with her new book for a pro­mo­tional tour and that she had “pro­moted it to lance cor­po­ral”.

Ar­gu­ments about whether what Ayres does is re­ally poetry or not are point­less. In fact, given the gar­bled tenses in her poem for the Queen’s di­a­mond ju­bilee...

“Dad took me to our lo­cal pub in 1953,

They had a tele­vi­sion set, the first I’d ever see,

To watch a Coro­na­tion! I knew it sounded grand,

Although at six years old, the word was hard to un­der­stand.”

… it’s de­bat­able whether what she writes is even English, let alone poetry. How­ever, she can con­sole her­self for any lack of crit­i­cal re­spect with the pro­ceeds from the more than three mil­lion books she has sold.

Ayres has kept up her fol­low­ing in New Zealand, the UK and else­where since 1975. The rea­son for her suc­cess is not hard to work out. She fills a gap in the en­ter­tain­ment mar­ket, as can be de­duced from these on­line re­views fol­low­ing her 2014 Auck­land ap­pear­ance: “So good to go to a great even­ing out, no swear­ing or smut, just good clean fun”, and “So re­fresh­ing to en­joy good com­edy with­out the swear words, which are so un­nec­es­sary”.

She is guar­an­teed fun for the whole fam­ily – es­pe­cially if the fam­ily is aged be­tween 60 and 95. And she is noth­ing if not up to date. Prior to Don­ald Trump’s meet­ing with Bri­tish PM Theresa May, she tweeted – yes, tweeted on Twit­ter– an oc­ca­sional poem:

“On meet­ing Mr President, Poor Mrs May must quake, Which part of her anatomy, Will he de­cide to shake?”

Ar­gu­ments about whether what Ayres does is re­ally poetry or not are point­less.

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