The Daily Telegraph
Ageism doesn’t worry me. I’m irreplaceable
‘People’s poet’ Pam Ayres on Churchill, the perils of fame and the benefit of being unique.
‘I‘I never wanted to be a wife and mother. I always thought I belonged elsewhere’
’ve never considered myself a poet,” says Pam Ayres, a forthcoming new collection of her work sitting by her on the table. “If I think of poets I think of Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes. I don’t really belong in that category. I’m not being snobbish but my work appeals to people who aren’t drawn to the posher kinds of poetry.”
With an appeal as solid as hers, whether it’s poetry or not isn’t really the issue. Ayres’s cheerfully consoling rhymes about the agony of hosting dinner parties, having sex at 60 and the “selfish ache” in the heart when children leave for university are the literary equivalent of a nationwide comfort blanket. Her humdrum humour may be easy to knock but her knack for voicing the absurdities and sorrows of everyday life mean she’s the only poet who can reliably sell out theatres up and down the country. She has a new book out, Pam Ayres on Animals, and has just embarked on a UK tour.
At the age of 74, the former clerical assistant from Berkshire with the deliciously rolling vowels is as busy as ever. “It’s the thrill of performing that gets me,” she says. “I get up on stage, tell a silly story about an optician, and then a poem about putting in a contact lens; I put it all together. It’s great fun. And when you get a laugh, or see someone wiping their eyes because I’m doing a poem about putting down the dog, that’s the reward.”
We have met in Swindon to talk about her new TV series, The Cotswolds with Pam Ayres – a Channel Five four-parter in which Ayres, who lives in Cirencester, nosies around the lovelier bits of her home county in white Parka and sensible pumps, chatting to beekeepers, potters and the odd rock star.
She also visits Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born. What does she think of the controversy raging today over his views on race? “I find it difficult to take a negative view of Churchill,” she says. “My father, who served in the war, idolised him. He’d seen him once in Berlin. I don’t know how anyone from that generation could listen to his speeches and not feel a kind of chill. People didn’t know back then about some of the things that are emerging now, but the times were different. If you are going to beat yourself up about what this country did, how far back do you go?”
She adores England. “I have travelled a lot to other countries and it shows you just how beautiful our country is.” Rhodes, widely regarded as one of the most picturesque Greek islands, is far inferior, she adds. “It’s alright but it’s fairly barren and stony. They haven’t got the hedgerows or the woods or the wild flowers, or the cows and rivers and streams. We’ve got such variety. We are immensely privileged to live in this country. I think we should be very grateful.”
This sounds preachy. Yet Ayres is anything but. She’s as down-to-earth as you would expect for someone who in 1975 auditioned for a famous TV talent contest with a poem about wishing she’d looked after her teeth. “A poem?” was her dad’s incredulous response when she told him what she was going to perform on Opportunity Knocks. “You’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.”
“Back then there was no one else doing performance poetry apart from Cyril Fletcher,” she says now. “I had mixed feelings about going on a talent show, but the office job I was doing at the time was skull-numbingly boring.”
Ayres always wanted to perform and started writing poetry when she was a child. The youngest of six, she grew up in a council house in the village of Stanford in the Vale. Her dad, when not fighting during the war, which Ayres is convinced gave him undiagnosed PTSD, worked for the electricity board. Her beloved mum was permanently exhausted. No one ever suggested she should become a writer. “I was brought up to think dreams didn’t matter. You got a job to support yourself and hopefully it was one where you sat down instead of standing up. A lot of my friends worked on assembly lines. But I never wanted to be a wife and mother. I always thought I belonged somewhere else. The idea of doing what my poor mum had to do – all the washing and shopping for the cornflakes, it frightened the life out of me.”
She left school at 15 and, after four years with the Women’s Royal Air Force, she signed up to a creative writing course. Several souldestroying clerical jobs later, she struck up the confidence to perform a song at a local pub. People loved her straight away and she became a regular on the local folk circuit, producing pamphlets of her poems for fans all by herself.
Yet winning Opportunity Knocks proved far from a golden ticket. Soon after she was signed to an agent and in an instant, everything changed. She claims: “Suddenly, I had no say and no rights. I was nagged to produce more work. It got very ugly.” She is unable to give more details because of a gagging order, but the impact on her health and her career was disastrous. “I was very naive. There was no protection or advice at the time for people who had the capacity to make a lot of money for others. It nearly killed me to be honest. I was in despair.”
She eventually extricated herself with the help of her husband, Dudley Russell, who became her agent and with whom she has two grown-up sons. These days she’s an essential part of the fabric of the country, her presence considered so stabilising the BBC has apparently readied her 2008 Woman’s Hour interview to calm everyone down in the event of global catastrophe. “It’s a pat on the back that they thought of it,” she says. “But it’s a weird thing to hear that, if or when we face the end, it will be to the sound of my voice.”
Ah yes, the voice. If fresh, warm soil could make a noise it would sound like Pam Ayres. In her memoir The Necessary Aptitude she recounts the moment when, in the RAF, she asked someone to pass a “jurg” – and no one knew what she was talking about. “That was the first moment when I remember thinking: there’s something weird about my voice.”
Did she ever feel under pressure to change it? “Somebody said once I should record Radio 4 and try and copy what I heard, but I never could. Like it or loathe it, it’s the accent you’ll hear everywhere in the Vale of the White Horse. What would my sister or my brothers say if I came home with a different accent? It would have been a betrayal of my origins, my family.”
Fortunately, she remained herself. And continues to do so. So far, getting older hasn’t bothered her. “At the moment I feel as sharp as I ever did, so I can’t imagine stopping.”
What about ageism in the TV industry? Has she felt elbowed aside by younger presenters? She looks momentarily confused. “The thing is, there’s no one else like me,” she says. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’m irreplaceable.”
The Cotswolds with Pam Ayres is on Channel 5 on Sept 17 at 8pm. Pam Ayres on Animals is published by Ebury today