The Orangery at Sewerby Hall is a light and airy setting for a poetry reading, a nice place to listen and a small enough venue to feel intimate. This was the first session of the very first Bridlington poetry festival and they had the good sense to book Simon Armitage for it. The chattering classes were out in force (who’d have thought it in Brid!) and there was a sense of occasion. Simon Armitage is good company when he gives a reading, he is funny, friendly and down to earth. He has had plenty of experience at it now of course, his first collection was published in 1989 and he has been writing, broadcasting and winning prizes ever since, but like his work he has stayed young and fresh and vigorous. His experience and knowledge is well beyond that of most of his audience but he wears it lightly and never makes you feel that you are being talked down to. He is able to tell anecdotes which he will almost always have told before and still make them new and interesting. It was a carefully judged performance. He didn’t take questions, which was a shame, but I wasn’t too disappointed as we would have had less time to hear him read. There are some writers who you really need to hear as well as see on the page, as an extra layer of understanding and meaning is gained from hearing the rhythms of their own speech and listening to the words in their own accent, and he is one of them. He said at one point that he has never travelled far (he still lives in West Yorkshire close to where he was born) but that obviously doesn’t count the miles that he clocks up inside his head.
Not many writers are capable of being witty and profound at the same time and it is a delight when you find one who can manage it. I love the way that his work suckers you in by being entertaining before delivering a knockout punch that makes you think. The shout, which he began with at Bridlington, is a good example of that. Accessibility is an underrated virtue when it comes to poetry, there is something very special about work which is thoughtful and packed with ideas, but still easily comprehensible. It means that there is a way into the poem for everyone and you can run with it as far as you want. The best of Roger McGough’s work is like this and in some ways Simon Armitage reminds me of him.
This was a lovely evening, relaxed, thoughtful and entertaining. At the signing afterwards I was even able to tell him how much I had enjoyed his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although the worried look in his eyes when he thought I might be about to go on a bit sent me scuttling off pretty quickly. Five pounds well spent.