Pam Ayres: I never claimed to be a serious poet – the word poet is highly explosive
The author speaks ahead of her appearance at Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival
When Pam Ayres sat in an armchair on Opportunity Knocks reciting her comic poem in a Laura Ashley smock, she hardly guessed the moment would change her life.
But within days of winning the TV talent show, she had received a sackful of fan mail and been offered a cream cheese commercial for several times her monthly salary.
Thirty-seven years later, Ayres is firmly ensconced as a national treasure, a Radio 4 regular, with nationwide tours and a string of bestselling poetry books.
It’s a far cry from her impoverished childhood, the youngest of six growing up in a council cottage in Berkshire.
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Ayres’ bestselling memoir, The Necessary Aptitude, turns her observant eye, ready wit and unique turn of phrase to evoking this vanished world of rural post-war England.
“I decided to write it because I was afraid if I left it too long I would forget things,” says the 65-year-old, who still lives 20 miles from her village, with a small herd of pedigree cattle, sheep, poultry and four dogs.
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“This isn’t a book about how I got rich and famous,” she says in her familiar burr.
“It’s about my upbringing – the same as a whole slew of baby boomers. People in big, respectable, hard-up families, whose way of life is now utterly changed. What particularly interested me was to record the village I grew up in as accurately and affectionately as I could. It’s not a hard luck story. We didn’t have any sanitation, but neither did anyone else.”
Ayres’ book glories in the free range childhood that saw gangs of village kids roaming the woods, meadows and lanes without parental interference.
“We had great freedom, the whole countryside to play with. There was an endless range of fun. We would build a bonfire, swing over the brook on a rope, go paddling, fishing or nutting.”
But she records, albeit with a light touch, a world where tuberculosis still held a very real threat – with sufferers dispatched to the sanatorium – and the often grinding hard work for adults like her mum.
“For my mum, it was drudgery. She hardly ever did anything with us, she was too busy cooking monumental meals several times a day. She was a bright woman who could read and write and was brilliant at spelling, sentenced to this life of endlessly producing food. In her later years, mum was filled with regret. She’d say, ‘I never had time for any of them.’ It broke your heart.”
It saddens Ayres that her mother, forced by pregnancy to marry in haste, forever hushed up her wedding anniversary because the dates didn’t match up. In contrast to her saintly mother, Ayres’ father was “terribly strict and draconian”.
“Luckily, my older sister was the groundbreaker. She would have to wipe off any lipstick before coming home. By the time I was wearing my Dusty Springfield make-up, they were more resigned and philosophical.”
After failing her 11-plus, Ayres left school at 15 and worked in tedious secretarial jobs before joining the WRAF to see the world. Posted to Singapore, she would write poems for improv night at the base.
“I was always drawn to English lessons at school. I loved it when you had to write a story or pick out the adjectives from written work. From as early as I can remember, I started writing, people liked it and laughed – I thought everyone could do it.”
Typically playing down her craft as “spouting crackpot verse,” Ayres claims that she simply wrote what suited the opportunities of the time.
A regular at folk clubs in the early 70s, she wanted to join in but couldn’t sing.
“It was never my life plan, it’s just the way things turned out. I’ve got an odd voice, an odd accent with a specific sense of timing, and I could never find anything in books of verse to suit that. It needed to be something I could perform that was short and snappy, so I started to write verse. People liked it and I got more bookings. It was fun when you found a good subject and people fell about laughing.”
While never making great claims for her verse, Ayres has suffered snobbery from critics who said it wasn’t “proper poetry”.
“I had poets looking down on me and snobby eyebrow raising. Certain bookshops wouldn’t stock my books, but I never claimed to be a serious poet – the word poet is highly explosive, I always say I am a writer.”
“When people pour scorn on it and say anyone could do it, if you look at what I write more analytically, it isn’t as easy as it looks. Beside, I write it to perform so it looks dead on the page.”
The poems have made her rich, but there was never a chance that Ayres would end up spoiled.
“I know I’ve had an extraordinary life but I remain a very ordinary person. I was in my late 20s before I started to receive royalties and I couldn’t believe my luck. It was most extraordinary that I could actually buy a house and an MG car.
“I still appreciate how fortunate I am and I’ve never been tempted to be profligate.” She does confess, though, to spoiling her two sons, lavishing them with “the stuff I never had”.
“I remember when a lot of kids went on a French trip and we couldn’t afford it. They came back with jolly photos of them on the ferry and at various chateaux. I felt very excluded. So when my kids were invited on a French skiing trip, I was first in the queue to get them on it.” (It’s worked out OK – they are the “nicest, polite, well balanced young men you could wish to meet”.)
Ayres, who writes in the mornings in her “cluttered but familiar office” has a new book of poems out this year and will continue to write verse as long as she feels it’s of a high standard. But after writing the memoir, she also plans to pen more prose.
“I’m used to working on a small canvas with my poems, tinkering around with a few words. But this was a real adventure, I didn’t have to torture anything to make it rhyme, just say what I wanted. It’s been thrilling. I sort of feel I should have been doing it all along. I might write a funny novel or try to write one – I’m not arrogant enough to think it will come easily.”
P Pam Ayres appears at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival on September 10.