Simon Armitage’s poetic perspective on the horror of war

Poet and broadcaster Simon Armitage.

Poet and broadcaster Simon Armitage. - Credit: Archant

Simon Armitage is one of the country's best-loved poets but is also familiar through his television and radio appearances, plays, translations, novels, and travel writing. TREVOR HEATON talked to him ahead of his visit to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival on May 13.

A British soldier keeps watch on 'No-Man's land' as his comrades sleep in a captured German trench

A British soldier keeps watch on 'No-Man's land' as his comrades sleep in a captured German trench at Ovillers, near Albert, during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The battle has inspired a new commission, Fierce Light, which will be premiered at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival on May 13. - Credit: PA

Once seen, never forgotten... those images of the Great War, mud-filled trenches and all, summing up the horror of man's inhumanity to man. But for poet Simon Armitage, it was a different photographic take on the conflict which has inspired his latest work.

The Yorkshire-born poet, 52, is taking part in a major new commission, Fierce Light, for this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival and which receives its world premiere next week.

'I was approached by 14-18 NOW concerning centenary projects to commemorate World War One - they'd seen I'd been involved in other projects. Originally I intended to make a film, but I'd done something similar with the BBC a year before,' he explained.

Instead, Simon spent time with historians at the Imperial War Museum, and his contribution to Fierce Light is Still, a series of six poems inspired by photographs of the conflict.

Simon Armitage, who will perform at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival as part of a new commission, Fi

Simon Armitage, who will perform at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival as part of a new commission, Fierce Light. - Credit: Archant

He was particularly struck by their collection of aerial photographs, some of which will also form part of an exhibition at the EAST Gallery at Cavendish House, Norwich, during the festival. 'The pictures have been blown up - no pun intended - and I've written poems to physically stand proud of the photographs by an inch. The technology at the time was very basic, amateurish even, all the original negatives were glass plates. There is something in that physicality that reflects the way the images were made in the first place.'

The aerial photographs give us an unexpected and rarely-seen view of the horrors of war. 'We have become very familiar with images of trench warfare - that is not to say that they have lost any of their power for us. But these aerial photographs are very beautiful, showing idyllic, untouched landscapes. It's only when we look closely that we see the wires and the bodies.'

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His family's own experiences of the Great War have helped inform this latest work. He is keen to find out more about the experiences of his father's uncle. 'I've been trying to find out more about him. I have his medals - he was in the West Yorkshire Regiment, and these medals were passed on to me as heirlooms.

'He probably wasn't at the Somme. He survived [the war] but apparently it's much easier to find out about people who were killed than those who survived. He was the only member of our family to fight in the trenches. He came home, but he was scarred, mentally and physically - he'd been gassed. He used to just sit and stare into the fire.'

For Fierce Light, the 52-year-old Yorkshire writer will be joined by an international cast of poets, plus work by film artists. It's the latest chapter in a career which has produced an astonishing variety of work, from hugely-acclaimed poetry collections to plays, from television and radio broadcasts to opera, and novels to memoir. One of his most powerful works was the 2011 radio play, and later book, Black Roses, which told the moving (and true) story of the death of teenage goth Sophie Lancaster at the hands of a brutal street gang.

But it's two lighter-hearted works which have helped Simon find yet another new audience in recent years, his two very well received books Walking Home (2012) and Walking Away (2015). They tell of his adventures walking the Pennine Way and South West Coast path.

So far, so conventional. But what made his journeys very different was that he made the walks in true 'troubadour' style, living on his wits by giving readings en route in return for donations, and taking up offers of overnight accommodation.

The result are insightful, beautifully-written books shot through with Armitage's trademark dry wit. For example, he passed round a collecting sock at the end of each reading in the hope of raising cash to fund the next leg of the journey. But when he tipped them out to examine the contents, there was often a surprise or two. 'I write an appendix at the end of Walking Away about some of the unusual items people dropped in. The last three on the list were a German condom, a bullet, and a hard-boiled egg.' And as for places to stay, one of the most memorable was the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft. 'That was pretty strange - I was checking the windows and doors all night!

'I've always been a bit of a wanderer, but I don't see myself as going on expeditions, I'm a bit of a stop-at-home really - I only live four to five miles from where I was born. I wonder if that inspires me to go.'

Despite the books' success he is not sure he will do another 'little adventure', as he calls them. 'I said 'no' - but then again I said 'no' after the first one too,' he said. 'It's more about trying to avoid writing for the sake of writing. But if the right journey or walk comes up that inspires me... it could be even be abroad, I don't know. But I don't want to do the 'holiday special'.'

The one-time probation officer has had a glittering career since breaking through as a poet with the likes of his collections Zoom! and Kid in the late Eighties and early Nineties. He has since won numerous awards, was appointed a CBE in 2010, and elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 2015. He was the country's Millennium Poet, and his work also features in the GCSE syllabus.

Happily, speaking to him, he also comes across as down to earth, with a dry Yorkshire humour. Listeners to Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie's radio show, once on Radio 2 and now on 6 Music, will know all about that from Simon's frequent appearances over the years. I still treasure his great off-the-cuff one-liner about Colchester United moving to its new ground at Cuckoo Farm - only to find another team already there. (Think about it....).

Mythology and folk tales have also been a fascination for the writer for many years. As well as his translation of that enigmatic medieval work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (another work, Pearl, from the same manuscript is his latest translation), he has explored the Greek myths both through translation and re-tellings. 'I like them precisely because they are great stories - particularly with The Odyssey and The Iliad,' he exaplained. 'The Iliad describes an incredibly ferocious battle between East and West, a Western invasion of an Eastern country. You can't look at the world today without thinking that has reasonance. It feels very contemporary; across all the centuries, we haven't really changed.'

His great poetry hero was fellow Yorkshireman Ted Hughes, a former Poet Laureate whose poems are famous for their powerful imagery drawn from the natural world. 'I read his poems in school - I woke up at that point. It made me want to read his poems, but I didn't know then that I wanted to write too.'

As well as his festival appearance, by coincidence Simon will also be at Aylsham Town Hall on Tuesday next week. 'I will be do a little bit of everything - some poems old and new, a bit from Pearl, some readings from the walking books,' he says.

Poetry can be seen as a bit of a cinderella art form these days, but Armitage is upbeat about its role. 'It seems pretty healthy looking at it from where I am,' he insists.

'It does the job it's always done. It stands outside society, it stands somewhere outside literature and offers a dissenting, contrary, redress to other forms of writing. There is always going to be poetry around in some form or other.'

Fierce Lights, commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and Writers' Centre Norwich, has its world premiere at Norwich Playhouse on Friday May 13 (7.30pm). Tickets £18 from 01603 766400 The Fierce Light films and poems, and photographic images accompanying Simon's work Still will be on display at EAST Gallery - based in Cavendish House (NUA) - from May 9 to 28 (Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-7pm, admission free).

Simon Armitage is also appearing at Aylsham Town Hall on Tuesday May 10 (6.30pm for 7pm), talking about and reading from some of his latest works. Tickets £12 from The Book Hive, Norwich, or 01603 219268.