When it comes to public speaking Simon Armitage has always been renowned as a writer with a sense of humour. His talk at the Birmingham Book Festival proved no different. His allotted time wasn’t just about how many funny anecdotes he could tell before the end of the night, however. The evening’s discussion focused mainly on his new novel Walking Home, a book about his backwards and penniless journey of the Pennine Way.
The evening began with Armitage’s explanation for walking the arduous 256 miles. He described growing up in Marsden, part of the Pennine Way trail, and watching the shadows of walkers descend upon his town in the summer. The most vivid image was that of two travellers who had pitched a tent near his house and decided to stay in Marsden, opening up their tent to let wafts of smoke out every now and again.
Having seen so many others do it the author felt he should give it a go but with the twist of using no money. He wanted to test the value of poetry, and his worth as a poet, trading lodging for poetry readings. His choice to do the walk in reverse meant ending the walk in Marsden; a physical challenge, as well as a test of his personal value.
Continuing to reflect on his childhood, Armitage reminisced of slide-shows his town would display every year – ‘sometimes the Priest’s holiday pictures would end up in there’ – and used this as a cue for his own slide-show. The comments that complemented the presentation were minimal but effective; ‘this is a door’ was met with a roar of laughter. With every picture the audience anticipated his next witty remark.
By the end of the talk, the listeners knew everything they needed to know about the making of Walking Home. The time came to hear the result of Armitage’s endeavour to write prose rather than poetry. Before this, he admitted the intention of the walk was to provide inspiration for new poems but unfortunately the part of his brain, which he used for walking, was the part he also used for creating verse too. Yet this wasn’t evident in the extracts heard by the audience. While it certainly read like prose the attention to detail and descriptions of various parts of the journey felt like they had been taken out of lines of poetry. The charm of the novel was that the change in form hadn’t resulted in a change in style. There was a nice balance of insightful observations, alongside smirk-prescribing stories to make the novel worth its merit.
Before the Q&A Armitage indulged the audience in one last anecdote from his walk titled ‘The Doughnut Man’. It involved an incident, during a reading, where the audience’s laughter and attention was diverted to a man in a doughnut costume stood just behind him. The bizarreness of the situation was a great way to end a relaxing evening, which never had a dull moment.
If you missed him at the Birmingham Book Festival, Simon Armitage will next be reading at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester on Tuesday 16th October 2012.