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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, April 04, 2008
    Is it thank you?
    I'm still in the clothes I woke up in, because once I opened up Simon Armitage's new autobiographical collection Gig, I couldn't close it again until I'd finished. So I've spent a day with the Marsden poet and his thoroughly entertaining reflections on a life in performance: from his prepubescent days as a call-boy in shows of the Marsden Operatic and Dramatic Society which his grandparents co-founded, to youthful fantasies of rock stardom (unfulfilled), via many excellent stories of gigs seen or missed, or - as a poet - given with varying degrees of success, descriptions of his work as a lyricist in various collaborations, and finally to his recent musical renaissance as one-half of a band called The Scaremongers.

    All good stuff, not least because it's so deeply rooted in Marsden, Huddersfield, Manchester - places where he has spent most of his 45 years (punctuated by three years' homesickness at Portsmouth University) - and he traces his cultural references from a very specific geographical trig point: 'Standing on top of West Nab, I can look across a huge circumference of inspiration and influence,' he writes, and takes a page describing the places he sees from there and the giants associated with them: Manchester and Lancashire with its Morrissey, Mondays, Fall, Merseyside with its Bunnymen and Teardrops, Sheffield's Comsat Angels, Barnsley's Kes, Wakefield's Barbara Hepworth and Mystery Plays and Be-Bop Deluxe, Leeds' Bennett, Harrison, Henry Moore, Bradford's Hockney and Priestley, Humberside's Larkin, and - closer to home - Pennine towns which recall Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. You can see from that list (incomplete) how a young man who approached his father in trepidation one day to tell him, "Dad, I think I'm a poet", had all the raw material in his eyes and ears and northern heart to make a fist of it, which is what he has of course done, brilliantly.

    I warm to Armitage firstly because he writes as a poet with a terrific turn of phrase; and secondly because he's of the same vintage as I am, and has been on a very similar musical journey. He writes of the pre-eminence of The Fall: 'If you don't like them, you're wrong'; he has an ambivalence about - though growing appreciation of - Bob Dylan; he affirms Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as one of the greatest rock albums of all time: 'thirty years later, it still sounds like tomorrow'. And he's honest enough to share the story which is also mine, of having spent most of his first few years in music building up an embarrassingly large collection of prog-rock, 'all wizards and warlocks, goat skulls, airbrushed dreamscapes and ruched purple blouses' ... ' all well and good in itself, but somehow ... irrelevant.'

    There's so much in this book to recommend. I like the way that Armitage weaves his father in and out of the narrative, with his taciturn wit constantly bringing the son down to earth:
    'There's a word in this poem I've never said in front of my mother before,' I say [pre-empting an expletive at a Poetry Society performance in London].

    From within a cloud of pipe smoke, out of the side of his mouth but loud enough to be heard, my dad says, 'Is it thank you?'
    I'm moved by the way he punctuates the narratives with verses, many of them drawn from the tv documentary Songbirds on which he collaborated with women inmates of Downview Prison to create songs, which they each sang on the film, describing their lives. Obviously an important piece of work for Armitage the ex-Probation Officer, the songs are spiky, defiant, and deeply moving.

    And finally - I could go on an on, but this will do for now - I love the way that Armitage's wife also features in many of his performances or gig-going incidents, often to outshine him with her excellence. He calls her 'Speedy Sue' from her days in a folk-rock band at Leicester University called Sue and the Speedy Bears, whose achievements eclipsed his own humbler rockist efforts at the time. And when an old friend suggested to him that after many years they have another go at making music together, using the internet to get their band out there (Armitage Senior: 'Thought of a name yet? How about Midlife Crisis?') Simon brings Speedy Sue in for some guest vocals, like these ones here, the opening lines of a song which illuminates the sorts of love, beauty and Pennine edge which fill the whole book:
    Like all the rest, you weep at sunsets in the west.

    Like all the least, you sleep through sunrise in the east.

    You're a daddy's girl, he buys you dresses and you twirl.

    You're mummy's boy, in snake-belt kecks and corduroy.

    But like Humberside is Yorkshire still
    and Lancashire is over the hill
    and loneliness is Gaping Ghyll,
    we never fought and we never will...

    'Cos you can do nothing wrong in my eyes.
    You can do nothing wrong in my eyes.
    [The ScaremongersYou Can Do Nothing Wrong (In My Eyes): click to listen]

    Thanks Dave for the recommendation; spot on