Pam Ayres: Writing is a great way of offloading troublesome feelings
With a new poetry collection out, Pam Ayres talks to Gabrielle Fagan about ageing, family life and the joy of gardening
AFFECTIONATELY known as 'the people's poet', Pam Ayres is famous for her comic verse, which she has been delivering in her distinctive rural English accent since the 1970s.
Her acute observations, expressed in rhyme, highlight life's mundane irritations and common experiences – from snoring partners, to ageing and weight gain. Her humorous lament – Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth – is one of her best known.
The writer – she has published 18 books and is one of the few authors to have been in the Sunday Times bestseller charts in almost every decade since the 1970s – has delved into more emotional territory more recently too, such as the feeling of loss as children fly the nest, and the death of a pet. Her latest offering is a collection of poems, Up In The Attic.
Now 72, Ayres, whose big break was on TV talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1975, has herself hosted TV and radio shows over the years. She vows she'll never give up performing – unless she loses her memory, as she learns everything by heart for her stage show, so she's free to "look people in the eye and engage with them".
Here, she talks about what inspires her work, how she feels about ageing, and why she'll never retire...
:: Where do you get your inspiration?
"I live my life in the hope of coming up with good ideas, of finding myself in a situation, of reading an article, of overhearing a fragment of conversation which sparks off the magic feeling: 'That's a good idea. I could do something with that!'
"I think, 'If this is affecting me, it probably affects everyone else', and I try to express it in as few well-chosen words as possible. It might be the stress of giving a dinner party, getting depressed about the news and current affairs, or those irritations like restaurants and pubs serving food on pieces of slate, not plates. It's impractical as there's no edge, so the food falls off and I worry about the hygiene!
"In Don't Put My Dinner On The Slate, I end with, 'Although not on the menu with lasagne and paella, I'm afraid I might have paid for added salmonella'."
:: How important is performing to you?
"Hugely. It's a drug, of course, this performing. You can never come off it. It doesn't take long to get hooked. It's amazing to feel you can touch people just with words, and arranging them in a certain way and have an amazing effect on an audience.
"I never get used to the thrill of hearing people roaring with laughter or being moved to tears by something I've written. So many say to me after one of my shows, 'God, I haven't laughed like that in years.'
"Generally, I try to dance lightly over the top of controversial subjects and steer clear of politics because it polarises people. I'd like to be remembered as someone who brought laughter into a fairly sombre world."
:: Your accent is so distinctive – did you ever think of changing it?
"As I was born in Stanford in the Vale, then in Berkshire but now in Oxfordshire, I spoke with the strong dialect of the area, as everyone around me did. I didn't realise until I left home and people started falling about laughing when I spoke that my speech was different to other people.
"I considered changing it briefly at one point, only because people seemed more focused on that than my writing, but to do so would have felt disloyal to my family and the area where I grew up. It's part of my identity."
:: Is all your poetry funny?
"No. I used to think people expected me only to be funny, so I didn't touch on serious issues. Now I love the fact poetry can make difficult feelings accessible.
"Three poems in particular always really affect people and you see them being visibly moved. September Song – about the empty nest when children leave home; Pollen On The Wind – about moving out of the family home, as I've done myself, and leaving memories and a garden which you've poured love into and where family pets are buried. Tippy Tappy Feet is about the death of a pet."
:: What issue do you feel passionate about?
"The welfare of animals. We treat animals hideously as a species and all around the world animals are suffering, which I find very upsetting. When my children were growing up, we had a small farm where we gave our stock the best lives possible, but it's still a betrayal to put an animal on a truck to go to the abattoir when you've befriended it and made it trust you.
"I never got used to it and always loathed it. I seldom eat meat now and when I do, it has to come from a source where I have a reasonable belief the creature's had a decent life."
:: How important is your family to your happiness?
"I'm so grateful I had my two sons, William and James – I came to motherhood late and it was a revelation that it could be so life-changing.
"I'm very lucky to have my husband, Dudley. He's the cornerstone of my happiness and despite the fact we're very different, we've lived and worked together happily for 37 years. He's helped market my creativity and makes careful, considered decisions, whereas I'm much more erratic and get crazes."
:: How do you feel about ageing?
"Sad, because I feel my life has raced past and, of course, you realise you probably haven't got very long left. I have such a lovely life and five wonderful grandchildren and don't want to leave it any time soon.
"The agony of ageing is that you're the same person inside with the same inclinations and ambitions. I don't feel 72. The only thing that's different is I feel somewhat wiser – but have the wisdom not to offer that knowledge unless it's asked for!"
:: How do you look after your health?
"I used to do strenuous gym exercise with a personal trainer for years but since my knee replacement three years ago, I've taken it easier. I walk a lot and eat as healthily as possible, with a diet including my home-grown vegetables. I gave up smoking years ago and barely drink because I suffered excruciating migraines for more than 30 years and wine was a trigger."
:: How do you look after your wellbeing?
"I'm a fairly level person by nature, with a cheery outlook generally. I think you can be too introspective. My job keeps me busy and allows me to express my emotions. Writing's a great way of offloading any troublesome feelings.
"I relax by gardening – my mission is to attract more wildlife, like hedgehogs and birds – and if I feel low or a bit oppressed, I'll have a nap or take my dog for a long walk. Being out in the countryside and striding along is usually enough to lift my spirits."
:: Up In The Attic by Pam Ayres is published in hardback by Ebury Press, priced £16.99. Available now.