With a new poetry collection out, Pam Ayres talks to Gabrielle Fagan about “the agony of ageing”, what she loves about family life and the joy of gardening.
Affectionately known as ‘the people’s poet’, Pam Ayres is famous for her comic verse delivered in her distinctive rural accent.
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’s 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, who has also hosted TV and radio shows over the years, 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”.
“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, 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’.”
She says performing is a “drug”.
“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. 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.
“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.”
The mother of two, who says her husband Dudley is the “cornerstone of my happiness” admits thinking about ageing makes her life sad.
“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!
“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.”