Poetry can get us through the darkest days - just ask the BBC

Pam Ayres entertains as members of Norfolk Federation of WIs celebrate 100 years. Picture: DENISE BR

Pam Ayres, whose poetry could be played on BBC in the event of a national disaster - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

I’d been chatting to a friend about poetry (the way you do) when the radio gave out news of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Although it wasn’t exactly unexpected it came as a sad shock to hear it.

Naturally, I didn’t actually know the Duke but I did rather like the fact that he was considered to be a bit of a maverick; nobody quite knew what he might say and whether he might put his foot in it. It was the sort of thing that made you warm to him, and made him more human somehow.

The coverage of his death included an interview that he’d given many years ago, explaining that he always tried to do his best.

He knew that some didn’t like him very much while others did. But he said that he was what he was, so what else was he supposed to do? Doing our best is all that any of us can hope to do in life.

I was also surprised to learn that he had an enormous collection of books, that he liked nothing better than retreating with a book in hand whenever he could. What also surprised me was that he had actually written several books.

Whether those might have included poetry I’m not so sure.

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This is what brings me back to the poetry that my friend and I had been talking about.

What had started us off was a recent report that in the event of a global catastrophe the BBC was planning to broadcast the soothing voice of Pam Ayres in order to calm us all down.

If regular programming had to be ditched because of some catastrophic disaster a 2008 Woman’s Hour interview with Pam Ayres and Jane Garvey was among the items they’d got standing by to fill the silence. I wouldn’t have thought this was an obvious choice but I suppose the idea is to give us a bit of a laugh if the end is nigh.

I would have thought we’d have other things to worry about in the circumstances, but I promise you I’ve got nothing against Pam Ayres. In fact, unbeknown to her I was actually mistaken for her when I was taking a few days in Southend.

Those were the days, eh? The days when we could go away. Anyway, my sister and I were walking along the seafront on a gloriously sunny day when suddenly a chap selling ice creams and kiss-me-quick hats leapt out from behind his stall to tell me how thrilled he was to meet me.

How flattering, I thought, that he should remember me from my Anglia TV days, still famous after all these years. But no, he mistook me for Pam who was doing her show that evening at Southend’s theatre.

Pam packs out theatres with her poetry show; her type of verse is clearly popular so I was surprised and somewhat dismayed to learn that poetry and English literature is no longer compulsory as part of the school curriculum, not because I have spent my life with my nose buried in books of poetry and prose, but because being taught the subject at school gave me the opportunity to learn more about it and give me the key to the work of some of our great authors and poets.

I understand that poetry isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. A presenter colleague once said he couldn’t see the point of it. I couldn’t really answer except to ask him if he’d ever tried to read it. He hadn’t.

I’ve got to admit that some modern poetry is a mystery to me; often it doesn’t appear to scan or rhyme, it’s read in a monotonous tone of voice, a complete turn-off, I guess I need to try harder (but so do a lot of those alleged poets).

In a week weighed down with sad news I’ve had to bear some more.

At the weekend I heard of the death of our good old friend and former Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson. Irrespective of political beliefs he did a great deal for his constituency and was well-known, liked and respected by many people for his work in the community.

Before lockdown we’d often bump into each other in the local supermarket, pausing awhile to put the world to rights. He was a lovely man with a great sense of humour, not unlike the Duke. I’m sure that Ian would like to be remembered for just doing his best. Life will be that bit duller without him.