INTERVIEW / He knows his words' worth: William Scammell has given up his day job to try to wring a livelihood from his verse. He'd be better off taking photos on the QE2

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At the age of 54, William Scammell has become a full-time poet. Given up his day job. Henceforth, he'll be hanging on by his words. Pretty brave. Only a handful of poets live full time by their poetry. Perhaps another 50 call themselves poets, but they have other jobs.

Pure poets, who needs them? And who'd want to be one? Unless you're Ted Hughes.

Mr Scammell is a successful poet, well known in poetry circles. He had his first volume published in 1979. Between then and 1992 came six volumes. In all they earned him - wait for it, gasps ready - a total of pounds 550. Is he potty or what?

He's in his neat terraced cottage on the outskirts of Cockermouth in Cumbria, birthplace of Wordsworth. His study is upstairs, with a view straight on to a rolling field. He sits at his desk, stocky, bearded, Biro ready, fag in hand. He has a wife and two sons, one a poet living in a garret in Bristol, the other still at home, outside, underneath an old car.

Last month, he finally left his paid job, putting poetry in the centre, not the margins, of his life. He changed publishers for his new collection of poems, just out, Five Easy Pieces, for which Sinclair-Stevenson paid him pounds 1,000. Oh, rapture. Ten times more than he's had before. 'In the next 12 months I'll find out if I can survive or not. . . .'

He was born in rural Hampshire, father a plumber, mother a chambermaid. His brother Michael, four years older, was the family brain box, whizzed into grammar school, zoomed into academia, now professor of Russian at Cornell. (Yes, that Michael Scammell, author of the Solzhenytsin biog.)

'I was Our Bill, nice enough Our Bill, but not clever. I failed the 11- plus and went to the secondary mod. I didn't think I felt bitter, not at the time, but I must have done. For years and years I felt I had to prove myself.'

He left school at 15 and had a sequence of jobs for the next 10 years, starting as a copy boy on the Southampton Evening Echo at 30 bob a week, failing to become a reporter through lack of O-levels. He swept factory floors, worked in an office then went to sea with Cunard. If you were on the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the Mauritania or the good ship Caronia between 1960 and 1963, Bill probably took your photie. He was a ship's photographer, seeing the world, and a lot of tourists in their best casualwear.

He landed in London and got a job as a PR for the National Federation of Fruit and Potato Trades, quite hard to get, really, they gave him a little exam before appointing him. That lasted 18 months. Next he was a char, cleaning houses in Hampstead, taking a room in Haverstock Hill, where he met and then married Jackie, an art student.

But all these years he'd had only one real ambition - to be a writer. Not letting on, of course, being an 11-plus failure, and therefore branded in his own mind. At 17, he wrote a 60,000-word novel in the style of Steinbeck but showed it to no one. At sea, he'd written another novel, this time sending it off, only to be rejected. He tried some short stories, had them accepted by Hutchinson, but then they said, hold on, we won't publish them now, as you're nobody. He said James Joyce was nobody when Dubliners was published. Nice one, they said. Tell you what, here's pounds 50, write a novel. We'll publish the short stories after the novel. Bill writes novel. Novel turned down. Ditto short stories.

In the evenings, after charring, he read read read, as he'd always done, devouring books from the age of 15. Then he started attending adult education classes in Eng lit. He wrote a mega essay on his new hero, Henry James, which his teacher thought v. good, suggesting he should send it round the universities, see if any might take him as a mature student. The first one did. So, aged 25, he went off to Bristol University, along with his wife, then, very quickly, two children. Came out with a 2:1 in English, but dreadfully in debt. Back to sea for three months, to clear his overdraft.

For seven years he worked in the Cotswolds as a Workers' Educational Association teacher for very poor pay and, in 1975, he moved to Cockermouth as the University of Newcastle's adult education lecturer for Cumbria. By this time, he'd given up fiction. 'I'd never thought of poetry, though I'd always loved reading it. I thought you had to be very clever for poetry. I suppose it was that 11-plus failure thing. . . .'

At once, success. His little poems went off in the post and were accepted. Thank you, Alan Ross of the London Magazine and Norman Hidden of Outposts. Only a pound a poem, but a literary income, at last. In 1979, aged 40, he had his first book of poems published by Peterloo Poets.

Jolly good but, er, a bit late? Almost in your dotage, old son. Keats, Shelley and Byron were long dead by 40, and even Wordsworth was peaking. Poets, like mathematicians, do it early, surely. 'Not quite true. People like John Donne, Ted Hughes, James Fenton began early with a bang, but Yeats and Hardy didn't get into their stride till their sixties. There are no rules. I've always been a slow starter.'

Straight off, he got a prize, one of several he's had since, a Cholmondeley Award of pounds 500 from the Society of Authors. Out of which he bought a cello. 'I couldn't play or read music. I just thought I must do something to remember the money.' The cello lies beside his desk, its neck broken. He can play it, but not long ago his wife knocked it over, by chance, he says. He's saving up to have it repaired.

Bit of a fib when I said he's now a pure poet. He does have a pension of pounds 8,000 from Newcastle University, now that he's taken early retirement, a cushion he hopes against the cold to come. But he's determined to take on no more salaried work. From his poems, he hopes to average pounds 1,000 a year, plus perhaps pounds 2,000 from poetry reviewing - which he does for the Independent on Sunday, the Spectator and others - and another pounds 1,000 from the occasional creative writing course. All being well, he should have pounds 12,000 a year to live on. Half the wages of a ship's photographer.

Alas, he could have an expensive time ahead. He left his wife recently, then returned, but meanwhile he'd paid for a package holiday with his girlfriend, money he couldn't waste, so off he went again, returning to his wife. Now they are separated. 'It's complicated, but amicable.'

Each morning he rises at the crack of 10 o'clock - he never gets to bed before three in the morning - and goes straight to his desk, without eating, bathing or taking on board any other stimuli.

'I avoid the radio, read no newspapers and speak to no one before I start work. I want to be in touch with my night-time life and have a clear, fresh mind.' He writes on scrap paper, usually printed on one side, often other people's poems, left over from proofs he's been sent.

Mugs of tea or coffee on the hour, plus a fag on the half-hour, and in a good morning, working solidly till two o'clock, he hopes to have completed six lines.

That view from his study of the rolling field is a view he's written about. 'Painters often paint their surrounds, such as Van Gogh, painting his chair, and so do poets.'

Hunger takes him downstairs at two, where he makes himself toast, a boiled egg, sometimes potatoes, he eats a lot of boiled potatoes. If wealth ever came, it wouldn't go on food. 'I'd spend it on travel, on CDs, a proper car instead of an old banger.' Then it's exercise, off walking or more often playing tennis. He's captain of the Cockermouth Tennis Club and has played for the county.

Wordsworth, along with Coleridge and Southey, moved English poesy up from London to Lakeland, but surely these days a poet needs to be in the literary swim? 'Not true. The most vital poetry since the Romantics has come from the provinces. One of the new young poets everyone is talking about, Simon Armitage, is a probation officer in Huddersfield.'

Yes, but getting jobs from the poetry boys, it must pay to be near the metropolis? 'If you're desperate to be published by Faber, do reviews for the TLS, work for the BBC, then there is a circle it's worth being in, but I get reviewing work, even living up here. The people who whinge about a London literary mafia carving everything up are the mediocre, the talentless, using it as an excuse for their failures.'

Right, the literary novelists, their fame and fortune, that must really piss you off. 'Not many of us have the exposure of Martin Amis, but, on the other hand, I can't think of a novelist who has made himself a fortune in kill fees.' Come again? 'James Fenton. He wrote lyrics for Les Miserables, very few of which were used, but he got a percentage of the proceeds. It's still a big success, round the world, so bingo, he's in the money. That's my favourite story about a poet.

'I think the problem is not poets being ignored but the position of writers as a whole. They are not valued. The editor of the Sun (Sir Larry Lamb) gets a knighthood and Ted Hughes gets an OBE. That sums it up. The Arts Council budget for literature is only 1 per cent of its total, yet writing is what this country has always been best at. Painters, composers, you can hardly name any Brits who are world names, but poets, playwrights, novelists, we've dozens of them.'

Things are not quite as bad as they were. There are two new prizes for poetry that will award real money, if not quite Booker level - the Forward Prize, worth pounds 10,000, and the T S Eliot Prize at pounds 5,000. The Independent prints a daily poem, so the 30,000 amateur poets out there have got some national exposure to aim at. There's a lot of talent around, he says.

'Ted Hughes wrote in a dedication: 'Poets are like pigs, only worth money when they're dead.' People always think the golden age of poetry was in the past. I'm working on a collection of modern poets and the other evening I sat down and made a list of 70 I think are damn good. OK, so we're not quite a golden age. Let's say silver.'

Yes, but do we need all this poetry? It's not natural is it? All that forced rhyming and artificial metre, not like novels, which, at their best, are fluent and natural.

'What are you talking about? Novels are johnny-come-lately. They only go back to the 18th century. Poetry goes back thousands of years. Think of the epics. All the best stories were in verse. That's what Shakespeare wrote in.

'It is a struggle to combine a colloquial voice with formal structure. I'm always wrestling with that, but it's not true that metre is unnatural. Tony Harrison maintains that he once sat on a bus and listened to people talking - and they spoke in iambic pentameters. A lot of Dickens is in metre.

'We need poets - to make sense of the world we live in. It's the best way, the most memorable, the most tactful way.' Tactful? 'I'm thinking of Auden's remark about poetry 'making nothing happen'. He meant it's not like politics, or economics, trying to change things. Poetry informs our moral sense, our spiritual sense. It purifies the language of the tribe. Language is an instrument, so it can get shoddy and worn. Poets keep it supple. Here endeth the lesson . . .'

There is a knock at the front door. Not his son wanting something, but a door-to-door market research woman. How strange, in this out-of-the-way place. Bill opens the window and shouts down. She says she's doing a survey on banks and building societies, could he answer some questions. 'No need for a bank, no money,' he says, sighing, closing the window.

(Photograph omitted)

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