Pam Ayres lives in the Cotswolds but is up in London so we meet at her hotel where she opens the door to her room wearing heels and a French maid's outfit. Only teasing! She is wearing just what you would expect and want Pam Ayres to wear, which is modest pumps and a cosy beige polo neck under a long black corduroy dress which is "as old as time. I usually wear the wrong thing but just feel comfortable in this. It's friendly and soft." She still has the broad Oxfordshire accent – "oi just feel comfortable in it" – but not the piece of straw sticking from her teeth, which she never had anyway. "People did seem to think I'd tripped out from under a haystack chanting odes." I tell her I'm a fan, as I am. "That's nice," she says. I don't add that I'm something of a Johnny-come-lately fan, that I hadn't a clue how funny and clever she could be until I'd recently listened to her Radio 4 show, Ayres On The Air, as well as her guest appearances on panel games like Just A Minute, The News Quiz and I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue. I don't tell her this just as I don't tell her I have written a poem in her honour even though I have and it goes:
I love Pammy Ayres, through and through
I think she's dead smashing, I do
And as I've just had a fillin', me 79th
I wish I'd looked after me teeth, too.
People think writing comic verse is easy but that took me four days and a rhyming dictionary that has never worked so hard and it's still crap. Respect, Pam. Respect. Although, in the Seventies, I was never quite sold – too many rhymes that could have ended in "bum" but then didn't; too many dimity-print frocks; too many appearances on the Val Doonican Show if you can have such a thing, which you can. Time, though, has done her pretty proud. She is Britain's fifth bestselling poet and sales of her poetry collections now exceed 2.5 million. "Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth" was even recently voted among the nation's top 10 favourite comic poems. Thrilling? "It is lovely to feel that people have affectionately received your efforts, yes," she says. She has just embarked on a national tour, will be performing a special Mother's Day show tomorrow, which will be broadcast live to 16 cinemas, and her latest bestseller, Surgically Enhanced, has just been published in paperback. In this, the title poem begins:
I stand before the mirror and I feel my spirits sink
I'm so bored with this old body, it's so normal, round and pink,
It hasn't got the shingles nor a heavy chesty cough,
But it needs a few adjustments; a few sections slicing off...
Have you, I ask, had a few sections sliced off? You can tell me. No, she says but, yes, she has thought about it; has stood in front of the mirror pulling back the skin of her face to see what a bit of tightening might do. And? "By Jove, what an improvement!" But you wouldn't actually have a procedure? She would not, she says. "What stops me is the belief that I would think less of myself. I do believe in bashing on, just accepting what you look like within reason. I am quite happy with the way I look. It's nothing special but it's me and the idea of going to have my flesh burned... I've got age spots on my face and the idea of having them burned away... I find it unbearable. I'm not so uncomfortable with myself that I want to go and be cut about. I'm 60 now, and how long have I got. Ten years? Fifteen if I'm very lucky. Why would I go and get cut about? To look more sexually attractive...?" (You go, girlfriend. Sex at our age? On top of everything else?)
Some of her poems are just funny, like "Wonderbra" (It gave me such a figure/I can't believe it's mine/I showed it to my husband/And it made his eyeballs shine...) while others are poignant (I'm thinking of "Akaroa Cannon", which is about how lonely a mother can feel when her children have grown up). Most somehow evoke a faded England and faded English ideals. Indeed, should I ever feel sufficiently motivated to write another poem in her honour, it might go something like this:
By Jove, suet pudding and kippers
Has anyone seen me slippers?
I know, I know it doesn't make sense but who cares? You have to admit it sounds very Ayres. (Look, another poem! I might be better than I think!). In another of her books, With These Hands, there is a wonderful essay about her father and his knitted swimming trunks which meant that, on holiday, he would go into the sea looking like Charles Atlas – he was well-built, the trunks were snug – but, because of the absorbency of wool would come out like the creature from the black lagoon, using both hands to support the waterlogged gusset. She says everybody loves that story. "It's a reminder of an innocent age, isn't it? It's got a friendly nostalgia about it. It couldn't happen any more. It's gone, all those knitted swimming costumes and the poverty that made people produce garments like that. The stories that people have told me. Somebody said their dad had one and got it out the chest of drawers and it had a moth hole in the back and so he went over to his brother and he got his out of the chest of drawers and it had a moth hole in the front, so he wore them both and modesty was preserved."
She still retains something of that innocence. When I later ask her what having money has meant to her she says, having bought brought up in a council house, it never meant more than when she bought her first home, a terraced job for £11,000. "It was a very modest little house but to me it was like having a palace. Going in, the clunk of the front door, and you could put what you wanted up on the walls. That was the best thing, but it was also opposite a pub called The Golden Balls, which I was always embarrassed by. I hated giving people directions because it involved me saying The Golden Balls." And there you have it.
Pam was born and brought up in Stanford in the Vale, a village in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), at a time when divorce was a sin and sex was never, ever mentioned. "You didn't have a clue about any of it. I remember looking 'vagina' up in the dictionary because I didn't know what it meant. Anything I learnt I learnt from looking it up in the dictionary, and I didn't know how to pronounce any of it. They are funny words to pronounce, aren't they?"
They lived in a council house where her father, Stanley, worked for the electricity board while her mother, Phyllis, brought up the six kids. When I ask if her mother was a reader she says "By Jove, no" or words to that effect. "My mum loved writing at school and was offered a scholarship which she was unable to take up, but she didn't have the time to sit and read a book. She was always manufacturing gargantuan amounts of food. She'd cook everybody a damn great breakfast, the kids would come home from the village school at lunchtime and she'd cook for them, then she'd cook tea for when my brothers came home, then she'd sit down and then she'd get up and cut these enormous piles of sandwiches to take to work the next day..."
Pam was a reader. She particularly remembers Black Beauty and the death of Ginger. "It's the first time I'd ever cried from a book and it brought home the power of the word, if that doesn't sound too corny. I was so moved by just a bunch of paragraphs." Still, she failed the 11 plus. "It condemned me to being considered a failure and yet afterwards when I took some O levels off my own bat I got them easily, so I can't believe it was a very good system."
Were you disappointed when you didn't pass?, I ask.
"Not really, because I didn't see the wider picture. I saw on our village green the big group of kids waiting for the secondary modern school bus and a few self conscious kids in little hats with a felt band waiting for the grammar school bus and I was not at all sure I wanted to be one of them. I didn't know what it represented. It just meant you were segregated from your friends. I often think what if ..."
What if you'd gone on educationally?
"Yes. If I'd gone down that route, what I might have written instead, or as well as. I probably wouldn't have written what I did."
A good education, I say, means many more choices, but it can't help you to write, can it?
"It's about confidence, too," she says. "I was told that the boys and girls at the grammar school were all brought together and told they were the fortunate ones, the cream, the elite. That must be good for your ego."
I did not expect to have to talk up Pam Ayres to Pam Ayres but that's what I do. Perhaps, I suggest, if you had gone on to study it might have corrupted your own voice. She says: "I don't know if that's true. I think the more you read the more of an overview you have got. When I was in the air force I used to go to Cambridge and look into those beautiful university quadrangles and think what if, what if ... I haven't got any regrets really because I'm pleased with the way things have worked out but I do love writing, and, yes, I've got a collection of funny verse but I just wonder if I'd had a different environment if I could also have written other things, stories and plays..."
I chivvy her along. Come on, I say. Your talent is for touching on people's realities, noticing the things we've all noticed but haven't noticed we've noticed, if you get my drift. This seems to do the trick.
"People say that they can identify with what I write, and that's nice," she says. "The packing poem, where I talk about going away and having packed far more stuff than I will ever use ... in the poem, I'm talking about shoes and saying I've got to take a pair for this and a pair for that and then this titter starts round the audience and you know women are nudging each other and saying: 'That's like you.' It is a nice feeling."
And it's true. You do have to take shoes for every eventuality. What if you're suddenly invited on to John Travolta's yacht and you don't have the right footwear?
"You'd regret it if you only had your old clumpers," she says.
Exactly, I say. We are back on track now, I think. We can't have Pam Ayres not believing in Pam Ayres. It would just be too upsetting.
She left school at 15 for a secretarial job with the civil service and then spent four years in the Women's Royal Air Force where she joined both the theatre club and folk club and started performing her poems. (She'd always just written them.) When she left, she carried on performing, eventually winning Opportunity Knocks in 1975. Do you remember any of the other contestants? "There wasn't anyone doing anything really bizarre, like a muscle twitching man. There was a man who played the squeeze box. There was a balladeer." I ask if she finds the writing hard. "Depends how good the idea is. If it's a cracking good idea I am filled with a sense of anticipation and mischief. I've just written a piece called 'The Broken Woman', which I am pleased with. I went to my friend's 60th birthday party recently and I didn't really want to go not because I didn't esteem my friend, but because I was comfortable at home sitting in front of the fire. But I had such a lovely time, and I danced and danced and in the morning it was all I could do to walk across the landing. It wasn't that I'd been drunk or anything; I'd just danced as if I were a young person and in the morning I realised I was 60. So I wrote this piece about how you feel the night before and how you feel in the morning and I'm pleased with it. It was fun."
She met her husband, Dudley Russell, a concert promoter, and also now her agent, when he came to one of her shows to see if she might like to go on tour. "I always say we met on Broadway... Lewisham Broadway." They have two sons, William and James, now and their twenties. She first got pregnant at 35 and was worried as hell because she had never felt maternal. She confessed as much to her own mother who told her "the love will come with it", which it did, "but I thought it was cutting it a bit fine." Still, motherhood was a great big, full-on shock. "I was exhausted for years. I didn't know what had hit me, really. I think the most startling thing was that you can't flounce off when you've got a baby. You can't say 'up yours' and flounce off because you've got a darling little baby that you'd die for, so that was something I didn't expect. Previously, my husband and I had a fairly volatile relationship. We'd have a good row and I'd storm off. But suddenly you can't do that. So my recollection is of being absolutely exhausted, not being very competent and being half afraid of doing it wrong, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world and thank God I did have children. They were a revelation to me."
She seems to live happily in her Cotswolds house with Dudley and her two dogs, Ella, the Munsterlander and Tatty, the Jack Russell. She loves dogs – "I love old, brown, knobbly ones" – and has just become a foster carer for rescued Labradors. Before I go, I ask if she has any particular comic heroes, perhaps contemporary ones. She says she adores Peter Kay. "I think he's outstanding." And Victoria Wood?
"I went to see her one woman show years ago and she did a really good job, but she's got a bit urban for me latterly." This is what everyone loves about Pam Ayres; the fact she is safe, will never push an idea too far or into edgy, dangerous territory. That said, I am hopeful for "Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After Me Pelvic Floor":
Oh, I wish I'd looked after me pelvic floor
And done them post-natal work-outs
I wish I'd been wise and wish I had said:"I'll do 'em, and do 'em times four!
Oh, I wish I'd looked after me pelvic floor,
But what did I do? I did snicker
So now when I sneeze, or laugh quite hard,
I wet a bit of me knicker.
© Deborah Ross, like you'd want to rip it off.
'Surgically Enhanced' is published by Hodder and Stoughton, £6.99. For tour date information visit www.pamayres.com