John Walsh: Words to go with Olympic deeds

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Poetry and the 2012 Olympics draw closer together. Today is National Poetry Day and it's just been announced that a line by Lord Tennyson – "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," the last line of his "Ulysses" – has been chosen to be emblazoned on a 60-yard embankment in the Athletes' Village, as a permanent encouragement to Do Better.

New poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott (on swimming through the Lea Valley's ancient rivers), John Burnside (on cycling and the Suffragettes) and Lemn Sissay (on the Victorian women employed to extinguish dangerous sparks at the Bryant & May match factory) will also be plastered on buildings in the Olympic Park.

"Winning Words" is the idea of William Sieghart, founder of the Forward Poetry Prizes, whose 20th anniversary was celebrated last night. His idea is to make poetry inviting to schoolchildren as a vital component of their early years, and to show it off in public as a valuable part of our national life. This may sound pious, high-minded and idealistic to you, O hardened cynic, but I believe Mr Sieghart's initiative is dead right.

I think children are naturally drawn to poetry when young – to its rhythm, its drama, its packed and urgent utterance, and feel a thrill when trying to give utterance to their own lives.

You need proof? You should have been atSt Pancras station on Tuesday, when the Betjeman Poetry Competition prizes were dished out by Brian Patten and Joanna Lumley. The prize has been going for five years, and received more than 3,000 entries from pre-pubescents across the nation.

An online "Poetry Bank" is being created by Sieghart's Forward Arts Foundation, in which you can inspect 150 poems "connected to Olympic and Paralympic values". Very creditable too, but isn't it time the Department of Culture, Media and Sport nominated an Olympics Poet with a roving brief to write about anything that took his or her fancy?

In 1896, they dished out medals for poetry and music, and were still doing so in the late 1940s. In 2000, the Australian Arts Council gave the best-selling poet Mark O'Connor a fellowship "to report in poetry on all aspects of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games". The results were pretty impressive ("Judo wrestlers, fixed to each other's lapels/ Whirled on a mutual pivot./ Indifferent to shooting stars or encrusting empires/ Each feels only the tug that comes/ From the other's dead centre...") and some of us have been shouting for years that an Olympic Poet – indeed a competitive Olympic Poetry Slam – should be part of the Games, along with all the straining and grunting.

We need commemorative words to go with commemorative golds. We need a Paul Farley, a Sophie Hannah, a Simon Armitage to strive, to seek and to find on our behalf (and not to yield because it's the bloody triathlon next ...)

The ingredient that sends people into panic mode

Three months ago, I'd never heard of aspartame. I lived in blissful ignorance of the artificial sweetener with the reputation. When a work colleague banged on about the awfulness of aspartame, I thought she must be referring to some province of Turkey with a poor human-rights record. Then a friend took one look at a bottle of orange squash in my flat with "No Added Sugar" on the label: "You mustn't drink that!" she cried. "It'll be full of aspartame! It'll quadruple your chances of getting cancer!"

Subsequent mentions of the food additive in polite society elicited the news that it would also give you MS, lupus, blindness, methanol toxicity, spasms, shooting pains, seizures, headaches, depression, memory loss, birth defects and (surely this can't be true) Gulf War syndrome. Last week I heard a child in Tesco Metro point at a bottle and inform his mother, "You can't buy that, Mum – it's got cancer in it."

I checked with the food and drink authorities. Aspartame, they said, has been checked out in 90 countries and found perfectly safe for human consumption. But one person – a woman called Betty Martini – once claimed that it's unsafe, without offering much evidence, and everyone believed her. A campaign of email hoaxes and internet website mischief has sent her accusations viral. What a world, eh? Here's a myth. Over here's a lab report – and everyone buys the myth.

Who's that at the wheel of a pink Land Rover?

There I was, walking down the King's Road, Chelsea, last Saturday with my daughter, when a Land Rover cruised slowly past. "Look Dad," said Clementine. "You know who that is?" I didn't know, but there were clues. One, it was pink – yes, a pink Land Rover, like a vast, bulky automotive blancmange – and two, its number plate read "KP 11 LEO."

"Does KP by any chance stand for Katie Price?" I asked. "Yeah, and Leo is short for Leandro Penna, who's her boyfriend," said the fount of all KP knowledge. "My God," I said, "is she actually doing the driving? If we speed up, we could have a look." "Dad, don't be so embarrassing," said Clementine. But the traffic had slowed right down, and by walking just slightly faster we managed to overtake the puce monstrosity.

In the driving seat, Ms Price sat bolt upright, head tilted upwards for an unseen camera, her bicycle-inner-tube lips pouting. But nobody seemed to want to take a photo. They just looked at the spectacle proceeding slowly down the King's Road like a Tudor royal progress.

"God," said a woman beside me, "She's so ... annoying." I knew what she meant. It's bad enough having Ms Price's image, body, life story and glossy ubiquity taking up space in one's mental lumber-room; much worse to find oneself gawping as she glides by in a great pink bubble of conceit.



j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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