John Walsh: Words to go with Olympic deeds


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook  

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Simon Kelner
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage