'When you told people in Huddersfield you were a poet didn't you get your head kicked in?" This question, punted at Simon Armitage, by a character called Spaz, occurred at a book signing in New Zealand. Spaz hails from Burnley, which adds a little more side-swipe to the cultural collision. However, life on the road for a performing poet like Armitage, more often than not, leads to enlightenment. "Dear Simon Armitage", writes a GCSE student, "before I came to Poetry Live at the Royal Centre in Nottingham, I thought all poets were dead and all poetry was shit."
Armitage is one of our least "poetic" poets, and one of our most vibrantly alive. He engages whole-heartedly with the everyday, gives voice to the experience of Pulp's "Common People". A poet of "The North", as the media have wrist-banded him, Armitage graduated from Portsmouth Polytechnic to spend seven years as a probation officer, like his father. Then, a couple of years after he had his ear pierced, he made the confession that all red-blooded fathers dread: "Dad, I think I'm a poet."
But music has always been as important to him as literature. If I look out of the window of my south London flat, I can barely see above the rooftops. Armitage's high point is West Nab in the Pennines, from which he looks across a huge circumference of inspiration and influence. Westwards there's Manchester, so it's Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths and Elbow, as well as Magazine, the Buzzcocks, the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses; towards the Mersey, it's the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes; from Sheffield, the Comsat Angels, Pulp, Arctic Monkeys; Yorkshire is Bill Nelson, Be-Bop Deluxe... There are thousands of other stars in the constellation, all worth setting a course for.
His own aspirations remained firmly rooted to the ground, as this "life and times of a rock-star fantasist" explains. The musical posturing of his early life amounted to a back catalogue of precisely nothing, and his Fender Stratocaster ended up in the graveyard of Ebay. He flirts with forming a band in his forties (his father: "thought of a name yet? How about Midlife Crisis?") and tries to buy an electric guitar from his local music shop, only it has closed. "You're too late," says his mother.
Armitage became a writer and, instead of chopping out cocaine on a mirror, finds himself filling Tupperware bowls with mini-cheddars. Or giving readings in Portakabins in car parks, where the PA is a Fisher Price Karaoke machine and an old man at the front falls asleep and farts during a poem about death. He's asked to "perform" in a four-poster bed on the ground-floor window of Heal's in Manchester as part of a Poetry Bed event. He is invited to be the new face of Tetley's Herbal Teas.
Gig is a wonderwall of moments and memories from a writer's life, scorched, by the Bunsen burner of failed rock stardom. It's engaging and eccentric, self-effacing and hilarious. It's amiable, anecdotal, full of surprises, generosity and incredibly good company. There's no one alive you'd want to spend more time with bantering about the merits of The Fall ("If you don't like them, you're wrong") or Felt, the Wedding Present or the Birthday Party, Hughes or Heaney.
His musical taste is spot-on because his playlist downloads the best bits of his generation. His mordant wit is unsentimental, irreverent, tough-minded: he describes Sir Paul McCartney at a gig in Sheffield as "one cheese football short of being Sir Cliff Richard".
Armitage may be a Phil Oakey half-fringe short of a rock god, but he's a mean lyricist. The words he wrote for the songs sung, by women prisoners in the Channel 4 documentary Songbirds, for example, are overwhelmingly moving. After a reading in Sheffield, a Q & A followed: "Man: In a fist fight between you and Jarvis Cocker, who'd win? Me: Er... I've never met him, but from the pictures I've seen, I'd have to fancy my chances. Man: He's outside." I'd back Armitage to win any writing slam right now: he's one of our most distinctive, muscular and entertaining authors.
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