The award season isn’t part of a poets calendar. I was up for two awards in he mad month of May. They were the UK Laureate (five contenders) and a BAFTA award. The BAFTA entrants were Grayson Perry, Bros Lucy Worsley and myself.
Was I bothered about winning? I was mostly bothered with people bothering me about whether or not I was bothered. “It’s nice to be in the running” I’d say and smile. There were the occasional butterflies it could be me and the odd text from kind-hearted friends ‘for us it’s you’. On May 11th the announcement came: “The new UK Poet Laureate is Simon Armitage”.
Simon and I both arrived blinking in the headlights of the nineteen eighties. We are from adjacent counties of the North. He’s from Yorkshire. I am from Lancashire. Back then his tone and presence seemed tentative as he read on stage at a library clutching ZOOM his first collection. But it wasn’t ‘tentative’. It was the kind of gentle that comes with true confidence. Right from the start he was a man protecting the space he cared for most: The Poem. Looking back to those years I realise now that Simon was a giant poking his head out from the cave, always willing to return for food, for family and to write.
We are not each others opposites nor do we measure ourselves by each others mentors. We are from different worlds on the same planet. Contradistinct. We have differing persectives on different audiences. I had to leave the villages I loved in search of family. He learned to love the village as family. He travelled the world. I travelled the world. I searched for my family within it. In truth I wanted what he had at the start – a sense of place. I could have envied a rabbit in a field for its sense of place.
Over the years our paths crossed: A stage in Dubai, The Royal Festival hall, a literature festival in Yorkshire. What you might not know about simon is that he is very very funny. He has brilliant wit. He is the most dedicated to poetry and the most educated in poetry. If you take a look at his life, his studies, his teaching, his books, his entire journey, it is as if he was born to be our Laureate. I am a man of poetry. It has served me well. I have served it but never as much as Simon. Simon Armitage is quite literally on another level of brilliance. He is a comet and will burn bright for hundreds of years ahead of us. And what he has done for other poets of all races is evident in generations of poets who cite Simon as their champion and/or their influence.
Armitage arrived in the eighties as a servant to poetry in the buddhist sense and was hailed as a master. Now the master of poetry is the servant. Heaney is raising a glass to you Simon and I am too – Whiskey for him and a summer fruit smoothie for me. Congratulations to you and to your family and love.
The day after the announcement of our new great poet laureate was May 12th – The BAFTA Ceremony. The producer Emily Turner, The Director Guy King and the editor Simon McMahon and I took unsensible selfies on The Red Carpet.
My close and stunning friend Subrina Kidd chaperoned me. I’m on day release.
I am sending a facebook update. Obviously.
We shuffled into The Royal Festival Hall and took our seats.
The drum roll echoed around the Royal Festival Hall. The master of ceremonies. Graham Norton swanned onto stage glistening like a glitterball.
Subrina Kid and I soaked it all, the lights, the glitter adn the whole shebang.
And so it happened. Half way through the ceremony Louis Theroux walked onto the stage. This was the moment. The category of Specialist factual. Clips of our programmes were shown on the screen to the illustrious audience of stars. A television camera appeared hovering by my face searching for expressions. Louis Thereux announced the four contenders then ripped open the envelope “And the Bafta goes too…”
Oh man now was the time to do this
I had a lovely evening. Great conversation with Grayson Perry. I was able to say to him that Grayson was my inspiration as a presenter. “And he BAFTA goes to…”
I chatted through old times and new with Steve Coogan. I promised Steve I would send these photographs to him which I will. We performed together in his formative years too. “And the BAFTA goes to…”
It was Great to meet Russel T Davies: We have known each other since Manchester days some twenty five years. “And the Bafta goes to…..”
I met Ranvir Singh. Ranvir I’ve known since Manchester days. Our heads should touch more. “And the Bafta goes to….”
The camera moved even closer to my face… and the faces of the other nominees. I thought about Caroline Bird who helped with the workshops that formed a central part of Superkids… “And the Bafta Goes to…” I had a front row seat to history in the making of history.. “Suffragetes with Lucy Worsely”. Suffragetes with Lucy Worsley was pure unapologetic quality. There is a poetic justice to the win as there should be in all wins. Helen Pankhurst is a close friend of mine. If not now, when? “Up the women”.
A few weeks earlier I attended “A prelude to World Press Freedom day at the Ethiopian Embassy in London. The Ethiopian Embassy website states “H.E. Mr Fesseha Shawel Gebre, Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK welcomed guests and highlighted how far Ethiopia has come in its transformation and deep reform. His Excellency stressed that Ethiopia is proud to host the 26th World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa this year to affirm his country’s commitment to press freedom.”
Attending the reception with English PEN was Turkish Artist Zehra Doğan who was recently released after spending almost 3 years in a Turkish prison. Her crime was creating a painting depicting a Turkish army attack on a Kurdish village. Zehra represents the need for greater protection for journalists. You can see that I am stood in the middle watching the ambassador speak. At that exact moment I received a text. Enlish PEN didn’t know I would be at that event. The text was from my publishers Canongatebooks. The text read “Congratulations you have won the PEN Pinter Award 2019. Please keep this confidential”.