Up in the Attic
Pam Ayres has a mouth that goes up at both ends and sends dimples into her cheeks under her bob of auburn hair. Once you have seen her, it is impossible to read her poems without visualising her speaking them, nor without hearing her distinctive, though mellowed, Oxfordshire burr reflecting where she was brought up. Add to that her talent for innocent but devastating rhyming endings, mix in a realism about humanity learnt over a lifetime, and you have one of the great performance poets of our age.
Up In The Attic is her latest volume (her eighteenth, she tells us); it contains 36 poems, two of them (Flight Time and Once-Topical Tweets) subdivided into smaller chunks, with a few introduced in her own words. There is inevitably some nostalgia here: for lost youth, or even middle-age; for the days when she was slimmer; for men who asked her out for a night on the town;for cod and chips served on a proper plate; for vanished companions.‘My once-jolly girlfriends are widowed and bleak, / Stuck in a home at two thousand a week, / In floral armchairs at the end of the journey, / Having relinquished their power of attorney.’
The illustrations by Susan Hellardare, on average, on every other page, yet so perfectly do they fit the text that you could easily imagine the poet had conjured them out of thin air. One four-liner (Puppies in Their Basket) needs, and gets, two line-drawings on the same page: ‘Puppies in their basket, / Smell as sweet as any roses. / Older doggies smell, / Of flatulence and halitosis.’
So what are you going to do with this collection, now you’ve bought it - as you probably will - as a stocking-filler or something to chuckle at on a winter’s evening? You can read it out loud in your own voice, but that would be a mistake, as I rapidly discovered: I simply couldn’t arrive at the dialect or the timbre, and I got tripped up by the cavalier scansion. Much better to let P. A. take over your brains, even if she fries them occasionally, and imagine her reading them at your shoulder.
Pam Ayres is not one of the major satirists of our day – she’s only too happy to puncture any serious social criticism as soon as it raises its head – but she is one of our most adored entertainers, and it would be a sad day should her voice ever fall silent because she’s run out of her apparently inexhaustible stock of just-the-rightpunchlines.