At home with Pam Ayres
Linda Hart visits Pam Ayres at her smallholding in the Cotswolds, and discovers that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things Pam loves to do.
Pam with one of her free-range hens.
I only had to mention that I was going to the theatre to see Pam Ayres, and friends immediately recalled “that poem about looking after your teeth”. They told me they loved this poem, or that their children had memorised it at school, or that it hung on the wall of the dentist’s waiting room. In fact, ‘I wish I looked after my teeth’ was voted into the top ten of a BBC poll to find the nation’s 100 favourite comic poems.
But Pam Ayres insists, during my interview with her for Woman’s World, that “I’ve never seen myself as a poet. I’ve accepted that that’s what people call me, but when I read Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes, I don’t feel I belong in that category at all. I’m not saying that what I do is any less valuable, it’s just different. I feel more of an affinity with our music hall tradition and the likes of Billy Bennett. I’m there to make people laugh, not to make them think profound thoughts.”
And laugh people did – the night I was at Pam’s Everyman Theatre performance in Cheltenham last April. Her solo show of poetry and prose, jokes and anecdotes, wit and wisdom, kept the audience laughing solidly for two hours. Whether she was learning the facts of life as a youngster or learning French in middle age, whether she was losing her reading glasses or not losing weight, Pam Ayres deftly observed her own follies and foibles – which, of course, are ours as well.
Pam Ayres has been making people laugh for 25 years. She explains her success back in the late 1970s by pointing out that she had a funny accent that many people hadn’t heard before, she had a knack for choosing the right subjects and delivering her monologues in a way that made people laugh. But I note that she was also breaking new ground: when she came on the scene no one else was doing the same type of thing.
When Pam tells you about her background, you can’t help wondering how she got to where she is today. She was brought up in an isolated Berkshire village, in a council house with four older brothers and a sister, her father worked as a linesman for the electricity board and her secondary school was in a former displaced person’s camp; Pam told me this while we were sitting in her lovely Cotswold stone manor house, surrounded by lawns and paddocks and flower and vegetable gardens.
Love of words
The answer – though she doesn’t put it this way – is that at every stage in her life she took advantage of the opportunities that were there. In incremental steps, combining native talent with a love of words and rhythms, she became the woman who has sold over two million copies of her six books, recorded seven record albums, hosted her own Radio 2 programme and taken her solo show around the world.
Pam Ayres was born in Stanford-in-the-Vale during the freezing winter of 1947. Although brilliant at art and English she failed the 11-plus (“The vicar and the headmistress kept distracting me by talking in the corner.”), but surprised everyone by passing the Civil Service exam. This led to “a deeply boring clerical job” at Didcot Depot. But she decided to take advantage of the Civil Service Further Education Scheme and gained five ‘O’ Levels – one of them in drama – and received an award for Best Drama Student from the Mayor of Oxford.
Pam Ayres supporting the Rare Breeds Survival Trust at the Three Counties Countryside Show in Malvern.
She left the Civil Service four years later, after seeing “a seductive and wholly misleading advert” for the Women’s Royal Air Force. This “condemned me to another four years of a job I didn’t like” but, again, she spotted an opportunity and joined the amateur dramatics group at RAF Brampton in Huntingdonshire. When the woman playing the lead in a comedy production dropped out, they turned to Pam to take on the part with only ten days’ notice. Here, for the first time, she experienced the thrill of making people laugh. “It was just a small-scale amateur production in a featureless hall, but it was a turning point for me.”
The WRAF then sent her, age 19, to Singapore where she joined both the Theatre Club and Folk Club, and this is where she wrote and performed her first poem. “If I’d had musical ability,” she told me in her gently self-critical manner, “I’d have written a funny song. But I didn’t. So I just wrote the words and said them as a poem. And I found it worked.” And it’s been working brilliantly ever since.
Just before leaving the WRAF after four years, she had a chance to go on a creative writing course at Missenden Abbey in Buckinghamshire, as part of a resettlement scheme. This proved to be another turning point, and she is still grateful to the tutor James Parrish who spotted her talent “You’re a writer, you’ve got a terrific style”, and encouraged her to develop it. No one had told her this before.
Settled back in Oxfordshire, working at another boring job as a shorthand typist, she continued writing poems and soon began performing them at The Bell Inn at Ducklington. BBC Radio Oxford were recording there one evening when Pam read some of her poems, and these were broadcast on their Folk Programme. “Soon afterwards I was invited to record my tragi-comic poem, ‘The Battery Hen’, for their weekly poetry spot.” This depiction of the plight of a battery hen was then chosen for Radio 4’s Pick of the Week programme, played on the Farming Programme and later on Pick of the Year. She was inundated with letters of approval and Radio Oxford offered her a weekly spot for a poem – which meant that she now had to begin writing to meet deadlines.
Talent show success
In 1975, after much prodding from friends, she decided to audition for Opportunity Knocks, the television talent show. To her amazement, she won – with a poem about a parrot at the Cotswold Wild Life Park. As word about her wry and astute observations on life spread, invitations came flooding in from all over the country. “It was a huge transition from The Bell at Ducklington,” she tells me, “to the Winter Gardens with 3,000 people at a place like Margate. I can still recall the abject terror of some of those early days. I’d peep through the curtain at the audience before the show and think ‘Oh God, what have I taken on?’”
Pam tells me that she doesn’t take up ‘issues’ or try to change the world – she just comments on the things she sees around her. But the poem that propelled her career forward, ‘The Battery Hen’, in fact deals with an issue she feels passionately about: cruelty to animals. When several campaigning groups, including Compassion in World Farming, asked if they could use the poem “I was delighted,” she says. “I didn’t write ‘The Battery Hen’ to change the way chickens were raised. But I think you can get a message across with humour.”
She and her husband Dudley (a concert agent, who is also her manager) keep rare breeds on their 20-acre smallholding. While I was there I met five Dexter cattle and a new calf, Myrtle the Cotswold sheep, George the ram whose attentions Myrtle had spurned last year, and numerous hens (table and laying). Some Gloucester Old Spot pigs were arriving any day.
“The crucial decision is whether or not to eat meat,” she says. “I’ve tried being vegetarian but it doesn’t suit me, or my husband or two sons. But I don’t want to buy the bodies of animals that have suffered. Because we’ve got some land I decided the best thing to do was to raise our own animals. That way I know they’ve been treated with affection and respect.
“I keep laying hens and table birds, and also grow a lot of my own vegetables. We’re not a certified organic holding but I raise everything organically, if possible. I know I’m lucky and that there are families who can’t afford to do this, but I wish chickens especially didn’t have to be kept in such terrible conditions.”
Pam also has five colonies of honey bees, and as a result she’s alarmed about GM crops. “The books I’ve read say that bees cover a radius of 12 square miles, so how on earth will these little margins they are recommending keep the pollen from the GM crops away from the non-GM crops? It seems a nonsense to me.”
Pam in her garden with the Pam Ayres Rose, Tats in her arms and Gemma at her feet. The Pam Ayres Lupin was launched at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002, to mark the 25th anniversary of her career.
I asked if she’d be writing a poem on the subject but was told: “No, the reason I write my poems is to make an audience laugh, and this is a very earnest subject and I don’t think it would interest an audience that much.”
Pam is an enthusiastic member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST). The week before my visit with Pam, I watched the crowds gather round her at the RBST stand at the Three Counties Countryside Show in Malvern, Worcestershire, as she welcomed members to a day of special events. “The RBST is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year,” she told them. “Between 1900 and 1973 over 20 breeds of British farm animals became extinct. But since the RBST began, no rare breed has become extinct – though around 70 are still under threat. Only the Trust stands between them and extinction.”
Pam has also helped ensure the survival of the Accident and Emergency facilities at Cirencester Hospital. When they were threatened with closure, she turned up at meetings and spoke out against the idea – which has now been dropped.
Our regional theatres also benefit from her support. A few days before my visit with Pam, I picked up a leaflet at The Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, about becoming a Friend of the Roses. Whose photo jumped off the page at me? Pam’s, of course. “I was delighted,” the text said, “to be asked to become the first ‘Friend of the Roses’. …With the spread of more and more ‘virtual entertainment’ the need for intimate community theatres has never been more vital. …I don’t want to start composing a new ode called ‘I wish I’d looked after me theatre.’” She is also an avid supporter of Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre, where she and her husband have sponsored seats as part of a major refurbishment programme.
As Pam tells me about her gardening and dressmaking, shopping and cooking, her two sons (now 19 and 21) and her animals, writing poetry and prose, appearing on radio programmes, doing 50 solo shows here as well as performing abroad and on cruise ships, I wonder aloud how she fits it all in. “Everything gets skimped. I try and do too much. The older I get the more conscious I am of the passage of time, and there are so many things I love doing. I love my garden and my poultry and animals, and I love to write and draw and look after my family. I’ve always been a dabbler. I think in a way that’s my flaw. If I’d been more focused I’d probably have produced more work, but I’d rather do a bit of everything.”
That love of everything is palpable as she shows me around the garden and the animals, as she hands me a warm egg from one of the layers, as we drink her homemade elderflower cordial, and when she gives me a parting gift of honey from her own hives. “I am a very traditional homemaker,” she tells me. “I love making my cakes, chutneys and jams, and looking after my bees and chickens. I think the creation of a home is one of the most important things you can do for your family. The home is not valued as much as it ought to be.
A stable happy home is the best thing a child can have.” This is very much what the WI believes, I tell her. “I know,” she says, “and I have a great deal of admiration for what they do to promote these values. I wish I could tell them that in person, but due to pressure of time I have to turn down the invitations I receive to speak to institutes.”
If she did talk to a WI, members would realise that the secret of her success is that she refuses to put her life into compartments. For Pam Ayres, hard work is a pleasure, and the pleasures in life provide inspiration for her work. She turns her observant eye on everything around her, and usually comes up with something that makes her, and all of us, laugh.
For details of Pam’s forthcoming performances see her website www.pamayres.com. During October and November 2003 she will be appearing in Hornchurch, Southend, King’s Lynn, Malvern, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Birmingham, Croydon, Tavistock, Wimborne, Ludlow, Leicester, Fareham, Rickmansworth and Burgess Hill.