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Pam Ayres: 'Writing is a brilliant way of offloading any troublesome feelings'

With a new collection out, Pam Ayres talks to Gabrielle Fagan about ageing, her family life and the joys of gardening

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Acute observer: bestselling poet Pam Ayres

Acute observer: bestselling poet Pam Ayres

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Pam Ayres with her husband Dudley Russell

Pam Ayres with her husband Dudley Russell

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Famous circles: Pam Ayers and comedian Tommy Cooper chat to the Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Variety Gala in 1977

Famous circles: Pam Ayers and comedian Tommy Cooper chat to the Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Variety Gala in 1977

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Up in the Attic by Pam Ayres is published in hardback by Ebury Press, £16.99

Up in the Attic by Pam Ayres is published in hardback by Ebury Press, £16.99

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Acute observer: bestselling poet Pam Ayres

Affectionately known as 'the people's poet', Pam Ayres is famous for comic verse delivered in her distinctive rural accent. Her acute observations, expressed in rhyme, highlight life's mundane irritations and common experiences, from snoring partners to ageing and weight gain. The humorous lament Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth is one of her best-known pieces.

The writer, who has published 18 books and is one of the few authors to have been in the Sunday Times bestseller charts in almost every decade since the 1970s, has delved into more emotional territory recently, such as the feeling of loss as children fly the nest and the death of a pet. Her latest offering is a collection of poems titled Up in the Attic.

Now 72, Ayres, who has also hosted TV and radio shows over the years, vows she'll never give up performing, unless she loses her memory. She learns everything by heart for her stage show so that she's free to "look people in the eye and engage with them".

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Famous circles: Pam Ayers and comedian Tommy Cooper chat to the Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Variety Gala in 1977

Famous circles: Pam Ayers and comedian Tommy Cooper chat to the Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Variety Gala in 1977

PA

Famous circles: Pam Ayers and comedian Tommy Cooper chat to the Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Variety Gala in 1977

So where does she get her inspiration?

"I live my life in the hope of coming up with good ideas, of finding myself in a situation, of reading an article, of overhearing a fragment of conversation which sparks off the magic feeling of, 'That's a good idea. I could do something with that'," she explains.

"I think, 'If this is affecting me, it probably affects everyone else', and I try to express it in as few well-chosen words as possible. It might be the stress of giving a dinner party, getting depressed about the news and current affairs, or those irritations like restaurants and pubs serving food on pieces of slate, not plates. It's impractical because there's no edge, so the food falls off - and I worry about the hygiene.

"In Don't Put My Dinner on the Slate, I end with, 'Although not on the menu with lasagne and paella, I'm afraid I might have paid for added salmonella'."

Ayres has long been famed for delivering entertaining performances of her work. Does she still enjoy that?

"Hugely," she replies. "It's a drug, of course, this performing. You can never come off it. It doesn't take long to get hooked. It's amazing to feel you can touch people just with words, and arranging them in a certain way. (They) have an amazing effect on an audience.

"I never get used to the thrill of hearing people roaring with laughter or being moved to tears by something I've written. So many say to me after one of my shows, 'God, I haven't laughed like that in years'. Generally, I try to dance lightly over the top of controversial subjects and I steer clear of politics because it polarises people. I'd like to be remembered as someone who brought laughter into a fairly sombre world."

Of course, those performances are enlivened by her distinctive accent, which happily she's never seriously considered changing.

"As I was born in Stanford in the Vale, then lived in Berkshire and now in Oxfordshire. I spoke with the dialect of the area, as everyone around me did. I didn't realise until I left home and people started falling about laughing when I spoke that my speech was different to other people.

"I considered changing it briefly at one point, only because people seemed more focused on that than my writing, but to do so would have felt disloyal to my family and the area where I grew up. It's part of my identity."

While she's thought of as a writer of humorous poetry, Ayres says not all the work she pens is funny.

"I used to think people expected me only to be funny, so I didn't touch on serious issues," she explains. "Now I love the fact poetry can make difficult feelings accessible.

"Three poems in particular always really affect people and you see them being visibly moved. September Song, about the empty nest when children leave home; Pollen on the Wind, about moving out of the family home, as I've done myself, and leaving memories and a garden which you've poured love into and where family pets are buried; and Tippy Tappy Feet, about the death of a pet."

What issue does she feel passionate about?

"The welfare of animals. We treat animals hideously as a species and all around the world animals are suffering, which I find very upsetting. When my children were growing up, we had a small farm where we gave our stock the best lives possible, but it's still a betrayal to put an animal on a truck to go to the abattoir when you've befriended it and made it trust you.

"I never got used to it and always loathed it. I seldom eat meat now. When I do, it has to come from a source where I have a reasonable belief the creature's had a decent life."

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Pam Ayres with her husband Dudley Russell

Pam Ayres with her husband Dudley Russell

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Pam Ayres with her husband Dudley Russell

Ayres has two grown-up sons, William and James, and her face lights up when asked about her family.

"I'm so grateful I had my two sons. I came to motherhood late and it was a revelation that it could be so life-changing," she says.

"I'm very lucky to have my husband, Dudley. He's the cornerstone of my happiness and, despite the fact we're very different, we've lived and worked together happily for 37 years.

"He's helped market my creativity and makes careful, considered decisions, whereas I'm much more erratic and get crazes."

Now in her 70s and still in the public eye, how does she feel about ageing?

Her answer is typically frank: "Sad, because I feel my life has raced past and, of course, you realise you probably haven't got very long left. I have such a lovely life and five wonderful grandchildren and don't want to leave it any time soon.

"The agony of ageing is that you're the same person inside with the same inclinations and ambitions. I don't feel 72.

"The only thing that's different is I feel somewhat wiser but have the wisdom not to offer that knowledge unless it's asked for."

She is careful, however, to try and stay as fit as possible. "I used to do strenuous gym exercise with a personal trainer for years, but since my knee replacement three years ago, I've taken it easier," she says.

"I walk a lot and eat as healthily as possible, with a diet including my homegrown vegetables. I gave up smoking years ago and barely drink because I suffered excruciating migraines for more than 30 years and wine was a trigger."

Maintaining a positive outlook on life helps too, she explains: "I'm a fairly level person by nature, with a cheery outlook generally. I think you can be too introspective. My job keeps me busy and allows me to express my emotions. Writing's a great way of offloading any troublesome feelings.

"I relax by gardening - my mission is to attract more wildlife, like hedgehogs and birds - and if I feel low or a bit oppressed, I'll have a nap or take my dog for a long walk. Being out in the countryside and striding along is usually enough to lift my spirits."

  • Up in the Attic by Pam Ayres is published in hardback by Ebury Press, £16.99

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Up in the Attic by Pam Ayres is published in hardback by Ebury Press, £16.99

Up in the Attic by Pam Ayres is published in hardback by Ebury Press, £16.99

PA

Up in the Attic by Pam Ayres is published in hardback by Ebury Press, £16.99

Belfast Telegraph