Walking with Simon Armitage

The next Poet Laureate Simon Armitage went on a walk, leaning on the hospitality of strangers and saying poems out loud for his keep. I went with him.

The wandering poet is exhausted. “It’s hot out there,” says Simon Armitage, his famously boyish fringe plastered to his forehead by sweat.

His cheeks are red with the effort of walking and his day-old beard is smeared white with sun cream. He has come 11 miles today, through a heat haze that suits the surfers and sunbathers but is not so great for a 50-year-old Yorkshireman in hiking boots, long trousers and a polo shirt, with a pack on his back.

“I am a bit knackered,” says Armitage, in a soft lilt familiar from the documentaries he presents for the BBC. He is one of our most popular and admired poets, the creator of verse that is subtle and deep but direct and immediate. He has a knack for connecting with people, which is good because his well-being over the next weeks depends upon it. Armitage is halfway through a trek along the north coast of Devon and Cornwall designed to test his body, his mind and – more unusually – his calling as a poet.

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Listening to Henry Allingham, the boy who saw the Somme from the air: “Those were my pals.”

Henry Allingham saw WG Grace bat. He saw the battle of the Somme from the air in an aircraft made of wood, cloth and wire. He was the oldest man in the country when I met him in 2007 and he lived to be the oldest man in the world, dying just over a year later at 113. I publish this edited version of my story from The Independent today, the centenary of the start of the Somme, in honour of the boys who were lost. They were still boys in his eyes and always will be. 

Henry is a very, very old boy indeed. Nearly a century has passed since he flew over the trenches of the Somme in the back seat of an aircraft. The pilot was hit by rifle fire from below and began to pass out. The ground came up fast but Henry survived the crash landing. He knew he had to haul his friend out of the cockpit before the engine fumes caught fire and they were both burned alive. He had seen that happen to other people.

“Bunny Edwards!” he shouts suddenly, startling the only other resident in the lounge. That was the pilot’s name. “Beautiful swimmer,” says Henry. His milky, half-blind eyes are weepy. “I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin.”

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“When they talk about the war, will they remember me?” A last interview with the remarkable Dame Vera Lynn

Softly, with a voice that is still clear after all these years, Dame Vera Lynn begins to sing. “For a little bit of heaven fell, from out the sky one day …”

She is 97 now and rather frail, the light from the window making a halo of her finespun white hair. But some of the old strength returns as she duets with her younger self. Every word is right, even though this recording was never released and she is hearing it for the first time in 70 years. Back then, Vera Lynn was the “Forces’ Sweetheart”: the girl with the bright smile whose songs kept the home fires burning.

When the song was recorded in 1944, she was about to go on a dangerous mission: to sing to “the boys” on the front line in the jungles of Burma. “I reminded them of their sisters, their sweethearts and their wives they had left behind, and what they were fighting for,” she says when it is over. Continue reading ““When they talk about the war, will they remember me?” A last interview with the remarkable Dame Vera Lynn”

Zaha Hadid: Farewell to the Starchitect

Sad to hear of the sudden death of Dame Zaha Hadid, superstar of architecture, design genius and hugely formidable character. We met in her London office just before the 2012 Olympics, for which she designed the magnificent Aquatic Centre. Here is that encounter, as it appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, in tribute to a woman who was a challenge to interview but whose achievements were really very impressive indeed. That was a life.  Continue reading “Zaha Hadid: Farewell to the Starchitect”

Face To Face With The Body Of Nelson Mandela

So the long journey is nearly over. The body of Nelson Mandela will be buried at last today, in the village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, the place he always thought of as home. Security will be tight and the location is remote. For most South Africans, the last chance to say a personal goodbye was in Pretoria, where his body lay in state for three days.

To see it was both a privilege and a shock. One young black man who was overcome by tears rubbed his face with his cloth cap as he walked away, and used the Xhosa word for father when he said to himself: “That was not Tata.”

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