“Finishing It”

The poem above was commissioned from Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate since May 2019, by The Institute for Cancer Research. BBC News reported on 14th August this year that the poet had had its words inscribed by micro-engraver Graham Short on a gypsum-based replica cancer treatment tablet. It will be displayed in the new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery when it opens next year.

In 2018, Simon Armitage was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

When Seamus Heaney died, on 30th August 2013, Armitage was walking the South West Coast Path, blagging bed and board in exchange for nightly readings from his own work. Philip Marsden reviewed the book that resulted, Walking Away (2015):

“One of the most striking passages though is entirely unplanned. He is on the coast north of Exmoor when he hears of Seamus Heaney’s death. It provides a moment of genuine passion. The BBC presses the walking Armitage for quotes, as one who had known him well and had been whispered in some quarters as Heaney’s heir apparent. That evening Armitage’s wife drives down “on a mercy dash” to his B&B and they stay up late to reread Heaney’s work in the glow of a mobile phone. Heaney’s “common touch was his genius”, concludes Armitage. He was “a chieftain among poets, a scholar among critics, and among readers a citizen of the world”.“.

Among others walking the South West Coast Path that summer were Raynor Winn, author of The Salt Path (2018), and her husband Moth. Through force of circumstance, they are wild camping, and living from hand to mouth on a pittance. Moth has, despite their need to travel very light, packed Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation of Beowulf. It is at the tourist information office at Combe Martin that Moth is first addressed, to his bemusement, as Mr Armitage. At other points along the way he is confidently addressed as Simon. The name means nothing to him or to his wife.

An experienced storyteller, Moth makes a snap (and successful) decision in St Ives, as the September Festival approaches, to raise cash for their next meal by giving a rendition in the street of lines from Beowulf:

” “Time and again, foul things attacked me…”

He closed the book.

“So that’s it for today, folks, thank you to Seamus Heaney and Beowulf, and thanks for listening.” And they were clapping, and clapping.

“Well done, a great tribute, he would have been proud.” One of the old men was shaking Moth’s hand. “Hope he’s looking down on the festival this week.”

“Sorry, remind me, when did he go? I’ve been walking, lost track of things.”

“Two weeks ago. A perfect, perfect, tribute, thank you.” The crowd dispersed and I shoved the hat under my fleece.

“I didn’t know he’d died. I feel such a disrespectful tit.”

“I don’t think he’d mind. Probably would have made him laugh.” …

…On the way back to the campsite, we spotted a poster in a gallery window. Simon Armitage. A poet. Walking from Minehead to Land’s End, doing readings along the way. Doing one here in St Ives on Sunday. Free. Fully booked.

“Well, at least we know who he is now.”

“Looks nothing like you though.” “.

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