Phenomenally popular poet Pam Ayres. Photo by Trevor Leighton, courtesy of Acorn Entertainments Ltd and Pam Ayres.
Pam Ayres MBE is a much-loved English poet, songwriter and presenter
of radio and television programmes. She was born, the youngest of six children, on 14 March 1947, in a council cottage at Stanford in the Vale, Berkshire, England during one of the longest, coldest winters on record.
After leaving Faringdon Secondary School at the age of 15, Pam joined the civil service as a clerical assistant and worked at the Army (RAOC) Central Ordnance Depot in Bicester. In her autobiography,
The Necessary Aptitude: A Memoir, published in September 2011, Pam describes her early work experience:
‘...I applied to work in the
Accounts Department, a sealed room where women operated clattering machines like enormous typewriters. After I had catastrophically and erroneously applied all the wrong information to several trolley loads of documents and lumbered the staff with weeks of
corrective work, I was shown the door by a tight-lipped manageress. I knew what was coming. Over the relentless, furious din of machinery, I lip-read the familiar words: “Lacks the necessary aptitude.”’
Not only did Pam lack the necessary aptitude, her enthusiasm for sticking at such a soul-destroying job was further crushed by the fact that three of her brothers had been called up for National
Service and were apparently living exciting lives in fascinating locations, while her only source of thrills was the local ‘hop’.
Pam joined the Women’s Royal Air Force, where she dealt with operational maps in a drawing office and eventually found herself in the Far East. While there, she began to develop her love of singing and acting. Where did her instinct for performing come
from? Was there a background of theatre or music in her family?
Pam says: ‘My Uncle Les used to “play the mouth organ beautiful” so I’m
told, and my brother Allan did have a brief dalliance with a trumpet at the time when Eddie Calvert’s gut-wrenching “Oh My Papa” was all the rage. Unfortunately, the early morning practice sessions were too much for our own Papa who emerged
from his bedroom one morning, eyes white with the light of battle, and wrested it from his grip. He gave up the trumpet from a sense of self-preservation. So I think, on reflection, that I’m not from a theatrical family, no.’
After leaving the WRAF Pam set out to become an entertainer in Oxfordshire where she had returned to live and work as a secretary. ‘At that time I was working for a company
which bought bits to go inside car heaters,' Pam said. ‘As you can imagine this was a fascinating and deeply fulfilling job, shot through with suspense and excitement... Writing the poems came as a welcome relief.’
Pam started performing poetry and what she describes as ‘a few ill-chosen songs, such as “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” and “My Soldier Boy Wears a Blue Cockade” at her
local folk club at The Bell Inn in the nearby village of Ducklington. Shortly thereafter, she was astonished to be offered £12 to do a guest spot at The Railwayman’s Arms, a pub up near Nether Heyford. At the time she was earning £20 a week
and couldn’t believe that she would be paid that much money for a half-hour gig.
In 1974 a team from BBC Radio Oxford was visiting local pubs hoping
to record any decent folk music (which was then all the rage), and caught Pam’s act – luckily she was not singing about the blue cockade – and offered her a weekly spot on the local BBC radio station. This was Pam’s first broadcast
and it was subsequently re-broadcast for BBC Radio 4’s Pick of the Week and later selected for the BBC’s 1974 Pick of the Year.
this time, Pam was reciting more of her poems for Radio Oxford and it was during this time that she wrote Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth which was recently voted as one of the top ten in the BBC’s The Nation’s Favourite
Comic Poems. A short excerpt follows:
Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth,
And spotted the perils beneath
All the toffees I chewed,
And the sweet sticky food.
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth.
I wish I’d been that much more willin’
When I had more tooth there than fillin’
To give up gobstoppers,
From respect to me choppers,
And to buy something else with me shillin’.
Egged on by her friends, in 1975 Pam decided to audition for TV’s Opportunity Knocks at Thames Television; the Britain’s Got Talent of
Pam says: ‘I was sandwiched between a man who sang “You are my Heart’s Delight” and a woman who played the squeeze box...the
bus bringing my family had got lost on the way and I desperately wanted them in the audience. The bus in question was emblazoned with the legend “Crapper’s Coaches” down the side so it was easy to spot. Anyway all was well and I won. I seemed
to get a lot of work after that, though I felt poorly qualified for it.’
It was about this time that Pam wrote, Thoughts of a Late-Night Knitter,
which still resonates with audiences to this day and is one of her most requested poems.
Thoughts of a Late-Night Knitter
I had a lovely boyfriend,
Knit one, purl one.
Had him for a long time,
Cast on for the back.
Had him all the summer,
Loved him, cuddled him,
Push it up the knitting pin
And gather up the slack.
Well he knew how much I liked him,
Knit one, purl one.
I made him seven jerseys,
Never did him any wrong,
And he told me that he loved me,
Knit one, purl one.
Told me that he loved me
he didn’t stop for long...
Pam’s favourite subject is the absurdity of everyday life. ‘I’ve never been at all interested in writing
topical things, you know, something pointed about the politicians of the day,’ she says.
‘It takes just as long to do but has a very short life indeed...I like
writing about people most of all. I think there is a huge amount of humour in our small human failings and in the way we try to justify our actions and hang onto our dignity. I love the great disparity between the way a man might see himself compared with
the way others see him.'