Home Articles Farewell to poetry's pal from Carol Ann Duffy, the nation's students, and me
Farewell to poetry's pal from Carol Ann Duffy, the nation's students, and me PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 29 November 2010 12:33

On 20 November I was one of a group of people who converged upon 6 Fitzroy Square, London at 7pm to celebrate the life of a man of whom you may never have heard. His name is Simon Powell. Simon has been justly described as an academic entrepreneur extraordinaire but he was far more than that. Throughout the 90s he and Ron Richardson organised Updates, a series of day conferences for sixth-formers. Teachers and students came from all over England to venues in London, Manchester, Leeds or wherever, to hear examiners warn them of pitfalls and encourage them to be original as well as well-informed, along with speakers chosen to energise them after a year or more of hard slog for A-levels.

Simon first invited me to contribute to one of the sociology conferences. When I told him my subject, The Political Incorrectness of Penetrative Sex, he was unfazed. He trusted me not to disgust students or teachers. Many students came from faith schools, and even more from traditional Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, so it was a risk. They went home heartened and excited by a justification of their own views about intimacy in terms they would not have expected. I'm grateful to Simon for giving me the chance to do that not once but many times. The Updates fee was a really important segment of my patchy income. I was more grateful for his unswerving belief that I was worth it.

Before long I was contributing to the English conferences as well. With these, Simon introduced the students to genuine poets. Nothing was too good for those sixth-formers; they got Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Liz Lochhead, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy, John Agard, Gillian Clarke, Ian McMillan, UA Fanthorpe. I got to talk about Shakespeare, trying to convince the kids he spoke their language. Those were some of the best half-hours of my life. The shining young faces, the hushed excitement, and Shakespeare's words, all as it should be.

The A-level students were already self-selected consumers of literature; Simon began to think that to turn kids on to poetry he had start them younger. Hence the GCSE Poetry Live! tours, on which poets read to 75,000 15-year-olds a year, at about 50 events. As Simon set about organising these, he discovered he was gravely ill, and then that his wife, Sîan, mother of his three sons, was fatally ill. She died in January 2002, aged 47. Simon kept going, enduring illness with optimism and good humour. He married again, the poet Imtiaz Dharker, and for a while it looked as if the life and the work would go on. Simon was finally overcome on 25 October 2009. As Gillian Clarke said, "Simon Powell

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