Slides in this set

Slide 1

Preview of page 1

Simon Armitage
The poem is about relationships and trust. It opens with the description of a 'trust exercise', often
used in school drama lessons. Next, a child (almost certainly a teenager) is told off by their mother
for having allowed their yellow jacket to get dirty; a row develops. The child is sent to their room,
but sneaks out at the dead of night to a phone box: interestingly, the narrator of the poem is waiting
by the phone, but it doesn't ring. The child then returns home and meets a father figure who wants
to make up.
Stanza 4 deals with the reconciliation - a 'father figure' is asking a child to try on the yellow coat
again, by stepping backwards into it, like in the trust exercise of stanza 1. It's not clear who this
father figure is: perhaps it's the narrator's father, still in memory; perhaps it is the narrator himself
addressing his childhood self (it's sixteen years or so before we'll meet); perhaps he is talking now
to a friend or lover to whom the yellow coat incident happened when they were a child; perhaps it is
the narrator, now a father, addressing his own child.
The exercise in trust in stanza 1 is clearly a metaphor for trust in real life situations. In the exercise,
the person falling trusts that they will be caught by those behind them. In the minefield of personal
relationships, you rely upon family and friends to 'catch' you.
The second stanza is full of colour. The jacket is canary-yellow (line 5) and becomes blackened (line
7). The child see[s] red - Armitage chose a phrase that uses colour to depict anger - and Blue murder
is threatened. Yellow, red and blue are the primary colours: perhaps Armitage used these to show
how vivid and 'colourful' the child's memories of the row are - it is obviously still important to him
many years later.
The mother is described as the very model of a model of a mother (line 8). Does this suggest that
she is a typical mother figure (as if like a child's model toy, reproduced in a factory) or a more-than-
perfect mother (model as an adjective can mean 'ideally perfect')? Either way, she makes the wrong
assumption about how the jacket got dirty - in the child's eyes, as least.
It is midnight when the child escapes to the phone box - always a time when special things may
happen! This call seems to have been a symbolic attempt to get in touch with his future adult self.
The father figure (line 17) is in silhouette: the child can see his shape, but not his whole body. Does
this suggest that their relationship with him is not now as 'rounded' as a result of the row? It is not
definite that he is the child's actual father - only a father figure. The fact that he is waiting outside
shows that he is concerned for the welfare of the child, but also that he wants to set things straight
(line 17) - perhaps implying that the argument is not over yet!
The final stanza is an extended metaphor. The embrace between the child and the family is likened
to putting on the yellow jacket that caused the row in the first place. Parts of the body become parts
of the jacket, to show us how warm and loving the hug is. The poet does not know exactly what the
jacket looks like - these fingers make a zip / or buckle, you say which (line 20), but it does not matter
as It still fits (line 23). In other words, continuity is restored, the family is whole again.
We can 'hear' some of the family row. Stanza two has many short phrases, showing tension rising in
the household. Armitage uses colloquial phrases like Temper, temper that the child and the mother
may actually have spoken. Bed (line 11) could be the order of a furious parent: we can imagine their
finger pointing towards the door!…read more

Slide 2

Preview of page 2

Tone/Ideas Structure
Much of the meaning of a poem is conveyed by the attitude it expresses toward The poem consists of 4
its subject matter. 'Attitude' can be thought of as a combination of the poet's stanzas of varying lengths
tone of voice, and the ideas he or she is trying to get across to the reader. (4 lines, 7 lines, 6 lines, 6
A good way to decide on the tone of a poem is to work out how you would read it lines). The lines are roughly
aloud. Should the poem be read: equal in length, ranging
with warmth, to emphasise the love between the family (and between the poet from 9 to 13 syllables. The
and the child) verse is therefore quite
irregular (it doesn't fit a
wistfully, to emphasise his sadness at a painful childhood memory
strict pattern), perhaps
with irony, as the poet reflects on an episode of (possibly) poor parenting, and reflecting the idea in the
on what he has learnt since he himself was a child poem that relationships can
There is probably a bit of all three, and the tone you adopt will depend in part on be awkward and don't
who you think the 'you' in the second half of the poem is. Certainly the tone at the follow a set pattern
end of the poem is overwhelmingly one of warmth and connection between
parent and child.
Think about how the language the poet uses helps to convey his ideas. Here are some points to consider:
Consider the title of the poem. There are two homecomings described - one, when the child arrives back with
a dirty jacket which leads to a family row, and one when the family embraces and all is forgiven. The second
homecoming is the most significant: the child is welcomed 'home' into the love of the family.
Armitage gives us instructions on how to read the poem. We are invited in the first line to Think, two things
on their own and both at once. He is alerting us to the idea that two apparently very different things - the trust
exercise and the row over the jacket - can be linked. He does not refer to the comparison again until the final
lines of the poem.
We are presented with little sketches. We are given only sparse details. Although we know the colour of the
jacket, we do not know about its owner or their family. They are anonymous. We are not even sure whether
the child is a boy or a girl - although the colour of the jacket may make people assume that is a girl. Nor do we
know anything about the narrator figure. Yet it doesn't matter: both boys and girls fall out with their parents
at times. By leaving out personal details, Armitage is directing his message at everyone: he is perhaps
acknowledging that bad rows start with the simplest things.
Much of the poem is written in the second person, directed to You. The first personI is not introduced until
the third stanza. The relationship between the grown-up child and the persona of the poet must be close,
because the child is confiding something that must have troubled them for a long time.
We are not told exactly what happened to cause the row. The jacket was uncoupled from its hook and let to
get dirty on the floor of the cloakroom (presumably at school). The child's mother accuses the child - points
the finger (line 10) - perhaps of being careless, someone not to be trusted, although the child obviously feels
misjudged: the mother makes a proper fist of it (line 9). The phrase Temper, temper (line 10) is sometimes
humorous, but here it seems more serious: perhaps both mother and child are in a temper, which causes the
child to be sent to bed acrimoniously.
Even though it deals with events spanning 16 years, the poem is mostly in the present tense, which gives
immediacy (we feel it is happening now) and adds tension.
The link between the trust exercise and the jacket is developed in the closing lines. Step backwards into it /
and try the same canary-yellow cotton jacket. The embrace between the child and their parents is likened to
falling backwards, as in a trust exercise. It shows that trust within the family has been restored: the child
trusts their parents once more.
I'm waiting by the phone, The poet suggests that he is somehow anticipating his friendship with the grown-up child. It suggests he is
although it doesn't ring .. there to offer help whenever it is needed.
Questions / in the House. The line refers to the questions the mother is asking the child about the jacket; but you may have heard the
phrase 'Questions in the House' before - it is used to describe Questions to a minister in the House of
Commons. The issue is clearly crucial to her!
these hands can fold / into a Armitage is using a pun on clasp to emphasise the closeness of family. A clasp can be a fastening on a
clasp ... jacket, but also means a tight hold on something or someone. The child and their parents are 'clasping'
each across the generations other now that they have made up.…read more

Slide 3

Preview of page 3

This poem is a puzzle for the reader - there are some things the poet has not told us, and without them, our
reading of the poem relies on guesswork. This seems deliberate, as the first thing the poem invites us to do
is to look at two things separately, then put them together. The poem is written mostly in the second
person, addressed to "you". This may at first seem to be the general reader, but later in the poem,
Armitage writes "I" and "we" - and it seems that here he speaks to a particular individual. The context and
other clues suggest this is a lover or friend (someone he meets "sixteen years" after the incident he
describes in the second section of the poem). Perhaps he wants the reader not so see this as something
that happened once to another person, but as something all of us can, and maybe should, do.
The first stanza - after the opening line - is quite easy to follow. The poet invites us think of a trust game.
(Teachers and students of drama may know this game. Readers of the poem will perhaps have played it, or
something like it.) "Those in front" spread their arms wide, and "free fall" backwards, while those behind
catch them and "take their weight". The point of the game is for those in front, to overcome the instinct to
bend their legs and fall safely. The "right" way to fall is only safe because there is someone to catch us.
The second stanza is far more puzzling, but will be familiar to anyone who knows school cloakrooms. A
yellow cotton jacket has come off its hook. On the "cloakroom floor" it is trampled on - "scuffed and
blackened underfoot." The sequel to this is that "back home", a mother (presumably the mother of the
child whose jacket this is) "puts two and two together" and gets the wrong answer ("makes a...fist of it" in
the dialect phrase). We do not know what the right answer would be. One possible reading is that the
mother blames the child for being careless and not checking that the jacket was hung on its hook. What
follows is accusation, tempers flaring and the child's being sent to bed:
"...Temper, temper. Questions
In the house. You seeing red. Blue murder. Bed"
There is a further sequel - the child sneaks out of the house at midnight. She does not go far ("no further
than the call-box at the corner of the street"). We do not know whom she rings, or what becomes of it. We
may suppose that she goes back home - but in some way her relationship with her parents is damaged.
At this point the poem becomes confusing - the poet introduces a first-person speaker, who is "waiting by
the phone" for this call. But his phone does not ring - "because it's sixteen years or so before we'll meet".
(So we may suppose that the two people here are very close - lovers or friends - and that she has told him
about this family row, many years later. In fact the poet does not even indicate the sex of either character,
so the incident here could have happened to a boy or girl, and the "I" of the poem could be male or female.
The "cotton jacket" may be a clue to its owner, however.
What follows may be what happened, but seems more like what should have happened (but didn't) or what
should happen now. The poet uses an imperative verb (giving an instruction or command) and tells the
"you" character to go back home - "Retrace that walk towards the garden gate."
What happens next seems to be an idealized act of reconciliation - the embrace of welcome is likened to
putting on a garment, which becomes the "same canary-yellow cotton jacket". And, magically, it still fits -
though years have passed. The point of the title becomes clear now. The "you" character can only come
home (emotionally and psychologically) when the source of her quarrel has been removed. Putting the
jacket back on her is a way of saying that everything is all right. We can be fairly sure that this is not literally
the same jacket, because the poet does not know what it is like in detail - the "you" character is to say
whether the fingers of the hands holding her are to make a "clasp", a "zip" or a "buckle".
We do not know whether the real father ever did make this reconciliation, or whether it is a scene that
Armitage imagines. But at the least, he suggests, the father wanted (or should have wanted) to do this.
What remains unclear to the reader is whether the imagined reconciliation here ever took place for the
characters in the poem. If we see the poem as an account of something more universal - how children and
parents fall out over relatively unimportant things, that become serious obstacles, then the biographical
details are less important. The poet is telling us, to make our peace while we can.
The final stanza contains a beautiful image of someone - the "father figure" - embracing his child, while
clothing her in an imagined garment. (It is not clear whether the "ribs" and "arms" are those of the person
doing the holding or the person being held - but the former seems to make better sense. What do you
think? It is also not quite clear whether the person "making" the jacket is facing the "you" character or
behind her - which would be more like what happens in the trust game.)…read more

Slide 4

Preview of page 4

The "father figure" may not be the real father, but the "I" of the poem, restoring trust that another has lost
- in which case, the "homecoming" may be to a new home, rather than the old one where the trust was
lost. Stepping "backwards" suggests not only the spatial direction of the movement, but also a going back
in time, to put right an old wrong. And "it still fits" suggests that the love of the father (or the "father
figure") is something out of which the child never grows.
This is a very tender poem - it seems that the poet writes from the heart and his own experience, and that
the "you" is someone he knows and loves. (But it is quite possible that he writes of an imagined experience
- poetry does not need to be literally true to tell the truth about human nature.) It is also a fair poem - the
"I" character does not take sides, but sees how parents, even the "model of a model", let down their
children, yet this does not mean that they love them the less.
The poet treads delicately here - his task is to set right a wrong. But he cannot be too direct about it, as the
"you" figure may resist any attempt at reconciliation. On the other hand, he does in some ways lead the
reader through the poem.
The poem has a regular metre (the iambic pentameter), while the sections vary in length. There are
occasional rhymes but they are not very intrusive. The effect of this is to give the poem a serious tone.
There is some drama in the second section, where the mother's anger and the child's defiance flare up -
shown in the short sentences, and the infantile language of "Temper, temper" and parents' command:
"Bed." The contrast of "seeing red" and "blue murder" seems almost violent (we have already had the
"yellow" of the jacket, and its being "blackened").
The poem, on the page, is broken into four sections. But its structure comes more from its argument and
from indications of time. The introduction of the "I" character, waiting by a phone that doesn't ring, is a
dividing point between then and now, between the damage done and the remedy, or between what did
happen (once) and what should happen (now and for the future).
As so often, we find Armitage writing in lists - here he lists features of a garment and corresponding body
parts. There are adjectives of colour, but mostly the vocabulary is simple and understated. Until the end of
the poem most of the images to be taken literally - like the "silhouette" of the father figure. In the final
stanza this changes, though we do not find conventional poetic metaphor here, either. Instead we can
envisage someone acting out a demonstration - pointing to ribs and saying they are "pleats or seams". In
fact, we cannot properly understand this stanza unless we visualize the physical actions and gestures.
·In reading this poem, do you identify mostly with the "you", the "I" or the parents? Or do you find that
the poem allows you to see all viewpoints equally?
· How far is this poem about a particular quarrel and how far does it show the way parents and children
commonly (or always) fall out?
· Do you think that the people in the poem are the poet and someone he really knows or characters he has
invented? Why do you think this?
· It is possible (since the poet is a man) that we read the poem and assume the "I" to be a man and the
"you" to be a girl (when the argument happened) and now a young woman, to whom the "I" is very close
(lover or partner). Does this make sense, or can we alter these roles without affecting the essential meaning
of the poem?
· There are eight of Simon Armitage's poems in the Anthology - but this is different from all the others. It's
far more serious and we see the poet's real feelings for once. Do you agree with this judgement?
· Do you like or dislike this poem? Give reasons why.
Here are some further suggestions for responding to the poem.
· There is a story in and behind this poem. Try to tell it in different forms - perhaps as a storyboard for a TV
film, a comic strip or the script for a radio play.
· Read the poem several times. Then work out ways (in pairs or small groups) to perform it. You may use
props - but probably do not need them. You certainly will want to use actions and gestures. You may need
to look very closely at the last stanza to work out how to put the jacket that "still fits" onto its wearer.
· If you are studying this poem in a school, then you might try the trust game described in the opening
stanza of the poem. (Make sure you do this under supervision, and somewhere where you are not going to
hurt yourself if you fall.) Repeat the game - note how you feel before you let go for the first time, when you
are caught, and then on subsequent occasions.…read more


No comments have yet been made

Similar English Literature resources:

See all English Literature resources »