Simon Armitage was born in Marsden, West Yorkshire in 1963. He studied Geography at Portsmouth and Psychology at Manchester University, qualifying as a social worker and working in the Probation Service. He also found temporary employment as a shelf-stacker, lathe-operator and disc jockey. His varied career has been the source of a lot of his poetry. He is now a published and acclaimed poet, teacher of creative writing and broadcaster.
The poem, ‘Hitcher’, takes the form of a dramatic monologue, spoken by a man who, for reasons not made explicit, picks up a hitch-hiker before assaulting him and pushing him out of the moving car.
The speaker, who himself hitches to the rental car he uses, seems to envy the hitcher’s apparent freedom. While the speaker receives answerphone messages threatening him about losing his job, the hitcher follows “the sun from west to east.” There’s an unresolved, awkward symmetry between the two which drives the poem to a frightening, unresolved conclusion.
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This blackly comic poem captures beautifully the way in which someone who feels they might have lived their life in a way that is not constrained by the conventional demands of work and “getting and spending” (as Wordsworth put it) takes revenge on a hitchhiker who has managed just that by attacking him and throwing him out of his car whilst it is moving quickly enough for him to be in “third gear”.
The choice of a dramatic monologue helps Armitage to articulate the imagined thoughts of the man who feels he has missed out on the free lifestyle that only requires “just a toothbrush and the good earth for a bed” (line 8).
Another way of reading the poem is in strictly metaphorical terms wherein the hitcher may well be the speaker himself remembering himself as a before he was enslaved a conventional working life. He may be denying that another side of him actually existed by saying that he and the hitcher are not exactly the same age.
The speaker in the poem is clearly worried about being given the sack from work when he hears an uncompromising message on his telephone answering machine and this is the italicised line 3. He “thumbed a lift” to where his car was parked. This is puzzling because it suggests that he, too, may be seen as a hitcher.
He then described picking up a hitcher in Leeds, a man who was “following the sun from west to east” (line 7), suggesting that his life is dictated by natural rhythms, no the mechanical interruptions of an answering machine or the demands of work. The hitcher quotes the 1960s radical folk singer, Bob Dylan by saying that the truth is “blowin’ in the wind”, / or round the next bend.” (lines 8-9). This incenses the speaker as he resents being reminded of the fact that he is not as free as this man and neither does he seem to have the courage to be like him.
In a shocking display of violence he says, “I let him have it”, going on to detail attacking the hitcher with a “krooklok”, something designed to secure a car’s steering wheel and never intended for use as a weapon. In saying that he “let him out” (line 17) we understand that he means that he pushed him out deliberately. This is an appalling act on top of the head butt and six blows to the face with the krooklok mentioned earlier.
The remainder of the incident is reported as a reflection in the speaker’s rear view mirror. He is described as “bouncing off the kerb” (line 18). The speaker seems utterly unconcerned by this and casually reports, “We were the same age, give or take a week.” His brutality is contrasted with the gentleness of the hitcher who “liked the breeze / to run its fingers / through his hair” (lines 20-22). The speaker then fixes the time of the incident precisely by relaying the weather forecast to which he has clearly been listening on his car radio. This compounds his appalling lack of concerns and the fact that he can be so self absorbed as to observe, “The outlook for the day was moderate to fair” (line 23). This is dreadfully shocking as it uses the language of the shipping forecast to make clear that the death of the hitcher has not spoiled the day; quite the opposite in fact – things could get better.
The concluding statement leaves the reader in no doubt that the speaker is utterly amoral: “Stitch that, I remember thinking, / you can walk from there.” (lines 24-5). The implication is that the hitcher will never be walking anywhere again, even though we are certain that he has died. As mentioned earlier in this commentary, it could be that the speaker has to leave his former self behind and has described this in terms of a murder to draw attention to the effects of a conventional life on the average working person. This may not be acceptable as an interpretation so it is important to arrive at your own conclusion.