Gyles Brandreth talks to Absolutely Education about the Poetry Together initiative – bringing old and young together through the spoken word

Gyles Brandreth’s way with words is legendary. Just a Minute and other much-loved radio and TV shows sit alongside books, speaking engagements, and so much more. Now, he is a man on a mission to share a multi-generational event called Poetry Together.

It all started some five years back when Gyles Brandreth was researching human memory for a radio programme. He went to speak to a professor in the Memory Lab at Cambridge University. There he found out not only that learning things by heart is excellent for the older brain, but also that babies and small children who regularly hear poems and rhymes are quicker to speak, to read and to write.

The seeds were sown and, after Gyles Brandreth’s programme aired, he continued to think on. He recalled his own schooldays and the power of group poetry readings – an activity so satisfying it must be worth reviving. To get this revival off the ground meant, as he puts it: “Persuading old people in care homes and young people in schools to learn the same poem by heart and then get together and perform their poems”. Brilliant, but there’s more: “Over tea and cake – tea and cake’s the important bit “.  This then is his annual celebration of rhythm and rhyme. Poetry Together is now in its third year.

Perfect poetry – bringing old and young together
Gyles Brandreth’s Poetry Together now has support from Dukes Education

It has been helped along by Aatif Hassan, Founder and Chairman of Dukes Education, who got behind the idea after Gyles Brandreth discussed it with him at a school prize-giving. Now Dukes Education is a high-profile supporter. There has also been a big helping hand from Dame Judi Dench. The two of them were inspired by the directive, right at the start of the pandemic, to time washing your hands to a poem but thought the nation could improve upon ‘Happy Birthday’. “We did ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ together while washing our hands. It’s exactly the right length. It went viral – me and Judi Dench at her kitchen sink, with lots of spuds,” says Brandreth. After people watched and downloaded, many also looked up Poetry Together and that swelled support. “We now have people across the Commonwealth and across the world. There are people from America and Canada, India and Jamaica, so Poetry Together has become international.”

There have been many special moments. He recalls a truly moving reading at the very first event when a Chelsea Pensioner and a 15-year-old pupil from a local Pimlico school read a Siegfried Sassoon war poem. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” There was also a wonderful reading of Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda by HRH Duchess of Cornwall and a young group from Knightsbridge School. She’d learned the poem as a child and re-learned it specially for the Poetry Together Nationwide Tea Party held at Eaton Square Senior School in Mayfair (it’s hoped she may attend a party this year). At this same Eaton Square Senior gathering – which brought together five schools and their care home partners – there were poems read in Welsh and Polish too, a truly memorable tea party.

“There was a wonderful reading of Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda by HRH Duchess of Cornwall and a young group from Knightsbridge School”

Even last year, during the very worst of lockdown times, Poetry Together participation grew – much to Gyles Brandreth’s surprise. “Our heart sank last year – we thought, ‘this finishes it’. Far from it, as it turned out people wanted to perform their poems on Zoom, so we had virtual tea parties.” He believes there is a rediscovery of poetry – reading it and writing it – partly because of lockdown but also because it’s something that brings so much pleasure and comfort. “Multiculturalism has helped with this because there’s a great tradition of spoken poetry around the world – rap poetry has helped too.”

Poetry A
The inaugural tea party was held at Eaton Square Senior School and was attended by the Duchess of Cornwall

As a lifelong poetry lover, he’d be hard-pressed to pick just one poem. After all, this is a man who met both C. S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot as a boy. Eliot even encouraged by him to memorise ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’, so that would have to be on his list, along with anything by Shakespeare and, of course, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’. He also has enormous fondness for Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything is going to be All Right’.

Whatever people’s poetry choices, this year’s event is a golden opportunity to share them. “We have tea parties taking place all over the UK – and across the world. They can happen anywhere and the point about Poetry Together is it is fun and it is relaxed. Language is power, and for young people especially, learning something by heart and then speak it out loud helps with their confidence and speaking ability. For everyone, poetry is just generally a great and good thing.”

Poetry Together events run until the end of November. A celebratory tea party with very special guests takes place during early November. Participation is free. To register and receive a Poetry Together Kit, visit

Further reading: Cressida Cowell on the magical power of reading for pleasure