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When did the ‘culture wars’ really start? Maybe back in the 60s …

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In the heady days of the 1960s veteran north-east poet Tom Pickard was a kind of culture warrior, even though he may not have seen it in quite those terms at the time. But at an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of poetry readings at Newcastle’s Morden Tower last weekend, he told of how he had resented the feeling that the arts establishment was trying to hand down ‘culture’ to the masses.

“I remember having an argument with the playwright Arnold Wesker when I was only 16-17, down by the Grey Monument {in the centre of Newcastle]. He was talking about bringing ‘culture’ to the working-class community – I said what about the Animals, the Beatles? The culture was already there – mining songs, traditional folk songs … That’s where I learned my culture.”

And in a moment that recalled Basil Bunting’s poem, ‘What the Chairman told Tom’, when arts grants were difficult to obtain, he said of the 60s youth movement of the time: “We felt, yeah, fuck you, we can do it, too.”

Tom Pickard, pictured left, was talking to Alex Niven, right, a lecturer at Newcastle University, and a poet, writer and former musician, whose books include The North Will Rise Again, at the celebratory event held at the Tyneside Irish Centre, within sight of Newcastle United’s Gallowgate stand, the ornate entrance to Chinatown, and the mediaeval Morden Tower itself, currently closed to the public.

The story of how Tom and his first wife Connie began their poetry readings at Morden Tower has been told a number of times  before, not least on this website. But it was fascinating to hear Tom reflecting on it all himself, in this Q&A session with Niven, who described Morden Tower as a “counter-cultural epicentre”, that was “still not really appreciated”.

embedded image from entry 135990 Tom Pickard, these days a nimble septuagenarian, talked frankly about the atmosphere at the tower in the 1960s, “of open sexuality, of comfort, as well as breaking down class barriers. And a lot of drinking, and discovering marijuana, and questioning authority.”

And what of the famous poets such as Allen Ginsberg that flocked to the tower, drawn there perhaps by the aura of Basil Bunting, a Modernist poet who had almost vanished by the time Tom got in touch with him and persuaded him to give a reading. Soon afterwards, encouraged by the reception of his work by the predominantly young, enthusiastic audience, he delivered his first reading of his most famous work, Briggflatts.  

Tom recalled: “I got a postcard from Ginsberg – I was working on a building site at the time – which read, ‘Dear Sir Tom, I have heard about all these JDs [juvenile delinquents] … can I come and read at your tower?” He explained to Alex Niven that the tower audiences included his friends, who were mostly unemployed or apprentices: “It was an odd mixture of people, but we blended very well.”

He told of how he and Connie had originally intended the tower to be a second-hand bookshop – he had previously had a stall on Newcastle’s Bigg Market – but the steps and weight of books put paid to that. And so the readings – first one delivered by Pete Brown, subsequent lyricist for the band Cream, who fell out of a lorry with a hangover after hitchhiking from London – were born. Tom added: “I wasn’t on a mission. I just thought it would be fun.”  

There was certainly a party atmosphere at the anniversary event, which included traditional Irish music from harpist and violinist Rosaleen and Kevin Doonan, which had a poignancy that evoked memories for those that had been there, and regret for those who no longer were around.

There was a solo set from Paul Smith of the band Maximo Park, who launched his first album at Morden Tower, and “went to a lot of experimental music there”. And a group of Irish poets from Cork’s Soundeye festival, led by Trevor Joyce, delivered readings, interspersed with extracts from James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. After all, 16 June did happen to be Bloomsday, as well as the date of the first reading at Morden Tower.

There was also a merry band of open-micers at the start of the event, led by John Hegley, and Kate Fox, who did some gigs 20 years ago at the tower as part of the Poetry Vandals. The open-micers also included a poet who introduced himself as The Writing Is On The Wall – “I stick poems around the walls of many cities” – who surely captured something of the anarchic spirit of the tower.

embedded image from entry 135996 Another poet was Liz Lennie, a friend of mine, pictured right, who had travelled from Surrey to recapture the days when she had been an audience member at the tower in the 1960s, as a student, and then a teacher in Newcastle. She entertained the warmly-disposed audience with tales of sleeping in a disused railway station, and even rolling naked in snow … but enough said. It was good to see her enjoying a hug with Tom as we were about to leave.  

The event raised more than £500, which has been donated to the Alzheimer's Society on behalf of Connie, who sadly has been ill for several years. She played a big part in the success of the tower, carrying on with events there for decades after Tom moved on. In an interview with Write Out Loud in 2020, Bloodaxe publisher and editor Neil Astley recalled being involved in the later years at Morden Tower: "I helped Bob Lawson, one of the later organisers. Connie continued to support Morden Tower and came back later as the Tower’s organiser but Tom was still around as a poet and came along for readings by Bunting and other poets he was close to." Meanwhile Tom himself, still a diehard socialist with not much time for “centrists”, has a full list of gigs coming up, even as he reminisces about the past on his Facebook page, with pictures from Morden Tower and other fun and games in Newcastle in days gone by.

Thanks for a great anniversary event, Tom! In all the party atmosphere I left my notes at the Irish Centre, and only retrieved them a few days ago, which explains the lateness of this review. Better late than never, eh?   



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Julian (Admin)

Tue 16th Jul 2024 13:55

Better late than never? Definitely, Greg. Thank you for a cracking, entertaining review.

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