Newspaper Taxis - Poetry After the Beatles: ed. Bowen, Furniss, Woolley

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“Newspaper taxis appear on the shore / waiting to take you away” are two of the lines from John Lennon’s surreal Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a song that he always insisted was not about LSD, on 1967’s Sgt Pepper album. Soon after it was released our young French teacher – who himself went on to write the theme tune for EastEnders - brought the album into class and played both sides to us in lieu of our normal lesson.

Because nostalgia is personal, and we may be tempted to interrupt, saying: “No, you’ve got it wrong. I don’t remember it like that,” putting together an anthology of poetry about the Beatles is potentially a fraught business. Be careful, for you tread on our memories. There are the must-haves, of course. Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis:


“Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather too late for me) –

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.”


And Paul Farley’s delicate linking of the completion of the Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me, and Sylvia Plath’s suicide, in 11th February 1963:


                                “This milk bottle

might hold what John’ll drink for one last take;

that she’ll leave out for when the children wake.”


For those of a certain age, the Beatles are in our bloodstream. Where were you when you heard that John Lennon had been shot? See Carol Ann Duffy’s Liverpool Echo:


“Pat Hodges kissed you once, although quite shy,

in sixty-two. Small crowds in Matthew Street

endure rain for the echo of a beat,

as if nostalgia means you did not die.” 


Nor is the 1963 death of Kennedy ignored, in Jane Draycott’s It Won’t Be Long, linking it with the November release of the second Beatles album:


“Here comes the sun , though it’s November

and half the globe’s in darkness still,

a world of black and white though colour’s

just around the corner”. 


The girls divvied up the Beatles in their affections, but Lennon was always the most charismatic and fascinating, and in their later years wrote most of their best lyrics. Kim Moore’s This Boy observes that


                                              “He was born

without brakes, this boy who wouldn’t wear

his glasses,”


while Jeremy Reed pays tribute to John’s Shirts and Suits:


               “thin-rimmed round teashade specs,

relined dragoon coats, revamped military,

quilted Mao jackets, arty paisley …


                                … the music too

seems tailored to throw colours round his voice.”


On the other hand, All You Need Is Love’s simplistic lyrics and plodding tune - dismissed as “wilfully substandard” and “slapdash” by Ian MacDonald in his comprehensive analysis of the Beatles’ songs, Revolution In The Head - have none of the sharpness of Lennon at his best. Yet it is a song that the poets in Newspaper Taxis keep coming back to, referring to it almost as often as Love Me Do. The most striking mention comes in Peter Carpenter’s Love, recalling Elvis Costello introducing it as “an old English folk song” at the 1980s Live Aid concert:


“we were nonplussed before the first chords but when

he got to ‘Nothing you can do that can’t be done…’ tears were

being snuffled back in a gut-lurch of ownership: this thing’s ours,

and it’s up there with Auden and his ‘love one another or die’,

and bigger than Larkin’s ‘what will survive of us’ ”


Well, maybe.


Poetry is, or should be, as much about technique as music is: oddly, it’s difficult to find poems in this collection that show that much interest in how the music was made. One of the exceptions is John Canfield’s Ringoism:  


“Finger-ringed, matched-grip,

a southpaw on a right hand kit,

no frills fills and a whip-


crack snare, riser-raised

comes the time-shift tempo of A Day

in the Life … 


… the solid rock who couldn’t roll


to save his life, or play the dots,

no paradiddles or clave high-hats

but tremendous feel for when and what” 


There are “milestone” poems in the careers of the Beatles in this anthology, such as Jeremy Reed on the death of Brian Epstein - that moment when the boys were heading for India and the Maharishi, leaving him behind in London, a businessman haunted by missed financial moments, and other demons:


“The band won’t tour: he fears redundancy,

internal fighting. Sometimes things explode

inside his head, and leave no memory.”


Another key moment is Lachlan Mackinnon’s On The Roof Of the World, about the Beatles’ last, traffic-stopping live performance, on the roof of their Apple headquarters in London, brought to a premature end by police intervention:


“Tomorrow’s papers will acclaim a British institution.

I’ll read them and imagine I was there like everyone.

They are already going out of fashion.”


One of the editors of Newspaper Taxis is Merseyside poetry veteran Phil Bowen, who with Damian Furniss and David Woolley, also edited The Captain’s Tower, an anthology of  poems to mark Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, again published by Seren. In one of his contributions here, Cloud Nine, Bowen laments a Liverpool district whose community spirit has been hit by redevelopment, and calls up John and Ringo in support: 


“There’s a sign saying Cloud Nine

in the boarded-up shop next to The Empress

near where Ringo lived, but nine

was always John’s number’’


Poetry’s elder statesman Roger McGough was one of Penguin’s Merseyside Poets in the 1960s, and sang in the pop group Scaffold with Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike. Thank U Very Much is his account of an encounter with Noel and Liam Gallagher, who worship the Beatles, covered I Am The Walrus, and want to hear all about the old days. It ends with a satisfyingly biting couplet:


“ ‘Tell us about Scaffold.’ ‘Tell us about Brian Epstein.’

‘Calm down, calm down,’ I said with Aintree irony.

‘If you’re really interested, why not hit my web-site?’

Liam removed his shades.                             ‘Gobshite.’ ’’


Of course, as it should, this anthology sends you back to the music. Some of it, like Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus and A Day In The Life sounded sublime at the time - pop as poetry - and remains just as acute and poignant today. As it turned out, the Beatles never did go out of fashion. We face years of moptops anniversary tributes, such as the recent Please Please Me album covers. Bring them on, say I. A quote from Glyn Wright’s realistic yet elegiac message to Merseybeat tourists in Strawberry Fields, Dead Man’s Valley will do fine as a conclusion: 


“They come down our road from Penny Lane

press cheeks to bars at Dovedale School

then want to know the way to Strawberry Fields …

…You try to say – there’s not much to see: they built

on Strawberry Fields, the iron gates are padlocked”


And then he reflects, quoting, as it happens, from the Stones rather than the Beatles:


“It’s only rock n roll. Maybe. But I like it. Still.”


Greg Freeman


Newspaper Taxis - Poetry After The Beatles, edited by Phil Bowen, Damian Furniss and David Woolley, Seren, £9.99

All royalties from the sale of this book are being donated to Claire House Children’s Hospice, serving young people and children of Merseyside with complex medical needs








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Wendy Scott

Sun 10th Mar 2013 21:20

I enjoyed your review, Greg. I personally think this collection is rather uneven, but I like the penultimate poem by Katherine Stansfield, 'Relic', because of the way it exposes the besottedness of the unbridled fan - all right, I admit, I am one too, and who would not wish to recapture 'the long dead croon'?

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Greg Freeman

Fri 8th Mar 2013 12:49

Yes, I remember those compilations, Roy, and I like the poem; a reminder of the butcher cover, and the "whiteout" of the white album. You make a good point about the photograph and the fading smiles. There's a poem about the butcher cover in the anthology, by Tamar Yoseloff

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Roy Marshall

Fri 8th Mar 2013 11:02

Thanks Greg, really enjoyed reading this. Here is a poem for those who remember the Red and Blue compliation albums and their covers.

Red to Blue

In velvet collared suits
and Chelsea boots
before fish-eyed lenses,
the butcher cover,
potpourri explosions,
coats from Afghanistan,
satin, granny glasses,
lysergic lurches,
Hare Krishna,
an orchestra veering off the rails
into a whiteout.
Seven years after
Please Please Me
they hire the same photographer
for Let It Be; under all that hair,
the faces on the balcony,
smiles worn out.

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John F Keane

Tue 5th Mar 2013 20:21

As well as being hugely overrated, John Lennon was a rather violent, hate-filled individual. And the 60s themselves were in reality racist, sexist and intolerant, at least in Britain, with its 'no coloreds need apply' notices and other forms of discrimination. A cursory glance at the present Cabinet (not to mention the media, business and nearly everything else) proves that the 60s did not greatly weaken class distinction in the UK, as is so often claimed. It is high time people stood up to these weary and discredited myths...

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Greg Freeman

Sat 2nd Mar 2013 10:17

Thanks, Isobel! In an interview with the Telegraph Roger McGough talks about envying the Beatles for their clothes sense, and how Paul McCartney dated McGough's first wife, before he married her.

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Thu 28th Feb 2013 12:47

Enjoyed reading this Greg - nostagia indeed!

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Greg Freeman

Thu 28th Feb 2013 09:15

Cheers, Julian and Frances. In perhaps another indication of the importance of the Beatles to our collective national memory, there were newspaper taxis at the closing London Olympics ceremony last year.

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Julian (Admin)

Wed 27th Feb 2013 13:53

brilliantly done Greg. I really enjoyed reading this. Lots of memories evoked, he says with a sigh.

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Frances Spurrier

Tue 26th Feb 2013 11:23

Great review Greg. The poignancy is that Strawberry Fields was never going to be forever but we still have the songs - and now the poems too it seems.

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