'When you're very young it's not hard to change the direction of your life': Write Out Loud interviews Brian Patten
He tried to join the circus, then shot to fame as a poet in his teens after packing in his job as a local reporter. Brian Patten, whose name is synonymous with the Mersey poets, and who will be appearing at the Aldeburgh poetry festival this weekend, talks to Greg Freeman about the inclusiveness of the Liverpool poetry scene in the 1960s, an inspirational teacher, the problems with writing a memoir - and the enduring nature of love.
The Mersey Sound anthology featuring you, Adrian Henri, and Roger McGough has sold over 500,000 copies, and is now a Penguin Modern Classic. I was first interested in poetry as a teenager, my early poems were written in what I fondly believed to be the Mersey style, and you were the first and only poet I’d seen perform live at that time. What do you think it was about the Mersey Poets that struck a chord, and introduced so many to poetry?
Maybe the whole scene was a bit more inclusive. Liverpool was at its heart a small city that you could walk around easily. It wasn’t exactly unusual to find John Conteh who was once world light-heavyweight boxing champion in the same drinking club as the poets, along with the artists and musicians, and even poetry-writing footballers. The poetry scene was inclusive because it never occurred to us to be any other way. University poetry societies were by their nature closed shops and seemed to concentrate on the Movement poets and/or hark back a few generations, while the London scene, which had some very good poets, worked with jazz and attracted an older crowd.
At the early Liverpool readings c1961 our audience would drift up from the Cavern where the Beatles had started playing to the poetry gigs we organised in a club called Streats. They were office workers and secretaries and manual workers as well as students, or like myself, kids that had left school at 15. Any pretentions the poetry had about being exclusive would have been given short shift - one wanted to be honest to one’s own muse and to the audience as well. We shared the same points of reference, and had a language in common. Also we came from working-class backgrounds - Roger’s father worked on the docks and mine was a merchant seaman.
You’ve quoted your late friend Adrian Mitchell as saying “most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. Some of the poetry establishment were sniffy about your success at that time, even when you had made poetry accessible to many who had found it unapproachable before. Donald Davie complained about your inclusion in the Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse. What did you feel about that reaction from the poetry establishment at the time, and now?
We didn’t really respond to the critics, that would have been to play their own game. There seemed no point in entering a dialogue with them or arguing about what was and what was not poetry. That’s the kind of gruel they fed on. When Davie reviewed Larkin’s Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse he said Larkin had included me to show what a sorry state poetry was in. I received a postcard from Larkin soon after, saying: “Ignore the scissor-men.” It was good advice.
There is a distrust of school and some teachers in poems like ‘The Minister for Exams’ in your work. But in your last year at secondary school, as a result of the head reading an essay you had written, you were moved from the C to the A stream, and encouraged to write poetry. Was that a life-changing moment?
It was, not that I understood it at the time. It was one teacher in particular who encouraged me - his name was Eric Sutcliffe. He loved opera, football and storytelling, and he shared his enthusiasms with all his charges. He crops up in the reminiscences of more than one generation of Liverpool schoolchildren. He epitomised that rare but fortunately extant creature: the inspirational teacher. At school I was pretty truculent and sometimes violent, and like the headmaster, Eric Sutcliffe saw something in the writing that he thought might rescue me from myself. A version of him strolls through a multitude of memoirs in a multitude of languages, and the character always deserves his or her place in our narratives.
It was a great thrill for me to get my first job on a local paper. Was it the same for you, when you joined the Bootle Times? When you left, was it because there was too much going on elsewhere?
I left school at 15. I applied to Billy Smart’s Circus for a job as a casual labourer but there were no vacancies. Writing for a local newspaper was a second choice, and it does seem pretty amazing now that back then you could walk into a job as a junior reporter on a local paper aged 15 and without any so-called qualifications. But once again I was lucky. The editor didn’t give a toss whether or not I’d passed any exams, as long as I could write. I left when I was 17 because I wanted complete independence. I remember the day I jacked the job in. I was sitting sweating on a railway station platform trussed up in a suit. I was on my way to cover some boring local gala, and thought, fuck it. I gave in my notice and a month later I was hitchhiking through Europe. In Paris I was sleeping under the bridges some nights and in derelict houses other nights. I got to hear Lawrence Ferlinghetti read at Shakespeare & Company, the legendary bookshop owned by George Whitman. I ended up kipping there amongst the books and began writing some of the poems that found their way into my own first collection. When you are very young it does not take much effort to change the direction of your life.
Did you feel yourself swept up by the excitement of that era, or did you always feel a little apart from it all? At one time in the 1960s you moved to Winchester. Did that reflect a desire to escape from all that was going on in Liverpool?
I did feel on the edge of it all, a dichotomy, I guess - to be on the edge of what one helped create. But I’ve always felt that way, and still do. But it was a special time. Two seemingly unrelated things ignited a joyous explosion. Conscription into the army ended in 1960 and suddenly there was a whole generation of young people set free. Also, around the same time HP (hire-purchase) was becoming the norm. Working-class kids who could never have afforded a guitar or a drum kit could suddenly afford the wherewithal to get a group together and create their own music.
Your books for children, such as the novel Mr Moon’s Last Case, and the poetry collection Gargling with Jelly, have been acclaimed, and have been bestsellers. Do you enjoy writing for children as much as writing for adults – or, perhaps, more so?
Not more so. Writing for children was a kind of holiday from the other stuff.
I understand you’ve been working on a memoir for a while. How is it coming along?
It’s something I’ve been toying with for ages. It’s been in and out of a bottom drawer. I look at it, cross things out, and put the MS back in the drawer. So it never grows more than 80,000 words long. It’s really just a hobby. No revelations. Also being a private person, a memoir does seem an absurd thing to write. In a poem the “I” becomes “we” - WB Yeats wrote about the ability to assume a poetic mask that gives the wearer permission to be something other than they are, and still remain truthful. How to do this with a memoir, where the “I” remains an “I”?
You often read a poem about Adrian Mitchell at your performances. What was he like, as a fellow poet, and as a friend?
He was warm and loving and honest. His body of work was truly astonishing and his vision was consistent. Adrian Mitchell’s a major figure in 20th century poetry - that’ll become more apparent when the last of the corporate dwarfs on the board of Eng Lit & Co Ltd die off. We’re nearly there. A plug: Bloodaxe have published Come On Everybody - over 400 pages of his work. If anyone wants to know what Adrian was like, read that book!
In the poem about Mitchell, ‘In the Orchard After Midnight’, you are drinking together in your orchard in Devon. Like Ted Hughes, you left the north and settled in the west country. Is there a particular reason why this part of the world is close to your heart?
When I was a child, in the backyard of the little house I lived in I dug up a few pavements slabs and tried to create a garden. Later, as an adolescent, in order to escape the house I’d spend long hours alone in the park. Later still, in the back garden of a house I had in London I created a poets garden. I planted it up with the seeds from poppy-heads taken from around Wordsworth’s school-house; from Lorca’s birthplace in Granada I took cuttings from geraniums; from Robert Graves’ garden in Deia I took some roots from a plumbago, etc, etc. So, all along I’ve wanted to be somewhere green. Also I love rivers and boats and the river Dart is spitting distance from the orchard, which, by the way, is a small, overgrown tangle full of ferns and nettles and wildlife.
‘The Brackets’, the last poem in your 1996 collection, Armada, is much concerned with the onset of death. Another poem in that collection, ‘So Many Different Lengths of Time’ – “how long is a man’s life, finally?” – is often read at funerals, I understand. And you read it at the service for Adrian Henri. Is mortality still as big a concern in your work?
It’s becoming an even bigger concern.
You still often read with Roger McGough, one of poetry’s elder statesmen these days. Has your relationship with him changed over the years?
We’ve been mates for over 50 years. He’s nine or 10 years older than me and in the early days he was like an older brother, always getting me out of scrapes and apologising for my bad behaviour. For a while he must have thought it was his raison d'être.
How do you think your own poetry has changed? When you were young, you were known for your love poems, in collections such as Little Johnny’s Confession, and Notes to the Hurrying Man. How do you feel about your early work now?
Were there many love poems in Little Johnny’s Confession? I’m still writing love poems - a poem like ‘That Dress, This Shirt’, which you can find in my Collected Love Poems, is one that would have been impossible for a much younger man to write. Something I wrote yesterday excited me - the lines seemed to come out of nowhere, but of course they came from a place new to me. Love poems, or poems about love and relationships, are not the prerogative of the young. No more than love is.
You gave your first public reading aged 15, and started work on the Bootle Times in the same year, 1961. At the age of 16 you launched your own magazine, Underdog. Your first collection of poetry was published when you were still in your teens. Do you look back at that time now, and marvel at the speed with which it all happened? Was there always something driving you on?
I’m not sure anything was driving me on - I didn’t think I was going anywhere in particular. But I guess it was a bit unusual; maybe it had something to do with being the age I was when I was cut adrift from family. I did try to answer a similar kind of question once with a poem I wrote called ‘One Another’s Light’:
I do not know what brought me here
Away from where I’ve hardly ever been and now
Am never likely to go again.
Faces are lost, and places passed
At which I could have stopped,
And stopping, been glad enough.
Some faces left a mark,
And I on them might have wrought
Some kind of charm or spell
To make their futures work,
But it’s hard to guess
How one person on another
Works an influence.
We pass, and lit briefly by one another’s light
Hope the way we go is right.