Mersey mania, Seine bridges, a tattooed granny: the life and times of Brian Patten

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When The Mersey Sound anthology of Liverpool poets Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten quickly became hugely popular in the 1960s, it dismayed a number of critics, Patten revealed in a Q&A session at Aldeburgh on Saturday. “One said: ‘They write for the great unwashed.’ Another called us ‘three parts of a pantomime horse’. Another of those critics I saw here earlier today,” he added, with a merry glint in his eye. “It was all great, the more publicity the better.” 

He hadn’t liked the title The Mersey Sound, though, thought it “too pop … but the Liverpool Poets, it sort of stuck, didn’t it?” Many of the poems in The Mersey Sound had first appeared in Patten’s own publication Underdog, which ran for six or seven issues. His first collection of poems, Little Johnny’s Confession, came about after he read a poem on Jack de Manio’s radio programme. “Philip Unwin the publisher was listening as he was shaving, and heard it.  I took a call from him on the phone on our landing the next day.”

All this was going on at the height of the Merseyside music boom. Patten read poetry at a basement club called Streats in Liverpool, and knew a 15-year-old girl called Pat who used to chew bits of polythene, and who also frequented the Cavern where the Beatles played – ‘Polythene Pam’ in the John Lennon song. Both Henri and McGough were involved in music: “Adrian had a group called the Liverpool Scene, Roger was with the Scaffold. I didn’t want to belong to that kind of world. So I went to live in Winchester – a bit like suicide.” However, musicians seemed to follow him around.  “Living upstairs in the same house was a chap at the local art college who was in danger of being thrown out – his name was Brian Eno.” In  the 1970s Patten relented and went on tour with Grimms, a fairly anarchic combination of Scaffold and the Bonzos, with wild man Keith Moon of the Who occasionally sitting in on drums. “They were quite drunken days. We were taken on a tour of a factory that made Special Brew, and given crates and crates of it. That was a very dangerous tour.”

Long before all this Patten had thrown up his job as a junior reporter on the Bootle Times, where he had been employed by an editor “with a bottle of brandy in his desk, and a red nose”.  He met a French girl in Paris who translated some of his poems. He wrote them in coloured chalk on the ground, and became “a pavement poet”, sleeping under bridges along the Seine, or “skipping” in houses:  “If you saw a skip, then you’d know the house was empty, and you’d go and sleep in it.”

Patten spoke of his childhood. “I was one of the last children to read at my primary school. There was quite a violent, tense background at home. My grandmother was crippled in the second world war, in a bomb blast; the wardrobe fell and crushed her legs. She just crawled around the house. She was quite bitter. There was such claustrophobia. I just started writing to get things down, since there was no one to speak to.” His stepfather was “a violent, alcoholic policeman. I always wished him to Hell.” He read a poem about his grandmother called ‘Tattoos’ (“I used to think all grannies were tattooed”): “A child, I studied those tattoos intently - / Back then they seemed as mysterious as runes to me.”  

He spoke of his well-known poem, often read at funerals, with its opening line: “How long is a man’s life, finally?” and explained that its first verse was borrowed from a translation of Pablo Neruda, by Lucy Graves. “That poem turns up at memorial services all over the country – it has its own life, it’s gone out there by itself. Most people who use have no idea who wrote it, and that’s fine.”  

He said he used to read poems “very badly, very monotonously, and with a thick Scouse accent”, and was asked how often he wrote these days. He replied: “When I get poems, I’m pretty lucky. They come in bunches. I don’t write as often as I used to. In the last three months I’ve written two poems that I like.” He added: “I wrote one yesterday. It was just a little ditty, but rhyme is a great facilitator for loosening the unconscious.”

Poems in his 1996 collection Armada “came very quickly. They were about my mother’s death. Then there was silence for several years." He went on: “A while ago I was very seriously ill, half of me was cut out, but I recovered and here I am, writing again.” He added: “I haven’t got any great ambition anymore. It’s not because I’m self-satisfied. I like planting things in the garden, or doing down the river in my little boat.”




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