'Poetry suddenly could be fun ... it was all very Liverpool'

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Brian Patten is returning to the north-west next month, with an appearance at Bolton’s Live from Worktown festival. Patten is one of the Liverpool Poets, who with Adrian Henri and Roger McGough made poetry entertaining and accessible to a new audience in the 1960s – and has continued to do since. In an article for Write Out Loud, Maggie Lett recalls as a schoolgirl going to the Cavern to see the Beatles at lunchtimes – and then listening to “irreverent” poetry “in my own language” in the evenings in a Liverpool basement.

 

This is the foreword - or submission guidelines, in effect - by poet and editor Brian Patten for issue no 5 of his Underdog magazine, in 1964:

 

     while we are open to any creative work we are

     more concerned with writers involved with the city & its

     postnobillis / HALT / guinessisgood for you reality. their

     poems are catalysed by cities. are metallic birds.

     they would rather get their vowels dirty than sit blind

     and pretty on a spinster’s bookshelf.

     dog’s anxious to see new poetry et cetera

     send manuscripts with s.a.e to patten at 23 Underley

     Street Liverpool 7. send sales enquiries to o’neill at

     22 Noel Street Liverpool 8.

 

Included in the issue are works by Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, Pete Brown, and Michael Horovitz.

They were heady days, the early 60s in Liverpool, full of a potent mix of music and words with the ships in the background, as always, blowing their own trumpets. There were all the bands, headed of course by the Beatles: a shifting clientele of office and shop workers and the otherwise unemployed would head daily to the Cavern club for their lunchtime session of Mersey sounds and sarnies. I would rush there on the bus, school uniform hidden under my grey duffle coat, to get my dose of 20 minutes of music before having to get a taxi back in time for the first lesson of the afternoon. The midday line-up didn’t always include the Beatles: a double-whammy would be Gerry and the Pacemakers followed by double French.

There was also another cellar frequented by some of the same clientele, the basement of Sampson & Barlow’s restaurant on London Road, which on Monday nights offered a diet of poetry and beer to a capacity crowd. The place wasn’t very big but crowded it always was, and dark, smoky, buzzing with voices and enthusiasm and hard-back chairs scraping on the floor as people were asked to move up. There was a small performance area, with a lobby and a makeshift bar. It all seemed very bohemian and happening to this convent-school sixth-former. I felt I’d joined the Liverpool intelligentsia.

An open mic policy was in operation but the popular regulars dominated the proceedings. The audience would suffer the soul-searching angst of earnest, hopeful wannabes for the reward of also hearing some of the most moving, perceptive, funny, clever use of words we had ever heard. I was at the time steeped in John Donne’s metaphysics, which I loved once it had been explained, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, with whom I never got to grips despite my teacher’s best efforts.

Then suddenly there was Sampson & Barlow’s and I was introduced to poetry that was both irreverent and accessible and in my own language, poetry about the fanciful, about the heart without all the red-rose guff, or which uprooted the daily mundane into the realms of wonderful wordplay. Poetry suddenly could be fun. It was all very Liverpool, that combination of humour and directness, here deceptively simple thanks to the skills of the writers. But it was a combination that was soon to appeal to a much wider audience. S&B regulars Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri were to become household names, known collectively as the Liverpool Poets.

A fair comment about Brian Patten in those days would be that he belonged to the army of the great unwashed, as he lurked about in the city’s various haunts, a mop of curls bouncing around above his old, smelly overcoat. But he was recognised as a real poet, the genuine article, and perhaps the “I’m broke” fragrance wafted its own nasal proof. And anyway, we liked the guy.

Roger McGough always seemed to inhabit a more intellectual plane but was always a great performer: when he read his work, his delivery gave it an added potency and wryness. McGough was best man at the wedding of a family friend of mine (my dad refused to go, would have felt out of his depth, so my mum went on her own) but I never really got to know him, though I remember quite fancying him at the time and at a distance. He was a busy man. As well as writing his poems, he was also a member of The Scaffold comedy trio, along with Mike McGear (Paul McCartney’s brother) and the somewhat in-your-face John Gorman. These two also appeared regularly at S&B’s. The Scaffold spread their words round other clubs in Liverpool and got themselves a regular slot on a late-night magazine programme on the telly. And who can forget their immortal ‘Lily the Pink’? (Okay, maybe quite a few people ...)

It was Adrian Henri who became a good friend of mine. If I was at the poetry night on my own, he would walk me to the bus station afterwards and I’d often visit his flat in Canning Street when I was in town during the day. We’d talk about all sorts of things - life, religion, the visual arts and the art of words (sounds very pretentious now). I can remember feeling that lowly me from Bootle had joined the avant-garde set the first time I went to Adrian’s place. Immediately through the door, hanging on the landing wall, was a tyre-less bicycle wheel with a bloody dead bird squashed through its spokes. Then in the kitchen, Adrian’s wife was cooking, throwing what appeared to be privet leaves into the mix. I had never seen a bay leaf before, we didn’t have any in the cupboard in our pre-fab kitchen, but we did have privets edging the garden wall. It was to Adrian’s flat that I’d go after a bit of study in the Picton library and it was to his place that I hurried to share the news when my A-Level results came through. In turn, I was chuffed to be on his guest list when his work was selected for the prestigious John Moore’s art exhibition in Liverpool. When he invited me to an all-night do at his flat, to mingle and party with everyone who was anyone (to my mind), I was thrilled. I got ready, took the bus into town and got as far as the door of his flat when I decided that this time it would be me out of my depth. Everyone looked too able and off-the-wall. (Also I had just started a period but didn’t yet appreciate the convenience of tampons – the nuns at school told us that to use tampons was tantamount to masturbation and so a sin.) I went home.

The poetry scene of Sampson & Barlow’s was augmented by Underdog magazine, which featured work by Liverpool writers and by guests such as Michael Horovitz, who also sometimes put in an appearance at S&B’s. I did my bit, selling copies to friends. It was open to anyone to submit their stuff to the magazine editor, Brian Patten, whose main driving force was to give a voice to creative people living and working in Liverpool. It did seem as if the city was bursting with talent.

But time moves on, people move on and the city moved on – it even seemed to go backwards for a time. I lost touch with Adrian when I left Liverpool to go to art school and in fact I never went back there to live but over the years I experienced minor brushes with Henri, McGough and Patten.

I went to several performances by Adrian in Sheffield and we always enjoyed a good chat and a drink afterwards. They were short but precious reunions. I was very upset when Adrian died, he had been a valued and influential friend.

Roger McGough is part of the poetry establishment these days, and has also appeared fairly regularly in Sheffield. The last time I saw him there was during the city’s Off the Shelf literary festival, which coincided with the publication of his then latest collection. Included in his on-stage spiel was his ambition for a Roger McGough clone to be devised, a clone so accomplished that it could go out on tour for him so that he could stay at home and not have to bother performing in front of an audience again. He then encouraged that evening’s audience to go and buy his new book.

As for Patten, I have never seen him since we all left Liverpool but I can report that he seems to have grown into a rather nice, considerate and respectful man. Some 10 years ago, when I was running Bukowski’s Piano Bar in Sheffield with my partner, I wrote to Patten inviting him to take part in a night at the bar dedicated to Charles Bukowski’s poetry, also as part of the Off the Shelf festival. I wrote via Patten’s agent but received in reply a handwritten card from Brian offering his apologies but encouragement for our evening. He didn’t have to bother but he did and the genuine sincerity conveyed made me feel all warm inside.

The final poem in my copy of Underdog is by JM Weinblatt and is called ‘Poem for Adrian Henri’. It was written decades before Adrian died but the final verse is a prescient memorial:

 

    you float as buddha into the white night with

     your painted birded bicycle

      your reptilian beard pointing to the four

      corners of the world

      time dies without your laughter

      without your smile

      without your tears.

 

 

I have never delved into the challenge of writing poetry, but nor have I lost that love of words and word-use that I absorbed in Sampson & Barlow’s. Some 50 years down the line I have started writing song lyrics: you can hear them via some music videos on YouTube – go to Red House work. Please …

 

Maggie Lett has worked as a newspaper journalist in Tehran, London, Berkshire, and Sheffield. She was co-author with Geoff Rowe of Flood Waters, a novel based on the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, when a dam burst above the city. She is currently a member of the band Red House, whose ‘Looking for Chinaski’ is a tribute to American poet and writer Charles Bukowski

 

 

Background: Write Out Loud interviews Brian Patten

Background: Roger McGough on comic poetry, and why critics don't take it seriously 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

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Comments

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Greg Freeman

Fri 29th Apr 2016 15:30

Thanks for stumbling upon and commenting on this article, Mike, and great to meet - online, at least - the author of that poem quoted. Did you know Adrian Henri personally in those days? And you mention that you write, but what about art ... is this you? http://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-lord-and-lady-shosti-o-kovitch/89719/1403772/view

Mike Weinblatt

Thu 28th Apr 2016 15:42

It is interesting to see a part of my poem dedicated to adrian henri, it's been a very long time since I've seen it.
The wash house was great venue for poets to read at as was the hope hall. Young Brian P, if I remember, read for the first time there, it was a poem dedecated to ray charles, where he described Ray Charles eyes being in his finger tip. A wonderful image.
I still write, plug, plug, under a pen name, Lord Shosti O'Kovitch, alas very little poems,

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Harry O'Neill

Sun 19th Apr 2015 20:14

Maggies article about the old Liverpool scene was very interesting.

Maggie`s memories start from a slightly earlier time at the height of the Beatles furore and the hordes of guys in smart suits looking for the next big money-spinner. My own memory of what was then called the Liverpool scene was at the very end of the sixties: I read at Adrian`s Hendri`s Gig at O`connors and, being very innocent, I decided to do a nine or ten minute thing called `You can`t win anyway` (yes, it``s that old`) The place was very crowded and the ceiling was very low . To my surprise it went down like a bomb, and Adrian, amidst the applause, kept calling out `What a debut`.....I thought I had arrived but, Alas, the following week I decided to read a serious one (with my whole body shaking due to standing on the mike wire) and amidst a growing mutter of disinterested conversation `Died the death`. I did a few more before joining Jim Blackburns outfit, which ended up at the Gazebo. The blast of the band under that low ceiling at O`Connors was ear -splitting.

Jim resurrected Sampson and Barlows for a while afterwards and we dId a newspaper sponsored thing there with Roger McGough, Which got an article in the `Echo`. Later a number of the Liverpool poets did a broadcast for some German radio station there. I was paid in marks but promptly lost the cheque. When we were there we were told that there was a Chinese
gay club next door. There was a poster of the Spinners still there in the basement at the time.

An experience was reading - with Jim`s group - at Manchester university, which was barricaded due to that French student inspired student revolution thing at that time. We had to go up to the hall through a passage of the chairs which were piled bocking the stairs. We were on with an Irish trio. Another night happened when only about ten of us turned up to find those big tall white T.V. wagons outside and discover that Jim had arranged (I think it was Granada) for us to be televised. A few shots were taken of an honestly awful night...and (thankfully) it was never screened. Another time we did a reading at Stone and jim jarred the car against the centre barrier of the motorway seriously frightening all
of us. On arrival I was first up to read in a converted barn, and when I caught sight of my face reflected in a
glass door opposite I was (as we say in Liverpool) `The colour of boiled shite`.

Another experience was reading at Chauffers, which was opposite the present Blackburn house... The sight of the `Ladies of the night (coming in for a drink in between their regular `patrols` behind the Anglican Cathederal) and random groups of itinerant young back-pack drop-
outs dossing down for the night in sleeping bags on the floor, was a sight to remember.

Circumstances drew me away but it was good - years later - to find the poetry scene flourishing once again.

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