The Bluecoat is 300 years old. Miraculously, the oldest building in Liverpool city centre has twice survived the threat of destruction (post-war city planners thought it would be a great idea to replace it with an inner-city ring road) to become one of the UK’s oldest arts centres. Completed in 1725, after two centuries serving as a charity school, in 1907 the building was taken over by a group of artists determined to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life. Two years later they hosted the First Post-Impressionist exhibition that featured work by Matisse, Picasso and others. Today, the contemporary arts continue to be showcased in this Grade One listed building. I went down to have a look at Public View, the first in a series of events celebrating the Bluecoat’s first 300 years. Continue reading “Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat”
I received an email from the Victoria Gallery & Museum alerting me to the fact that an exhibition of work by Adrian Henri was ending that day. Henri has a special place in my heart because I arrived in Liverpool just at the tail-end of that moment when Liverpool in the1960s was a focal point for popular culture. Henri was the leading figure of a multimedia scene in which art, music and writing were closely connected. Continue reading “An Adrian Henri mini-exhibition: ‘The poet in him wrote poems containing images that the painter in him wanted to paint’”
Sheridan Smith in ‘Cilla’
Along with seven million other viewers, watching ITV’s Cilla I was lost. Not expecting much after previous lacklustre depictions of Liverpool during the Merseybeat boom, I was transported by Sheriden Smith’s scintillating performance in the lead role of the teenage Cilla Black, by the convincing script and uniformly sound acting. The drama recreated sixties Liverpool with realistic locations and accents, but also captured the essence of a mythical city from which exploded all the promise and excitement of the Mersey sound, heralding a bright new future of youthful liberation. Transfixed by it all from a distance in 1963, from that time on I was drawn inexorably to a city that seemed aglow with opportunities, and in which I settled four years later.
In three episodes, Cilla written by Jeff Pope and directed by Paul Whittington, lovingly recreated Liverpool in the early sixties, confining itself to the three years that saw the 17 year-old typist Priscilla White, denizen of beat clubs like the Iron Door and The Cavern, transformed into the 20 year-old Cilla Black after being taken on by Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, recording a series of chart-topping hits beginning with ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ to become Britain’s biggest female pop star of the decade.
I was gripped from the first episode which evoked all the excitement of 1960s Liverpool, recreating an exuberant music scene that thrived in countless clubs like The Cavern in which over three hundred groups such as The Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and Kingsize Taylor and The Dominoes (and The Beatles, of course) belted out versions of American pop, soul rhythm and blues and soul numbers learned from singles brought over from New York by the ‘Cunard Yanks’, scouse stewards who worked on Cunard transatlantic liners sailing from the port. This was music the rest of Britain, reliant on the BBC Light Programme’s bland playlist, never got to hear.
This was a city in which young lads bought guitars, formed groups, and learned to play the music they heard on the singles brought across the Atlantic by the Cunard crews – raunchy numbers by names that would not become familiar to the rest of the country until years later – rock’n’rollers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, blues men like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and early Motown artists such as The Miracles, The Marvelettes and Barrett Strong. Rocking along in the audiences were teenage girls like Beryl Marsden and Cilla White – girls who knew the songs inside out and soon were on stage with the lads, belting out numbers with abandon. Everyone – performers and audience alike – found in these lunchtime or evening sessions a release from the drudgery of their daytime work in factory or office.
The Clayton Squares at The Cavern, early sixties (note the seated audience)
Growing up in a mildly repressive and fairly joyless household in rural Cheshire, the explosion of the Mersey sound and the arrival of the Beatles bearing aloft the banners of youth and freedom, and thumbing their nose at everything staid or square meant Liverpool became for me a golden city, a beacon of liberation.
The city I found when I arrived in 1967 was, of course, very different from this mythical image. Black, soot-encrusted buildings, endless streets of run-down, red-brick terraces; a port city where already the docks were dying and waterside warehouses crumbled. The Pier Head was a far cry from the image that Gerry Marsden’s anthem had conjured in my mind: a wind-whipped wasteland where crowds huddled on the land-stage, waiting for the Birkenhead ferry.
The Cavern Club in Mathew Street, December 1963
Yet – it was a vibrant place, even if the beat groups had mostly gone and The Cavern and the rest of the club scene was past its heyday. I found the Liverpool Scene and their weekly gatherings at O’Connor’s Tavern, poetry and drama at the Everyman. I lived in Liverpool 8, the elegant frontages of its Georgian streets disguising the landlord neglect and disrepair that you found inside. I relished the many colours of Granby Street, the jostling crowds at Paddy’s Market, and found amidst the poverty and dereliction a place of great good humour, a teeming mix of identities, laughter and conversation on the buses and in the shops, jokes and singing in the pubs, a pride in the city’s sense of difference – and the football. Two teams, two cathedrals (one unfinished, one an angular modernist masterpiece): in pub singalongs, when it came to ‘In My Liverpool Home’ (as it always did), some would sing ‘If you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare’, while others, fewer in number back then, marked their rejection of the city’s religious divide by singing ‘we’ve got two to spare’.
Cilla Black, Billy J Kramer & Dakotas, The Beatles, and The Searchers in an all-Merseyside special edition of ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, 1963
In the first episode, Cilla works by day in a typing pool but at night checks coats at The Cavern and haunts other clubs, angling for a spot on stage. The Beatles have already been spotted by Brian Epstein, and Ringo (who has already replaced Pete Best as the band’s drummer at Epstein’s behest) puts Cilla in touch with him. The Beatles angle is not overplayed – we only see glimpses of them on stage, or as part of Cilla’s social circle. Cilla dreams of being taken on by Epstein, but it seems that Beryl Marsden has beaten her to it. However, local lad Bobby Willis (played by Aneurin Barnard) is drawn to Cilla, and offers to be her manager. His first attempt at negotiating terms leads to Cilla taking a pay cut for her appearances.
Sheridan Smith filming ‘Cilla’ in Liverpool (photo: ITV Granada)
There’s a lot of convincing location shooting (aided by some effective CGI). Cilla’s family lived above a barber’s on Scotland Road with no separate entrance of their own (her mother always hated that, and would insist that visitors came round the back way). The working class streets around Scottie Road are long gone, demolished in the massive slum clearances of the late sixties that saw people rehoused in the Everton tower blocks or out in Kirkby – so most of the filming was done in the south end. Cilla’s home was recreated on Duke Street, while for Ringo’s home there were several shots of the lovely terrace that runs the length of Yates Street, off Mill Street, with its raised landing. (Incidentally, the street – one of three built to house workers at the large flour mill that still operates opposite the houses – was saved from destruction by the residents themselves, who formed themselves into the Corn and Yates Street Housing Co-op).
Cilla Black’s home above the barber’s on Scotland Road
The growing romantic relationship between Cilla and Bobby Willis (who did, finally become her manager after Epstein’s death – and her husband, until his death in 1999) is presented with just the slightest touch of schmaltz, and a great deal of humour. Example: after Cilla’s made her first record and her docker dad Mr White has reluctantly agreed her name-change to Black, his workmates tell him he’s ‘a failed minstrel . . . doesn’t know if he’s Black or White’. (Remember the Black and White Minstrel Show? Different times, for sure.)
And here was something I’d nearly forgotten – the religious divisions in the city that meant a Catholic girl like Cilla wasn’t meant to be knocking around with a Protestant like Bobby.
The origins of Liverpool’s religious divide lay in its sizeable population of Irish origin, the result of large-scale immigration in the 19th century, which made it a city divided, like Glasgow, with Catholics and Protestants sticking rigidly to their communities and frowning on intermarriage. There were Liverpool Protestant Party councillors until 1973, and Irish Nationalist councillors had represented the Scottie Road area until after the Second World War (while the MP for Scotland Road was, until 1929, an Irish Nationalist). I remember when I arrived in the city in 1967, being taken aback by the annual Orange Lodge marches and the ‘No Popery’ and ‘LOL’ slogans painted on walls along Netherfield Road.
Cilla came from Catholic Scotland Road, where her mother ran a market stall, while her boyfriend Bobby Willis was a Proddy. This delicate issue was treated with typical scouse humour in the drama: in one scene Cilla’s dad takes Bobby to one side for a serious talk:
Cilla’s Dad: ‘I had a word with her mother and I broke it to her that you’re not a Catholic.’
Bobby: ‘Look, Mr White, I’ve had it up to ‘ere with religion. Proddy? Catholic? What does it matter? I care a lot about your daughter: I’m gonna look after her, and I’m gonna respect her, and that’s the best I can do.’
Cilla’s Dad stares at him: ‘I was just gonna say, she’s accepted the situation. But I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention your persuasion to any of her aunties. And there’s just one more thing. Tell the wife you support Everton and not Liverpool.’
Sheriden Smith and Aneurin Barnard as Bobby Willis
Bobby was also a singer and songwriter: he did backing vocals on her chart topping hits and wrote the B-side (‘Shy of Love’) to her first single, Paul McCartney’s ‘Love of the Loved’. His relationship with Cilla strengthened in the second episode, which focused entirely on the few months between Cilla’s disastrous first audition for Epstein to her eventual signing with him, and having a No 1 hit with ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’. This episode was beautifully composed – a masterpiece that could stand alone – opening with Cilla seeming to have lost her one chance of stardom and ending with her triumphant recording of ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’
Cilla had been introduced to Epstein by John Lennon, who persuaded him to audition her. Her first audition (the final scene of episode 2) was a failure, partly because of nerves, and partly the fault of the Beatles. She chose to do ‘Summertime’, a song she adored and had sung with the Big Three, but had not rehearsed with the Beatles, who played it in the wrong key.
But she gets a second chance with Epstein, travelling to Abbey Road studios in London for her first recording session with Beatles producer George Martin. She sings McCartney’s ‘Love of the Loved’ and halfway through the song Martin halts the recording and leaves the booth to have a quiet word with Cilla: could she try not to pronounce ‘there’ as ‘thur’? They do another take, but this time she’s singing ‘care’ as ‘cur’. When released the single failed to make the top 30.
But for her second single, Martin offers her the chance of a lifetime – a song already released in the States by Dionne Warwick, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and one that he had in mind for Shirley Bassey. In the drama he passes the Warwick single over to Cilla – she already knows it. It’s one of those Cunard Yank discs that any scouse music fan worth their salt would know.
Bobby is not impressed: it’s a ballad for Christ’s sake! He predicts she’ll lose all credibility with her Liverpool fans if she doesn’t record something that’s more rock’n’roll. But Cilla senses the potential in the song and the recording begins. In a brilliant piece of direction, at this point we only see but do not hear her performance. Bobby has stormed out of the recording studio, but comes back to watch as she sings through the window of the sound-proof studio door.
Cilla Black in December 1963
The couple return to Liverpool to wait for the charts. Taking the call from Epstein in the phone box across the road, they learn its gone to number one. It’s only then that director Paul Whittington gives us the recording studio performance of the song with sound, closing the episode on a triumphant high. Indeed, Sheriden Smith’s climactic performance of ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, might just have been even better than Cilla’s.
Sheriden Smith’s performance of ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’
After the memorable closing scene of episode two, I went to YouTube to compare Cilla Black’s version with Dionne Warwick’s. To my mind, there’s no contest. In her rendition Warwick sounds younger and less experienced, even though she has three years on Cilla. In her version, Cilla Black attacks the song with a passion and maturity that belies her twenty years. But decide for yourself:
Cilla Black’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’
Dionne Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’
In under three hours of enjoyable television, Cilla conjured up this ‘wondrous place’ that is Liverpool (recalling the title of a song by Billy Fury, the late fifties rock’n’roller from the Dingle whose statue can be found at the Pier Head, and which Paul du Noyer took as the title for his book, the best that has been written about Liverpool and the music it makes). Specifically, Cilla successfully evoked the mythical Liverpool of the Merseybeat boom years – a mythical city of The Beatles et al that drew me and many others to it, including, in 1965, Allen Ginsberg, who made a special detour to see the place which he famously announced was ‘at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe’.
Adrian Henri later claimed that Ginsberg’s famous statement referred to ‘the cataclysmic effect of the Beatles and Merseybeat in general, while the visual arts (and poetry) benefited from the sheer headiness, the excitement of the time, as well as the attention generated by the music’. George Melly observed that ‘the ‘Pool’ feels itself closer to Dublin, New York, even Buenos Aires than it does to London…It’s very aware of its own myth and eager to project it’.
I’ll end with a passage or two from Paul du Noyer’s, Wondrous Place, which begins with a remark made by Herman Melville after visiting Liverpool in 1839 :
In the evening, especially when the sailors are gathered in great numbers, these streets present a most singular spectacle, the entire population of the vicinity being seemingly turned into them. Hand-organs, fiddles and cymbals, plied by strolling musicians, mix with the songs of the seamen, the babble of women and children and the whining of beggars. From the various boarding houses… proceeds the noise of revelry and dancing.
Du Noyer continues:
Liverpool is more than a place where music happens. Liverpool is a reason why music happens. When the author of Moby Dick sailed to Liverpool from New York he found a town obsessed by entertainment: there was a physical appetite for life and he was shocked by its ferocity. […] What is it about Liverpool? Is it something in the water? Why does so much music come from here? Why do they talk like that? Why are Scousers always up to something? […]
Liverpool now is the same as it always was: a turbulent, teeming city, alive with vice and excitement. Old Melville knew it as a seaport above all: young Moby might not have been aware of any river, but he was witnessing its legacy all the same. Life at sea is hard. When sailors are ashore their preoccupation is with entertainment. The port of Liverpool was made to supply Jack’s every need, whether it be for tarts or tarpaulin. Naturally the town was prepared to offer entertainment too. And that readiness became a civic tradition of the town, an acquired characteristic of its people that shaped their very nature. That’s how Liverpool became the cradle of British pop. It was always a town where entertainment was actively sought. The appetite was sharper and the demand was, well, more demanding. […]
Deep in the heart of the place,’ says a local writer Ronnie Hughes, ‘a constant pop song keeps getting written, which lifts its spirits when sometimes it seems nothing else can. This is not a place that’s given up. It’s a proud, boastful Celtic city where the lads dream big and talk big and keep writing a big, tuney, hopeful song that could only come from Liverpool.’
Paul du Noyer concludes his book with this statement:
I rather suspect there are more wonders to come from this wondrous place.
Admirably succinct praise for Cilla from Martin Colyer’s Five Things blog .
You Gorra Luv It!
Sheridan Smith is Cilla Black. Yet another terrific central portrayal by a British actress, here in a tale that could fall flat – like biopics often do – but is great for these reasons: a) The art direction, set dressing and period clothes are never lingered on in that “We’ve spent a bundle on this, we have to show it off” way. They do the job incidentally, while being great to look at. b) There’s a rich seam of humour running through the script, a lightness of touch that tells the story whilst avoiding literalness. c) The music feels live (Smith sang live throughout the whole of the first episode). She also sings all the studio takes and the cute build-up to hearing her finally sing “Anyone Who Had A Heart” – held to the end of part two, even though we see her recording it much earlier, ends the episode brilliantly. The session, overseen by George Martin, has a fabulously-cast bunch of Abbey Road sessioneers with cardigans, suits, glasses and thinning hair.
I popped into the Bluecoat this afternoon to see the exhibition marking the centenary of Malcolm Lowry’s birth, Under the Volcano, which is in its last few days. I was glad I did – it’s an enormously interesting exhibition, featuring paintings inspired by Lowry’s work as well as memorabilia from Lowry’s Wirral and Liverpool upbringing collated by Colin Dilnot.
Malcolm Lowry (1909-57) was inspired by the Wirral of his childhood. His Merseyside youth informs his writing, and Liverpool, which he described as ‘that terrible city whose main street is the ocean’, continued to hold tremendous significance for him. Under The Volcano (1947) is considered one of the most poignant, poetic and significant novels of the last century. Set in Mexico on the Day Of The Dead, the novel’s tragic resonance and insights into the struggle for creative expression have inspired many artists as well as writers. I read it decades ago – as a student – and only have a vague memory of the atmospherics – carnival noise in the streets and dark, alcohol stupefied interiors. This exhibition has encouraged me to read it again.
The exhibition focusses on Lowry’s Merseyside origins and his international dimension. It reflects his continuing influence on artists across the creative spectrum – painters, filmmakers, choreographers and musicians, as well as writers and historians. I was impressed particularly with three impressive paintings by Edward Burra , a series by Julian Cooper and work by Adrian Henri.
Bluecoat programme notes:
Edward Burra (1905-1976) occupies a particular place in 20th century British art: represented in major collections yet remaining, like Malcolm Lowry, something of an outsider. He is best known for his satirical, often macabre paintings of 1920s and 1930s urban life, particularly its seedier side. He flirted with Surrealism and his allegorical works share some of its characteristics. Working mainly in watercolour, he imbued his art with ‘a feeling of tawdriness and the meretricious and yet, at the same time, (created) such convincing beauty’ (George Melly).
Despite constant ill health, Burra traveled widely, visiting Lowry in Cuernavaca in 1937, together with Lowry’s early mentor and their mutual friend, the American writer Conrad Aiken. On his return to England Surra painted Mexican Church, its composition based on two postcards of churches he’d visited, the cathedral at Taxco and Santa Catarina, Mexico City. Burra and Lowry did not get on, however both shared an interest in Mexican culture.
Burra was influenced particularly by the Mexican muralists and the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913), whose depictions of lively skeletons had a profound effect, contributing to his interest in representations of death. Under the Volcano’s Day of the Dead theme is echoed in Burra’s other two paintings shown here. Dancing Skeletons, painted after a visit to Spain, anticipates his Mexican journey and immersion in the iconography of death. In Skeleton Party, completed nearly 20 years later, Surra returns to this earlier theme. Whilst the pyramid shapes on the horizon have been identified as slag heaps in an industrial landscape, they could equally suggest the twin peaks of Lowry’s Mexican volcanoes.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957
I love Edward Burra’s Harlem paintings. There’s a good selection of his paintings, including some of those, here.
Bluecoat programme notes:
The three paintings by Julian Cooper are from a series of seven completed in the 1980s entitled Under the Volcano. The novel was instrumental in the artist’s search to develop a kind of abstract painting using figurative methods, one capable of taking on contemporary experience in the way that Lowry’s novel does, with its intricate symbolism and a vivid representational surface. For Cooper the book ‘had everything. It was set in a landscape, it was outer narrative and inner narrative as well, it had lots of references to literature and cabbalistic religion – it had all the complexity of a Renaissance painting. ‘
Douglas Day’s biography of Lowry in particular, linking the writer’s life to his fiction, provided Cooper with a ‘layering of myth and reality. .. I see the novel now as quite prophetic in the way that its leading metaphor applies as much to an “economic growth” as to an alcohol addiction’.
Like Lowry’s writing, the paintings are meticulously detailed and create a real sense of place and time, an evocation of Mexico and the book’s setting. Each takes a particular episode from the book chosen for its self-sufficiency and symbolic power. They avoid being simply illustrative however, the structure and execution of the paintings echoing the complex layering of meaning found in Lowry’s masterpiece. Despite the specific references, the paintings are autonomous, requiring no prior knowledge of the book.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957
Bluecoat programme notes:
In his series of paintings and drawings, Adrian Henri (1932-2000) sets the Mexican Day of the Dead in contemporary Liverpool, populating Hope Street with a crowd including artists and writers William Burroughs, Alien Ginsberg, Frida Kahlo, Ed Kienholz and Henri’s Liverpool painter friend, Sam Walsh. In the main painting shown here the white suited, pipe-smoking figure on the far left is Malcolm Lowry.
Henri’s partner Catherine Marcangeli describes his interest in the writer: ‘He went to see the Day of the Dead exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, a visit that had immediate echoes with Lowry. He bought lots of paper-lace patterns, sweets in the shapes of skulls, and all manner of folkloric artifacts … when he painted the Day of the Dead years later those echoes were also mixed with a host of other references, the most important and obvious one being his own earlier painting, Entry of Christ into Liverpool, of which The Day of the Dead, Hope Street is a kind of new version, except that the “friends and heroes” are dead ones here.’
There are other echoes, of a visit Henri made to a graveyard in Lorraine on the Day of the Toussaint (All Saints’ Day in France, when people take flowers to the graves of dead friends or relatives), and of the eerie and sinister masks at the Basle Carnival.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957
Bluecoat programme notes:
For Cisco Jimenez, a native of Cuernavaca where Under the Volcano is set, Lowry’s book and his life continue to provide – 70 years after he stayed there – a barometer for measuring the expectations and failures of this Mexican town. For Jimenez the paradox portrayed in the novel repeats: the clash of the popular against the contemporary, tradition under threat from global changes and impositions, and the failure of utopianism (colonial utopias, the social experiments of the 1960s, the neoliberal policies in the 1990s).
Jimenez’s mixed media sculptures make playful reference to Lowry’s life: his drinking (Two Atoms Connected), golfing prowess (Necklace), and in Peddler the imagery and folkloric aspects of Under the Volcano, whilst AK47 Barroca is indicative of the artist’s concern with the contradictions and violence of the everyday in Mexico.
‘Cuemavaca is no longer what it used to be. What remains are tourism and opportunistic “cliches” of the quiet and colonial past – multiple thematic hotels and restaurants for wealthy foreigners and visitors from Mexico City, and real estate speculation. Nature has been covered over with tons of concrete, and the last old mansions with their majestic gardens are slowly falling down, giving way to massive condominiums (which we call “condemoniums”). You face such disaster every day’.
Echo review of the exhibition:
Malcolm Bradbury described Malcolm Lowry as having a “curious internationalism”. That is what has perhaps led him to be less well known in his home city than he might have been, and is also what the Bluecoat has attempted to reflect in this new exhibition marking the centenary of his birth. Those who do know of Lowry will probably have read his magnum opus, Under The Volcano. But few will be aware that the author of what has been described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century was born the son of a Liverpool cotton broker in New Brighton.
In fact, there are many intriguing aspects to the man who was a writer, golfer, nomadic adventurer and inveterate drinker (alcohol caused his death at 47). The Bluecoat’s two-month celebration of all things Lowry includes the publication of a new book, From The Mersey To The World, the screening of John Huston’s film Under The Volcano starring Albert Finney, and music written by poet Ian McMillan. At its heart, however, is this exhibition of artwork and film inspired by the writer and covering not simply his life in the Mexican town of Cuernavaca (where the novel is set on the Mexican Day of the Dead), but also his fascination with the Isle of Man, his time in New York and his spartan existence in Canada.
It turns out to be perhaps one of the most satisfying exhibitions held recently at the Bluecoat, mostly because while it features disparate artists, it has a pleasingly unified central theme – they all share a fascination with Lowry. Adrian Henri’s vibrant Day Of The Dead In Liverpool paintings sit alongside works from Julian Cooper’s Under The Volcano series, Cooper’s images redolent of Hockney or Hopper.
There are also a series of intricate Under The Volcano-themed prints by Chilean artist Jorge Martinez Garcia, while the Tate has loaned the gallery watercolours by Lowry contemporary Edward Burra which (despite his apparently disliking Lowry) also feature the skeletons so prevalent in day of the dead iconography. And, most fascinatingly of all, there are never-before-seen telegrams, borrowed from Liverpool Record Office, charting the highs and lows of the globetrotting writer’s hectic life.
- Five short strolls, or one long hike, through Malcolm Lowry’s Wirral by Michael Carson
- Under the Volcano: a hypertextual companion
- Lowry, Jazz and ‘The Day of the Dead’ by Graham Collier
In 1967 Penguin Books published The Mersey Sound, number 10 in the Modern Poets series. It brought together approximately 100 poems by Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, the Liverpool Poets. Over 5oo,ooo copies have sold, more than any other poetry anthology. I’ve been along to see the exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum that explores the various art forms all three poets used during the period. The University of Liverpool recently acquired archival material from the three poets with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Items from the archive are on display here for the first time, supplemented with additional material borrowed from the Estate of Adrian Henri.
Liverpool in the1960s was a focal point for popular culture. The Liverpool Poets were working in an environment where art, music and writing were closely connected. I arrived in the city as a student just when this multimedia scene was at its peak. I remember the weekly performances by the Liverpool Scene at O’Connor’s Tavern. The music was provided by Mike Evans (sax), with Mike Hart and Andy Roberts on guitar. Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and others read their poems. The Everyman was another important venue: I remember seeing out-of-town poets such as Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell read there. We all bought The Mersey Sound when it first came out, though my copy, sadly, has long been mislaid.
The exhibition focuses on the work of the poets in the 1960s, and takes a thematic approach. Concepts such as popular 6os comic book heroes, love and the city are explored by the different writers individually and collectively, using written, drawn and spoken forms.
The exhibition guide summarizes the main themes as follows:
Like many young people in 1960s Britain, the Liverpool Poets were greatly influenced by the hippie subculture of the US. Young Americans grew long hair, lived communally, practised free sex and drug use and attended mass outdoor music concerts.The Vietnam War, racial unrest and pressure to conform frustrated them. ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’ were their slogans. The Liverpool poets wrote extensively on the subject of love. They explore love’s many forms, from brief encounters and desire to enduring relationships and falling out of love.The poets also used love as a theme for performance, staging at least three Lovenights at the Everyman Theatre. In exploring and expressing this fundamental human emotion they sought to make their poetry accessible to everyone. The summer of 1967 was declared the Summer of Love, focused on a mass gathering in the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
Adrain Henri, Love Is…
Love is feeling cold in the back of vans
Love is a fanclub with only two fans
Love is walking holding paintstained hands
Love is fish and chips on winter nights
Love is blankets full of strange delights
Love is when you don’t put out the light
Love is the presents in Christmas shops
Love is when you’re feeling Top of the Pops
Love is what happens when the music stops
Love is white panties lying all forlorn
Love is pink nightdresses still slightly warm
Love is when you have to leave at dawn
Love is you and love is me
Love is a prison and love is free
Love’s what’s there when you are away from me
A poem by Brian Patten poem is seen in the exhibition elegantly written out in the poet’s notebook:
You come to me quiet as rain not yet fallen
You come to me quiet as rain not yet fallen
Afraid of how you might fail yourself your
dress seven summers old is kept open
in memory of sex, smells warm, of boys,
and of the once long grass.
But we are colder now; we have not
Love’s first magic here. You come to me
Quiet as bulbs not yet broken
Out into sunlight.
The fear I see in your now lining face
Changes to puzzlement when my hands reach
For you as branches reach. Your dress
Does not fall easily, nor does your body
Sing of it won accord. What love added to
A common shape no longer seems a miracle.
You come to me with your age wrapped in excuses
And afraid of its silence.
Into the paradise our younger lives made of this bed and room
Has leaked the world and all its questioning
and now those shapes terrify us most
that remind us of our own. Easier now
to check longings and sentiment,
to pretend not to care overmuch,
you look out across the years, and you come to me
quiet as the last of our senses closing.
Performance was key to the work of the Liverpool Poets and vital to the city During the early 1960s Liverpool generated up to 350 beat pop groups according to Mersey Beat newspaper. Henri, Gorman, McGough and Mike McCartney (younger brother of Paul, who re-styled himself Mike McGear) formed a theatrical humour group which toured as The Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show. One Fat Lady is a bingo reference to the number 8: Liverpool 8 was the area where much of this bohemian movement originated. Later Henri formed the Liverpool Scene, which included Mike Evans, Mike Hart, Percy Jones and Andy Roberts. McGough with Gorman and McGear performed as The Scaffold. Liverpool Scene opened for Led Zeppelin during their 1969 tour and released their last studio album in 1971.The Scaffold achieved a number one hit in the UK in November 1968 with Lily the Pink.
The demand for popular performance tied into Henri’s interest in innovative US performance art — Happenings —led by Allan Kaprow. Liverpool’s first happening, City, was part of the Merseyside Arts Festival. It was organised by John Gorman, Henri and McGough and held in a club in the basement of Hope Hall — later the Everyman Theatre. The happenings included poetry, dancers, recorded jazz music and even Henri performing painting. Mike Evans, member of The Liverpool Scene and a performer at some of these events says:
“Subsequent events at the ‘Hopie’ included Death of a Bird in the City and The Machine, while the sixth such happening Night blues was something of a breakthrough as it featured live music from a local rhythm and blues group, The Roadrunners. Significantly, from here on poetry-and-music on Merseyside evolved in a rock/R&B context rather than jazz — reflecting the dominance of beat groups and rock ‘n’ roll in the city generally.”
Adrian Henri, Tonight at Noon
Tonight at noon
Supermarkets will advertise 3p extra on everything
Tonight at noon
Children from happy families will be sent to live in a home
Elephants will tell each other human jokes
America will declare peace on Russia
World War I generals will sell poppies on the street on November 11th
The first daffodils of autumn will appear
When the leaves fall upwards to the trees
Tonight at noon
Pigeons will hunt cats through city backyards
Hitler will tell us to fight on the beaches and on the landing fields
A tunnel full of water will be built under Liverpool
Pigs will be sighted flying in formation over Woolton
And Nelson will not only get his eye back but his arm as well
White Americans will demonstrate for equal rights
In front of the Black house
And the monster has just created Dr. Frankenstein
Girls in bikinis are moonbathing
Folksongs are being sung by real folk
Art galleries are closed to people over 21
Poets get their poems in the Top 20
There’s jobs for everybody and nobody wants them
In back alleys everywhere teenage lovers are kissing in broad daylight
In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living
You will tell me you love me
Tonight at noon
The Liverpool Poets sought to make their work relevant by reflecting experiences that their audience could understand. Distinguishing themselves from the subculture of the US and the rest of the UK, their work is firmly grounded in Liverpool and its everyday life. George Melly commented that:
“The focus was often on the little things that brought just a bit more colour and choice to life — frozen peas, free plastic daffodils…”
The need for relevance was partly driven by audiences. Henri remembered an early poetry reading in Liverpool with McGough and Patten:
“It was a basement club and it was lousy … I was looking at all these disinterested people with a drink in their hands and it was a revelation to me. Every poem from then on had to have a surface meaning. Maybe you could get to another level by reading it but it had to mean something immediately.”
The three poets took different approaches to the theme. McGough, for example, detailed the amusing outcomes of the commonplace in poems such as My Bus Conductor. Patten reworked traditional themes in works such as Come into the City, Maude, and Henri drew much inspiration from the city of Liverpool itself. All three came together to explore the urban theme in an event at Hope Hall in 1962 called Death of a Bird in the City. This type of realistic poetry was not universally accepted. Alfred Alvarez criticised “the fashion for the diluted near-verse designed for mass readings and poetry-and-jazz concerts”. He described linking poetry with pop as “the logic of a traditional form at its weariest”. Overall, he saw the trend as “the poet resign[ing] his responsibilities” and concluded “what he offers is not poetry”.
Extract from The Entry of Christ into Liverpool by Adrian Henri:
City morning, dandelion seeds blowing from wasteground
smell of overgrown privethedges. children’s voices
in the distance. sounds from the river.
round the corner into Myrtle St. Saturdaymorning shoppers
down the hill
THE SOUND OF TRUMPETS
cheering and shouting in the distance
flags breaking out over buildings
black and red green and yellow
Union Jacks Red Ensigns
LONG LIVE SOCIALISM
stretched out against the blue sky
over St George’s Hall
now the procession
THE MARCHING DRUMS
Henri, McGough and Patten met against a backdrop of the Vietnam War. It was not much more than a decade after World War Il had ended, and they were in the midst of the subsequent atomic arms race of the US and USSR, and the on-going war in Vietnam. The Liverpool Poets wrote about all these issues, reflecting their interest in both popular and contemporary political concerns and also in the history of the 20th century. In general they were anti-war and anti-bomb and were often critical of North America.
The Mersey Sound includes material by all three poets examining these ideas, with World War II being a particularly important theme for McGough. In 1964 all three also performed in a ‘happening’ at the Cavern Club called Bomb Event.
One of Brian Patten’s poems featured in the exhibition has, I think, an extra resonance these days:
Little Johnny’s confession
being rather young and foolish
I borrowed a machine gun my father
had left hidden since the war, went out,
and eliminated a number of small enemies.
Since then I have not returned home.
swarms of police with tracker dogs
wander about the city
with my description printed
on their minds, asking:
‘Have you seen him ?
He is seven years old.
likes Pluto, Mighty Mouse
and Biffo the Bear,
have you seen him, anywhere?’
sitting alone in a strange playground
muttering you’ve blundered, you’ve blundered
over and over to myself
I work out my next move
but cannot move.
The trackerdogs will sniff me out,
they have my lollypops.
- Mersey Sound relaunched: Daily Post feature 2007
- The Liverpool Poets: Wikipedia
- The Mersey Sound book: Wikipedia