WAYS OF LOOKING AT A CITY
GLADSONGS AND GATHERINGS
Ed. Stephen Wade
University Press, 4 Cambridge St, Liverpool, L69 7ZU]
[177pp. £9.50 hardback, Liverpool University Press]
I’ve always felt that my relationship with Liverpool has been a peripheral
one, having been born and brought up there but being removed in my
late teens. It is also how I feel about
I sometimes visited the places where it happened but equally as often
I was somewhere else and probably missed some seminal events, both
good and less so.
So I was intrigued by this collection of essays, interviews and reflections
on Liverpool and
the changes that have taken place in its poetry since those three
lads shook the world back in the sixties. McGough, Patten and Henri
came to represent the city though each had a different voice. A bit
like the accents that identify which part of the city you come from,
I suppose. But there was always more to Liverpool poetry
than the trio. People like Matt Simpson, for example. What a pity
then that the editor saw fit to kick off the book with one of Simpson’s
least effective poems, an occasional piece written for the millennium.
Moving swiftly on though, Wade discusses McGough and his early influences,
like Rimbaud, and follows his successes as poet and media person throughout
the sixties. There is nothing really new here, these years having
been well documented elsewhere. Wade also contributes an interview
with Patten which is only illuminating through the brevity of the
poet’s responses :
SW : Is there a Liverpool
temperament, as writers often claim when they talk about Scouse wit
and so on ?
: I don’t know.
There is another interview, with Adrian Henri, which traces some of
his career up to the final illness and death. Dave Bateman is able
to elicit more engaged responses but then Henri was a fairly garrulous
character. Someone should check their dates though because Henri didn’t
die ‘on 10th April 2000, only a short time after this interview’.
Nor did he die in 2001, as stated elsewhere.
I’m not sure what purpose the article, ‘Liverpool Peasant’, by Michael
Murphy is meant to serve except to give him a chance to talk about
himself. OK, there is some reference to his Liverpool up-bringing
but it’s fairly tenuous and doesn’t add much to a study of Liverpool
poetry. At least Deryn Rees-Jones in her essay admits that she doesn’t
write about ‘known places, let alone my home city’. Both of these
pieces seem to sit uneasily, to varying extents, within the context
of the book and its remit.
The chapter by Matt Simpson, on the other hand, offers some reminders
that his work has dealt mainly with his Liverpudlian roots and tensions arising out of conflict between a seafaring
family and his own ‘exile’ via education. It widens the context here
by focussing on his Writer In Residence tenure in Tasmania, a place
with which he has connections through his father. It brings together
strands of his work and suggests that in Tasmania he has ‘come home
to myself’ though not quite in the way intended when he wrote the
line way back in ‘Making Arrangements’.
Of course there has been a ‘live’ poetry scene in the city for over
30 years and Bateman attempts to chronicle this in ‘Open Floor ! Live
Poetry Nights in Liverpool, 1967–2001’. This is an interesting, if
slightly rambling account of performers, venues, the good, bad and
indifferent. Tribute is paid to Harold Hikins, a kind of godfather
to Liverpool poets, and his long-running ‘By Word of Mouth’ sessions
at the Why Not pub. This was where my first contact with the scene
happened when I heard Keith Whitelaw reading ‘The Scrap Heap’ a skit
of ‘The Waste Land, which was actually written by Roger Crawford.
Whitelaw epitomised good performance
poetry for me. It is pleasing to see Bateman recognising the contribution
the man made to performing and publishing in the 1980s before his
all too early death.
Performance poetry is always a variable commodity and the article
does convey a sense of this, especially when dealing with the Evil
Dead Poets/Dead Good Poets, a shifting organisation to which Bateman
is connected. They ran sessions at various venues and gave space to
regulars like Kevin McCann and relative newcomers such as Mike Cunningham.
Both of these poets communicated well on and off the page. Unfortunately,
the stage was often hogged by undisciplined show-offs like Sarah Cowie
who gave ‘performance’ a new definition and bad name simultaneously.
Bateman and I will have to agree to differ over that one. Overall,
this is a very readable article that communicates the energies and
enthusiasm manifest in the city over the years. It also makes the
following article, by Carole Baldock, somewhat redundant since it
covers some of the same territory. I found myself questioning the
editorial intention again.
There are some omissions and some names, only mentioned in passing,
who deserve more space. There are also more typo errors than I would
expect to find in a University publication. That said, I’d still recommend
it as a collection to dip into.
John Cornelius’ book first appeared in 1982 and, apart from a new
preface, has not been altered. So it has a slightly dated feel, not
least in the stereotypes and politically incorrect references to various
characters. The writer does acknowledge these and other defects.
He offers a personal account of the area variously known as Toxteth
or Dingle and his life there. There are many references to people
and places long vanished. They probably wont mean much to anyone in
any case but I suppose we are meant to get a taste of the place or
‘state of mind’, as he refers to it. Although ostensibly about a geographical
area it is also about the author and how he lived. It covers his education,
social life, day to day existence and means of earning a living. The
latter accounts for much of the contact with people and place, since
he visited pubs, clubs and other venues sketching the regulars and
anyone else who’d pay him. Some of these illustrations are included
There is a chapter which covers some of the worst events of the 1981
riots, where Cornelius, family and friends are caught up in the unfolding
drama and mayhem. These descriptions of huge sections of the area
ablaze or in the process of being destroyed are quite harrowing and
provide a climax of sorts to the book. Less riveting is the section
beginning ‘Flashback,1969’ which is a self-indulgent and poorly written piece
of trippy nonsense. It throws no light on Liverpool 8 though it says
something about the author.
It isn’t written in a particularly
polished prose style and, I suspect, he is more at home with a pad
and pencil. I’m not sure who, apart from some Scousers, his brand
of nostalgic autobiography will appeal to.
© Paul Donnelly