Stride Magazine -


Paul Donnelly

Ed. Stephen Wade

[196pp. £13.95 Liverpool University Press, 4 Cambridge St, Liverpool, L69 7ZU]
John Cornelius

[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

Liverpool poetry. 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 ?
BP  : 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 here.

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 2002