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LIVERPOOL SCENE, Discography, Mike Hart, Andy Roberts, Adrian Henri
Picture: Courtesy of Bloodaxe Books
Henri, celebrated painter and poet, talks to Anna Woodford about his Kings College
student days and beyond - and presents Durham First readers
Adrian Henri spent the sixties wrestling poetry out of the hands of academe and taking it into pubs, clubs and the lives of everyday people. Performance poetry was once a twinkle in this mans eye its still twinkling.
|As an artist, his career started in the early fifties at Kings College, Newcastle (then part of the University of Durham). On the day I went to meet him in Liverpool, pink hearts (Henris symbol) floated on banners all over the city with his name inside them. Theyre advertising a major retrospective of his work currently being staged at the Walker Art Gallery. Bold canvases and colour fill the walls huge paintings of joints of meat and flowers, skeletons and hedges. His famous work The entry of Christ into Liverpool is here. A collection of people stare out from the canvas waving placards Ban the Bomb and Long Live Socialism. Here Henri records faithfully the times he lived through but also elevates the everyday into art. Out of the institutions and onto the streets the same mission as his poetry. Spectators at the Gallery are young and could themselves have stepped out of an updated version of the picture.||
|A celebration night is due to be
held in Liverpool in his honour. Artists including Willy Russell and Roger McGough will
perform their work (Seamus Heaney will be in the audience). It is proof (if proof were
needed) of the esteem he is held in. The stories of his past are legend. His
ex-girlfriends (including fellow poet Carol Ann Duffy who was in the running for the
Laureate-ship) generally remain on friendly terms with him. He is one of Liverpools
most famous sons and rumour has it when he goes to one of the citys restaurants
waiters wave free bottles of wine over to his table.
For all these reasons, I am privileged to be with Adrian Henri. There is another, however.
Now in his late 60s, eighteen months ago Henri had a quadruple heart bypass operation (fitting irony for the man whose heart is his symbol). Two enormous strokes followed. He was told he would never walk or speak again. His poem, printed here and created exclusively for Durham First about his days as a student, is the first he has composed in eighteen months. Unable to physically write, he produced it over several months into a tape recorder while his girlfriend artist Catherine Marcangeli has transcribed it. His speech is returning and although he says he doesnt feel like himself anymore, strength of character exudes from his presence. He isnt painting yet more demanding physically than writing but it is his next hurdle. After the stroke, everything went black. Was he aware what was happening? I knew. I knew what I wanted to say but I couldnt communicate it I still cant. Its like a form of dyslexia.
Henri came to Kings College in 1951, He remembers it being very much a cuckoo in the nest of the Durham colleges. At the time there were only two institutions in the country who offered Fine Arts degrees Newcastle and Reading - I was impressed by the city of Newcastle. He had little contact with Durham itself other than as a tourist. Others played sports against the colleges, he remembers. Adrian however (as described in his poem) was busy acquainting himself with the insides of the citys pubs. It did have an enormous range, he muses, the Long Bar ran the whole length of the Central Station. Medics challenged each other to drink a pint a yard. We used to go from there by a different pub crawl route every night to get to the Students Union at Haymarket. Contemporaries included the dramatist, David Mercer (described in Henris poem). He was an enormous, drunken, assertive man who I looked up to. Henri also recalls fellow artist Ian Stephenson (interviewed in Durham First 10) and playwright Alan Plater. At this time Henri considered himself solely as a painter. He did write some very, very bad poetry, which was published somewhere he cant remember and he was aware of painter-poets such as William Blake but it didnt seem to apply to me. It wasnt until after his student days, when Henri moved to Liverpool, that he extended his medium into writing.
He remembers his first reading, spurred on by fellow Liverpool poets Brian Patten and Roger McGough: It was a basement club and I was lousy. Pedantic boring basically. 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 Mersey sound was born.
Wed hire a basement and do a poetry reading. It was a great time because there was nothing riding on it really. We took great risks I couldnt take them now. I remember one week Brian and I running out of poems so we wrote a line each and passed it round like a game of consequences. It seemed fun and innocuous.
The Beatles turned the world spotlight on Liverpool and the three poets basked in its glare night after night. The city at this time was christened the cultural centre of the Universe by the great American Beat Poet Allan Ginsberg. Henri was one of its mouthpieces. Was it partly luck?
It was definitely being in the right place at the right time. But it was also about having confidence and getting up and doing it. I couldnt now.
And was it as wild as everyone says?
He smiles, Oh yeah.
Word spread beyond Liverpool. Tony Richardson at Penguin Books decided to make the three poets the tenth in the series of the Penguin Modern Poets anthologies. Titled The Mersey Sound a print run of 20,000 books was produced and expected to sell over a period of years. Within a month they disappeared from the shelves. The book was a literary phenomenon and went on to sell over a million copies and is still selling today.
The media descended and a literary backlash followed.The great unwashed of Liverpool was one of the kinder comments. Henri remembers, One guy wrote under three different names in three different papers. He didnt like us and he said so in all three. It felt like we were getting it from all sides.
The audiences however continued coming back for more. Henri received fan mail and remembers groupies following them from gig to gig. Did he ever die on stage?
Definitely. The worst performance I ever gave was potentially the most important. It was at the Library of Congress. I went on and on because you keep thinking you can retrieve it but really the thing to do is get off immediately. Somewhere in the vaults of the place theyll have a really bad tape of me reading.
Since the 60s all three poets have retained their fame and increased their output. Henri has developed both his art and writing, he comments:
One thing comes out as a poem, another as a painting. Thats it, really.
He has been President of Liverpool Academy of Arts. Art prizes include the John Moores Liverpool prize and he has had countless national and international exhibitions. As a writer he has been prolific. As well as numerous poetry volumes including some for children such as Eric the Punk Cat in 1982 he has published a novel with Nell Dunn I want you also in 1982. Between 1967 and 1970 he led the poetry rock group The Liverpool Scene. The term Renaissance Man too often casually applied, sits justifiably on his shoulders.
Inevitably all three Liverpool poets have diversified (and were diverse at the time of their immediate fame). They are often however still spoken of in the same breath.
Its a blessing and a curse. You do all get lumped together and really were very different. All three of us are never asked to do things together as people take the view one Liverpool poet is as good as another so just include a token one of us on tours. Were still in touch however and did readings together before I fell ill. In a way were a lot more cohesive now than we were in the sixties.
Henri has retained his links with the North East. Before his stroke he gave poetry readings in the area and Bloodaxe Books based in Northumberland published his last major collection Not Fade Away Poems 1989-1994. What does he think of the area now? I dont want to sound like an old fogey but there seems to have been a lot of civic vandalism. I think they can end up destroying the heart of the place.
His ambitions for the future are simple.
Ive had almost two years of not doing any art. The nurses brought me a pen and sketchbook in hospital (he was there for six months) and I tried drawing and it came out like a babys scribbles. But a few weeks later it improved and I began to do still lives. My main ambition is to get back into that.
He pauses. The exhibition came at a good time for me. Its given me something to focus on so has writing this poem because I had a deadline. Someone somewhere is looking down on me.
Many people are looking down and up at Adrian wishing him well and urging his efforts to improve. George Melly calls regularly, as does Carol Ann. The phone interrupts us it is the owner of the gallery someone wants to buy three of his paintings.
His sense of achievement is obvious and cant have dimmed over the decades. However traumatic the past couple of years have been Adrian Henris art and essence are very much alive right at the heart of this talented man.
Anna Woodford is Publications and Public Relations Officer at the University.