Virginia and I used to go to Streates in Mount Pleasant to listen to local poets such as Phil Tasker, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. We’d usually start off from the Jacaranda and as we walked along Slater Street would note John and Cynthia and Paul and Dot kissing in shop doorways.
Streates was a small club, basically a coffee bar for people interested in poetry. As we listened to the performances of our poet friends, who could predict that the Mersey poets would become the most influential performance poets in Britain and their book ‘The Mersey Sound’ become the biggest-selling poetry book of the decade.
This particular scene is captured in Phil Bowen’s book ‘A Gallery To Play To’, a biography of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, the three main poets to emerge from the Mersey cultural revolution.
In my blogs I intend to feature and interview authors and their books about the Beatles and the Mersey scene.
I read ‘A Gallery To Play To’ when it was republished by Liverpool University Press in 2007 and decided to interview Phil, who had previously compiled a book of poetry about the Beatles in 1995 called ‘Things We Said Today: Poems About the Beatles’
He was to tell me, “I first had the idea to write the book when I met Roger and Brian on an Arvon Course in 1992 – although from Liverpool I never knew them.
“The Arvon Foundation is based in Totleigh Barton, Sheepwash , Hatherleigh mid Devon – it’s a creative writing centre set up in the seventies for sixteen would-be writers with two tutors and a guest reader for a duration of five days. There are others now in Yorkshire, Scotland and Shropshire.
“I was a publican at the time in 1991 coming to the end of my tether and a friend who knew I was interested in writing, particularly poetry, recommended it. I noticed Brian and Roger were tutors in August 1991 – so I gave it a go. Brian suggested I try writing about comedians as I seemed to know about one or two and that formed the basis of my first short collection ‘The Professor’s Boots’ including poems about Max Wall, Tony Hancock, Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd. I’ve stayed in touch with Ken Dodd ever since after giving him a copy in 1994.
“The following year all three agreed to give me a try as a biographer as ‘there wasn’t anyone else really interested’. It was difficult at first but gradually – around 1997 – I felt I was getting somewhere and could see the overall structure of the book taking shape. I’d catch up with Adrian, Roger and Brian every so often – they were very helpful – and I seemed to be good at interviewing them and transcribing those interviews. Other people I recorded include: Mike Evans, George Melly, Andy Roberts, Maurice Cockerell and Yankel Feather.
My poetry publisher Stride agreed to publish it in 1999 – around the time of Adrian’s stroke – so it was great that Liverpool University Press have republished in 2007 bringing the story full circle in a sense – fifty years since Adrian moved to Liverpool, Roger returned from Hull University, the Cavern opened, John met Paul and Brian failed the 11 plus.
“I was born in Liverpool 18 near Penny Lane on 23rd October 1949. My first real awareness of Liverpool culture was seeing the Beatles on ‘People and Places’ in late 1962. I subsequently edited ’Things We Said Today – Poetry About The Beatles’ – in 1995 including poems by Adrian and Roger – having done a similar book on Bob Dylan the previous year with Stride Publications.
“I asked Roger, Brian and Adrian – as far as I know they weren’t looking for a biographer, but they felt a book would be useful as long as it was a good one.
“I pressed ahead without a publisher but Stride went with it on sending them a late draft in 1998. It took about six years and really got well under way in 1997 having a tentative start in 1993. I’d like to do one on John Cooper Clarke and have first refusal but up to now John doesn’t want one.
“My father was a very good detective in the CID in Liverpool and being a biographer is a bit like that – I think I inherited his ability to stay on the case, track people down and ask the right questions. He once arrested one of Brian’s cousins who was quite notorious in Wavertree.
“One of the few differences was Adrian’s version of where Allen Ginsberg read when he visited Liverpool in the mid sixties – Adrian reckoned over Parry Books – Brian – over Wilson’s. I changed it to Brian’s version when I did the recent update for LUP.
“It was initially launched at The Chelsea Arts Club in 1999 – Adrian’s first public appearance since his stroke – and then at Waterstone’s Piccadilly some months later. Lemn Sissay – then poet in residence at the South Bank – really liked it and used it to inform his celebration of the Mersey Poets for The Poetry Society’s ‘Under the Influence of’ series at The Arts Theatre, Newport Street.”
Poetry was part of my life at this time and something I discussed with John, particularly in our chats in the Cracke. We had books from the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco. My favourite was ‘Howl’ by Allan Ginsberg, which I used to recite aloud in the street. John loved Ferlinghetti’s ‘A Coney Island of the Mind’ and one particular poem about the crucifixion which left him in paroxysms of laughter.
The Cracke is where I also talked John into letting me see one of his poems. He actually had it in his pocket on a sheet of paper (the poem, in its entirety, is on my blog for Mersey Beat Issue No.1). It had no title but I was very surprised and pleased to see that it had a wacky Englishness about it, unlike work by current poets who were more influenced by the San Francisco writers. I was pleased with John’s poem and told him so. I also decided I’d continue to encourage him to write and, eventually I published three of John’s poems, in addition to his regular Mersey Beat columns.
I used to visit Phil Tasker in his Percy Street flat and we had conversations, not unlike those I had with Stuart – about life, the future, whether there was a God – and Phil believed that immortality was only to be found in children, grandchildren and all those who were to follow.
I believed in a fountain of creativity waiting to be mined from the brain and that there were psychic powers which would one day be tapped – they were among the subjects of my own poems, all but two were lost many years ago.
A close art college friend was Mal Dean, an extremely talented artist, but a kindred spirit. We went to dances and parties together, and I appreciated the warmth of his friendship. I also wrote poetry at this time, but never read them to an audience in Liverpool. Mal arranged for me to read my work at the Net, a club in his native Widnes.
I was so pleased to meet up with Mal again in London. I was asked to paint murals on the walls of the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street. The owners wanted images of famous jazz artists. I arranged for Mal to do them instead. The work he created there was remarkable, I just feel sad that I never took photos of the work. Mal also began to illustrate New Worlds, the science fiction magazine run by my former pen-pal Mike Moorcock, he also illustrated Mike’s Jerry Cornelius character. I took Mike to Apple to meet the Beatles and he was given a financial donation to help with the production of the magazine (John and Ringo were sci-fi fans).
Although Johnny Byrne wasn’t a poet he brought poet Spike Hawkins to join him in Liverpool for a time. Johnny arrived in Liverpool from Dublin and initially took the job as manager of a small art shop in Dale Street and used to sleep there overnight. He bought a bubble car which technically only fits one person, but Virginia and I crammed into it with him when we went to parties, my head sticking out of the top of the car all the way. He then began sharing a flat with artist Sam Walsh in Gambier Terrace, directly below where John, Stu and Rod lived. When Hawkins arrived in Liverpool he was allowed to share the basement flat too and began poetry readings at Streates.
There was a metal stair structure at the rear of the building and Johnny told me that he used to creep up those stairs to where John’s work was left out at the back. He then took it and burnt it. Although there may be some truth in this, I don’t believe it entirely as any work would be by Stu and Rod, I doubt whether John did the type of artwork that could be left outside their flat. He drew rather than painted – and on scraps of paper.
Byrne was to say, “Outside were all these paintings of Lennon’s: the landlord had come and the Beatles hadn’t paid their rent and the paintings were thrown out into the backyard where they were rotting. And I went out and I got all these paintings and I burnt I don’t know how many to keep us warm.”
This is mainly an apocryphal tale and indicates how people exaggerate and enliven stories from their past, as in Spike’s remembrance of the event: “The burning of Lennon’s paintings took place one Christmastime. We had been given a turkey by two scrubbers, which we cooked with great care, and the next day we were about to eat it, when from its guts leapt a cat, who had eaten it from the inside.”
Johnny later left for London and had success with a novel ‘Groupie,’ co-written with Jenny Fabian, and then became a scriptwriter launching ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ and ‘Heartbeat’, also penning three ‘Dr Who’ episodes. Johnny agreed to write the scripts to a proposed ‘Mersey Beat’ TV series with me which the BBC were interested in, but the BBC stalled for three years and then they took the title and used it for a cop series. Sadly, Johnny passed away on April 2 2008.
Royston Ellis was a ‘Beat Poet’ who became a good friend to me and the Beatles. We went to see him reading his poems at the Liverpool University on Friday 14 June 1960 and later that evening John, Stuart, Rod and I retired to Ye Cracke and formed the Dissenters. Royston stayed at the Gambier Terrace flat for a few days and I was present when he broke open a Vick inhaler, took out a strip of Benzedrine and chewed it. He told us that this would keep us awake for hours. It was referred to, I believe, as a spitball. Royston also had John, Paul, George and Stu back him reading his poems at the Jacaranda and he told me: “Unfortunately, I don’t remember what I performed at the Jacaranda and can only assume that we rehearsed at the flat beforehand. I based a chapter on the Jacaranda in a 1963 novel called ‘Myself For Fame’ in which the Beatles feature as the Rhythmettes.”
Royston was so impressed by the lads that he invited them to London to become his backing band, resulting in the offer being mentioned in Record Mirror on 9 July 1960 and also on 14 July, part of which read: “For some time I have been searching for a group to use regularly and I feel that the Beetles (most of them are Liverpool art students) fit the bill.”
I promoted and organised the very first ‘Poetry to Jazz’ concert in the north of England at the Crane Theatre (now the Epstein Theatre) on 31 January 1961. It was fully reported by my friend Anthony Barrell, from Liverpool University, editor of the Uni magazine ‘Sphinx.’ He concluded, “Bill Harry’s effort is significant and it is to be hoped that this first won’t be the last.” Of course, it was the only such concert I promoted because I was planning the launch of Mersey Beat. Anthony moved to Australia where he became a celebrated journalist and, sadly, passed away a few years ago.
Incidentally, one of the poets I included on the bill was Pete Brown, who was later to lead groups such as Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments and penned the lyrics to a number of hits by Cream.