By the time I was 13, I was already writing poetry seriously, and read vast amounts of it from Widnes library for pleasure. In the early 1960s, Penguin started producing black paperback showcase volumes of three poets at a time, and when a bookshop opened in my home town, I began to buy these from my pocket money. They were affordable and introduced a wide range of contemporary poets than I had seen in the public library. I read through them, sometimes without comprehension, on long Crosville bus rides home from Liverpool, if for some reason I had had to miss the coach home, for rehearsals etc.
T.S Eliot was my current favourite at the time. I loved the music of his poems, and wasn’t too bothered about the complexity of the meanings.
My sister moved away from home with her husband and baby, and we went to help her unpack. The previous owners of the house had left some things behind, and I was sorting through an understairs cupboard when I found this tatty book. It looked different to the other Penguin Modern Poets, which had white flowers on a back background. This cover screamed at me with its orange Liverpool skyline and its pop art feel. I sat on the floor with my back to the wall, in my customary button-front jeans and aran jumper, and started to thumb through it.
Half an hour later, having been gobsmacked and enthralled by these poems, I came to, pins and needles in my legs, and ran to my sister to ask her if I could have the book. It became my constant companion and immediately influenced my writing, making me experiment with running words together, and writing about the ordinary everyday things which surrounded a working class Northern lass, like me. These poems told me about a lifestyle very different to my own. A way of living that included clubs, all night parties, smoking, and wall to wall poetry, in Liverpool, where I was going to grammar school at the time. It was electrifying, as out of reach as a fantasy land, yet I could walk the same streets, smell the same air, later go to the university at the top of Brownlow hill and worry about the same things as these three poets. I learned list poems and surrealism from Adrian Henri, the flexibility of rhyme from Roger McGough, and the value of strangeness from Brian Patten. The poems became part of the soundtrack of my life. Poetry was fun and serious at the same time. It possessed me.
Fast forward a decade. Adrian Henri was reading in my area. I had moved to Northwich with my husband and we had had one child and were expecting another. I was invited to read alongside, and in support of, Adrian Henri, at the Harlequin Theatre. Of course I took my copy along to be signed. Not only did he do so, but he said kind things about my poems, and signed the book ‘for Angela and her poems’.
Fast forward again, faster. During my last few years teaching at Upton Hall, I took my writers group to hear Brian Patten, performing a lunchtime show at The Brindley in Runcorn. They loved it. We were waiting in the foyer for the school minibus, when the man himself came down the stairs. One of my year 7 pupils rushed over to him and spoke to him, then she pointed to me. I could hear her saying ‘my teacher is a poet’. There was nowhere to hide, but he came over and spoke to me, said he knew my name and thought we had been in some of the same anthologies. We had, including one edited by Roger McGough. My life overlapped briefly and beautifully with these amazing poets. Roger presents Poetry Please, where my poems have been featured several times. Lucky me.
I was of course close friends with another Liverpool poet, Matt Simpson. He knew the Mersey Sound poets well, admired them too, read with them many times. So I felt I knew them through him as well. Adrian stayed in Liverpool, so I had more chances to hear him read. When he died, I was moved to write him an elegy. I read this at the Wirral Festival of Firsts in a bar, and someone came up to me afterwards who knew Adrian because he used to play the trumpet at his performances, and I am pleased to say he reckoned I had caught him, just as he was.
Love is… Finally this
So Adrian Henri’s gone. Affable host of Liverpool 1;
iconographer of Canning Street; genial soul of every bar
dispensing compliments and beer. What’s love now?
Haunt your old haunts, Adrian. That huge cathedral’s too grand.
You’re more the poet of chippies, back street pubs, backs of vans.
Your eyes-closed readings betrayed the shy lack of faith in self.
I hope there’s a heaven made for you, of scotch in the afternoons,
the stained-glass colours of your paintings and a procession
of dolly-bird angels for you to eye like the Everlasting Sixties.
From Angela Topping’s book The Way We Came (bluechrome 2007)
9 responses to “The Mersey Sound and Me”
Angela, this is such an interesting post.
Love, Maureen x
A lovely piece Angela, about a book so many of us loved. And fond memories of Liverpool of the era. Margaret Jones and I once bought you a poetry book for your birthday, I can remember us trying to choose one, but don’t know what we picked in the end, maybe a Roger McGough collection?
Lovely post. I missed out on the Liverpool poets at the time – already being married with 2 small children but discovered’ them later and unpacked several of their books yesterday. I shall be re-reading with your words in mind. Thanks for the reminder.
I should add that Henri’s funeral was at the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. I couldn’t go because I was teaching then.
A lovely piece, Angela. The only poetry available when I was growing up was a fragment of Herrick’s ‘The Hag’ on a teatowel. Then my brother bought The Mersey Sound, and it transformed me too. Wonderful stuff.
Dear Angela I tried to send a response to your WordPress piece on the Mersey sound but for some reason it wanted me to log in and I ended up somewhere away from the reply .. I thought one responded under the post? Pity as I’d hoped other people would be able to see how I’d enjoyed it. And hoped too you’d be able to come and see Roger when he’s back on the road with Little Machine. We’ve set his poems to music, made an album, and been gigging round the country for some years until – March 2020. We did 3 shows in a row then (stunned) silence. The concerts we did with him and Brian in Liverpool, Southport, the Wirral during the 50th anniversary celebrations of ‘the Mersey Sound’ (when we performed settings of Brian & Adrian too) were especially epic – huge audiences most of whom appeared to be relatives or old friends of the poets or had gone to school with them. Roger is a great performer and has taught us a lot – and we’ve been around the block a few times. A trouper who’s lived by poetry – one of the very few who’ve managed that. Countless people have come up to him and said ‘your book/ poems/ The Mersey Sound completely transformed my idea of what poetry was and could do’ Chris Hardy http://www.little-machine.com
Sent from my iPhone
you did manage to reply but thanks for replying again. I’d love to hear Roger perform live with Little Machine. I still love his work after all this time.
Thanks and happy (!?) new year If you’d like a CD of Roger & Little Machine please send me an address – email, FB message, text – no fee (we have boxes of them, no gigs and want to spread the news. You might give it a mention! There’s a Xmas & Carol Ann Duffy CD too, also shot down by change & time) Best Wishes Chris Hardy 07729382403 Sent from my iPhone
I came to this post via a thread on FaceBook about the programme ‘Sex, Chips and Rock n’Roll’. I was going to comment there but was called away and then couldn’t find it. But this post is great and thought I’d respond here: I’m in LiTTLe MACHiNe and we are working with Roger regularly: we perform with him and have made an album too: his words, our music – ‘The Likes Of Us’. The concert details are at http://www.little-machine.com and it would be great to see you and all followers at one of them – meet the patron Saint of English poetry! We have also done two Mersey Sound commemoration gigs, one in Liverpool and one recently in Hull. For these we were joined by Brian Patten. We perform our settings of ‘Somewhere between Heaven and Woolworths’, and Adrian Henri’s ‘Love Is’ and ‘Car Crash Blues’. The audiences are extremely affectionate towards the two poets, who are accomplished and relaxed performers, (and both still writing). They were apprehensive about how the programme would turn out but relieved after seeing it. We in the band thought it was a perceptive, and at times moving, tribute. They are in life as they seemed on the screen.