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)