I didn't want to be part of the scene I'd helped to create
The time: 1963 The place: Bootle train station The man: Brian Patten, poet
Tuesday 25 February 1997
It was an unhappy house. I remember thinking it was always dark, but I suppose the darkness was simply inside the people. They were very unhappy people, and I suppose I wrote to try and articulate things for myself, to try and make sense of it.
There was one good guy at school called Eric Sutcliffe; he was the sports teacher and he was obsessed with opera. He used to tell us the stories, then play some music. The music never impressed me, but the stories did. I remember The Flying Dutchman - doomed to sail the sea - it was a great story.
I was in the C stream until I was 14, when the headmaster plucked me out and put me in the A stream because of an essay he'd read. I hated things like cross-country running, which meant running round the school, the back streets, the gasworks, and I'd learnt to say "Please, sir, can I stay and write a poem instead?" They were so staggered that they let me. So that was a great scam.
I met Roger McGough and Adrian Henri when I was 15. I went into a basement club in Liverpool - I'd read in the local paper, the Liverpool Echo, this weird advertisement saying "Meet Pete the Beat at Streets". I was very interested in poetry then; I was devouring it - writing it as well, but bad, imitative stuff. I felt a lot of empathy for poets such as Rimbaud because he also wrote when he was very young, and Walt Whitman and Federico Garca Lorca. I read them in translation. I couldn't stomach Eliot; it was too dry for me.
Adrian and Roger were a bit older. Roger was nine years older. If a 15-year-old, burning with poetry, turns up somewhere, the older ones must find it pretty unusual and weird.
After school, I worked as a junior reporter on the Bootle Times. I was 17, and I was trussed up like a bloody turkey in this suit and tie. One beautiful, beautiful spring morning, I was waiting to get a train into town, into Liverpool proper, and there was nobody on the platform. It was very quiet, and I just sat there knowing I hated the job and looking at these railway lines. It was a bit like the poem "Addlestrop" - a very quiet station, a bird singing a very lush song, and I was watching the lines go off into the spring haze, and I just thought, I don't want to do this job any longer. I want to be free to follow those lines. So that afternoon I handed in my notice, and I haven't really worked since.
I had to wait maybe a month, and it was a great, great sense of liberation. I was very much committed to writing and poetry, it was a great relief not to be tied down any more. I was writing at that stage, and I was running a small poetry magazine. I published my contemporaries like McGough and Adrian, and myself, of course.
And then I went with a friend of mine to Paris, and we were sleeping under the bridges on the embankment of the Seine, kipping in semi-derelict houses. I was going to go back to England, but, again, it was the same railway lines. I thought, no, if I go back I might find another job, so I'll stay away a bit longer.
I earned bits of money. I'd met up in a cafe with a young poet, a girl, and she translated some short poems of mine into French for me. I also used to write them in coloured chalk on the pavements on the bridges. I hardly knew what the translations were but they were small, bad poems of mine and I wrote them in these really nice coloured chalks - and became the first pavement poet; in a way, quite an initiative for a 17-year-old.
So I was earning enough for a basic diet of French loaves stuffed with bananas and goats' milk, which I lived on, and I travelled around a bit in France and Morocco.
About six weeks later I went back to Liverpool and rented an attic room in Liverpool 8, a run-down area; they call it Toxteth now. I survived doing bits and pieces; I was on the dole for a few months. I was organising poetry readings in various clubs and bars that paid next to nothing, but somehow it seemed easier to live on air then.
At the time, a lot of poetry would be small readings in a university environment. What we were doing was, we'd mix poetry with music and comedy, and we'd get non-academic people coming. It wasn't necessarily students, it was the boys and girls working on the tills.
Because of the media attention attracted to Liverpool by the Beatles, people were sniffing around up there. One book came out called The Liverpool Scene, which included many poets, but the predominant work was Roger, Adrian and myself. I was interviewed on a radio programme and I read a poem. Down in London a publisher called Philip Unwin heard it and asked to do a book - Little Johnny's Confession. That was when I was 19. Now I realise how lucky I was, being able to publish a book by a large publisher at that age. When those books came out, in a flush in '67 (the last being Penguin's The Mersey Sound), it meant I could get more poetry readings and get paid for them.
By then Roger had become involved with the Scaffold, and Adrian had put a band together. I didn't really want any of that. So I decided to leave Liverpool before The Mersey Sound book came out. Having helped create a scene, I didn't want to be part of one. There was a lot of energy in the city; it was great, but I wanted to concentrate on the poems and the writing.
I went to live in Winchester - from a total city environment to this quiet existential existence in a Cathedral town, reading Steppenwolf and writing poems. I love the water meadows and the river Itchen - that wide, shallow water; it cleans out your head.
I never went back to Liverpool to live. I suppose, as far as labels go, it's a label I absolutely don't mind now. There was an article at the time, in 1967, that said, "this is a flash in the pan from a three-headed pantomime horse". We're doing a tour and Roger said we should call it `The Revenge of the Three-Headed Pantomime Horse'" The Mersey Sound 30th anniversary tour, with Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, starts on 2 March at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and includes the Royal Festival Hall on 10 March (details, 0171-960 4242).
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