I had the pleasure in January of seeing Roger McGough and Brian Patten perform at the Liverpool Playhouse in celebration of 50 years since the publication of The Mersey Sound, an anthology of poems by McGough, Patten, and the sadly departed Adrian Henri. It got me wondering about the background to this iconic book, who the three poets were – all of whom went on to achieve critical acclaim – and what happened next.
The Mersey Sound was the tenth in a series of slim paperbacks originally published in the 1960s by Penguin in a series called Penguin Modern Poets. Each book assembled work by three compatible poets although none of the other books in the series were given a specific title. It went on to sell over 500,000 copies making it one of the bestselling poetry anthologies of all time.
The title also reflects the musical dominance of Liverpool – the Mersey Beat – during this period with The Beatles and other bands enjoying unprecedented success worldwide. With the spotlight well and truly centred on the city, it was not surprising that these three poets, whose work was inspired by the environment and events around them, would rise to the fore.
The 1960’s is cited as a time of change in many aspects of life and as far as poetry is concerned this is no exception as The Mersey Sound with its everyday language and use of recognisable symbolism made poetry accessible in contrast to the ‘dull’ classics that were drummed in at school. It has often been noted that the rebirth of poetry during the 1960’s was largely due to the humour and fresh appeal of this collection which certainly captured the mood of the sixties – energetic, raw and a true record of its era.
So, we have our moment in time in 1967, but who were these three poets and what happened next.
Roger McGough was born in Litherland on the outskirts of Liverpool. After studying at the University of Hull, he returned to Liverpool in the 1960’s to work as a French teacher and became involved in organising arts events. He formed a band, The Scaffold, with John Gorman and Mike McGear (brother of Paul McCartney) which enjoyed some success including a number one single with a cover of Lily The Pink in 1968 and he was also responsible for much of the dialogue in The Beatles film Yellow Submarine.
McGough’s background in writing songs is reflected in the lyrical quality of his work which often plays on words and their meanings whilst his stylised writing explores lost youth, unfulfilled relationships, and the challenges of city life. His popularity and commercial success is largely attributed to his humour and lack of pretension.
On a more ‘serious’ note his translation of three plays by 17th C French playwright Molière – Tartuffe; The Hypochondriac; and The Misanthrope – enjoyed critical acclaim at the Liverpool Playhouse under the direction of Gemma Bodinetz before successfully touring with the English Touring Theatre.
Brian Patten was born near the Liverpool docks and went to school in the Smithdown Road area of Liverpool where he was noted for his essay writing. Leaving school at fifteen he went to work for a local newspaper writing a column on popular music with an early article somewhat ironically focusing on two pop-oriented poets of the time – Roger McGough and Adrian Henri.
Patten’s work displays a lyrical style and focuses typically on childhood, love, and relationships and is well reflected in his collections including Storm Damage (1988); Armada (1996); and Collected Love Poems (2010). His work demonstrates an awareness of the ever-present possibility of the magical and the miraculous, as well as of the harsh realities of life. Patten also writes extensively for children and has been translated into many languages including Italian, Spanish, German, and Polish, and provides highly entertaining performances at his frequent readings.
His most recent challenge has involved the translation of Moroccan Sufi comic poems – best described as an Arabic equivalent of a limerick but wittier – which it is hoped will spark the interest of a publisher to allow their wider appreciation.
Adrian Henri was born in Birkenhead before moving to Rhyl. He studied art at Newcastle University before going on to teach at both Manchester and Liverpool Colleges of Art. Unlike McGough and Patten, Henri turned his back on the trendier London scene, and chose to remain in Liverpool, saying there was nowhere he loved better.
Renowned as a poet and a painter, he was also founder of the poetry rock-group, the Liverpool Scene, which released four albums of poetry and music. His notable written works include Collected Poems, 1967-85; Wish You Were Here (1990) and Not Fade Away (1994).
In 1972 he won a major prize for his painting Meat Painting II – In Memoriam Rene Magritte and was president of the Merseyside Arts Association and Liverpool Academy of the Arts in the 1970s and was an honorary professor of the city’s John Moores University. In 1986 he became the first President of the National Acrylic Painters’ Association, a post he held until 1991, after which he became its first Fellow and Patron until his death in 2000 following a long illness.
In 2002 the three poets were given the Freedom of the City of Liverpool.
The 50th anniversary of The Mersey Sound allows us to delight and revel again in the direct and witty language of this iconic book with its frank and often sensitive portrayals of intimacy.
Equally exciting is McGough’s recent collaboration with LiTTLe MACHiNe which comprises musicians Walter Wray, Steve Halliwell, and Chris Hardy. This South London band are famous for giving a new voice to classic and obscure poetry thereby creating an impact not dissimilar to that of The Mersey Sound on its launch and they provided support to McGough and Patten at the recent anniversary event including their own moving tribute to Adrian Henri. Their new album, The Likes of Us, sees them collaborate with McGough to perform twelve of his poems set to music as well as touring with him throughout the UK, details of which can be found at http://www.little-machine.com/
And so the beat goes on…