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  WORDS, BEER AND SMOKE

THE ISLE IS FULL OF NOISES: for Harold Hikins, Poet
edited by Kevin McCann
(Benham Publishing Ltd. £6.99)

 

Back in the late seventies I mustered enough courage to stand up and read a couple of poems in public. The man who encouraged me to do it was the man to whom this book is dedicated, Harold Hikins, poet, editor, publisher, librarian, encourager and organiser. He, along with others, ran monthly readings at the Why Not pub in Liverpool city centre, readings which began in the sixties and, with a few changes of venue, continued into the eighties. Acknowledgement of his contribution in offering poets a platform has long been overdue and all praise should go to Kevin McCann for carefully selecting work, old and new, by writers who appeared at these readings.

And scanning this selection is like being back in the downstairs room where I first heard the late Keith Whitelaw reading Roger Crawford’s The Scrap Heap, a pastiche of The Waste Land, in Scouse, where Adrian Mitchell was heckled and duly heckled back while Roger McGough melted into the foreground of the audience but didn’t read. It was the room where I bought a copy of Kevin McCann’s The Trouble With Wings, published by Hikins’, Toulouse Press, and wished I’d written the title poem.

The other inhabitants of this wide-ranging tribute include Scousers, Jimmy McGovern, Matt Simpson and the Mersey Three, of course, with a couple of old favourites from the late Henri and Patten’s magnificent Interruption At The Opera House closing the book. There is also poetry from the long dormant, Alasdair Paterson, whose Glasshouse Press published some fine work, including his own, Poems For Douanier Rousseau. Where is he now?

Still active, Pete Morgan’s contributions display a craft and precision often missing from work in performance but then he is a master on page or stage. His work is seamless and difficult to quote from but I’d recommend you look at ‘Late Fire’ and ‘In Absentia’ and see what I mean. I’m not sure what Michael Cunningham is doing now but he hosted some superior readings himself at The Pilgrim pub in the nineties. His work never got the recognition it deserved despite being championed at one time by the likes of Simon Armitage. Here ‘Injury Time’ and its bleak portrayal of educational bullies is a good example of how he could write telling and memorable lines :

          We knew by heart the mythology of straps,
          how the old and worn ones hurt more,
          how to hold the hand so that it caught only the edge
          and the indignity of entering a junior class
          to ’borrow’ one from another master.

Dave Calder was also very active on the
Liverpool poetry scene as part of Windows Project and co-editor of Smoke magazine. He appropriately asks, in ‘Leavings’, ‘what will we be remembered by?’ and also constructs a miniature narrative of failure in ‘Birdman’, a poem which reflects his eye for  the precise image, every word made to count. It would have sat well next to Kevin McCann’s ‘The Trouble With Wings’.

With so many voices to listen to it is sometimes easy to overlook one or two. Richard Hill was published by Hikins and others but often seemed a quieter voice. It is good to revisit the realm of cowboy fiction with him in ‘Tombstone Library’ where Wyatt Earp has to pay his fine before ‘he turns and moves towards “Mythology”.’ It is also worth taking time to read his more personal tribute, ‘My Father Worked At Cammell Lairds’.

I mentioned seeing Keith Whitelaw at the Why Not and it is satisfying to see his work remembered here. His early death in 1988 arrested a poetic development which was always full of promise. Again, Toulouse Press kept a selection of his work in print in the posthumous booklet, Beautify The Nation. Some of this is available again here. Moving from the splenetic view of the British in ‘National Anthem’ through the manic wit of ‘Elbows In The Sugar’ he makes one of his most poignant statements in ‘Mental Ward, December’:

          chiefly it’s the fear that I remember
          the phonograph, the light, a wartime tune,
          how we can be destroyed in dark December
          however bold we are in May or June.

The whole book stands as an important document of the work Hikins did and it is good to see something of his own writing too. In this case it is his appraisal of the Liverpudlian attitude to the arts and artists and the vitality of the scene, as it was in 1977 when he wrote the piece from which this book takes its title. He valued the honest performer with something to say and he extends this to the
Liverpool audience who had a rich diet of poetry and other arts available to the point where they sometimes became, in his words, ‘blasé’. This article, taken from the magazine Poetry Merseyside, which he co-edited for a few years, recalls a time when I went to hear people read their words in the beer and smoke and came away inspired. It is a superb reminder of how some of that work has lasted and who made sure it was heard initially. It is gratifying that once again it is available to be read and enjoyed.

          © Paul Donnelly 2002


The Isle is Full of Noises is available from : Phil Taylor, Arts & Culture Unit, 3rd Floor, Millenium House,
Victoria Street, Liverpool, L1 6JH.