In 2016 Phrased & Confused together with the Unity Theatre commissioned Liverpool based poet, folk singer and playwright Lizzie Nunnery to create a new spoken word piece to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Mersey Sound by Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri.
Lizzie has always found herself drawn to the work of Adrian – a poet, painter and performer – a polymath who, like many of the artists both Unity and Phrased & Confused work with, crossed boundaries and genres with ease. So it was Adrian’s work, his ‘happenings’ and his wanderings (early experiments in mytho-geography) that first inspired this brand new work. And specifically one of Adrian’s fragment poems, found in The Mersey Sound:
‘Liverpool I love your horny-handed tons of soil.’
Lizzie and her collaborators Vidar Norheim, Martin Heslop and Martin Smith presented a first extract of the piece at Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Music Room in March 2016 as part of the Liverpool Acoustic Festival. Get Into This Magazine called it ‘a swelling rollercoaster of a piece, a love story of Liverpool life from the wasted artists of Gambier Terrace to the Toxteth Riots and beyond’.
Part spoken word, part folk gig, part theatre, it’s a work inspired by the incredible legacy of Adrian Henri, but one that speaks to today as we consistently search for a sense of place, a sense of the past and also of the future.
L8: Magic in the Soil
In a piece first written for Horny Handed Tons of Soil visit to the Southbank Centre, Lizzie Nunnery talks about L8, Adrian Henri and the research behind the show.
Liverpool 8, or Toxteth, is on the edge of the city centre, on the edge of the river, one of Britain’s oldest multi-cultural, multi-ethnic areas, having absorbed generation after generation of immigration. In the second world war it was bombed, afterwards it was much neglected- decades of bungled housing schemes and clearances turning key neighbourhoods in to boarded up ghost streets. After the riots of 1981 it was stigmatised. It’s old enough to have been mentioned in the Domesday Book and its widest streets are lined with mansions built by rich Victorian and Georgian merchants when Liverpool was Britain’s second city. This weight of stories told makes it difficult to talk about. Having lived in the post code for five years and on its outskirts for much longer, I’ve learnt that it would take a lifetime to earn the right to describe it.
Still, I have my L8, and Adrian Henri of course had his. Living there for most of his adult life, the poet/painter/performance artist conjured in his paintings and writings a shifting collage of the area- it’s pigeons, paving stones, parks, parties, bomb sites and gardens. His L8 was a patch of land where startling forces of destruction and construction battled for beauty; a bohemian, seductive cityscape where love hid around corners, singing in the echoes of alleyways, blooming in the drunken dark. He famously wanted to paint ‘every paving stone on Canning St’, and he iconised the streets he walked by writing or painting over their image: picturing Death striding up Upper Duke Street past the Anglican Cathedral in to L8 (‘Cloak flapping black tall batman collar’), or prostitutes waiting in the Toxteth snow ‘like strange erotic snowmen’. In Where’er You Walk his city streets erupt with flowers and trees to mark the paths of lovers: ‘cobble stones bursting with lillies-of-the-valley… oak trees growing everywhere we’ve kissed.’ Through his layering of past and present, of reality and possibility Henri glamourised the mundane, filtering the kitchens and alleyways of L8 through popular and classical culture. Reading his poems in The Mersey Sound one might feel they have access to a transformative map- a porthole for artists or dreamers to pass through. So, when I was invited to write some poetry inspired by the Mersey Poets, I knew it had to be a journey through a real and unreal city, an excavation of the soil of L8 to discover stories beneath.
As the last decade of cultural regeneration in Liverpool has proved, we have to say it to make it so- to find confidence in ourselves in order to transform. Imagining is half the battle. And L8 is good at that. Where there are gaps between buildings there’s space to imagine a new city. The people we interviewed in making Horny Handed Tons of Soil, were doers and growers. On Windsor Street, just beyond the Anglican Cathedral, local women are running community gardens, planting fruit trees along pavement, speaking of ‘a hundred-year plan’ for the area. They erected a community building called Toxteth Food Central and when some kids burnt it down, they built it all over again. On the other side of L8 in Lodge Lane, the young people of the Tiber project are turning the site of a demolished primary school in to a forest and a football pitch. Half a mile over in the Granby area with its boarded up streets, the residents have filled walkways with pots of flowers, dressed the empty terraces in blooms as a message of defiance. Rose tinted glasses offer no vision. L8 is not a paradise or a hackneyed success story, but in an era where central government is abandoning poorer communities, L8 looks round, gathers its own resources, makes something grow.
I went to Granby Street Market one Saturday last July. Local artists, cooks, vegetable growers line up next to bric-a-brac and pot plants. It was sunny and that helped- the tired or unused buildings hung with flowers and bunting. Liverpool Festival Company brought their stilt walkers and puppets, and my two-year-old danced to 90s reggae pulsing out the back of a van. Walking through the stalls, up where the market ended and the dual carriageway begins, I heard a sound of tinkling bells… then shouts of toddlers. Looking along the boarded-up houses of Ducie St, I saw a moving huddle of heads and hooves, the women of the Yemeni Society striding at the front in bright colours. Like The Entry of Christ in to the Liverpool, the children of Granby came riding on donkeys, announcing themselves to the pavement and the sky. Surely Adrian Henri would have approved.
About Adrian Henri
Adrian Henri (10 April 1932 – 20 December 2000) was a British poet and painter best remembered as the founder of poetry-rock group the Liverpool Scene and as one of three poets (alongside Roger McGough and Brian Patten) in the ground-breaking and irreverently contemporary Penguin anthology The Mersey Sound (1967), one of the best-selling poetry books of all time (over a quarter of a million copies to date). A celebrated performer, his career spanned everything from artist and poet to teacher, rock-and-roll performer, playwright and librettist.
Here Art Historian Catherine Marcangeli considers Adrian, his work and his impact.
Adrian Henri (1932-2000) was an artist, poet, musician and a pioneer of happenings in Britain. He trained as a painter at King’s College, Newcastle under Roger de Grey, Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton, then moved to Liverpool in 1956, later teaching at the Art College there. His early Pop Art sensibility translated into urban imagery, collages and hyperrealist paintings of meat against a clinical white background.
Henri came to prominence as a writer alongside Roger McGough and Brian Patten in the groundbreaking and resolutely contemporary Penguin anthology The Mersey Sound (1967), one of the best-selling poetry books of all time. His live poetry readings, and his ability to juxtapose everyday or pop images with highbrow cultural references, shaped several generations’ perceptions of what poetry could be, and could be about.
Performance was central to Henri’s practice, both as a visual artist and as a poet. He gave numerous poetry readings and, in the 1960s and 1970s, fronted the poetry-and-rock group The Liverpool Scene, signed by RCA. Their debut album was produced by John Peel, who dubbed Henri “one of the great non-singers of our time.” In 1969, the band performed at the Isle of Wight Festival, supported Led Zeppelin and toured America.
Henri’s eclectic interests and multi-faceted interdisciplinary œuvre placed him at the centre of a distinctively local yet internationally connected counter-culture.
References to Liverpool, in particular the Bohemian area of Liverpool 8, abound in his work, from the titles of his books, paintings and performances, to the name of his band.
His first Happening was titled City (1962), and its backdrop was an assemblage of posters, detritus and objects found in the streets of Liverpool. City was also the title of his 1969 poetry collection whose front cover showed a map of Liverpool 8.
As for his large oil on canvas The Entry of Christ into Liverpool in 1964 (1962-64, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle), it is a variation on James Ensor’s Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (1888, Getty Museum). In this frontal composition, which anticipates the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, Henri assembles a cast of friends and heroes, real and imaginary, local and international: James Ensor, Alfred Jarry and his Père Ubu character, William Burroughs, Charlie Mingus and Charlie Parker, as well as members of Liverpool’s 1960s bohemia, such as photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, painters Don McKinlay and Sam Walsh, jazz singer George Melly (Henri’s first art patron), musician Mike Evans and poets Pete Brown, Brian Patten and Roger McGough.
This recurrent relocation and appropriation process is not a form of proudly claimed provincialism. More interestingly, it is as though Henri were creating a parallel city where characters and artists he liked and admired convened and mingled with the locals, a mental city in which his Imaginary Museum flourished, a way of bridging the gap between art and life.