Andrew Taylor – Adrian Henri: a critical reading Greenwich Exhange, London. www.greenex.co.uk ISBN 978-1-910996-28-7 234 pages £19.99
I left school at 16, am no academic. It was therefore with some trepidation that I dared even consider a review of this ‘critical reading.’ Because I have to say that Adrian Henri was by no means as influential on my life as he has been on Liverpool-born Andrew Taylor’s. When Adrian Henri was in his anti-war prime, creating Liverpool happenings and events, I was already getting beaten up by the London police while protesting the US war in Vietnam. I hadn’t needed Adrian Henri’s affirmation.
Andrew Taylor though is not of that generation, has grown up in Adrian Henri’s shadow. Was this book, I asked myself, his way of letting some light through?
No body of work can be separated from the life lived, and inevitably this study is as much biography as critique. Being biography, and given my age, the Introduction was enough to get the memory cells working.
First we are given a short history of Liverpool itself, the city with which Adrian Henri will be forever associated. Henri was the oldest of the band, The Liverpool Scene: Henri was born 1932, Roger McGough 1937 and Brian Patten 1946. Putting age differences aside they coalesced within the poetry, art and music scene of ‘60s Liverpool.
Ginsberg is often credited with ‘discovering’ that Liverpool, of the Beatles et al, albeit that he didn’t arrive until ’65. Ginsberg's though was more of an ordination. Nor had Liverpool been isolated prior to Ginsberg’s arrival: counter-culture influence had come internationally from the likes of Warhol, the Beats and European surrealists. Much as Henri’s own Dadaist ‘events’ would influence John Lennon’s later happy bedroom shenanigans with Yoko Ono. Indeed no matter what sixties city you had then been in those influences had seemed to come out of the air.
This is not to deny Liverpool’s unique contribution. Events there, for instance, focussed on ‘…audience enjoyment over individual gratification…’ and not silent appreciation. Participation there was expected. What this book had me realise was the influence those sixties 'events' had on me. Even though at the time they just were, a part of every bohemian scene. And for 'bohemian' read 'poor area', cheap housing/bedsits, squats maybe, with a fair sprinkling of [grant-aided] art student dropouts. Places for anyone drawn to the arts or to the counter culture, and like Henri few of us then considered separating out one strand of art from another: regardless of talent we all piled in, be it in London, Liverpool, Amsterdam, New York or Dublin.
Dadaism was in the air then. One night in London for instance Liverpudlian Martin and I, both writers manqué, both contentedly spliffed, tried to humanise the basement IBM 7090 by stuffing daffodils into its every crack and corner. So needy were Imperial College of our new computer expertise that neither of us got the sack.
This typifies the problem I had with the book, I kept getting sent off into my own experiences of that time, my own memories of artists and movements mentioned; and then pausing over some aspect of Andrew Taylor's analysis which had me review some of my own work. Especially the differences. Because what became readily apparent from those analyses was the realisation that Henri's poems were, by and large, written to be performed, mine for the page.
Fascinating as references to pop culture and poetry movements were, subtitle of the book has Andrew Taylor painstakingly taking apart Henri's poems. Antecedents are sought, influence of topography given, recent relationships noted and all are thoroughly referenced. Confident of his subject, Taylor allows criticisms of Henri to get included along with plaudits.
For any poet seeking inspiration I'd recommend a study of pages 82 to 84, where Henri's approach to poetry gets analysed.
A couple things I hadn't realised – just how much Henri had been influenced by US pop and counter-culture, and how involved Henri had been in the visual arts, even to it being his actual profession. And here I think was where I started to lose sympathy. Not that I grew a dislike of Henri, just that our experiences diverged and differences grew.
Common cause could of course still be found. A recounting of 1970s's eco-concerns had it come to me for just how very long we have been fighting this same battle. I did however find the period before these Liverpudlian Dadaists had become acceptable, and damn near respectable, the more interesting. Once they began to occupy establishment positions, less so.
While Henri was being president of this, invited to speak at, perform at that, I was out of work in Somerset and having novels returned from publishers as uncommercial. I can recall not being impressed then by people who were getting thousand pound grants while I was having to find cash-work on the black. And while for Henri and other insiders Thatcher might have been an outrage, for us counting pennies and paying for school milk she was our bitterest enemy. Even so schadenfreude had me pleased to read here of some Henri projects begun and come to nought.
Sorry, I've done it again. The book is not about me.
The absurdism created by Henri's list juxtapositions, and his using skipping rope rhythms and rhymes, however near nonsensical these might have been, pretty much guaranteed their general acceptability. Fun does it every time. Who am I to grouch?
In the book it is Liverpool, and the district of Liverpool 8 at that, that takes centre-stage. Anyone who knows Liverpool will find this book opening new doors for them. While for those who may have known Liverpool only through newspaper headlines, this will tell of another place, one that gave artistic life to Henri among many others. Henri's however turns out to have been by no means a parochial, nor a monogamous, nor a wholly city life. The influence of his friendships and his artistic partners, continuing after their going their separate ways, for me spoke well of all concerned.
The personal has to influence the artistic. So all here, Henri's paintings, his musical adventures, their overlap, all get thoroughly analysed. Given Andrew Taylor's profession the poetry most of all. That analysis including likely inspirations, right down to where in the world each poem was written, who it was written to/about, and the season, including the political weather.
Catherine Marcangeli, Henri's last partner, said, 'For Adrian... the city is the everyday and the country is the eternal.'
Henri himself said, '...how personal content can go into a work of art and not violate its universal validity.' Which would seem to validate every single-strand confessional poem sent me. It doesn't. As Andrew Taylor's critique demonstrates Henri was a total artist, he made art.
Finally I must emphasise that my trepidation was unwarranted. Even if this falls far short as a review, I have to say that as a layperson I really enjoyed this forensic examination of Adrian Henri's life and work.
© Sam Smith 13th February 2020