At the Estonian Club in Charles Street Adrian Henri's band
were tuning up. A guitar clanged and whined against the arbitrary thumping
of Brian Dodson's drums. The stage was big enough to accommodate four
but the band numbered six. The audience - cord jean, hush puppy, roll-neck
- all smoked furiously. In the tiny ante-room bar among the chintz and
soft chairs a fat woman in a peasant dress had been squeezing at a piano
accordion while big jowled men in bad suits drank vodka and ignored
her. She was drowned out now. "You keep our love hidden - like the nightdress
you keep under your pillow - and never wear when I'm there." The voice
was clear, fashionably accented, and engaging. Henri's fat-arse with
the rose embroidered on the left pocket swayed in time behind the microphone.
Andy Robert's guitar showered, slid and rang. This was the Liverpool
Scene. It was 1968 and poetry was making yet another attempt to take
over the world.
The Estonian Club had seen it all, for years. Folk club, jazz club,
dope club, dance club. Poetry would be just the same. In a later manifestation
the place would become the Montmerence, one of Cardiff's hippest discos,
and later again a gay haunt full of hard core and yellow lager before
being knocked down when the whole block was redeveloped. It's now
an orange-brick office rebuild housing Career Paths, the privatised
local authority Career's Service. Paul Henry, part-time careers officer
and Seren poet works here. The verse connection is solidly maintained.
Charles Street was originally built as a quality residential street
in the mid-1800s by Charles Vachell who had made his money as an apothecary,
an early pharmacist. Substances have haunted the street ever since.
By the turn of the century trading had expanded east from High Street
to run the length of Crockherbtown (renamed Queen Street in honour
of Queen Victoria in 1886). It reached Charles Street which began
a slow change from residential to commercial. The block now containing
the Estonian Club became home to jewellers, tailors and on its south
corner a place where remembrance day poppies were cut from gash cloth
and stuck to pins.
Adrian Henri's influence as the most bohemian of the trio of Liverpool
poets, which included Brian Patten and Roger McGough, was more far
reaching than he might have imagined. Henri was not only a poet but
a painter too. He wore a dangling plastic heart on his denim shirt
pocket. He looked like a tall Toulouse-Lautrec and, in the slipstream
of the Beatles, read stuff about schoolgirls, love and freedom and
how pop culture was the best thing in the world. No one else had ever
put it quite like that. On the back of his success the Second Aeon
Travelling Circus (Finch, Geraint Jarman, Heather Jones, Dave
Mercer, Geoff Sherlock, Huw Morgan and others) played out of tune
poetry, feedback and drums to local youth; hipsters queued at Lears
for the latest edition of Penguin's Modern Poets; and small poetry
magazines flourished. Hard to imagine now, as you read your new verse
on-line, that people, a few, once bought these things, took them home,
and held them with reverent hands.
Henri would return to Charles Street, too. By the mid-seventies
the Welsh Arts Council, in a fit of entirely needed arts provision,
opened its first bookshop and gallery at no 53. This early Victorian
three-story with walls that let the rain in and menacing subsidence
lasted for almost two decades as the loved and hated Oriel,
window on the arts in Wales. On the ground floor the gallery showed
artists who were either too new or too non-conformist to get hanging
space elsewhere. Allen Jones exhibited his women as furniture, Zandra
Rhodes had a fashion show, Jack Crabtree showed his paintings of miners
and the hugely underrated Ray Howard-Jones displayed her seascapes
to tumultuous applause. Above and below were bookshops. Art and culture
were in the basement where the drains overflowed and men had to be
called in to reseal the covers. On the first floor were the books
from Wales and the huge poetry section which ran from shelf to shelf.
Here Jack Kerouac rubbed shoulders with R. Williams Parry and William
Carlos Williams battled it out for sales against Gwenallt and Bobi
Jones. Naturally there were book launches, author visits, hot discussion,
shoplifting and shed loads of poetry.
Adrian Mitchell, George MacBeth, Bob Cobbing, J P Donleavy, Michael
Foot, Jackson Mac Low, George Dowden, Margaret Drabble, R S Thomas,
Chris Torrance, Glyn Jones, Harri Webb, John Tripp, Pete Morgan, Edwin
Morgan, Dannie Abse, Libby Houston, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Eugene Ionesco,
Henri Chopin, Benjamin Zephaniah, Roy Fisher, Carol Ann Duffy, Lisa
St Aubin de Teran, Andrew Davies, Wendy Cope, Derek Walcott Mark Strand,
Andrew Motion, Bill Bissett, Margaret Atwood, Gillian Clarke, and
Derek Walcott all appeared here. Who else? Adrian Henri. This time
without a band, bigger, same jeans, same rose, same smile and same
wonderful voice. Writing. Reading. Keeping the flag of pop alive.
Still looking like Toulouse-Lautrec.
Going up Charles Street now culture seems to have abandoned it.
The Grassroots bands and disaffected cafe is a pale shadow; the Cellar
beat generation coffee bar now an ash wood and Harry Holland walled
restaurant. No bookshops, no art. Only the Photogallery with its formidable
chrome and glass hangs on, sandwiched between the Church and the run
of gay clubs which dominate the street's eastern side. But even it
is to move soon. There are no accordions. Estonia no longer needs
us. Like the street itself, regeneration has reached it. Time for
someone else to move in.
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