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Charles Street looking south to where Oriel once was

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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.

still rocking, just

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.

Peter Finch

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