Northern Soul chats to John Hegley about poeting, the Peel Sessions and performance
Upon commencing an interview with beloved poet and performer John Hegley, Northern Soul apologises profusely for being a couple of minutes late. Hegley’s reaction is perfect. Brushing aside the apology, he reaches for his notebook, which was being sat on by his cat Ella, and reads out a brand new limerick that he suggests might be relevant:
There once was a croissant from Sale
That said, “I’m just bread and I’m stale”.
But then sat on a tram, it met up with some jam
And got out of the jail of self-doubting that wasn’t to any avail.
“It’s about flaying yourself, which we shouldn’t do,” he says. “Needs a bit of work. I only wrote that this morning. The writing’s very untidy.”
The reason Hegley is writing busy limericks about Sale is that he’s playing a show there on July 22. It’s part of the Waterside Art Centre’s Refract:17 festival, a ten-day Summer celebration of the full gamut of performing arts. Though much published, Hegley himself as always been more of a live performer than a stay-at-home poet, and as usual his Waterside show will bring various elements of the arts together, not least music. “There will be some little dances that I do as well, so there will be singing, there will be dancing and there will be poeting.”
Hegley admits that being a published poet is important to him, though. “Do you know, the funny thing is, yesterday I was thinking I ought to try and get some of my poems in magazines. I thought, ‘Why do I never do that?’. You can’t do everything, though, can you? But I feel very gratified when people say they have read something in a book that they haven’t seen performed and it worked on the page, I really do. There’s something lovely about that. When I was at the Ledbury Poetry Festival recently, one of the people who started it said to me, ‘There’s not poetry – there’s poetries.’ I thought that was a very enlightening and useful tool. Yes, it’s a many faceted thing.”
For Hegley, his first forays into writing poetry pre-dated writing songs. “Certainly, I could write poems before I could play the guitar. So that came first actually, writing poems when I was 17 or 18. They were kind of romantic poems. One of them was: ‘Another day is dying, night consumes the green / My mind is softly sighing and my eye perceives the scene / The youthful brightness like springtime beauty when is… um, something… stolen away / But when dies it dies it forever, ne’er renewed by following day’. Ah, I forgot a word. But yeah, romantic sort of stuff.”
An early, formative influence was the work of Salford bard John Cooper Clarke. “I remember seeing his stuff in the NME. I’ve kept it somewhere, the actual copy of the NME which he was in. His words were reprinted in quite a substantial number. I just thought, ‘wow, these are fantastic’. They were immediately appealing. They’re to do with the world, and they’re cheeky, but also earthy. Then I saw him perform at Ally Pally [in June 1980] and just thought he was great.”
By that time, Hegley had embraced an interest in music. “I was writing my own songs then, like [sings]: ‘There’s a milk float floating in the harbour / There’s a bow-tie tying up my shoes / There’s an applejack jacking up the back of a car / Singing the tarmacadam blues’. So, although sort of light-hearted, you might say, not comic. I wasn’t doing so much comic stuff then. I went on to do more comedic stuff when I was doing cabaret and return to something almost inbetween the comedic and – hopefully – lyrical. I’m not quite sure what lyrical means, but to me it’s to do with that more romantic side that I mentioned.”
During the early 80s, Hegley fronted a band, The Popticians. They achieved a healthy following on the cabaret circuit and even recorded two live sessions for John Peel’s Radio 1 show (in July 83 and November 84). Hegley can still recall the delight of being at home listening to the first session go out. “I sat there with Roger Lewis in my shared socialist household in Stoke Newington – which was £16 a week rent, including bills – and when John Peel said, ‘I actually laughed out loud’, me and Roger jumped up and down.”
“Doing the Peel sessions was a marvellous opportunity,” he says. “It was probably the biggest jump, because it was from obscurity – for want of a better word – to being known, to being in the world. That’s the biggest step you can make, really. Wherever you move in the world of being known is never as big a jump as you’ll make from being unknown to being known. That was fantastic, doing those. It was great fun.”
All these years later, Hegley has become a much-lauded fixture on the poetry scene. Alongside his work for adults, he’s written extensively for children, from his collections My Dog is a Carrot and I am a Poetato to the fine picture book Stanley’s Stick, possibly the only children’s story ever to be set in Stockport.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s more from my side, I suppose. I appreciate the audiences. Do I appreciate them more? I just appreciate having them, really. One feels that it is more valuable in a climate where things have been cut and funding is less available. That’s a bit of a dull answer really, but I do sense that I value these things more. You don’t just take them for granted. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Are you busy at the moment?’ and I said, ‘Not as busy as I was in the 90s’. They said ‘Yes, it’s a sign of the times’.”
Hegley confesses that, as a poet, it can be hard to know his audience and receive useful feedback. “
As an example, I did this show in Wirksworth and I ran out of books. There were only four people who didn’t have books and I said to them, ‘Give me your name and address and I’ll send you one’. So, I sent them a book and then I asked them if they would give me comments on it. I said, ‘You don’t have to rush, just send me the tenner and your comments when you’ve read it’. And it was really interesting reading those comments. I mean, you think I’d have loads of comments like that, but there was one review of that book, in Poetry London. Those four people, each of them chose about three poems from that book and it was really valuable.”
So, does Hegley still get the same thing out of poetry that he first went into it for? This gives him some pause for thought.
“What did I go into it for? Hold on, what did I go into it for…? I think it’s the interaction. I worked with a company called Interaction in the 70s, the first company I worked with, and that idea of interactive practice is the most significant thing. Out of that you create something between you, the two of you, you and the audience. It’s not just, ‘Here is my performance’ – although that is part of it as well, obviously. New beasts are being created out of the amoeba of myself and the amoeba of the audience. We are conjoining. It’s not just binary fission, whereby I’m just sort of standing on stage making my own thing. The two organisms create a new one, I’d like to think. The organism of that audience and the organism of myself. I guess that is what I’ve gone into it for, to create something new. And on a good night, that is what happens.”
Refract:17 runs for ten days from July 21-30, 2017. Other highlights include Ren Harvieu, King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys, a one-man staging of Under Milk Wood and a family rave.
Hegley will also be playing two shows at The Lowry on November 11, 2017, an afternoon show for children and families and an evening show for adults.
The hardback edition of Peace, Love and Potatoes is available now from Serpent’s Tail. The paperback edition will be published on September 28, 2017.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.