Tony Cummings spoke to poet, author, broadcaster and occasional lyricist STEWART HENDERSON
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Stewart: I've got one Billy Bunter book. Not the Just William. That's all to do with cultural influences. I grew up in Anfield during the late 1950s, and there's a lot nostalgia about Liverpool at that time. Nostaglia sometimes can come on like a Hovis advert, but there was something fabulous about Liverpool in the late '50s, going into the early '60s. My cultural reference point was the library - a place called the Rawdon Library - on Breck Road in Anfield. My mother said to me, 'You can go to the library and they give you books for free every week.' This was a revelation to me. 'But you've got to take them back, son. You can't keep them.' 'OK. I understand the deal.' In I went, and the librarian - it was a case of saying, 'Off you go.' There was no seminar, it was, 'There's the shelves. Pick what you want.' That's where I came across Billy Bunter, and I joined the gang. I thought, 'This is fantastic!'
Later, when I went to Liverpool Collegiate Grammar School, we had a tuck shop you could buy chocolate bars from. When I was eight or nine, going along to the library every couple of weeks, I'd started to watch a programme on ITV called All Our Yesterdays - a black and white history programme introduced by a very fine journalist called Brian Inglis. That was the first time I came across Hitler, and I started to want to explore. My father, along with many of his generation, had served in the British Army. My father had been a commando and at the end of the war had witnessed the ghastliness of Belsen as the British Army was moving through northern Germany and the Red Army was moving from the east. The battleground was Germany. I was aware of this character called Hitler, I was aware of these ghastly things called concentration camps; then I discovered that Hitler had written this book called Mein Kampf. So I went back to the library - I was about eight or nine - and I went up to the librarian and said, 'Have you got a copy of this book called Mein Kampf?' I wanted to know what was it that caused my father and his generation to be shtum about the ghastly things they'd seen and experienced and fought against. The librarian adjusted his glasses, gave me a fusty glare, and said, 'It's a banned book,' which it was at that time. That was my first experience with censorship, that something can and should be censored.
That's been thrown out of the window now with the internet and the social media generation. It was the young boy wanting to know. When collective sin is unleashed, this is what happens - we end up with the Holocaust. I'm reading a book by a man who's died now, a rabbi called Hugo Gryn. I was fortunate to make a television programme with Hugo some years ago, and there was a review by a woman called Anne Applebaum in the Sunday Telegraph about Hugo's book Chasing Shadows. She points out the inevitable question, 'Where was God is Auschwitz?' Hugo didn't give the expected answer, because Hugo said, 'God was there himself in Auschwitz, violated and blasphemed. The real question that should be asked is "Where is man in Auschwitz?"' So I suppose, as a poet, I am ceaseless in my need to try and understand and explain and pass on. And there are some things that can't be resolved. The Holocaust can't be resolved through poetry: it can just be commented on. As we move into our own times - there's the ghastliness of the situation in Syria - we cannot get to the source of it. We can comment on it, and we can do all we can do to bring people's attention to it. But, at the same time, age is giving me this realisation that some things can't be fixed. However, I remember Bob Geldof saying once, 'To get to the end of one's life and not be exhausted by the need for justice, then perhaps we've lived less than a full life.'
Tony: Do you really believe that the world's psalms have vanished, as you suggested in your poem How Clatter Is The World? Couldn't something like "Only A Dream" by Mary Chapin Carpenter be considered a modern day secular psalm? Or surely Graham Kendrick's "Servant King"?
Stewart: I'm glad you picked up on that. How Clatter Is The World is a poem that took a wee while to write, and in that poem what I'm doing is I'm generalising. Yes, Graham's a very fine writer - he's a precision writer, writing for his audience. I'm writing for a general audience: I'm not writing for a church audience, I'm writing for the marketplace. But you're right in what you say. Mary Chapin Carpenter is a beautiful and poignant writer, and a particular favourite of mine. The lines in that poem that bring us back to praise - 'the opulent foxglove', 'the fanfare of the lion's yawn' - people are missing those things. It's up to poets such as myself, and Michael Symmons Roberts - a quite wonderful poet - to bring people back to a point of almost entering the cloisters of their heart, to walk round and consider, 'Where are we in the scheme of things?' I suppose we're pondering our own salvation. A poem can bring you to a point of contemplation, and that's what I hope A Poet's Notebook is doing, just for a general audience.
Tony: You write for a general audience yet in the chapter that begins with the reference to Mary Chapin Carpenter you use words like "amnesiac" and "nectarous" that 95 per cent of the audience won't understand. Why do that?
Stewart: To make them go and look them up.
Tony: Well, you succeeded!
Stewart: I'm aware that language is diminishing. Writers have done it to me: 'What on earth does that mean?' Eliot was a great poet, but when he started to write in French I'm going, 'Why are you writing in French, man?' But it made me go away and look up the French words. So that's why I do it. But it can be irritating.
Tony: You're right that language is diminishing. When the briefest of abbreviations counts as communication, we're in danger of becoming monosyllabic.
Stewart: It is that fine balance of being accessible but also pushing you're audience.
Tony: Does it frustrate you that you've committed a big portion of your life to an art form that is considered a minority interest?
Stewart: Very good question. Yes and no, actually. My counter-argument would be that the man and woman on the Clapham omnibus haven't put themselves in the way of poetry because they have had - maybe at school - unfortunate experiences of poems not being explained to them. One of John Cooper Clarke's great party pieces was he could do Alfred Noyes' Highwayman because he learnt it at school. Bear in mind, people like John Cooper Clarke, Roger McGough and myself are unusual because we gravitated towards the word. Poetry, for us, was a recruiting sergeant for literature. I think it's fascinating that the pivotal experience when somebody loses a wife or a husband, a member of the family, and they get round to organising the funeral, a lot of people will reach for a poem or a country song - "Wind Beneath My Wings", which can sound rather kitschey but in the moment is the perfect lyric for dealing with the unimaginable and the unfathomable, which is death.
Do I wish that I'd spent my life doing something? I'd say no. I wouldn't be very good at anything else. I did join the poetic battalion at quite an early age, and it was following my father's death. I lost my father when I was 15. I watched him die. He collapsed and died in front of me and my grandmother and my mother and my brother. It happened right at the beginning of the summer holidays in 1968, and for a couple of months I was dumb. I went back to school in September - my grammar school - and back then there was no such thing as grief counselling, it was, 'Oh, the poor lad's dad died. Get on with your French homework.' It was my English teacher, Mrs Bradbury, who didn't talk about what I'd been through, but she guided me towards the poets that we were studying for O-Level, and the Shakespeare play we were doing. Quite heavy characters, W B Yeates and Robert Frost, both considerable metaphysical poets. I thought, 'This is giving me my voice.' I started to speak again. God bless Mrs Bradbury for being that counsellor. It was unspoken counsel between us. She basically said, 'Pay attention to these poets and extract from them what you can.' Likewise, when I did some of Shakespeare, it was joy, it was a way of speaking.
I was fortunate because, being in Liverpool at that time - 1968, 1969 - we'd had the first wave of Liverpool poets with Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. They'd established a template for performances around Liverpool and Merseyside, so there were poetry groups and clubs, readings where young herberts like me could go along and try my poems out loud before an audience who were there to listen to poetry. That was my apprenticeship; that was my training ground. I learnt how to deliver a poem, how to craft a poem - don't be too long. Any poem that goes over two and a half minutes, unless it's a considerable epic, needs culling. Don't test the audience's patience.
Tony: Were you a Christian by the time you started writing poems?
Stewart: Yes, I was. I was going to a Baptist church in Liverpool. It was a wonderful church because we were all interested in the same thing. The Liverpool culture was vibrant. We were interested in bands, we had the Liverpool Everyman Theatre. At that time the Liverpool Everyman Theatre was extraordinary. It had a company of young actors which included Alison Steadman, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Antony Sher, Bernard Hill. You were seeing actors at the beginning of their careers with plays by people like John McGrath. I remember Arnold Wesker's Roots - there was a performance by Jonathan Pryce that was absolutely extraordinary. We were all interested in those sort of things. A mate of mine gravitated towards the West Coasts bands - the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield.
It was this great cultural playground but also, at the same time, I was listening to some very fine sermons every week by a man called John T Hamilton, who was the pastor there. I thought, 'These are wonderful, but it doesn't mean that much out in the pubs and the poetry clubs.' I formulated this idea that you can, to a certain degree, get away with murder in a 90 second poem. I mean murder in a positive way. You can say something that is artful and perhaps declamatory in a minor way, and entertaining. My template were the parables of Jesus: 'What is he saying here? This is quite obscure but immediate at the same time.' Jesus was passing on the doctrine of the depths of heaven in an almost conversational, throwaway style. I thought, 'Right - the poem is a parable. A parable can almost infuse and slink into a person's spirit and embed itself there, in a good way.' So that was my model, and I've carried on doing that as my theology has grown and widened.
Tony: Does that mean it's changed? Would you have called yourself an evangelical Christian back then?
Stewart: I didn't know what I was back then. I certainly wouldn't call myself that now - not because of denying the necessary foundation of that, on which my life is based, but because 'evangelical Christian' comes with awful baggage.
Tony: These days you need to distinguish between British evangelical and American evangelical, which mean very different things.
Stewart: Absolutely. The great late-18th century, going into the 19th century, evangelical movement - its modus operandi, taking its influence from the gospels, was towards social change and the alleviation of poverty, whereas American evangelical Christianity is quite privatised. I'd shy away from using that phrase now. It's interesting that people I've worked with within the radio business over the last 20, 25 years know where I'm coming from. I suppose because I don't bang on about it. I listen. People have very graciously used me as a sounding board for various things, dark eruptions, in their own lives, and we've been able to chum along together.
Tony: I had a completely different interpretation of Everything In Heaven Comes Apart from the one set out in your introduction. My interpretation presumably is because of my evangelical background. I find the poem a very powerful description of how our physical reality disintegrates when we die and is replaced by a newly created order.
Stewart: I think that's a wonderful and apt perception. When my wife Carol and I were writing the lyrics - and I intimate in the book how it came about - I'd been shafted by somebody over something. So Carol and I wrote it as a form of lament, going back to the Psalms. I would say from my very bowels, please cleave to your interpretation. One of the great sages mentioned before in our conversation, Bob Dylan, takes the line, 'However you hear it, that's right for you.' Some of the Psalms and parables can be interpreted on different levels. Everything In Heaven Comes Apart is a different-level lyric. Carol and I have just re-recorded it. I've been writing with a Scottish singer/songwriter, Yvonne Lyon and her husband David. We've done an album called 'Vesper Sky', which comes out in October.
Tony: Weren't you happy with the Martyn Joseph version?
Stewart: Yes, and that worked for Martyn. But it carried connotations which I needed to sort out and differentiate. Carol very gently said, 'I think we should look at this again.' Yvonne and David said, 'You do what you want.' Yvonne has come up with a beautiful, sparse piano arrangement.
Tony: Is it a new melody?
Stewart: It's a completely different melody. The lyric was always my copyright.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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