Janine Booth had already started her set when we arrived. Neither Valerie nor I had ever heard of her, before. As we were entering the auditorium and faffing about with our tickets and trying to be as quiet as possible, I could tell that she was from London, and that she was reciting a poem that was political. Political poetry usually makes me cringe, especially if it is rhymed, which this seemed to be. I listened, and got ready to cringe. But I didn’t cringe. It was #1 delivered with controlled anger, not shouted or gone through like a times table. #2 The poet sounded as if she knew what she was talking about. #3 She had something to say that was not something I had heard said just that way, before. It was engaging and lively and not the sort of thing you hear very often.
It turned out that Janine Booth might have been carved out of a slab of Valerie’s imagination. She is from London. She is vehemently anti-Tory. (The poem we had walked in on was about hating Tories.) She works on the London Underground. She went on to do a poem about angry, middle-aged women, among other things.
Her final piece was a pastiche of ‘Hallelujah’, by Leonard Cohen, and, in my opinion, was a little step too far. It didn’t have quite the same measure of craft and authority as the rest of the set. Apart from that, Janine’s set was excellent, and I wish I had not missed the beginning. Valerie bought two of her books.
Next was Tim Wells, another Londoner. Valerie and I heard him for the first time at 7 Arts Centre in Leeds (near where I grew up) when he was supporting Kate Fox, earlier this year. I had a chat with him, afterwards, about our shared passion for ska and reggae. We had heard some of the same sound systems, in Leeds, though not at the same time.
Tim Wells has one of the most distinctive delivery styles I have ever heard. His short pieces, which deliberately end before the audience expect, put me in mind of a Cockney version of Ivor Cutler. I find his longer pieces fascinating. I just want to hear what he is going to say next. Tim Wells is one of the purest performance poets I have ever heard, in the sense that, for any given line or stanza, it is often not obvious what devices he is using: it usually isn’t rhyme, or metre, or repetition. He just has a poetic voice – an original, contemporary, poetic voice. His speech is certainly Cockney, but it is also easy to understand to my middle class, West Yorkshire ear.
By the time Tim Wells finished his set, the atmosphere in the auditorium was already well on the way to healing the North-South divide.
Linton Kwesi Johnson looked much as I had imagined him. I have seen images of him, before, on television, and in magazines such as ‘Black Music’ in the 1980s. That was decades ago, of course, but his appearance was still in keeping with my expectations. He wore an umber fedora, which he kept on before, during, and after his performance. He wore a red tie, a tailored jacket and trousers. He was thin. Despite the greyness of his beard, he doesn’t look old. As many people used to say of my late father, he looks distinguished rather than old.
Linton Kwesi Johnson broke two of the basic rules of performance poetry. He delivered long preambles, some of them as long as the pieces they preceded. He also elided straight from the end of one poem into the preamble for the following poem, with hardly a second’s pause. (This is what I call, “Doing a Gaia Holmes”.) But there are mitigating circumstances in both cases. The preambles were to do with the struggle for justice, both generally and with reference to specific campaigns, of black people in Britain, and he was talking mostly from first hand experience. Also, the elision had the benefit of silencing all applause until the end, which was helpful to one’s appreciation and enjoyment of the performance. I strongly suspect that he did this deliberately.
I first started reading the Liverpool Poets in about 1983. I have since heard the late Adrian Henri, and Roger McGough, live. I first heard the recordings, and read the pamphlets, of Linton Kwesi Johnson in 1982 or 1983. In all the time I have been reading and listening to poetry, this is the longest span of time between first encountering a poet’s work, and then hearing them, live. About 35 years.
Most of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s set was from his early work: the work with which I am the most familiar. Some of these pieces I have not listened to for 20 years, but I know parts of some of them by heart. ‘Sonny’s Letter’, for example. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, more so than in just about any other live performance I have ever heard. My vision became blurred. I don’t know why: I wasn’t in tears, but I couldn’t see, properly. All I could see was a thin, well-dressed West Indian man on the centre of a stage in a hall in Mexborough. That man was the one and only Linton Kwesi Johnson.
I thank Steve Ely and the other organisers of this festival for bringing such an eminent performer to Mexborough. It was an unforgettable experience.
Janine Booth and Tim Wells can both consider their reputations enhanced, because their sets supported and complemented LKJ’s set. The common threads were: a sense of pride in one’s own identity, and the struggle for justice.
On the way out, Valerie shook LKJ’s hand. He was having a cigarette. As we left, he sounded as if he was hacking up a lung.