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ADRIAN HENRI- POET AND PAINTER EXTRAORDINARY

The Times Magazine, 29th January 2000

 

I'm posting this here as a tribute to my friend, Adrian, who died just under a year after the piece appeared. He was a wonderful artist, in words and paint, and a great soul. Check out his poetry if you don't know it already.

It doesn't happen very often, maybe once in half a millennium....by which I mean that in the streets of sixteenth century Rome he'd have been embraced as a brother. He'd have strutted his stuff, quill in one hand, brush in the other, singing his changing passions to the ladies of the town through mouth and velvet codpiece - and been celebrated the length and breadth of the country. How often, in this age of narrowness, do you have the chance to meet somebody so various, so multi-talented, so huge in every respect that no other cliche is appropriate than, 'Rennaisance Man'? In my experience - never. Until Adrian Henri..

I first read him in 1967 - one third of the famous Liverpool trio, Patten/ McGough/ Henri, which sold countless of copies of 'The Mersey Scene', and made poetry funky. Henri, the oldest, was the bard of bedsit draining boards and schoolgirls' knickers - who hymed the urban scenes most of us wanted to forget, and legitimised our longings as well as our sins. He sang of the detritus of existence in which love would nevertheless flourish, if you had the courage to let it - and put poetry centre stage in bars and clubs that never knew it. Later, like the Beatles, Roger McGough and Brian Patten followed their own talents and left Liverpool, but Henri stayed at home in the city, always finding new forms to express its irreverent cheek and inherent tragedy. He was both proudly provincial and a part of the international avant garde - but waved two fingers at the London scene. Roger McGough says now that Henri could easily have courted and conquered London but it says much about the man that he didn't bother. He says now he never wanted to leave Liverpool because there wasn't a place he liked better. Adrian Henri was happy to stay where the wind from the Mersey 'has fish and chips on its breath'.

Many years later, still loving his poetry, I saw him perform for the first time - on a gig with Willy Russell,Bel Mooney about Adrian Henri when the two toured England doing readings from their work. At the Bath Literature Festival the playright played a mean guitar while the poet declaimed in that old Alan Ginsberg way, simultaneously evoking delight and melancholy in an audience ripe for both emotions. The next night I went to a private view of his paintings (which showed a breadth I hadn't dreamt of) and met the artist - big, bearded, bespectacled, the original bohemian. As always, Henri was the main man, the poet/painter as star, exuding confidence. And with good reason, for there are few things his ebulliant spirit has not tackled. He's embraced a multitude of roles beside the painter/poet duality of vision: inspired teacher, children's author, art critic, rock n' roll performer, playwright, librettist. He even co-authored a curious, experimental and impressive novel (I Want , 1972 ) with Nell Dunn. The world knew him mainly as a poet, but during all the years he was performing (and behaving, as a friend put it with affection, 'like a dog with two dicks' ) he was making paintings which, although at the forefront of the brash pop art revolution, showed a darker, more serious side - even a strong sense of death.

Last year his life caught up with that aspect of his art. For when I encountered him again he had endured a heart by-pass followed by two massive strokes, and seemed heartbreakingly frail - the wild man wild no more. Still, the mixture of guts and gentleness in this story as it now unfolds, is prefigured in all Henri's life and work. He has come back from the dead thanks to the extraordinary determination and love of Catherine Marcangeli - a brilliant young frenchwoman thirtyfive years his junior who has been with him since 1986. It is that which has has saved him - together with the quality which the blues men call 'soul'.

It's Saturday morning in Liverpool 8, notorious for the 1981 Toxteth riots, during which Henri cowered in his small house opposite the Liverpool Instititute where John Lennon studied art. Henri's house is an early 'seventies timewarp, crammed with bizarre objets collected over the years: a snake in a bottle, a spectacular thirties hairdressers' window decoration he calls 'Ruby', sticks of rock with 'Catherine' and 'Adrian' printed through, a beaded plane bought in South Africa, and skull decorations from the Mexican 'Day of the Dead'. Henri is waiting with Catherine, wearing his Los Angeles 'Raiders' jacket with csutomary style - because they have decided to take me to the painting studio he has not been able to visit for a year. The return to it will be emotional. Before the catastrophe of the stroke and the six months in hospital, he would spend days painting, with Catherine sitting by the fire, working on a translation or her PhD, and looking up every so often to comment on the work in progress with all the skill of an Art History expert. 'Sometimes', she laughs, 'he would let me pick up a brush and add a stroke to a painting!'. They were happy days. Tenderly now she helps his slow progress to the car ('Come on Adrian...that's it....big steps...you're doing so well....isn't this better than a couple of months ago?') telling him softly that it will be good to see the studio again.

Preparations were already under way for the Walker Art Gallery accolade of a major retrospective of Henri's painting (opening February 4th) when the health problems he had suffered for a number of years floored him in a sequence of punches. In February 1999 he had a heart by-pass operation. It seemed successful. He painted Catherine an ironic Valentine, with the heart all stitched up, before going home to Mount Street. But in the middle of one night he had a stroke, followed by another in hospital. The prognosis was dire: he would never walk or talk again. It was then that Catherine Marcangeli decided that she would show them all - the physiotherapists who said it was impossible, the doctors who had not bothered....all of them. She says she decided to make him her 'project'. The girl who had met the middleaged poet/painter at the age of 19 became the woman who sat by his bed, patiently encouraging him to draw shaking shapes, day after day, and speak unintelligably into a microphone to regain speech. The lover became the carer - and it is very moving to see.

The gulf between the two of them was of time and place, age and nationality. In 1967, when Catherine's immigrant Italian mother was giving birth to her fifth child in Alsace-Lorraine, Adrian Henri was already a superstar in England. Lecturing at Liverpool College of Art, drinking coffee with John Lennon, exhibiting in the John Moore's Exhibition, entertaining Allan Ginsberg, publishing The Mersey Scene with McGough and Patten, making an LP, putting on the 'happenings' that were such a key part of the crazy atmosphere of that time - he was always surrounded by (inevitably much younger) women. Amicably separated from his wife Joyce he enjoyed his role as leader of the pack. Roger McGough recalls, 'You'd go in a pub and see his ex-wife chatting to his ex-mistress with the current mistress there too, as well as a girl who would be the next mistress. And they all got on. I mean, that says a lot for Adrian. And for the girls too!'. Henri's close friend Willy Russell recalls him dominating the scene like 'a massive Buddha' and intensely irritating younger men like himselfl with both his fame and his pulling-power.

Catherine was growing up in France within a barely literate family while Henri went on dominating Liverpool, He wrote Environments and Happenings for Thames & Hudson ( 1974) and won £2000 in the prestigious John Moore's Painting Exhibition. Of course there were those who sneered, dismissing him as mere poet - but he didn't care. His philosophy was 'if you think you can do it and you want to do it - then do it'. His long poem 'Autobiography' was the basis for a BBC1 Television programme; he sang rock-n-roll with the Liverpool Band 'Lawnmower'; taught writing and painting; exhibited paintings all over Britain; lived with the poet Carol Ann Duffy; published books of poetry..... There was no end to his prodigious energy.

But Catherine Marcangeli had never heard of him. In 1986, pre-university, she was over in England with her backpack and her guitar, working as a nanny. Checking out a drama workshop at the Bracknell Arts Centre, she noticed the paintings on the walls.The works - a retrospective by somebody called Henri - amazed her. 'They struck me as sinister and morbid - made me go 'Yuk!' and 'Wow!' at the same time.' She picked up a leaflet and saw that this apparently well-known man would also be giving a poetry reading. A friend keen on poetry asked her to take along his book to get it signed. So Catherine approached the painter-poet and told him that his work reminded her of Prevert. He replied that Prevert was one of his inspirations. On three occasionas they met at the bar and talked, but the affair did not start then.

'You didn't chat me up, did you?'
'No'.
'I was probably too earnest'.

He gave her his address, and that summer, hitching in the Lake District on her own, she went to see the film' Letter to Brezhnev', set in Liverpool and starting Margi Clarke. 'I'd been living in the south and the language seemed boring. Suddenly, hearing those accents I thought there was life in it - and wanted to go where they spoke that way'. She remembered she 'd met this artist from Liverpool, called him, and went to stay. Though she was attracted by his intelligence the affair did not start for a year, during which they kept in touch. 'I told a friend I'd met a guy I really liked - but he was that much older, so it wouldn't work'. The following summer Henri's ex-wife Joyce, still greatly loved by him, was dying of cancer. The weekend she died happed to coincide with the beginning of the love affair, and the twenty-year old cried for the woman she had never met. Looking back, both see a meaningful sychronicity in the death and the new love; Henri says that somehow he knew it was more than a fling. Then began the tempestuous, sometime painful long distance relationship, recorded directly and indirectly in paintings and poety. Catherine's photograph appears in his collage on the cover of the 1990 volume in memory of Joyce, Wish You Were Here. The next book (Not Fade Away 1994) is dedicated to 'Catherine in whatever country we are'.

Catherine studied in Strasbourg (and Henri found himself dodging the cleaners in the hall of residence like a teenager), then took an MA. In the Agregation (qualifing exam for a lectureship) at the Sorbonne, she gained the second-highest marks in the whole of France. A couple of times they split up, but were always drawn back together. Catherine was ambitious for an academic career, which she achieved - teaching English at Merton College Oxford, then joining the University of Paris as a juniuor lecturer. Back and forth she travelled, graidually spicing her perfect English with a lilt of Liverpool. 'I was always independent. It was bad enough being the younger, foreign girlfriend, the French Muse and all that crap. I didn't want to be a kept foreign muse! And I refused to be seen as just another one of Adrian's young girls - the latest bimbo. If people he knew patronised me, I thought, Fuck you! You don't even know me. I'm not just a groupie'.

We arrive at the studio in Prescott Road, not far from the hospital where Adrian's life shivered in the wind, and he lost even the power of speech. In the distance you see the famous Liver birds, shining above the Mersey. The building, The Bridewell, is an old police station transformed into a scruffy artists' cooperative. As Catherine helps him from the car, Adrian seems more withdrawn than usual, and once in the studio he sits on the solitary chair, looking bewildered. At last he whispers that it feels weird to be there. He clearly never thought he would see the place again. And it cannot be possible for him to work those enormous canvases again. The place, dusty and cold until Catherine lights the gas heater, has an air of abandonment. Acrylic paint has dried on plates. A little box of gouache lies where he left it - with the words 'Bisous de toutes les couleurs (kisses in all colours) for your birthday' painted by Catherine on the lid. It's sad . But the paintings remaining on the easels are vibrant. Nothing can dim the brashness of the colour, or the energy of his visions of Mexican calaveras in Liverpool streets.

They laugh, starting to enjoy themselves. Always, in their company, you see not what drew them together but what keeps them together. Yes, Adrian fell in love with a beautiful young woman, but one with a brain as well as a remarkable soul - who could talk to him about his work. Catherine fell in love with the much-older painter whose multifarious talent and energy she loved, even when she hated him. She was always, it seems to me, more interested in the painter than the writer - seduced as he was for so long by poetry and pop. Now, after the stroke, most of his wordhoard is scattered and he feels he cannot write, because the person inside his head is not the same. (He explains, 'I jokily said to Catherine, it's a bit like when they give the wrong baby to the wrong mother'.) But Catherine was determined to get him working again. She drew pencil shapes for him to follow, put pastels in his hand. She shows me the flower drawings he has done in recent months - which any of us would be glad to have on the wall. In the studio (warm now, and cheerful, with Radio 3 playing softly in the background) they look at the paintings that remain, reminiscing about their journey to Petra, and how it really is that pink....... You know that for this remarkable couple the simultaneous expression of comment and raw emotion that is a Henri painting is one important part of their private language.

Adrian Henri was born 'over the water' in 1932. His sailor grandfather arrived in Liverpool from Mauritius and settled to run a seaman's mission in Birkenhead. Adrian's father was his fifth child, and althoughwounded in the leg serving in France in the First World War, recovered enough to become a dancing instructor. Adrian's mother came from the 'Cheshire Yeomanry' but his father's family had an exotic, thespian streak - organising tea-dances and band shows. He recalls being 'different', with the usual results in school. A plump, isolated child with a funny name, he was picked on - until art protected him. 'I had a knack of drawing aeroplanes and if anybody was going to bully me I'd offer to draw him a Spitfire or a Hurricane'. As a child he watched the Liverpool blitz from across the Mersey, seeing the flames reflected in the river. Perhaps this was his first insight into the pictorial possibilities of the city: dramatic, horrific and beautiful at once. He studied art in Newcastle, taught by Lawrence Gowing and Roger de Grey, and in the late fifties began to paint urban landscapes that were soon transformed into the brasher amalgams of pop art and protest. In the manner of Peter Blake and others he swept fairground imagery, advertising slogans and cheap goods on to convases that proclaimed, 'This is reality - and as good as it gets'. Henri painted what fascinated him - with the subtle references to French Symbolism, jazz, blues, Surrealist Literature, radical politics, sex and death that also weave through his poetry. He was always a natural enthusiastic, a magpie collector, a maker of lists. George Melly, his first collector, writes:'The poster-fragments, the newspaper headines, the Omo packets...come from the walls, the newsvendors and rather tacky supermarkets around Liverpool 8. Like his poems...they reflect not an abstract reaction to the universal but the packet of washing powder by the sink, the cornflakes on the breakfast table, or the recently empty bed.'

Adrian HenriTalking of empty beds - what about Tracy Emin, I ask him? What does the enfant terrible of a previous generation think of the posturing girl of the Turner Prize? Henri replies quietly that he isn't very impressed by her - but that some conceptual art is very interesting, in that it goes back to the surrealists' 'tradition'. He doesn't find it natural to knock things. For Willy Russell, he is ' one of a handful of people who carry within them great knowledge and wisdom, and enormous enthusiasm and curiosity about everything - going out to find what is good and positive in every experience'. The accolade is echoed by Roger McGough: 'Women loved him because he was a giver - a teacher. You always learned from him. He knew about things: jazz, literature, art. I still always wish he was with me when I go to a gallery. People cultivated 'cool', but Adrian's great enthusiasm I loved. If you happened to be around you shared that bright light.'

Catherine, Adrian and I decide to go to the 'Heaven' Exhibition at the Tate Gallery, to see what all the fuss is about. All such expeditions are exciting for them, despite the hassle of the wheelchair in the back of the car, and wrapping Adrian up against the bleak river wind that cuts through the salmon pink pillars of the Albert Dock development. The young guy at the desk in the Tate asks, 'Is that Adrian Henri? Tell me - how is he now?' The poet-painter is admired in Liverpool, where restaurant owners send extra bottles of wine to your table, and even young waiters dying to finish and go off clubbing know that this grey-haired, bearded guy is a legend - and helped keep the spirit of their city alive when the other celebs had all got the hell out of there.

No wonder Adrian looks gleeful. The Tate is his patch and art that people criticise is his game. We walk past the notorious Princess Diana as the Virgin Mary (which he loves) and wander among guitars, video installations, weird garments suspended from ceilings, images of Leonardo di Caprio and others as saints...... while Adrian's inner light glows more stronhly by the minute. Catherine bends down to the wheelchair, they whisper and comment and smile - actually knowing the names of these artists I have never heard of, and clearly l enjoying the iconoclasm of the show that the Germans objected to, not because it is irreligious but because the ironies are pure kitsch. From the wall a virtual reality of a bald woman addresses us,' Talk to me', and in perfect synchronicity Catherine and I chorus, 'NO!' - bursting into laughter. Adrian is having a great time. An installation of padded shocking pink satin reminds me of the trademark pink heart of his younger days, and the one he painted for Catherine before the stroke. The vulnerable heart., breaking in an instant......

Back home, Adrian - though very tired - is full of praise for what we've seen. His tone is typical. 'It makes me feel optimistic. I know the future is going to be all right because there are people out there doing that kind of work. It's so exciting to see artists doing interesting things, so from that point of view I thought the exhibition brilliant.' From the ramshackle little kitchen comes the noise of Catherine preparing lunch - young French-Italian Mamma, looking after us all. Adrian says that the real Heaven for him is when she is there, not in Paris.

From the outside, It is almost impossible to see how she finds the energy for this life: commuting back and forth from her teaching job in Paris, organising all Adrian's welfare benefits, physiotherapy, medicines and home helps, telling him that he will not only draw but even do a poetry gig next year, helping him dress, shopping, cooking, keeping both his guilt and her own weariness at bay. She refuses praise; hates soppiness; says simply, 'It is a heavy load, but as long as he needs me I'll be around'. Touchingly she says her pride in him at each small step forward, has almost become like that of a mother: 'I don't baby him, but I know I have to be comforting. When you think what he has lost....'

But Adrian Henri would be the first to acknowedge what he has gained too. Sitting at the round table in the basement of the house which saw such drinking, such smoking, such excess all those years ago, but which now seems to hold its breath - he explains, 'The relationship which was rocky at times has become my rock. Catherine always used to complain I was unemotional. Now I cry easily - it's just one recognition of the difference in me. Now I can't take anything for granted; there is no get-out clause. For both of us it is a struggle, but I shall definitely be a better person for the experience. I think - it's hard to say - but, the light is a good one which I couldn't see before'.

His last poem, written last Spring, is called 'Coronary Care Unit', and ends:
As I reach out, snatch at sleep
sometimes it seems I catch your hand.
Or at the end, far along the breathless road
you stand, arms full of flowers
beside a wood in Normandy,
mouth open with delight at the sight
of long green leaves, purple blossom.
Along the gulping hours, moments torn,
your face. Your voice, joining sleepy
in the Lobster Quadrille. Our love
a yellow filament that runs across the screen
above my bed.

 

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