Monday, June 13, 2011

The Umbrella Poets

According to Martyn Richards the Umbrella once boasted over a thousand poets...

In the late 50's and early 60's the Umbrella was known for it's quality literary journal UMBRELLA to which Phillip Larkin had contributed an article (as you may have seen already on another post on here).

The Umbrella's Poets on Tour programme brought to the Umbrella club poets and writers such as Pete Morgan and Steve Morris (in conjunction with the Birmingham Poetry Festival), Brian Patten, Julian Mitchell, Antonio Byatt, Hugo Williams, Vernon Scanell, Dave Ward (Liverpool Poet).

In terms of lectures and workshops there were Extra Mural courses provided by Birmingham University.

POETRY AND EXPERIENCE was an example. A 10 week series tutored by Paul Dunkley, MA, studying poems taken from little magazines and national poems. The poems were analysed acording to their structure and the experiences implicit in them. The aim was to appreciate the rich and varied developments of English Poetry in this century (20th) and to explore the importance of practical criticism in undestanding the poems. The course was for both writers and those interested in expanding their personal sensibilities and appreciation of poetry.

C 1971, the Umbrella Poets met in the upstairs room at Queen Victoria Road and a monthly basis. It's likely that the group had been going quite a while but my main interest was music at the time and writing song lyrics. Al Docker (who also organised the band nights) wrote lyrics too and joined in one of the sessions. We were about 19 at the time and the group was mostly quite a bit older than us and on his suggestion I went to a group session the following month. We both received a warm welcome and found encouragement. I had recently branched into poetry from writing song lyrics and shyly tried out a couple of poems. It was really the first time I'd read in public (albeit a small group session) but it was the beginning of something for me.

John Hewitt
I can't remember all the names but John Hewitt seemed to be leading the group. John was the most Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. Between 1957 and 1972 (when he retired) he was Director of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum and involved with the Umbrella club. I didn't realise at the time what distinguished company I was in at the time. Other members were Terry Watson (an English teacher at King Henry V111 Grammar School and a mainstay of the Umbrella club), Geoff Pegg (Poet, musician and broadcaster) whose chapbook Knotted Sheets had just been published by Outposts. Norman Wheatley and John Leopold (both singer songwriters and poets) and some of the others mentioned in the Knotted Sheets post on here.
significant Irish poet to emerge before the 1960s generation of poets that included.

by John Hewitt

A full year since, I took this eager city,
the tolerance that laced its blatant roar,
its famous steeples and its web of girders,
as image of the state hope argued for,
and scarcely flung a bitter thought behind me
on all that flaws the glory and the grace
which ribbons through the sick, guilt-clotted legend
of my creed-haunted, godforsaken race.
My rhetoric swung round from steel's high promise
to the precision of the well-gauged tool,
tracing the logic in the vast glass headlands,
the clockwork horse, the comprehensive school.
Then, sudden, by occasion's chance concerted,
in enclave of my nation, but apart,
the jigging dances and the lilting fiddle
stirred the old rage and pity in my heart.
The faces and the voices blurring round me,
the strong hands long familiar with the spade,
the whiskey-tinctured breath, the pious buttons,
called up a people endlessly betrayed
by our own weakness, by the wrongs we suffered
in that long twilight over bog and glen,
by force, by famine and by glittering fables
which gave us martyrs when we needed men,
by faith which had no charity to offer,
by poisoned memory, and by ready wit,
with poverty corroded into malice,
to hit and run and howl when it is hit.
This is our fate: eight hundred years' disaster,
crazily tangled as the Book of Kells;
the dream's distortion and the land's division,
the midnight raiders and the prison cells.
Yet like Lir's children, banished to the waters,
our hearts still listen for the landward bells.
At the time the Umbrella Poets were performing at various Community centres and schools and were down to perform in Airport lounge, University of Warwick Annual Arts festival. I had already intended to go to the festival and was pleased to be invited to join them on stage. Outside of Airport Lounge things were quite lively, students, musos, hippys gathered as events took off all over the campus, street theatre, Pinter plays etc. Inside Airport lounge the room was full of students squat on the floor and totally silent. On stage the Umbrella poets sat on chairs in Tuxedo's or smartly dressed. I was 19 with long blond hair and patched up jeans and hippy boots. I was invited to sit with them but as it was my first time performing to such a big crowd and my material untried and feeling out of place coupled with the silence that accompanied every piece read even if it was humourous, I opted to sit on the side of the stage rather than on a chair on the stage, as I was invited to do. Soon my time came to read and I read to poems. Not a sound from the audience who seemed to be paying attention and no clapping (or even booing) just respectful silence. I decided to get out of the room as quickly as i could. I had no idea if my poems had gone down well or not. As I walked through the crowd to the door, two girls called me over and gave me some favourable feedback. They were the girlfriends of a band I'd put on at the Umbrella - Fresh Maggots and they had recognised me. I spent the rest of the night with them and helped them try and get a gig a the University for Fresh Maggots - a Nuneaton duo who combined progressive acoustic songs with the addition of electric guitar and other instruments. They had just made an album for RCA Neon ( now a cult album). 

I didn't continue to be involved with the Umbrella Poets as songwriting was my main interest at the time but later in the 80's when I moved to Teesside, I became more involved with the writing and poetry scene as a Creative Writing tutor for WEA and Leeds University adult education and organised poetry performance events at local arts centres and edited poetry magazines. The early experience at the Umbrella club became a starting point for me. Later, interviewing Liverpool poets Brian Patten and Roger McGough, they recalled their early experiences of performing their poetry. Universities were the only place to read and they also experienced the respectful silence of these sessions, moving instead to jazz clubs and then rock clubs where they pioneered their Pop poetry performance styles. here the environment was totally the opposite, in order to reach the audience you often had to shout your poetry and be more direct in order to get their attention and combining poetry with music was one way to do it.

Poetry and Folk Sessions
These were popular at the Umbrella and took various forms over the years.
Early sessions was organised c 1970 by Geoff Pegg and Norman Wheatley and also singer songwriter John Brown who formed the folk duo Toadstool. Some of the blurbs read -

"Poetry and Folk - A session for poets and folk singers, where new ideas may be read or sang, and discussion is encouraged. Not for performers only - you can listen if you do not wish to take part."

"A folk based session featuring a guest folk group from Coventry called Toadstool, whose members include John Brown, who is no stranger tot he Umbrella club. there will other singers, musicians and poets present at what should be a very enjoyable evening of poetry and folk. Look out next month for an event featuring a well-known poet.(Could it be Roger McGough?). (April 71 - Umbrella Programme).


  1. Jean Jennings (neƩ Gough)April 13, 2013 at 7:13 AM

    Thank you for bringing back some wonderful memories of the Umbrella Club. I was a very keen member in the 50's, assisting Terry Watson with the secretarial jobs and publicity. I remember him bringing to the club the first electric typewriter - a scary monster. He was truly an inspired person and brought such enthusiasm to the club.
    One problem that I have is with the given date of the inception of the club. I distinctly remember going there in 1953 - and it had been active a while before then. Can anybody confirm this?

    1. Jean, thank you for that and glad you enjoyed it. I wasn't involved until 1969, so any light you (or anyone else) can provide on the earlier period would be great. My sources for the opening date of the Umbrella, were from notes i took in the archives or newsletter / aims put out by Terry Watson when I was involved. The opening date for 1955 seems pretty consistent but if there is indeed any evidence that it was opened earlier, i will gladly amend the material. Could it be that this was an 'official' opening date but the club had be functioning earlier or could it be the club met earlier without the Little Park HQ? If you want to write about your memories of the umbrella and give us a taste of the early period (and if you have an archive material) you can e mail it to me here and I will add it to the blog. Thanks again Jean and i will bear that date in mind. Trev Teasdel

  2. Do you know any more about the old Birmingham Poetry Festival mentioned in this article? We are trying to research it but this article which we found by chance and which prompted our research interest remains the only mention we've seen, any info would be helpful, many thanks, the current Birmingham Poetry Festival organisers.