Where new writing finds its voice

Tim and John in Stoke Newington

Tim Wells


Poet Tim Wells met poet John Hegley at a beer festival and asked him a few questions

The Rochester Castle pub in Stoke Newington is just a couple of doors down from mine. It’s a Wetherspoon’s, and is full of old men and bitter ne’erdidnothings. I drink in there from time to time, but I am really saving it for my old age: I will inevitably end up there and, despite the comfort of foreknowledge, I’m not entirely certain if I’m looking forward to it.

This particular day was one of curious excitement at the Rochester: there was a beer festival taking place. It being a chilly October day, I soon found myself inside asking the landlord for a ‘banana beer’. (The pub’s cook was also at the bar taking a break from the kitchen. I overheard one of the old boys asking him what he’d recommend; ‘The caff,’ he said, jerking his head towards next door and pouring himself a drink.) 

I suppose beer festivals must be a real draw to local poets, us being such maudlin souls, because just then, John Hegley popped in. Having both pen and paper on me I took the opportunity to pose a few questions to him. He said it’d be a bit like a pub quiz … and why not? John is one of the most decent chaps in the poetry game, so it was a pleasure to sup a few (even ‘specialty’ beers) with him and while away the hours next to a roaring fire …


Tim Wells: What’s the best thing about being John Hegley?

John Hegley: I’m able to draw a little and that’s nice, to be able to operate in some artistic fashion and enjoy the world that way. I like being confident enough to make and attempt art. That I have a job where, on occasion, people want me to perform and I see new places and faces. Also, my father wanted me to go on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks. I’d have sung a song about my girlfriend Rowena. My father heard me singing this and wanted me to go on the show. 

TW: What rhymes with Hegley? If not regley then irregley?

JH: I stood on one leg, Lea becoming.

Rhyme doesn’t always have to go the whole word. Not the whole hog, but the half-hogley line.

TW: What are your influences as a writer?

JH: John Cooper Clarke, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, Louis MacNeice, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I learned from Heaney being so dense; how he can make ‘plop’ really go plop.

TW: What comics did you read as a lad?

JH: I used to get the Valiant, The Beano and The Dandy. Me and my brother shared a room and he got the Valiant first. He was eight years older than me. We shared a room until he was twenty-three. I also got the Tiger and the Hurricane. I got The Children’s Newspaper, but it was a bit depressing. I liked Jonah in The Beano. He was rare in that he was Biblical and imparted greater knowledge. No reason why you can’t have myth and idiocy and hideousy in a comic!

TW: Should we still be referring to new potatoes as ‘new’?

JH: Rejuvenation is one of the beauties of the world. Things are new and fresh even though things have gone before that look the same. It’s this season’s new potato.

TW: What’s your favourite type of pie?

JH: A rarity! Football-ground vegetable pie: Luton used to do cheese and onion pasties but stopped. I like the communion, the context is important. I like the tasty veg communal pie.

TW: What’s your second-favourite jam and why?

JH: That’s a smart question as you must always keep your primary jam to yourself. Mmm … apricot: nice to spread bits of apricot, the nubs, on to the bread. Has a hint of marmalade. Some would call that jammy.

I’d have said Bruce Foxton because of the hair. This got me to thinking about our early days.

TW: We both started doing poetry in the late seventies/early eighties. Is poetry now how we wished it was then?

JH: I never really wished it would be anything. I took it as it came. It remains, as it was, a very rich faceted area.

TW: Though ponces are always with us, there seems to be less preciousness and pretence in poetry now …

JH: There are lots of people experimenting. I was talking to a chap at the Ledbury Poetry Festival and saying I sometimes feel ‘Poetry’ is distant from me, and that mine is something less. He said, ‘There are Poetries’, which made me feel better. A certain sort of poetry goes halfway to people, not always that far. I generally have a book of poetry in my pocket.

John reaches into his pocket and pulls out a copy of Penguin Modern Poets 11, which has work from Michael Donaghy, Andrew Motion and Hugo Williams in it. I say how much I like Donaghy’s poem ‘Shibboleth’ and John reads it aloud. The poem is about the Battle of the Bulge when American troops were told that German troops were behind their lines in American uniforms. The GIs asked each other questions that they supposed only an American could answer. I listen closely to the last verse as John reads it …


‘The morning of the first snowfall, I was shaving, 
Staring into a mirror nailed to a tree,
Intoning the Christian names of the Andrews Sisters.
“Maxine, Laverne, Patty.”’

We talk more about reading to an audience…

TW: Poetry and comedy: kissing cousins?

JH: They are related. This is where the idea of ‘Poetries’ is helpful. I did a sociology degree. It’s how useful your poetry is, not how true it is. Comedians will tend to go all the way to the listener, but people do love the joke they have to think about. These are the poetry jokes perhaps. If you have a joke that’s also poetry, you’re in business – show business!

TW: What’s the weirdest show you’ve ever done?

JH: Performing in the mental hospital in Medellín in Columbia. We all went out and did a bit – here’s our art, here’s our ego. It was 9.30 in the morning, up on a beautiful hill overlooking the town. Patients, people from the town, poets … all mingled in. It was about being together. Communion, again, very holy communion.

TW: Have you read with Pam Ayres?

JH: I was on breakfast TV with her for National Poetry Day a few years ago. I said, ‘Hello’. She’s a purveyor of another ‘Poetry’. We got on and she was OK.

TW: Is having glasses an aid to the imagination?

JH: My friend Tony, I’ve known him since school and he’s the funniest bloke I know, he told me years ago, ‘Lose the glasses.’ He may have something. Yes, they’re an aid, but it’s about the imagination – not the glasses.

TW: If you were the only boy in the world, who’d be your ideal only girl?

John picks up his book and flicks to ‘Shibboleth’…

JH: Maxine, Laverne or Patty? Laverne, there’s an element of a suggestion of Frenchness there and the Frenchness means a lot to me.

TW: What poets of the moment raise your interest?

JH: Books I’ve bought recently … Grace Paley, I was introduced to her by Ivor Cutler at The Poetry Library. She wrote, and I think you’ll like this Tim, ‘It’s the responsibility of the poet to be a woman.’ And Amanda Dalton: ‘Eat less./Eat much less.’ One of the best five syllables I’ve seen used in poetry.

TW: Who’s the most surprising poet you’ve read with?

JH: When I saw Crisis, the performance poet, the first time and he started his chanting I thought, yes, you can present it like this. I was so happy to be reminded that poetry is related to song. It was speaking, and chanting. That was very surprising.

TW: In those solitary moments when you’re strutting in front of the mirror, what’s the song running through your head?

JH: Probably The Smith’s ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’.

TW: Can you name the Magnificent Seven?

John turns to ‘Shibboleth’ and intones: 

JH: Maxine, Laverne, Patty … and the rest of the Andrews Sisters.

TW: Who’d play you in a film?

JH: If I had a choice, I’d like Michael Gambon to play me.

John recently read at Hackney City Farm and was heckled by a chicken.

TW: What’s the best heckle you’ve received?

JH: From a child of four. The child asked, ‘Who are you talking to?’