Meeting Brian Patten at Lyme Regis

brian pattendartONCE upon a time, poet Brian Patten was walking on Dartmoor and, squinting into the sun, saw a cairn of stones in a different light.

“What if the stones were books, and the books were the library of a giant,” he thought.

And so The Story Giant was born – a book that weaves folk tales from around the world and across the centuries into a quest. It is dedicated to another Liverpool poet, Adrian Henri, who died shortly before the walk on Dartmoor, and its message is “the light of imagination transcends decay,” – Patten’s epitaph to Henri.

Brian was at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis this week for the opening night of Shanty Theatre’s adaptation of the book, in for the summer season and then on tour.

The poet and his partner, the travel writer Linda Cookson, have lived overlooking the River Dart outside Dittisham for the past 14 years, and moving to Devon was a sort of homecoming for the man who was born and brought up in Liverpool.

He, and his fellow Liverpool Poets Henri and Roger McGough, had a meteoric rise on the back of the success of the Beatles. Brian says he could never spell, but his teachers spotted his talent early.

He left school at 15 and became a cub reporter on the Bootle Times, where the editor also recognised his potential. One of his first interviews was with McGough (whose Scaffold colleague was Mike McGear, brother of Paul McCartney) and Henri. Within less than two years Patten joined his interviewees and they became a trio of writers and performers.

One of Brian’s earliest memories is of loving stories. He couldn’t read, so he took his comics four doors down the road to where a German woman lived, and she helped him to understand the words under the pictures, at the same time as telling folk tales from Northern Europe.

Early in his success, a friend and fan offered Brian a place to rent in Devon. He agreed, expecting a country cottage, but instead found himself in a boathouse on the Dart, somewhere he returned over many years until buying property there at the turn of the century.

There he met Harry Long and his father and Tim Bell. Harry and Tim founded Shanty Theatre and are also joint artistic directors of the Marine Theatre in Lyme, so two years ago Brian was invited visit the theatre to see the Shanty productio of  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

He so much enjoyed the experience that when they approached him to adapt The Story Giant for stage performance, he jumped at the opportunity.

“They were generous enough to allow me to work with them on the script, but I haven’t seen the finished product,” he said, a bit nervously, an hour before curtain up.

Harry and Stuart Mcloughlin wrote the script, with Stu masterminding the music – always an important element in a Shanty production.

The story not only incorporates tales from many different cultures, but nods at Brian’s own history in Devon, and is shot through with his famously playful insights and his passionate belief in the inspiration of words and shared experiences.

He describes the story as “sometimes dark” and aimed at all ages except the very young.

Nearing 70, Brian Patten has found himself in a “very creative” period in his writing life. He has completed the first draft of a memoir and has written enough poems for three new collections – although there are no immediate plans for publication.

And after a break from readings and performances, he is returning – gently – to the circuit, at Winchester, Aldeburgh and to Falmouth for an event celebrating the Cornish poet Charles Causley.

One of the new collections involves Arabic characters, and he has noticed that from the early lyrical love poems, much of his work now leans towards the elegiac, as the people and places of his past disappear.

But he’s enjoying life, next to the river he loves, meeting friends, writing, and mixing in the excitement of new projects.

If the Shanty production of The Story Giant is anything to go by, Brian Patten has all his magic intact.


Gay Pirrie-Weir

Photograph by APEX

See also Shanty review in Reviews