The Unbearable Lightness of Being Tony Chestnut Brown
The poet of Lark Lane and his art
“When I come into a room I can tell straight off if it’s a goer”.
Ten years ago, when the street poet, Tony “Chestnut” Brown, was hustling the pubs and bars of Lark Lane, he could be seen sitting at a crowded table in his overcoat and trilby, hunched over his postcards, composing a poem for a raucous hen party at their table or a group of polo-shirted lads at the bar. A pound a poem was the going rate and, at a table of ten, that wasn’t bad money. Although, with the occasional abuse factored it was invariably hard-earned.
The poetry, a cross between the lowlife verse of Charles Bukowski and the conversation poems of Samual Taylor Coleridge, was only part of the offering. It was, seen in the round, a piece of performance art. He was good-looking at that time and his lean, slightly hunched body slotted in to his overcoat like an actor into his costume and his expressive face animated the poems as he read them out loud, straight after the two-minute composition. The patter at the beginning and the way he worked the room, moving from group to group, was pure theatre. He had his authentically photocopied book of poems to sell as well. The act took into account the ambiance of a particular place and the vibe dictated his modus operandi. A dark bar in the winter led to a stealthier, more undercover approach to the table, conspiratorial almost. In the summer he was more open, using a lighter touch in his poems and a chatty demeanour. Sometimes, after a certain amount of money had been collected, he would make his excuses and leave, saying he was “going for a curry”, a euphemism that didn’t register with me until much later on.
It was a hard life but the all-encompassing and generous nature of his art meant that the ledger of his life was probably always in credit. Take the poem pictured above. Written in 2001, probably in a bar, he riffs on the nature of soil, a subject given to him by a customer:
Digging up the flowers
To get to the Worms
The air, minerals and
Acidic - Alkaline
Light dry moist
Earths layers like
Skin peeling breathing
The poem is written on a postcard, you can tell from the faint address and postage stamp lines, but it looks like notebook paper because of its age, and perhaps its journey home from the pub. We can see that it was written on Lark Lane by Tony “A chestnut” Brown on 26th January 2001 and the art is visual as well as literary. He has drawn a picture with his words as well as written a poem and, at the time he will have read it out to the subject, and probably his or her friends, which will in itself be a theatrical performance. He will have acted the part, lowered or raised the tone of his voice, melodramatically emphasised the single word lines and opened his eyes expressively-wide under his black trilby.
This will have all been appreciated by many members of his audience but there will have been many who didn’t appreciate him or were unkind. It is true that there were times when he was more profound than others when he worked but is that not true of any artist? Are there not many many artists who put everything into their work and then deteriorate as a result of it. The poem above was a good example of the work that he put out almost every night of the week for many years, from the late 1990s until a few years ago. Sometimes it was even better, and his writing on homelessness and addiction may have been the most profound.
Brown’s form of “total poetry” can be compared to the work of contemporaries such as Kate Tempest, John Hegley or John Cooper Clarke but this somewhat sells him short. He’s not a “performance poet” as such. He is much more embedded into the community and into the life of his audience. He just goes into a room in a pub, has a look around and then approaches a group of people asking them if the want him to write a poem. This reading of the room and the interaction is an important part of what he does. So perhaps the more useful analogy is with, and this must understood as a very specific analogy, with writers such as Coleridge and Shakespeare. The link with Coleridge is first and foremost in the nature of the poetry itself rather than with biography. Coleridge, alongside Wordsworth, developed the genre of the “conversation poem” and used the subject matter of the everyday as a way to connect to his subjects.
Coleridge addiction is also an interesting point of analogy. The image of writers such as Coleridge and his friend Thomas De Quincy is that the were creativity unleashed by the use of opiates - producing dream-like works such as Kubla Khan and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. When in fact the reality was of mountains of unfinished work or embarrassing and humiliating bouts of constipation caused by chronic addiction. Tony Chestnut Brown may sometimes be fuelled financially and creatively by his addictions but the difference is that the attempt is often made by others to define him by this, and his period of homelessness. Coleridge was a poet, writer and all-round public intellectual first and foremost - his addictions were imagined to have enhanced his artistic reputation, rather like the effects of drink and drugs on Jimi Hendrix. With Brown, the story is often the person who was, a long time ago homeless and who is sometimes addicted, who happens to have picked himself up and found a way to deal with his problems. This version of the narrative cannot, I feel, be more wrong. And it is us who are the losers when the story is told in this way. This is because Brown is primarily an artist through and through and if we can’t see this in the sweep and symmetry of his poetry on tiny pieces of card and the perfect harmony of his interaction with a room full of people and the give and take of the composition, the performance and the delivery, it is us that are the poorer for it, not him.
In Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare, he writes of the ways in which the plays were created, of the workings of Shakespeare’s imagination and creativity in relation to the long-tradition of the history of the English imagination. Ackroyd describes how Shakespeare, who was also an actor, interacted with his audience and the other actors in his company and that his plays and sonnets emerged from a sort of synthesis of collaboration . He was intimately connected not only with the audience but with the world in which the audience came from, both high and low. Thus like Dickens or Tolstoy he was as familiar with the workings of the aristocracy as with the beggars or the prostitutes in the slums of London. Brown is well-read and privately educated (with an artistic sensibility) but he is also inextricably integrated with the seamier aspects of the Liverpool night-time community.
One of the most enjoyable meals I have ever had was with Tony in Keith’s Wine Bar on Lark Lane. I remember we each had half a dozen oysters (he later asked the cook if she had any leftover seconds) and a bottle of good Chilean wine - he made the recommendations regarding the wine and clearly had an intimate knowledge of the cellar. He spoke to me about some of the passages in a book I had written and it seemed to me he had, instinctively, a very good sense of what I was trying to do and offered unaffected and straighforward advice on how I could do it much better. Thinking back on it now, there is a very real sense in which the pleasure I experienced during the meal was as a result of his personality and also the way he represented a particular aspect of English literary and artistic life. I had long been an admirer of he biography, “The Guilded Gutter life of Frances Bacon” by Bacon’s Soho drinking partner, Daniel Farson. Tales of Bohemian adventures in the colony rooms or at Wheelers fish restaurant with the artist Lucian Freud and the photographer John Deakins had, in a sense been reproduced in my dinner with Tony. There was no awkwardness and no wish to do anything other than order another bottle of wine and carry on talking. In hindsight, I wonder whether this perfect harmony of experiences there was anything different between this and the art that he made when he worked the rooms of Lark Lane. In a way there was no separation between Tony Chestnut Brown the artist and the Tony Chestnut Brown who enquired of the cook whether she, by any chance, had any leftover Oysters in the pan.