Image: John Hegley by Jackie di Stefano
If there is one thing you can’t fault John Hegley for, it’s his titles. His collections have been variously called Visions of the Bone Idol (Poems about Dogs and Glasses), The Brother-in-Law and Other Animals, Glad to Wear Glasses (Glad to Have Ears), Beyond our Kennel, My Dog is a Carrot, Uncut Confetti, and, out this month, his latest, Peace, Love & Potatoes.
Born in North London in 1953, Hegley and his family moved to Luton. Much mocked by others, Luton is Hegley’s personal Parnassus, a sort of suburban Shangri-La, as someone put it, that his imagination is forever returning to. His family background was unexpectedly exotic. His paternal grandmother was a dancer in the Follies Bergère, and his father spent the first part of his adult life in America, where he worked in a speakeasy, before moving to Britain and changing his name from Rene to Fred.
Hegley first began performing in the late 1970s as a musician, busking at first, then as part of the group the Popticians. He was already fixing upon the subjects he’d become known for writing about – dogs, glasses, potatoes, Luton – all done with his trademark mordancy and facility for rhyme and snappy rhythms. He took a great step forward when he began to appear at London’s Comedy Store in 1980. The popular perception of poetry at the time was not one that could be said to be of great affection. ‘When I first played at the meat-eating Comedy Store, I was food for the lions. People thought, “Oh no, poems!”’ He won them over with his wit, timing and mandolin-playing.
Hegley has a well-deserved reputation as a formidable performer, and has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival many times over the past few decades, drawing impressive crowds. He’s the sort of poet people who wouldn’t class themselves as poetry-lovers are passionate about. In 1998, for example, his poem ‘Malcolm’ came second in a BBC survey to find the UK’s most beloved comic poem. But it’s not just the humour we respond to in Hegley’s work. At its best, he channels a beguiling vulnerability. Take, for example, his ‘Poem about losing my glasses’:
the place is familiar
my face is bare
I’ve mislaid my glasses
I’ve looked in my glasses case
but they’re not there
and I need my glasses
to find my glasses
but I’ll be alright
I’ve got a spare pair
Whether playing for a late-night Festival crowd or for children in schools, Hegley has become one of our best advocates for what poetry can do for us (and he’s bloody funny too). ‘Poetry is a natural part of our lives, but for some reason we’ve become alienated from it. It’s in those lovely phrases like “pleased as punch” or “wide awake” or “a lick of paint” – that’s beautiful poetry because the brush is like a tongue. Poetry is everybody’s…. For me, it’s completely natural to take poetry and try to make it popular and populist.’
He adds, ‘Poetry is the opposite of speaking words which are mundane. It is words that are charged, it’s vibrancy, mystery, aliveness, intensity – and bollocks!’
John Hegley performs at the Scottish Poetry Library on October 12, 6.30pm. Tickets are priced £7 (£5 concessions) and can be bought online if you click here.