thu 18/04/2024

Brendan Cleary, Great Eastern, Brighton review – last orders | reviews, news & interviews

Brendan Cleary, Great Eastern, Brighton review – last orders

Brendan Cleary, Great Eastern, Brighton review – last orders

Humane poetry slips under the guillotine in an unforgettable last gasp of art

Last chance saloon: Brendan ClearyChloe Barter

St. Patrick’s Day, and socialising itself, has been all but cancelled. But turn the rickety door-handle of a bohemian pub near Brighton station, and a poignant scene is unfolding.

The Irish poet Brendan Cleary’s reading has been officially called off, and the boozy crowd whose raucousness he would have had to ride has evaporated. Instead, he continues unpaid for a scattered few. The sight of these last drinkers fondly listening under candlelight will warm me in the months to come. It’s not quite Weimar, because no human monster is approaching to destroy us. But the lights are going out.

Cleary is a Great Eastern regular, and so am I. He could be found here till now on Saturdays, spinning soul, blues and singer-songwriters’ tunes from his laptop, Howlin’ Wolf to Townes Van Zandt, Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan, and steadily sinking Guinness till the night’s natural end. There would be dancing. He is a literary bluesman himself, with drink’s bruise on his nose and a more pronounced, tender heart. Moving from Carrickfergus to Middlesbrough in 1977, he has seeded a generation of significant poets through small presses, been BBC-commissioned and a bawdy performance poet. As the Dublin Review of Books’ Nathan Hugh O’Donnell wrote of Face, his book about his brother Martin’s sudden death: “Each joint or can of Super feels like some statement of resistance...this poetry feels harrowed...Cleary is a writer with a powerful sense of bleakness, but equally for the ways in which we simply carry on.” It’s a useful talent now.

Brendan Cleary Goin' Down SlowHe has a stand-up’s immediacy and stage-craft, suddenly shuffling in amongst us dozen listeners, ensuring unnerved attention. Many poems are fast and funny, absurd observations from his Brighton rounds. But tonight he wants to represent the span of work often about, as he says, “the death of my family”. “The Premonition” recalls seeing his dad “thinner and somehow intact”, a beloved man who died in the Seventies still haunting him into tears, art and life painfully, nakedly, healingly close. His listeners mostly knowing him extends the intimacy, with supportive cheers and claps on back.

“High Magic” is a rare supernal celebration of heady, sensual urban love, as “memories drip/into my heart/like mercury”. “Kylie Be Mine” flips the sexiness to fun: “I celebrated down the pub/Upon joining your Fan Club/there’s such wildfire & magic/in all your supreme machinery.” As powerful as anything is the brand-new “The Island”, about a sense of exile now enveloping us all, as home is shrouded in mist “on the Island/I can’t get to/not even tomorrow”.

We are also losing a dismissed community memorialised in “Unhappy Hour”: “& Big Arnold’s mum has got cancer/Rosie in the corner has lost it/by 6 most nights speaking in tongues./But these people are my friends/& they matter, drunk in slum basements,/stumbling heartbroken in the sticks./We drink here at twice the price,/it’s our own glorious sad republic./People are my friends and they matter...”

There’s a sense afterwards, as laughter and the clink of glasses rises at the bar as if normality still exists, that this is a stage-set about to be struck, leaving a colder place where kind touches can kill, and human warmth is on hold. Cleary calls his reading a valediction. But as a sense of society dismissed by Margaret Thatcher is forced on her inheritors, most of us will come back to all this; harrowed like those poems, but closer, and aching to raise a glass. The special attentiveness to tonight’s last-gasp art will stay a precious memory. 


Evocative writing, Bill, Brendan is much missed on Tyneside and brought an irascible gaelic charm to the poetry scene here. The Echo Room has gone the way of m any of our region's litmags. Ah well. How good you were there to record so vividly the St, Patrick Day's occasion,

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