John Hegley: poet performer

Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 17 seconds

Everyone has a story. Carrots, dogs, guillemots, glasses … anything can inspire comic poet John Hegley who spent his babyhood in Newington Green. Here he reveals the bits of Islington that have played a part in his life’s work. Interview by Nicola Baird

John Hegley: poet performer. (c) islington faces

John Hegley: poet performer on a coffee break at Lara’s Cafe, 16 Blackstock Road. (c) islington faces

John Hegley is renowned for deadpan delivery and witty wordplay. He’s headlined Gillespie Festival three times, had a show at the Almeida, been patron of the Holloway Festival, played at the Red Rose and is often spotted in Islington’s libraries and pubs.

What’s not so well-known is that this famous glasses-wearing, Luton-supporting wordsmith was born in Islington and has spent much of his adult life in the ‘greater’ London borough of Hackney & Islington – as he calls it.

“I was born in Mildmay Memorial Maternity Hospital on the south side of Newington Green, now sadly not there (it’s apartments),” says John Hegley in Lara’s café, 16 Blackstock Road where he goes for a break when he’s working on the computers at the N4 library.

After gaining a BSc at Bradford University studying European Literature & the History of Ideas with Sociology, John moved to London. He has lived all over Islington, including Tufnell Park (sharing with one-time Under 5s children service provider Alison Ruddock, OBE), Northampton Grove and Battishill Street, near the Almeida, as well as Hackney addresses. “There’s Highbury & Islington isn’t there?” says John practically, “but it could be Hackney and Islington? They are conjoined, especially Newington Green where I was born. To separate them is a bit arbitrary especially in Newington Green or Finsbury Park.”

But it’s clear that Islington has a strong pull.

“During rehearsals for the Pajama Game* directed by Simon Callow, in 1999, I was in Birmingham and I remember we were all introducing ourselves. When Natasha, one of the dancers, said she was from Islington I felt a really warm feeling when I heard that word. I thought ‘that’s where I’m from’. She was an Arsenal fan so we watched the Cup Final together – I put on the song The Disappointed by XTC for her,” he says laughing, slightly evily…

St John The Evangelist, Dunan Terrace, N1 (c) islington faces

St John The Evangelist, 39 Duncan Terrace, N1 (c) islington faces

Places John Hegley likes in Islington

I like Islington’s public places – libraries, pubs and churches…

  • John Hegley: “That’s how many books we had when I was growing up. I’ve got 1,000s now.”

    John Hegley: “That’s how many books we had when I was growing up. I’ve got 1,000s now.”

    LIBRARIES: All libraries are very important. I love it on Thursday mornings at the N4 Library as you hear the children and their parents singing Wheels on the Bus. It reminds me of the times I took Isabella, now 21 at university, to the Tick Tock Club off Essex Road, near where the 271 goes.

  • PUBS: Tufnell Park Tavern – used to enjoy seeing the Holloway All Stars play free and uplifting jazz there. The Bank of Friendship, Blackstock Road is a convivial place. The Betsy Trotwood is a great pub – Richard who co-owns it is the nephew of Bob Cobbing, the poet, which helped make him amenable to poetry. I met Bob in The Alma, Newington Green, in the London Borough of Islington for a TV Word of Mouth interview in 1989.
  • Hinge on St John's door. The church may have a relatively plain front but the ceiling inside is beautiful.

    Hinge on St John’s door. The church may have a relatively plain front but the ceiling inside is beautiful.

    CHURCHES: The most significant place for me in Islington is St John’s Church at Duncan Terrace. I was baptised there, my daughter Isabella was also baptised there. I saw a concert there when Isabella was in Richard Frostick’s Islington Music Centre choir. It’s good to know that my mum and dad used to look up at those ceilings.

  • FOOTBALL: Highbury – I saw my team Luton play against Arsenal in 1990. Patrick Marber, who writes plays, took me for my birthday present… We lost 2-0. My brother Marcel and I went to see Arsenal play Liverpool. It was 4-3. My friend Otiz Cannelloni, who I performed with at Red Rose in the Bag Brothers, said he’d seen us on the TV in the crowd! Although we are both Luton fans Marcel’s really Arsenal, but he doesn’t push his Arsenalness.
  • EATING: Isabella had just been to Ethiopia so we had lebleb at the excellent St Gabriel Ethiopian Deli on Blackstock Road. I’ve had good curries in Luton (where John grew up) and in Bradford (where John was at university). I used to go to Ruman, 130 Blackstock Road, a lot. It gets a good trade on Arsenal days.
Lara's Cafe, XX Blackstock Road specialises in tasty fresh food with an Italian twist. And it's got a garden.

Lara’s Cafe, 16 Blackstock Road specialises in tasty fresh food with an Italian twist. And it’s got a garden.

Looking back
John’s now living with his partner, Mel, in Hackney, just by Clissold Park which his mum, Joan* used to push him round in his pram all those years ago.

“I’ve got a memory of a Lyon’s Corner House and I think I remember playing Peepo behind the sofa when in Islington. I remember hearing one of my parents saying ‘He can’t see’ and the other one saying ‘He can see’.”

John’s family moved from their one bed basement flat to a house in Luton when his younger sister, Angela, was born. “Moving to Luton was a necessity the house cost £1,000 and my family put down a £100 deposit.

My elder brother René Marcel thinks mum and dad – who’d been in the air force – met when she was a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital.

Wildlife management volunteer at Gillespie Park Matthew Sherwood: “There’s a good crowd in the office at the Islington Ecology Centre. They are always helpful and if they don’t know the insect or bird I’ve spotted they will look it up.” (c) Islington Council

John Hegley enjoyed playing at the Gillespie Festival and other community events: “You’d always see Jeremy Corbyn around at those events too. We were Islington residents trying to pitch in. (c) Islington Council

Beautiful game
Football is a big part of John’s conversation. He asks me who I support (Arsenal), who my partner supports (West Ham) and quickly finds out who Lara, who runs Lara’s Café, and her family support… As a child he was Luton, then there was a big break in his football supporting life, but around 1990 he took it up again thanks in part to going to Arsenal v Luton at Highbury. The football passion took a strong enough hold for John to be using it to help kids understand literature – so in1997 when he was presenting a BBC1 TV children’s programme (now on BBC Bitesize) about Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging* (1966) he “pretends to dig up the Highbury turf with a pointy trowel. It was to show that Heaney’s poem is really about his vocation and how words, being things, are something you can dig up.”

John also used footage from the Highbury crowds to illustrate the way Heaney in his poem Follower (1966) shows how the strong bond between father and son are broken by adulthood. See this short film:

Future proof
“My life’s very bohemian,” says John trying to puncture his own bubble after admitting that he can play the guitar, mandolin and cavakino.

Gig to go to on 5 June: Peace Love & Potatoes by John Hegley will feature, along with folk music and Northern soul at Stoke Newington Town Hall during the StokeyLitFest (3-5 June).

Gig to go to on 5 June: Peace, Love & Potatoes by John Hegley will feature, plus plenty of folk music and Northern soul at Stoke Newington Town Hall during the StokeyLitFest (3-5 June).

“Dad had the bohemian side. My grandmother was a dancer at the Folies Bergère. Dad didn’t push his Frenchness. I remember he talked about Victor Hugo, but I only remember Dad spoke in French once when my grandmother came to stay. I was nine. Mum was a working class girl from Rochester – French wasn’t her mother tongue.” Despite this John managed to get an O level in French and in 2009 wrote a book in French/English, The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet. And in Peace Love & Potatoes there are paintings done by John’s father alongside John’s quirky drawings.

His conversation is peppered with the names of the performers he’s done shows with from his start out comic partner John Korn (known as Otiz Cannelloni), to Hank Earle, founder of Oxy & the Morons who played at a gig with John during April.

“Yesterday I was rehearsing in a garden shed. I was on the mandolin. Eleanor Moreton was on the fiddle. Young Adam Bradbury was on the coffee machine. And I thought this is bohemian…”

It’s clear that there’s no parting John Hegley from his creativity – even when things can look bleak. In 2010 he ran a comedy project, Warning: May Contain Nuts, to increase awareness of mental illness. More joyful has been the many times he’s performed at local gigs. Indeed he’s been almost as regular a big name at Islington community events as Jeremy Corbyn.

“There’s no retiring. Michael Rosen is a fine example and he’s 70 shortly,” says John who is considerably younger, at 62, before adding, “I remember the older American priest at St John’s saying ‘Those with a priestly vocation retire at 75.’ That’s guidance perhaps?”

  • John is a prolific and skilled performer (Islington Faces is a fan having seen five shows). Find all John Hegley’s upcoming shows at his website (which he calls his word wild website)
  • Next big event Sunday 5 June, 8pm £10: folk and Northern soul at Stoke Newington Town Hall during the StokeyLitFest (3-5 June). John will also be performing new poems from Peace, Love & Potatoes. Book tickets here

John’s parents changed their names several times as he explains in this piece from the Guardian family values (2009):My mum and dad were called Joan and Bob when I was born, but my dad was born a René; he changed his name when he grew up. His mother, Renée, was French. My mum was called Ivy, but she changed her name to Jeanne when she met my dad, and then became Joan, when he became Bob. It’s quite complex.”

Read this terrific review of John Hegley’s performance (as timekeeper Vernon Hines) in the Pajama Game here. He says the Telegraph wasn’t as impressed.

Digger and Follower are some of Seamus Heaney’s earliest poems, read them in Death of a Naturalist (1966). Heaney won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997.

Over to you
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If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola