Older, wiser, angrier: Roger McGough settles some old scores

McGough, hailed as the patron saint of British poetry, talks about a career that has spanned over five decades.

Roger McGough is making me a cup of tea with one hand and Tweeting with the other. He is also being delightfully outspoken as the kettle gurgles to a boil, albeit, in soft, mumbling tones that give him the air of a shy teenager in his snappy tracksuit and trendy trainers, despite the halo of white hair and hallowed status as one of Britain's most popular poets.

We meet just before the Olympics open in London. "It's just showing off. I wish we'd be quieter and get on with what we can do well and not make these huge, expensive shows."

There are grumbles about the Shard too and Internet scammers (his email account has been hacked) but all in the same diffidently witty way. There is more outspokenness to come. Some poetry is difficult for him, he confesses. "I find Milton impenetrable", and some of Shakespeare's comedies leave him cold. "I'm watching people laughing. They're enjoying it, it's genuine. I'm not one of them. I feel inferior."

The willingness to admit to things that any other "patron saint of poetry" (in the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy's words) would be hesitant to voice is one of the things that make McGough such gloriously honest company. The devil-may-care attitude might also be born from his early "outsider" status.

When McGough burst onto the poetry scene, he was a working-class Liverpudlian who found popular fame in the band, The Scaffold. It still irritates him that he and his new generation of Mersey Sound poets who presented a new, vernacular poetry to the nation were disparaged by the self-appointed high priests of the art in the 1970s who ran the influential magazine, Poetry Review.

This group, with Andrew Motion, Blake Morrison and Craig Raine prominent among them, were attempting to identify a canon for postwar British verse. When a "league table" of top poets put him in the bottom of the second division, he didn't lash out, but it still clearly galls.

"They weren't wielding that sort of power because they were the best but because they were well-connected. I'm angry about it, pissed off. I never reacted. I never said anything. You just get on with it. Now being older and less wise, you can answer them."

Perhaps this is why, despite the CBE, the stadia-filling popularity when he performs live and the middle-class seal of approval (he presents BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please), McGough still feels like an establishment persona non grata. "As a teenager, I read [Albert Camus's] The Outsider and you take pleasure in it. But eventually, you want to be there in the middle of it, not outside."

Does he bear a grudge against the old Poetry Review crowd? "Yes," he says, because the clique as it was then, "decided what poetry is and isn't on behalf of everybody. There were the bitchers and the bitched."

When his poetry began flying off the shelves, some critics called him too populist. When the collections for adults and children were published thick and fast, they called him too prolific. For decades, McGough has held his tongue. But no longer.

In his latest collection, As Far as I Know (Penguin, £12.99), there is a poem called "Scorpio" that vents his long-held spleen. It begins with a John Betjeman quote: "Our poems are part of ourselves. They are our children and we do not like them to be made public fools of by strangers." McGough then proceeds: "I will never reveal the names of those strangers,/ fellow poets some of them, and literary critics/ who have made public fools of my children./ …Some may even regret their youthful bile,/ their mistrust of popular culture, and the working class./ This is just to let them know, that though forgiven/ they are not forgotten".

He was warned against publishing the poem but overruled this. It was time to speak out. "I used to fondly imagine a brotherhood of poetry when I was younger," he says. He quickly realised this wasn't the case, perhaps because poets operate in such a small world, with so few prizes. It is much easier for jealousy to breed.

But it does hurt, he says. "Years ago I did some reviewing for Time Out, or I did it for two issues then realised it wasn't for me. It's a lot easier to be witty and caustic in putting a poem down than finding good things to say about it. It's easier to poke fun. My job is to encourage people to write poems."

For all the critics, he has also had supporters – armies of them – including Philip Larkin. McGough was at Hull University as Larkin began his tenure there as librarian. "He was a towering steeple of tweed." McGough didn't seek counsel from Larkin, but at the age of 21, after completing his degree and teaching diploma, he did send him some poems. "I got a letter. He said 'thank you for sending me your poems which I enjoyed reading'. And then he said [something along the lines] of 'you seem to walk a tightrope which you sometimes fall off, but the journey is worth making.' Later on, in the 1970s when we corresponded about stuff for the [Hull University] archive, I told him about his letter. He said he must have been a very different Philip Larkin in those days [meaning that he had been encouraging], and he said sometimes his books were dustier than mine in the library."

The teenage McGough felt a compulsion to write poetry. "Once I started writing poems, it came as such a blast. It was almost physical, I was staying up and not sleeping for three nights. It was almost like transfiguration. But I didn't send off a poem to the student [literary] magazine, Torch. I read it and couldn't understand it and I thought 'maybe I'm not writing poetry'."

Aside from "Scorpio", there is little bitterness in McGough's latest collection. Instead, there are moving poems on memory, love, ageing, death and youth. Perhaps it is inevitable for a poet, at the age of 74, to have such ruminations, but McGough blends these with his characteristic mix of wordplay and punning, wit, melancholy and self-deprecation.

One poem, "Not for me a Youngman's Death", is a wry adaptation of one of his early, Dylan-esque poems about living fast and dying young. Back then, in "Let me Die a Youngman's Death", he wrote "When I'm 73/& in constant good tumour/ may I be mown down at dawn/ by a bright red sports car/ on my way home/from an allnight party."

The irony in his latter-day poem is pointed. "My nights are rarely unruly./ My days of all-night parties/are over, well and truly./ No mistresses no red sports cars…".

"I wrote "Let Me Die a Youngman's Death" in my early twenties, when I thought 'live fast and die young'. I failed on both counts! It was not long after my father had died and I must have been coping with that... it stirred up the Dylan Thomas effect. It was Carol Ann Duffy who got in touch because she was writing about older poets, and she said 'why not revisit it?'"

Though McGough's work is class-conscious, it tends not to broach openly political aspects of life. "I sometimes feel guilty about not being more political, especially when I see other poets doing it well: Tony Harrison and Adrian Mitchell are very good. I don't avoid it but I'm never shouting about it. [My] poetry insinuates, and also, I'm not angry enough."

In this collection, he was moved to write a critique on Britain's invasion of Afghanistan. "Defence" is also written in response to Larkin's 1969 poem, "Homage to a Government", about bringing troops back home. McGough's poem questions why they were sent out in the first place, and ties up the need for defending borders at home, to their return. "I saw the riots [last August] and the civil unrest going on in the country, and thought 'bring them home to deal with the unrest'."

What the collection grapples with best of all is ageing, and the now-foreign territory that is "youth". The business of ageing is accompanied by a fear of losing verbal and creative dexterity. Poems such as "Cold Calling" and "Thud" dramatise the dribbling away of creativity, and emergence of aphasia. He holds the fear of ageing at bay by keeping calm and carrying on working, perhaps even over-working. His poetry is a daily task, while he is also currently involved in a new adaptation of Moliere's The Misanthrope. "Writing keeps depression away. It's better to overwork. I'm at my desk every day, writing."

Motion, his one-time nemesis, famously spoke of his "poet laureate writer's block". Has McGough ever had the same? "No. I felt for him". If anything, McGough has the opposite problem. The poetry flows, whatever the weather. "Some people say I'm too prolific, but I don't believe in writing two good 'uns a year. I mean, what would you do for the rest of the time?"

Roger McGough's 'As Far as I Know' is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...