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.
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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