Roger McGough: Here comes the sun

Roger McGough has been one of Britain's most popular poets for nearly 40 years. Christina Patterson talks to him about fame, fortune and poetry infighting

The patron saint of poetry lives in a large semi-detached house in Barnes, west London. His daughter is doing her piano practice. His wife and son are downstairs, watching telly. In a glass-fronted bookcase on the landing are first editions of the books that made his name - a rare flash of cultural history in what is otherwise a comfortable, carpeted, suburban home.

The books include Summer with Monika and The Mersey Sound. The poet is Roger McGough, and the sainthood was conferred by Carol Ann Duffy. "Over 40 years ago," she proclaims on the dust-jacket of his new book, "this shy Liverpudlian asked Poetry if it was dancing. Since then we have all, readers and poets alike, come out of the hushed libraries and the solemn universities to join in the party."

It is a view echoed repeatedly in interviews and reviews: by the late Charles Causley, who hailed him as "a word-juggler who never misses a catch" and by the London listings magazine Time Out. "McGough has done for British poetry", it declared, "what champagne does for weddings." This is the poet as conjuror and catalyst: that extra ingredient thrown into the brew that sets the whole thing whizzing and fizzing.

The man who guides me up the stairs to the tiny room next to his study is an unlikely catalyst. Tall, thin, and balding, with wispy grey hair and a barely-there goatee, he is still unassuming to the point of shyness. Half a lifetime in London has, like the elocution lessons his mother paid for, failed to eliminate the Liverpool accent or slow down a speech that at times drops to an inaudible mumble. "I sometimes find chatting like this difficult," he confesses endearingly, "because you always think there are three or four alternatives every time you think of a sentence. Which word shall I use? Which one? Panic!... Writing is one way of getting it all together."

His Collected Poems (Viking, £20), published this week, is a testament to 40 years of "getting it together". Instead of the conventional approach, where the poems are set out chronologically in a way that suggests a poetic trajectory - from whimsy, say, to wisdom - he preferred to tell a story. "I just started with the idea of the life," he explains. "The very first poem in the book, 'Learning to Read', is quite a recent poem, but it's about first memories of reading. All my first books were about that early period of my life in my twenties, Summer with Monika and so on, but I don't think they're my best poems. If you want to know the chronology, it's all at the back."

The whole process was, he says, "harder than writing poems". Staying at an all-male writers' retreat in Reigate, he spent days at the snooker table, laying the poems out "like a war cabinet". A few were "laid quietly to rest", but the rest were gathered into a poetic narrative that ranges from a working-class Liverpool childhood through love gone sour to a late middle age that increasingly reflects on the looming shadow of death.

The tone is wry, quizzical, playful, often careering off into high surrealism and just as often slipping unexpectedly into a minor key that is, at times, extremely moving. In "Cinders", for example, he writes of the exquisite poignancy of second-time fatherhood: "Hunched against the wind and hobbling/ I could be mistaken for your grandfather/ And sensing this, I hold you tighter still.// Knowing that I will never see you dressed for the Ball/ Be on hand to warn you against Prince Charmings/ And the happy ever afters of pantomime."

A relatively recent poem, "The Way Things Are", a favourite at readings, is also addressed to a small child, struggling to grasp the illogicalities of the adult universe. It is trademark McGough, combining the freshness of the child's-eye view with the dying fall of the adult's hard-won wisdom: "For centuries the bullet remained quietly confident/ that the gun would be invented./ A drowning surrealist will not appreciate/ the concrete lifebelt./ No guarantee my last goodbye is au revoir,/ I am your father and this is the way things are."

Beneath the patina of humour and easy charm, there's a seam of fierce compassion: in "Hearts and Flowers" for Aunty Marge, whose "smashed jaw" ensured that she was "never courted, never kissed", or, in "War of the Roses" for an unnamed single mother whose diagnosis of a blood disease has turned her into "a pair of crossed swords/ on the medical map of her street".

The tone is matter-of-fact, understated, classic Scouse in fact, but at times the rage breaks out. "This be Another Verse" is a starkly angry response to Larkin's most famous poem: "They don't fuck you up, your mum and dad/ (Despite what Larkin says)/ It's other grown-ups, other kids/ Who, in their various ways// Die. And their dying casts a shadow/ Numbering all our days/ And we try to keep from going mad/ In multifarious ways."

Roger McGough didn't know Larkin's poetry when he went to read French and geography at Hull. He barely spoke to the poet who was warden of his college, and it was only during his year of teacher training that he finally plucked up the courage to send him some of his work. Larkin told him that he was "walking a surrealist tightrope". McGough was disappointed: "He didn't shoot straight round clutching the poems and dragging me down to London to get me published. That's the response you want!"

When fame as a poet struck, it coincided with fame as a rock star. After four years of teaching, he became lead singer with The Scaffold and was catapulted into a world of limos, adoring crowds and posh hotels. As a poet, the scene was rather more modest: jazz nights in local coffee bars and appearances at festivals, but it was the Sixties, and the city was buzzing.

In 1967 Summer with Monika came out and "Thank you very much" shot into the charts. Penguin got in touch and, with fellow Liverpool poets Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, The Mersey Sound was born. It became the biggest-selling British poetry book of all time.

"I used to like being recognised as a poet," McGough confesses. "I still do. It was always embarrassing when you were recognised as The Scaffold or because you'd been on television. People want something or think that you can be useful to them. If you're a poet, you're no good to anybody."

This is, of course, entirely untrue. While "never quite" the "patron saint of poetry" that Carol Ann Duffy suggested, he has always admitted to "a sort of missionary zeal". For most of his 40 years as a poet, he has been taking poetry into schools, a tireless ambassador for the creative spark that the curriculum so often ignores. In the adult world, too, he has continued to be a keen champion for poetry that pops up in unlikely places - poetry, indeed, for people who don't read poetry. His electrifying poetry readings are far better paid than most, but no-one pays him for the countless, thankless hours spent reading and replying to the sheaves of poems thrust into his hands after every show. Doesn't he ever get tired of being an unpaid poetry ambassador?

"No, I don't," he replies, thoughtfully. "I don't think it's onerous because it's what I do really and I think I'm quite good at it now, I'm getting the hang of it... I'm not an academic, but I do have enthusiasm for it, which I try to share with people."

The reality of the poetry world, however, continues to come as a shock. "When I started off writing," he confides , "I thought I was joining a brotherhood of poets and they were all fighting on the same side..." Instead, he found a world of petty rivalries, a world, as Cyril Connolly said, of "jackals fighting over an empty well". It is clearly a constant source of bewilderment: "Because I try to think the best of people, I always think that people think the best of me. Why shouldn't they like me? I'm nice, for God's sake, but then they start slagging me off....I've never told anybody this," he adds, "but I was going off to Death Valley some years ago and I bought a scorpion, a paperweight. I put this white piece at the bottom and anyone who gives me a bad review, I always put their name on it. And what's good about it," he adds with a grin, "is that you pick it up years later and the names mean nothing to you."

Roger McGough is caught between the envy of those who resent his success and the sneers of those who write him off as a mere entertainer. It is this which upsets him most: "'I always think it's sort of 'let's find a label for him that isn't poet': children's poet, stand-up poet, performance poet - I've been through the lot. Hopefully you are entertaining and funny, but if it wasn't for the other side, I wouldn't be doing it..."

It is poetry itself that keeps him going, poetry that "helps through the bad times", "almost like a prayer". If he does more than his fair share of the public paraphernalia, it is in the private act of writing that he finds the purest joy.

"You don't know what's going to happen at the end of it, but you know you've got it and it's very exciting. It's cleverer than you are. I've always thought," says the patron saint of poetry with a smile, "that the poetry comes from somewhere else".

The son of a docker, Roger McGough was born in Liverpool in 1937. After reading French and Geography at Hull University, he went on to teach at a comprehensive school in Kirkby, but left in 1963 to become a member of the rock/poetry group The Scaffold. He made his name as one of the Liverpool Poets, with Brian Patten and the late Adrian Henri, included in The Mersey Sound: Penguin Modern Poets 10 (1967). He was awarded an OBE in 1997.

Biography

Roger McGough has written more than 50 poetry books for adults and children including, for adults, Defying Gravity (1992), The Way Things Are (1999) and Everyday Eclipses (2002). and, for children, Sky in the Pie (1984) and Bad, Bad Cats (1999), both winners of the Signal Poetry Award. This autumn he publishes two new books for children, All the Best and The Bee's Knees, (both from Puffin), a live album, Lively and his Collected Poems (Viking, £20). He lives in Barnes with his wife, Hilary, and their two children.

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