I’ve just found out that this is my 100th title!” chortles Roger McGough, instantly recognisable both in personal style (the gold earring, the little glasses) and by that radio-familiar voice, its soft Liverpool tones unblurred from years spent in the Smoke. “That includes all my hardback and paperback editions, but still ….”
Not bad for a working-class Northerner of Irish-Catholic origin. His new book, It Never Rains is a volume of witty light verse with his own cartoons. The squibs range from the puerile to the profound; they are thought-provoking, charming, sometimes very silly indeed, but they generally raise a smile. Who could resist a tribute to Dylan Thomas in 140 characters, or an epitaph on a medieval streaker: “Here lies Lady Godiva/ she didn’t wear a bra/ or knickers iva”.
It’s the way his mind works, he says. “I like recycling things, looking at a word and playing with it. It’s repartee, and I like being a juggler and catching people off guard. And it’s good to mix things up. I’ve got other poems about a cure for ageing and Alzheimer’s, and you don’t want to beat people into submission.”
Right from the start he followed his own “Sound Advice”: “Once you write a poem/ you must write another/ To prevent the first/ from falling over.” McGough began writing poems as a student in Hull – “pastiches of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. I didn’t do English at University – I failed it – so French brought me into literature.” He was too overawed to contact Philip Larkin at the time, though they met later: “He was very helpful.” At first he wrote “the usual teenage stuff, questioning yourself and why you’re there. Then Christopher Logue came to do a reading at uni – that was good, very political.” This changed his style. “I tried to be serious, but it took me a while. The thing about being working class, you were always wary of showing off.”
For McGough poetry was something secretive, “a way of coping, that esprit d’escalier thing. In poetry you get your own back. And you get the girl in the poem! So that was important to me.” Youthful enthusiasm led him to comical excesses. After reading the poems of John of the Cross, and mindful of Rimbaud’s notions about derangement of the senses, “I decided not to eat for three days – mortifying the flesh. I thought whatever I do, I’ll be a poet.”
McGough, Brian Patten, and Adrian Henri became famous in the 1960s as “The Liverpool Poets”, introduced in the ground-breaking anthology The Mersey Sound. Theirs were provincial, not metropolitan voices, and they matched witty, saucy language with down-to-earth subject matter, writing about music, and girls, and the welfare state. A live poetry scene grew around them. Surprisingly, considering McGough’s other incarnation as a member of the Sixties group the Scaffold, he maintains that he fell into performance poetry by accident. “I’ve got that thing where I like being on stage but I don’t like people looking at me. I was quite shy, but once I was up there ….”
The critical, as opposed to popular, reception at the time shocked him. “It was awful. People I admire, poets, saw The Mersey Sound not even as bad poetry but sort of anti-poetry. I was hurt by that. Some of the quotes: ‘Small town Mantovanis’, ‘anyone can do it’, ‘a three-headed pantomime horse’. Some people want poetry to be elitist.”
Did it feel as though he was part of a city-wide movement? “No! I mean, it was great to be there [in Liverpool], but things were going on elsewhere as well. The Sixties culture … we just got on with it. We didn’t feel part of a group, the three of us. And in any case, Brian was younger.”
At the Latitude festival this summer I heard McGough read in the packed Poetry Tent, drawing in an audience whose parents might not have been born when he performed “Lily the Pink” with Scaffold. He’s in awe of Kate Tempest and the new wave of rap poets, amazed at their ability to recite their work by heart. “Have you ever seen Scroobius Pip?” he suddenly demands. “He’s a bit aggressive though.”
More mainstream poets who he rates include Birmingham’s Liz Berry and Sheffield’s Helen Mort. McGough is the gentle, enthusiastic voice of Radio 4’s Poetry Please, always looking to mix new voices with the classics. “It’s still going well. We’ve just done a Robbie Burns one. When I was asked [to present], I really wondered whether I should take it on … ‘Do I know enough?’ But I learnt. It was a great thing to do. I just love doing poetry signings and there’s always some nice old lady saying ‘Ooh, Roger, I go to bed with you every Saturday night …’.”
Like most professional poets, he’s done his share of prize judging (“It’s hard work, isn’t it?”), corporate commissions, and residencies. “I was BT poet for a while. It was all by email really, [their staff] would send me their poems. It was just at the time a lot of their staff got the sack; so the poems were about ‘fucking BT’!”
I ask him how his poetry has changed over the years. “It’s better. Oh, it’s much, much better,” he jokes, going on more seriously: “For some people the best poems are written when they’re young; when you get older you get reactionary and lose the gift. Obviously you try to fight all that. You reflect what goes on round you, and what’s happening in the world. Sometimes you wish you could do more… talking about Isis [the extremist jihadi group] and stuff. Where are the poems?” There’s no point treating poetry “like an adolescent axe: save the world”. Although McGough has recently been commissioned to write about global warming.
He pulls a face when I ask how he feels about commissions. “They’re good, because they make me write things I wouldn’t do otherwise. But you write the poem, and it’s never the poem they want. Often they ask you to redo it, and they’re paying, so you have to.” A case in point was a poem commissioned for the 2012 London Olympics. He discovered there are words he couldn’t use, because they belong to the International Olympic Committee. Little things like “Olympics”, “Gold” and “Silver”. “Get on with it!”
But poets have a tendency to get the last word. “I eventually wrote about a runner who couldn’t finish a race; in other words, a poem about not being able to write a poem, which they didn’t understand, so that was fine.”Reuse content