HOW WE MET: ROGER McGOUGH AND BRIAN PATTEN

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The Independent Culture
The poet Roger McGough, 58, was born in Liverpool. In the 1960s he played with The Scaffold, whose hits included "Lily-the-Pink". His latest poetry collection, Sporting Relations, is published next month. He has four children and lives in London with his second wife. Brian Patten, 50, also born in Liverpool, published his first book of poetry at 19. With Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, he contributed to the influential 1967 anthology, The Mersey Sound. His latest collection is Armada. Unmarried, he lives in west London

ROGER McGOUGH: It was in Liverpool we met. I'd been away to university in Hull and was back and had a job at the technical college as an assistant lecturer in catering French. A dream job. By day I was the good teacher in a corduroy jacket and by night, poet and beatnik. I'd carry this blue canvas bag and change into my jeans.

I remember being in a place called Streate's, a club - I'd become one of the regulars reading there. Somebody introduced me to Brian, saying he was writing a piece about us for the Bootle Times. I didn't really believe that he was a journalist. He looked too young and was very Scouse and scruffy.

He was very intense and had these poems with him. That's never changed - he always has poems with him. I was impressed by him. There were a lot of poseurs around at the time, wanting to be poets and doing a lot of pretend poetry, but you could tell Brian had talent. It was young man's poetry - Tennysonian - but it had this fire.

We wanted poetry to be exciting and accessible. We felt poetry was terribly important and that we were fighting some sort of battle. Poetry had always seemed to be London-based and middle class. Probably that sense of mission has always remained the same.

I was 22 and had my own friends of a similar age. Brian seemed a young guy and had his crowd. I became a bit of a big brother to him. I did feel protective towards him. We had very different backgrounds. My father worked on the docks. It was a good, Catholic, caring background. My parents were the sort who devoted their lives to our education and they got me to grammar school and university. Whereas Brian had had this awful deprived background. It was obvious he had suffered. He was scarred for life and this affected the man he became. If Brian was ever out of order, there was always a reason for it. He was always a bit of a loner and in a way still is. There's something of the cat in him.

I thought Brian was a fine poet. I liked his sincerity and energy. But we didn't go off together in those days, he was just one of the group. He was then publishing a magazine called Underdog and I contributed some poems.

I stayed on in Liverpool. It was the time when Liverpool was full of journalists finding out who were going to be the next Beatles. I was with The Scaffold in 1962 and 1963. We performed poetry and comedy in different clubs. We went on television and had some local success.

When I was with The Scaffold and was working in cabaret clubs, I envied Brian's single-mindedness in just going along the poetry road. Brian left and went to live in Winchester and then travelled, which I admired him for. I couldn't quite understand why he didn't hang around in Liverpool. There was a sense of his not wanting to be part of it all and of his not quite fitting in. He must have been a bit jealous of me being on the television and all that, I suppose. I would have been if it had been the other way round.

Then Brian went to live in London and when I broke up with my first wife I used to stay with him. Our friendship became more personal than before.

When The Scaffold broke up we started doing shows with some other friends from the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. We called ourselves Grimms. Brian and Adrian Henri were there. It was poetry, rock'n'roll, comedy. At that time Brian didn't like doing sketches, felt very gauche about singing as part of a group.

Brian has always had this wild side. We did a show, not long after the anthology The Mersey Sound was published in 1967, and Brian took his clothes off and streaked across the stage while Adrian was reading. He's impulsive, that's one of the things I like. I try to be accommodating, see the best in people. Sometimes I find Brian won't do this; won't put up with things, in quite a good way, I think. I find myself being put upon and wondering, "What would Brian do in this situation?"

Brian is quite tough. Often women will have misconstrued him as someone to be mothered; perceived Brian as soft and romantic. I used to think, if there was a fight, Brian would be good to have on my side. But then I'd think, if there was a fight, it would probably have been Brian who'd have started it.

But he has mellowed over the years. There are only a few men I could talk to about my personal life. Brian is one of them. We knew quite early on in our friendship that, whoever died first, the other would be there at his grave side. You don't think that about everyone.

BRIAN PATTEN: I met Roger at about 8pm on Thursday 2 November 1961. I can be that precise because I've got some old diaries of the time. I was in a basement club, a coffee bar called Streate's which I visited after seeing an advert in the Liverpool Echo that said, "Meet Pete the Beat at Streate's". I was 15. I'd only just left school.

I went to the club and it was quite amazing and strange. It was dark and beatniky and in a very run-down neighbourhood of tall houses. People were experimenting with weird substances.

I can't really remember how Roger and I got talking. He was a poet and I was writing poetry and was very interested to meet other poets. We were both excited by and obsessional about poetry. He showed me a cutting he'd kept from a Scottish newspaper, which impressed me. He'd been up in Edinburgh and had taken part in some poetry-readings.

Roger is about nine years older than me. That seemed a lot in those days. He was dressed in black trousers, black polo-neck sweater - he looked very cool. When we met I think Roger was teaching geography. I'd just got a job on the Bootle Times.

About four days after we met at Streate's, we did a poetry-reading together with Adrian Henri in a place called Hope Hall - now the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. We kept meeting from that point on, as part of a group. My friends were maybe more into drugs and being wild than Roger's were. I was a bit of a tearaway.

Eventually we began seeking each other out. I was organising a lot of poetry-readings in various clubs and bars in Liverpool. I also published some of Roger's first poetry. I started a magazine called Underdog when I was 16. It began as a Xeroxed page and then it was printed on a little hand press. Various friends would sell them around pubs or put them in odd bookshops.

I liked Roger's quick wit. I remember a question and answer session after a poetry-reading. Somebody asked him what his greatest regret was, and, really quick, Roger said, "Putting the central heating boiler in the attic rather than in the kitchen." He is one of the most witty and accessible poets in the country. There are so many of his poems I really love. Often I can remember them when he has forgotten them. Some of his best poems are both incredibly funny and poignant. He still worries about being taken seriously, though.

At the time of The Scaffold I was trying to avoid being bracketed as a Liverpool poet, which is quite absurd looking back on it. So I buggered off to Winchester, a nice place to commit mind suicide, very existential. When I was there I saw Roger seldom. We kept up and occasionally we'd do readings. In the 1970s I moved to London and Roger came down. Then we started seeing a lot more of each other.

We built a close friendship many years ago and it stayed. Nowadays we'll meet up and have a drink or go to the Chelsea Arts Club. We are very different poets and seldom discuss new poems unless we're doing a tightly structured reading together. We don't have deep, meaningful discussions about poetry.

Over the years, our April Fool's jokes have spread, so that the whole year became April. One time, one of Roger's jokes backfired. He found the world's most disgusting pair of underpants in a hotel bedroom and wrote me an angry letter, pretending to be from the hotel manager, saying that the chambermaid had fainted when she found them. He sent the letter and the underpants to me. But as I'd just moved house, he got the street number wrong and I never received them.

I've calmed down over the years. Roger hasn't changed very much. He has always been living with women. Since I've known him, there haven't been more than a few times when he hasn't been in a domestic situation. That's unlike me.

Both of us have had periods of unhappiness when we have been able to confide in each other, but it's very rare. It's hard to argue with Roger. There's no point. The idea that he might be wrong is quite inconceivable. And he absolutely hates confrontation.

More and more I've admired Roger's religious commitment. He could as easily have become a priest as a poet. He told me that as a kid instead of playing cowboys he dressed up as a priest and heard confession. His hands are how I imagine a priest's hands: delicate, slim and useful for blessings. I've been very useful to him over the years: without me the priest in him wouldn't have had half as much chance to practise tolerance.!

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