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McGough: poet and plagiarist?

Jenny Lewis was pleased when Roger McGough praised her poem at a masterclass. Then she discovered he had borrowed her idea.
Earlier this year some children were chanting a poem in a school playground in west London. They couldn't quite remember the words, and were using the poem's rigid linguistic scaffolding to invent their own. It so happened that they were overheard by Sian Hughes, the Poetry Society's education development officer, who decided on the spot that a poem which so evidently seduced schoolchildren would be an ideal teaching aid. She duly applied to Roger McGough, its author, for permission to publish it in the National Poetry Day teacher's pack of comic verse.

McGough revealed that the poem, which was called "In Case of Fire", borrowed a technical innovation from a poet he met when teaching a course in Yorkshire. The poem is a simple rondeau in which the last word of each line is echoed in the next line until the poem loops back on itself to repeat the first line. The booklet was published and sent round to 30,000 schools at the end of last term. Under "In Case of Fire", which opened the collection, was the following acknowledgement: "This poem was inspired by Jenny Lewis, one of my students at Lumb Bank."

Last month, Jenny Lewis received her copy of the booklet, which is mailed to all members of the Poetry Society, and immediately wrote to Hughes to complain that her "idea and approach had been appropriated without proper acknowledgement". Hughes advised her that her best course was to vent her grievance in an article for Poetry News.

This she has done, in an issue published later this month. But who reads Poetry News, apart from poets? In the build-up to National Poetry Day on 8 October, its subscribers are hugely outnumbered by the schoolchildren all over the country currently beavering away at their own versions of "In Case of Fire". Despite the coy acknowledgement printed under the poem, they are unlikely to have seen the original "In Case of Fire", nor heard of its author. And yet without it, one of the most widely recited poems in McGough's entire career would never have been written. He admits he was inspired by it, but at what point does inspiration shade into plagiarism?

One thing we must make clear. This is not another Jeffrey Archer scenario. Archer once judged a short story competition, only to duplicate many features of the winning entrant in a story of his own. Jenny Lewis granted McGough permission to publish his poem. "That was where I really made my big mistake," she says. "I thought, `God, he must be a bit hard up for ideas'. But I was very flattered, because he was famous. My groupie tendency came out."

Lewis wrote "In Case of Fire" in 1994. She was 50 at the time, and had been describing herself as a poet for five or six years. "For one of the exercises, we were asked to write a list poem. I couldn't think of an inspiration and just before we had to go and read these poems I noticed the fire regulations in the room: `in case of fire, break glass'. In 10 minutes, I quickly wrote a poem. The assembled group thought it was pretty funny and original." It was included in a booklet brought out at the end of the course, and subsequently published in an anthology by Iron Press, Lewis's own publisher.

"I thought no more about it," recalls Lewis, "until a couple of months later I had a letter from Roger McGough, including a poem based on my poem, called `In Case of Fire' and using the same linguistic structure but tightening it all up a bit. In the letter, he said how much he had liked and that he thought it was so clever and good, and would I mind if he published it? I asked my publisher for advice and he said, `Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Why not? But on condition that he gives you a credit alongside the poem if it's published'."

In the event, the poem was not published. But it was widely recited at poetry readings, and even broadcast on the World Service. Lewis was leading a multi-media poetry event one week in Dorchester when McGough did a poetry reading in the town. "A lot of my students went and he read "In Case of Fire' without giving me a credit. So my students had all thought I'd based mine on his. They said, `Aaah, you cunning thing, we know where you got that idea now'. I was just so angry. I just thought it was very off."

McGough declined to be interviewed for this article. But Lewis recalls that when she wrote to him expressing her dismay, he did phone back immediately. "He said, `I'm sorry, Jenny luv, these things happen and there's nothing you can do about it. It would be impossible to give you a credit every time I read it'. I said `Why?' rather weakly. He said, `That's just the way it is'."

That also seems to be the view of the Poetry Society. "I don't think he should be expected to credit Jenny Lewis every time he reads it," says Sian Hughes. "When he goes into print he puts a tag on it." Hughes argues that, by the same process of intellectual hand-me-down, in time McGough will also forfeit ownership of the poem. "I've just invited 30,000 schools to all copy it. They are not going to thank Roger McGough and Jenny Lewis every time they print the results. If one of them turns out to be the Poet Laureate in 30 years time and his first poem ever was the one he wrote at school based on Roger McGough's, does that mean he's stolen it?"

Jenny Lewis's concern remains that "In Case of Fire" has opened many more doors for McGough than it has for her. "He hardly needs more doors opening." Lewis, however, is currently doing a BA in English at Oxford, with the intention of teaching creative writing at university level. "It's very important to me to establish my credibility as a poet, a teacher and an innovative writer," she says. "National Poetry Day is a huge marketing exercise, so all the poets that are in that book are going to have a huge boost. He probably thinks it's so petty that it's not worth even bothering about. But that's where the inequity comes in."

Her line is that "writers publishing other people's ideas as their own is only acceptable if the originator of the poem, or style of poem, is widely known themselves". Lewis is not widely known. But Sian Hughes feels that this is unfair on the better known poets, whose work is endlessly cannibalised. "I don't know a single workshop exercise where we don't all sit down and steal somebody else's structure. That's how you learn how to do it. It just seems a bit mean that they're not allowed to do it back."

Lewis's one remaining hope is that she can enshrine her authorship of the innovation by naming it, in the same way that Edward Lear named the limerick and Dr Spooner patented the spoonerism. Mimicking the structure of the poem, she proposes to take the last and first syllables of her first and last names, and therefore call it a "ferlew". In the case of ferlew, beware any imitation.


Roger McGough

In case of FIRE break glass

In case of GLASS fill with water

In case of WATER wear heavy boots

In case of HEAVY BOOTS assume foetal position

In case of FOETAL POSITION loosen clothing

In case of CLOTHING avoid nudist beach

In case of NUDIST BEACH keep sand out of eyes

In case of EYES close curtains

In case of CURTAINS switch on light

In case of LIGHT embrace truth

In case of TRUTH spread word

In case of WORD keep mum

In case of MUM open arms

In case of ARMS lay down gun

In case of GUN, fire

In case of FIRE break glass


Jenny Lewis

In case of fire, break glass

In case of water, lift glass

In case of wine, lift several glasses

In case of lips, find their owner before kissing

In case of kissing, do not attempt on dangerous curves

In case of dangerous curves, avoid those belonging to your neighbour's


In case of your neighbour's wife, do not lay on a wet undercoat

In case of a wet undercoat, hang out to dry with crooked politicians

In case of crooked politicians, switch off power and ask them to leave

the House

In case of leaving the house, please let the rats go first

In case of rats, cover with hundreds and thousands, grill lightly

and serve with Worcester Sauce

In case of Worcester Sauce, note the unusual spelling making the

word appear different to what it seems

In case of things appearing different to what they seem, stay very still

and do nothing

In case of doing nothing about frequently reported faults, light blue touch

paper and retire

In case of retiring, curl up with the mature person's guide to the Kama

Sutra by a roaring fire

In case of fire, break glass.