POET Roger McGough digs into his past with Susan Mansfield, including the bit where he was wearing Paul McCartney’s cast-offs
BACK in the 1960s, Roger McGough wrote a poem called “Let Me Die A Young Man’s Death”. “When I’m 73 …may I be mown down at dawn/by a bright red sports car/on my way home/from an all night party …” It is one of his greatest hits, a poem he still performs with relish, though the irony is not lost on him that he has made it safely to the age of 74.
In his new collection, As Far As I Know, he has written a companion piece, “Not For Me A Young Man’s Death”. “My nights are rarely unruly./My days of all-night parties/are over, well and truly./No mistresses no red sports cars…” It feels like an acceptance of the passing of time, if a slightly wistful one.
“Blame Carol Ann Duffy,” he says, genially. “She was doing an article about older poets. She said, ‘You don’t mind me including you in the older poets, do you Roger?’ She suggested I revisit ‘Let me die a young man’s death’, which I did. Poems chase after you. You write them, leave them there, and then they scuttle after you and you have to re-address them.”
McGough is a sprightly 74. He shudders at the word “retirement”. When we meet, he’s in pre-rehearsal talks about his new version of Molière’s The Misanthrope, following successful versions of Tartuffe and The Hypochondriac. In a stripey T-shirt and round green-rimmed specs, he’s still the man who Time Out once described as “doing for British poetry what champagne does for weddings”.
McGough is much loved, endlessly popular. Two generations of school children have grown up with his poems. He is the safe pair of hands appointed to the help of the Poetry Society last year to bring peace and reconciliation after six months of painful power struggles. Poet Laureate Duffy has called him “the patron saint of poetry”.
For all that he is a natural performer, the presenter of Radio 4’s Poetry Please and no stranger to television either, he is also painfully shy. He once said: “I like being on stage but I hate people looking at me.” His working-class parents sent him to elocution lessons to sort out his mumbling speech, but he still hesitates, qualifies, tails off almost to a whisper. And if you listen carefully to the whispers, they are vulnerably honest.
As Far As I Know is like that: self-effacing, unshowy, frequently funny, but with a quiet frankness. He is by turns angry, thoughtful, political. He writes about bringing the troops home, a daughter leaving on gap-year, the pleasures of looking in shop windows. He still has an inveterate love of punchlines and puns. Memory and mortality are subjects, but no more now than they have always been. While his last collection, An Awkward Age, confronted the issues of age and decline, this book looks back on life, a little wistfully. It feels as if he is reminding himself how much he has to be happy about. “Take comfort from this,” the opening poem reads. “You have a book in your hand/not a loaded gun or a parking fine/or an invitation card to the wedding/of the one you should have married/but were too selfish …”
McGough got a taste for poetry at university in Hull in the 1950s. It was an immediate conversion. “I wanted to be a poet from 18 when I wrote my first poem,” he says. “That was what I was going to be. I didn’t think I was going to make a living out of it, but it’s what you are, it’s what defines you: whatever job I get, I’ll be a poet.
“I’d had quite a repressive education, Irish Christian Brothers. A good education and I’m thankful for it but it was tough, and poetry was slightly rebellious. I did think it was a gift. I’ve always had a belief in myself as a poet, though not necessarily as a person. I sent my stuff off to Penguin.” He chuckles. “Funny, I was always quite pushy.”
When he graduated, he came home to Liverpool and got a job as a teacher. The Beatles had just gone global and the city was a hotbed, poetry readings at the Everyman, gigs at the Cavern. He fell in with Mike McCartney (Paul’s brother) and John Gorman and they formed a band called Scaffold, which went on to have hits like Lily the Pink and Thank You Very Much. McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri became the Liverpool poets.
“We were part of that generation who didn’t do national service, who went to university or art college, discovered things. Taking poetry out to people seemed like a good thing. It was seen as very middle-class and boring when I was younger, difficult and eccentric.” They, on the other hand, were Merseyside’s answer to the Beat poets. Their work was funny, irreverent, rock’n’roll.
Music played an important role. In a series of tongue-in-cheek poems, McGough casts himself as the man who advised Bob Dylan to go electric, helped Macca write the lyrics for Hey Jude, convinced a downhearted Jimi Hendrix not to give up after a difficult gig. “Probably a bit of poetic licence, is that allowed?” he grins.
But that doesn’t change the fact that he was present at all three occasions, nor the fact that he wore Macca cast-offs. “Paul had lots of clothes he used to wear in Hamburg – he would throw them away. I’d just stopped teaching, I didn’t have very much money.” A shirt and trousers now inscribed with McGough poems are in the Liverpool Museum. He didn’t wear the trousers, though. They didn’t fit.
He first came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1962, wrote and performed in a revue in a basement, slept on the steps of the National Museum with newspapers stuffed down his trousers to keep warm. Since then, he hasn’t missed a festival – this is his 50th. It was here, too, that he met the Scottish poets: Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Hamish Henderson. “I always had a great affinity with them, more than with any English equivalent, something about the music of it, and the surrealism. I went to learn from others. You used to come back inspired – and with a hangover.”
It is said that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there. But McGough does. He was, by his own admission, careful. He once said that at mass skinny-dips, he was the one who volunteered to stay back and mind the clothes. “Some people weren’t there in that sense, but they’re probably not around now. I was always slightly withdrawn, I always wished I was more indulgent. Must have been my Catholic upbringing, not being able to take advantage of all the luxuries on offer. I used to regret that,” he says, his voice tailing off.
Changing the face of poetry put him in the firing line. Critics vented their spleen at these new-fangled popularisers, refused to take him seriously. Auberon Waugh is said to have thrown a chair at him during a TV debate. “I do remember there was an incident. We were in the green room, he was nice as pie, and as soon as we went on stage he tore into me like the devil. I think he may have kicked over a chair. But he may have been acting.”
In the new collection, he writes about his detractors. “Scorpio” describes a glass paperweight on which he has written the names of 11 “fellow poets some of them, and literary critics/who have made public fools of my children”. He blames their “mistrust of popular culture, and the working class”. Not that he hasn’t forgiven them, but it still hurts.
“I wonder if I’ll live to regret that poem,” he says, dubiously. “But I have been hurt at things people have said, and I sometimes think they don’t realise it. I think people can be arrogant, hurtful, and often for reasons that you don’t quite understand. You’re never seen as a poet, you’re interesting sociologically, or you’re only doing it because you’re latching on to the Beatles, In other words, it’s not quite poetry.”
Or that you’re sentimental. McGough puts it in his own words: “a small-town Mantovani of the emotions”. In a poem called “On Sentimentality”, he owns it. “I think I am, it’s a Liverpudliean trait, an Irish trait, a Celtic trait. You can probably say that as you get a bit older.” In the poem, he says it like this: “You have been my reality over the years/Sentimentality, the smile on the verge of tears.” It’s a rather beautiful description of so much of his work
He also writes revealingly about being “bereft of ideas”. McGough is eye-wateringly profilific – he has published more than 40 books. He once said a day wasn’t a day unless he’d written a poem. He describes tapping into the muse as easily as making a phonecall. “But lately, whenever I remember to ring/the line is invariably busy. When I do get through/your voice sounds cold, distant and indistinct…” Is it get harder to write?
“No, but it’s the fear of it. With poems, you finish one and the next one is not necessarily going to be anything like the one before. Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t. You think, what if they never do, what would I do? Because I seem to be dependent on writing to keep me sane, really,” he adds, “Having to do it all the time.
“I sometimes feel very on the edge of depression, that’s why I keep writing. But I think I’m lucky, I’m aware that I’m having a good life. I want to be cheerful – I’m not a very cheery person, but it’s good to be, I want people to feel better for having read the poems.” There it is again, the smile on the face of tears.
“ ‘Let Me Die A Young Man’s Death’ is about being aware, being vital, being interested in life, not about having mistresses and snorting cocaine. It’s about always being interested in what’s going on, being child-like, I suppose. Which hopefully I still am in some ways.
“More time, more time… it’s a recurring line of mine, isn’t it? When’s enough time? I just wish I was more able to slow down and enjoy the quiet moments. I’ve always been one who says: ‘I’ll do that when I get older’. I was always going to develop a taste for classical music when I was older, travel when I was older. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Hang on Rog, when is that going to be?’ ”
And he laughs a big cackling laugh.
• As Far As I Know, by Roger McGough, is published by Viking, price £12.99
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