Roger McGough, who’ll be introducing his new collection It Never Rains at this month’s Oldham’s Bookmark Festival, a week-long celebration of all things literary in the borough, admits to being surprised on discovering that the book is his 100th title.
“Which doesn’t exactly mean I’ve written 100, because you have to register paperbacks, hardbacks separately and so on,” he clarifies with a chuckle. “But, yes, it’s 100 titles. I thought ‘hey, I must be a writer then’. You couldn’t have 100 books otherwise, could you?”
It’s a typically self-deprecating thing for McGough to say, even though he has been dubbed “the patron saint of poetry” by Carol Ann Duffy and, as the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ever-popular Poetry Please, he’s quite literally the voice of poetry to millions of listeners. There’s a pretty good chance that he’s one of the few working poets that the person in the street could name as such.
Despite the BAFTAs, the CBE for services to literature, the hanging out with Hendrix, Dylan and The Beatles, and even a number one single (Lily The Pink, recorded as a member of The Scaffold alongside John Gorman and Mike McCartney, or “McGear” as he called himself back then), there remains a lingering feeling that one of this country’s most distinctive and best-loved poetic voices still smarts at the snobbish way his work has been treated by the literary establishment – perhaps precisely because of its popular success.
Even back when the 1967 landmark Penguin poetry collection The Mersey Sound turned McGough and his fellow Liverpool poets Brian Patten and the late Adrian Henri into something akin to pop stars, he felt like a bit of an outsider.
“We mistrusted what we were in it for, thinking maybe it was because of The Beatles or something,” he remembers.
“You were hurt at times when you read the things people say about your work. Obviously not everyone is going to like something you publish. But sometimes I felt that there was something else going on, that what the Liverpool poets used to suffer from, in a sense, was a sort of alienation from what people deemed poetry should be. There was a class thing about it, I believe, in that Adrian, Brian and I were regarded as interesting sociologically but nothing too serious. I remember us being dubbed ‘the three-headed pantomime horse from Liverpool’ and we were accused of things that they wouldn’t say about a lot of other people, implying other poets could have done this ‘sleight of hand’ and ‘playing to the gallery’ if they wanted to but they couldn’t be bothered. It felt as if you were being accused of doing it for other reasons than just writing what it was you wanted to write.”
He readily acknowledges that, quite early on, the “humour came in as a defence thing, in case people thought I was getting above myself or getting too serious. The comedy was there to pull the poem away from you at the end. But I don’t think audiences would come back if you were only going for the easy laugh. You have to express vulnerability, too.
“My poems had to be accessible and entertaining rather than difficult.
“Maybe I am being overly sensitive about it but when I started off as a young man I’d thought there was a sort of brotherhood of poetry, all helping each other to achieve this goal of making poetry accessible worldwide. But not at all.”
Let nobody be under the impression, though, that McGough is any sort of a ‘moaning minnie’. It’s been my experience that time spent in his company, whether it’s an interview, a live gig or just a casual chat, involves an awful lot of laughing and all-round silliness.
The fun and silliness is very much to the fore in It Never Rains, a collection of short, broadly comic pieces, expanded and revised from his The State Of Poetry collection with the addition of his own drawings.
“That had been a small book that came out and sold at 50p,” says McGough. “I liked the idea of that, because I had a lot of small poems anyway. Then I wrote a lot more in a similar vein and with the drawings as well, I thought it would be something I’d enjoy again. I always liked drawing, although I know what I can do and they can only really work in a certain sort of book, rather than the sorts of things they like to have when I do a children’s book. They’re more like the sort of little surreal jokes you might find in a Spike Milligan or John Hegley book really.”
One of the most striking and funny short poems in the collection, some of which are only a few words long, is @thomasdylan LOL, based on a request from the Western Mail newspaper to write “what Dylan Thomas means to me in 140 characters – bringing him into the modern era in the form of a text”. I shall refrain here from giving away the rather good gag but McGough assures me it was a genuine commission “and I was very pleased to have done that, although Dylan himself would have thrown his hands up in despair, wouldn’t he?”
Commissions “are always odd”, he agrees, but chooses to regard them, for the most part, as an intriguing challenge.
“There are some nice ones, like one I’ve done recently for Oxfam, but with a commission, as you would imagine, you’re often writing for a committee, who rarely agree. I know there are some poets, and many I admire, who would never go near a commission of that nature but I don’t mind doing them, not least as they can test the technical skills you like to think you’ve acquired over the years.”
The worst one, he laughs, was one he was commissioned to do for Freeview about the London Olympics, making poems from tweets that viewers sent in.
“One problem was that the tweets weren’t that good really. But, worse than that, as they weren’t one of the sponsors of the Olympics, I wasn’t allowed to use the words ‘Olympics’ or ‘Games’, even the words ‘bronze’, ‘silver’ or ‘gold’. That sort of extraordinary corporate fascism, trying to control the language like that, really pissed me off. It would be like being asked to compose a poem called Daffodils and set in the Lake District but being told that you couldn’t use the word ‘yellow’ or ‘clouds’ or ‘flowers’.”
Not at all like the glorious chaos of the 60s, then, when a group of lads from Liverpool could take the world by storm – and The Beatles could emerge too?
“John [Lennon] was at school with my first wife, so he was around the flat a lot. So was Paul [McCartney]. I envied them because they looked good and they were starting to earn money. It does seem like a weird dream in retrospect, doesn’t it?” he laughs. “But it was good fun, although we never really knew what we were doing. I’m not nostalgic for it, but as Scaffold, we’d go up to Edinburgh and write the show on the way up there. So the opening night was like a rehearsal and by the time we’d been there a couple of weeks we were getting it right. Of course, people do it the other way around now.”
Which is not to say he doesn’t take his live performances seriously.
“It’s not a matter of reaching for the book and then off I go on the train,” he insists. “I enjoy it but I’ll stop doing it when I haven’t got new poems to recite.
“But I’m always writing and I do revisit old poems, in fact, and rewrite them to make them better. Or I find out that an old poem which seemed to be just hanging out there on its own, if rewritten a bit would fit with this other one, that it’s really about something else.
“So it’s an ongoing thing for me and it’s always exciting trying that out in front of an audience. Is it about ageing or about youth? Is it funny or not?
“It’s not about standing in front of an audience to get applause, it’s about the poems, always letting them do the talking.”
By Kevin Bourke
Images by Colin Clarke and Luke Archer
Bookmark Festival in Oldham opens on April 18, 2015 and runs until April 25, 2015. Roger McGough is at Oldham Coliseum on April 20 at 7pm. Northern Soul’s very own Cathy Crabb joins Gerry Potter and the Open Voice Choir for The North, North Collide on April 18, 7pm at Oldham Library. Click here for more details.