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Interview: Roger McGough, poet, playwright, broadcaster

10 December 2021

‘I’m happiest being halfway through a poem and realising that it’s looking forward to meeting me’

Allan Melia

I didn’t do any English after 15, but I did French and Geography. Fun­nily enough, did you know Network Theatre at Waterloo were doing my version of The Misanthrope last week, which is rather exciting? At university, the French department would have regarded me as the student least likely to adapt Molière for the stage.

I wasn’t very good at French langu­age,
but reading Rimbaud and Baudelaire took me on to poetry, and that was good. We didn’t read poetry at school for pleasure, but rather we “studied” it. But I enjoyed choral verse and reciting poems like “Jabberwocky” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. I didn’t know any modern poetry, didn’t know Auden, Eliot; but studying French poets was exciting. But, when I had the chance to go to France for a year, I didn’t want to go. That seems weird, now.

After graduating from Hull, I taught in a boys’ comprehensive in Kirkby outside Liverpool,
followed by two years in a technical college teaching catering French to trainee chefs. They knew how to cook — I didn’t — so I learned things, too. They were using a chinois: a conical-shaped colander like a Chinaman’s hat; and spinach dishes were called “Florentine” because a Florentine prin­­cess introduced spinach to the French court. Then I started to make things up, and told them that crème brûlée was named after the Battle of Brûlée.

I retired when the Scaffold [his comedy, music, and poetry trio] took off,
and The Mersey Sound was published.

Charles Causley, Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell, influenced me then,
and Brian Patten’s still a friend. I was never musical, though I worked with Jimi Hendrix, Graham Nash, Elton John, Paul McCartney. . . I was an outsider and lyricist, and knew my place.

Having lived through those exciting times, culturally and historically, I often wish I’d taken more notice.
I usually felt I was the youngest per­son in the room, looking on. And I still do, even though I’m 84.

When is a poem for children or an adult?
It’s an interesting dilemma. At some point, I realised that I’d al­­ways been writing verse for children, and, to this day, many poems defy that age classification. It is different with stories, of course, and illu­strated books.

I remember reading my books and stories to my kids when they were young, and enjoying the process
— not hoping to delight or impress them, just trying it out. But, if they were naughty, [my wife] Hilary would shout: “Keep quiet, or your dad’ll come up and read some of his poems!”

I think the writing comes from an imagined child talking to part of yourself.
SPCK just published 100 Best Christmas Poems for Children — a lovely anthology of poems I edited; and Puffin are publishing my own new poems for children: Over to You! “Today I’m writing my first poem” is about a child having to write his first poem, getting fed up with it and all the rules, then finding a release, and deciding to be a poet. Then there are mischievous girls, naughty boys, Vlad the Impala: wordplay stuff and funny animals.

After The Scaffold had been put to bed,
and my first marriage was over, I moved to London. I’ve lived half my life here now.

Penguin published Safety in Numbers in November —
poems written dur­ing the lockdown about realising that, this year, we’re not going on holiday abroad, and the joys of not having to. Other poems are about death and dying, and the last time you see someone — I didn’t realise the last time I saw my father; queu­ing up, taking a walk. The lockdown helped me appreciate the gift of creativity, its ability to keep darkness at bay. I do try and en­­courage peo­ple, the young in particular, to em­­brace poetry.

I’m florally dyslexic.
My wife’s a keen gardener — “Smell this, look at that” — it was all the same to me. But, last year, I started to notice trees, and now I’m starting to see differences, and it’s pretty good. I’m more aware of nature. And it was good, being under the Heathrow flightpath, not getting the planes.

I love doing the readings, and people come along in their droves (and on their bicycles).
A lot of them ask if I have my work on audio. They buy the books; so I suppose poetry’s telling them something.

Yes, sometimes my toes curl up when I hear poetry readings.
That “sit up and listen” sort of thing. It’s all right; but not being academic, not being an Eng. Lit. graduate, not having the canon, I can’t be something other than I am. When I’m reading poetry, I’m just spreading what people already know.

Once, poetry belonged to an Oxbridge elite,
but now it survives on text, YouTube, and video. If I was young, I expect that’s what I’d be doing.

Poetry does lots of things.
Recently, it seems to be identity-led: about a narrative, a journey, and the more painful the better. We all have a story to tell, and sometimes how you tell it is more important than the story.

Imagination’s got me into trouble, sometimes.
Jon Ronson’s series about culture wars, just started on Radio 4, talks about one of my poems, which was banned in Virginia in 1968. Books were burned by the Christian Right movement over a story I wrote, published in The Mersey Sound. But it’s a moral tale: if you misbehave, there will be consequences.

You have to be careful when you’re writing from different perspectives.
People can think it’s your own voice, your own truth, and it can come back and bite you.

We had contentability.
I was loved, and brought up to think I was very lucky, even though we were living in a small terraced house with an outside toilet during the Blitz. I was born in Liverpool — but, imagine, it might have been Manchester! “Some people aren’t Catholics, you know.” “You’ve got to wear glasses, Roger? Well, you’re lucky you’re not blind.” “Don’t be envious.” We learnt that from religion, no doubt, and it gives you confidence.

We weren’t told that just by wishing something would come true, that would make it come true.
It doesn’t work like that. You’re not going to get a hundred per cent all the time, but don’t worry about it. Most of us are losers, gazing out of the window, and you don’t have to be a star. It doesn’t make you happy.

My education at the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers at St Mary’s College, in Liverpool,
Alma Mater of Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Trent Alexander, was good at making us sit up straight and behave. There was little time for creative thought or imagination. So I brought these hidden skills to life after I’d left.

Sometimes, education is all about information,
getting answers right, and getting on, getting rid of the adjectives. Children say things like: “The candle’s crying,” or “A bit’s fallen off the moon.” It’s lovely, but they’re corrected quickly: “It’s all to do with the atomics”; “Go and Google it.” But imagination is the source of creativity and wonder. Something catches your eye: follow it into the bushes — that’s where you find the poem. You don’t know where it is.

I was told that God was there at the beginning,
and so I believed it.

Every time we switch on the news, another horror’s pushed on us.
I’m desperate for the children growing up who are sensitive to what’s lying in wait. I’m trying to be positive: don’t worry, it will get better. Please, fingers crossed, we can get through this.

It goes back to my childhood and the church community.
The priests were heroic and intelligent. My mother loved our priest coming round to the house. They weren’t all kind, and my sister would tell a different story. Catholic friends have bad stories to tell. But they were pillars of the community; the Church was there to help; and we’ve lost that. Young people had church clubs and were sort of looked after by older people, but that’s gone now.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I like going to mass.
It’s a hard thing to talk about with people. Most of my friends aren’t religious or anti-religious: they’re just not religious, though they might go to church sometimes. It’s the aggression agin it that worries me. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater/manger.

I pray that I’m not being naïve.
Give me strength, Lord. And, of course, I pray for my family and friends. Each month the list grows longer.

I’m never angry, really.
Impatient and confused about our political leaders

I’m happiest being halfway through a poem and realising that it’s on its way
— and, more importantly, it’s looking forward to meeting me.

I trust in human ingenuity and basic goodness.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Blaise Pascal.
You know Pascal’s wager? Well, all right, Blaise — may I call you Blaise? Was it a good bet? Classic! I’ve always been a bit on his side. I’m not a gambling man, but I can see that, mate.

Roger McGough was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He is reading a poem a day on the SPCK website during Advent.

Safety in Numbers by Roger McGough is published by Penguin at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-241517352, and Over to You! will be published by Puffin in March 2022.

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