Roger McGough The ‘People’s Poet’ – Part one

By John Cornelius

Hastings Independent Press has in a short space of time acquired a formidable reputation for acute arts coverage. John Cornelius has reviewed live performances and books on its Literature pages including work by Pete Brown, Kate Tempest, Clive James, Desmond Morris, John Cooper Clarke, Christie Watson, Roger McGough, Spencer Leigh and Mike Evans.

Here we publish (in two parts) John’s exclusive interview with ‘people’s poet’ Roger McGough.

Roger McGough 
PICTURE: supplied by Roger McGough 

Razor-sharp poet and wit Roger McGough first made his mark well over fifty years ago as a member of Scaffold, a three-man satirical poetry/comedy/performance group comprised of Roger, John Gorman and Mike ‘McGear’ – a futile name change as everyone knew that Mike was Paul McCartney’s brother. Roger had strong associations with the Beatles: he once lent John Lennon two shillings and never got it back. It still rankles. Roger was also once detailed to show the young Bob Dylan around Liverpool after a gig there but got no further than the bar at the Blue  Angel club.

Although their credentials were artsy and theatrical, Scaffold achieved chart success with comedy numbers like ‘Thank U Very Much’ and ‘Lily the Pink’, a reworked version of an old army song which reached Number 1 on the pop charts in 1968. While his Scaffold colleagues seem to have faded from the public eye, Roger has stayed at the forefront as that rare thing, a popular, successful poet who is also respected and indeed loved by fellow poets. He presents Radio 4’s Poetry Please and has published countless books and collections, including his latest, Joinedupwriting (reviewed here in issue 126). Although a born-and-bred scouser, Roger has lived in West London for many years.

JC:  You [and I for that matter] hail originally from an unromantic part of north Liverpool, famously dismissed as a miserable dump by First World War poet and novelist Robert Graves who was barracked there during his army days. Your dad was a docker and you did some holiday work down at the docks. The dockers all had nicknames: a light-fingered chap who cracked open crates of goods ‘by mistake’ was known as the Diesel, because he would say, “Dese’ll do for me Mam and dese’ll do for our kid.” Another fellow was called Guy Fawkes because he came on site every morning and said, “This place wants blowing up.” Do you think that the accident of birth taking place in Liverpool was a help or a hindrance? I think you once said that associations with the Beatles and the pop world was initially an advantage but that later it cost you some literary credibility.

RM: Had I been born and brought up in Hastings for instance, would I still have become a poet? Certainly, but a different kind of poet I assume. I had no cultural ambitions growing up, but I was surrounded by jokers, punsters and shaggy dog story tellers. I couldn’t compete at the time, but wordplay was to become part of my skill-set as a writer. Publishing the anthology with Brian Patten and Adrian Henri in the mid-sixties coincided with the rise of Beatlemania, and the fact that the publisher added the title The Mersey Sound to what would have been Penguin Modern Poets no.10 was a successful marketing ploy. However, Brian and I felt uneasy about the association.

JC:   John Gorman was a very funny guy. Yoko Ono was doing one of her performances at the Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool, wrapping herself round and round in bandages and toilet paper (as you do) while tied to a chair. Gorman called out, “Yoko, you’re wanted on the phone!” Mike was –  let’s be honest – the only one of the three of you who could sing in tune. Although personally I liked the album of sea shanties Scaffold recorded, especially the lovely Liverpool Lou, the group went through a disastrous phase of playing working men’s clubs and tacky nightspots. Do you still recall those days in horror or was it all grist to the mill, trying to be heard above the clatter and crash of pint glasses and the clucking of chickens-in-a-basket?

RM: The BBC television show The Scaffold Live at the Talk of the Town, transmitted in 1969, was well received by the public and could have led to a series, but we failed to impress the powers-that-be who considered us too wacky and irreverent (with a distinct lack of Oxbridgeness.) As you say, there followed the cabaret circuit, but to be fair, they weren’t ‘tacky nightspots’. The punters who flocked to the Fiesta, Stockton-on Tees and the Dolce Vita, Sheffield for instance, were dressed to the nines and very welcoming. Surreal perhaps, but not a painful experience. 

Sketch by John Cornelius

JC:  You brought out a straight prose autobiography for Century books about 12 years ago I think. Was it hard work, sustaining prose over a full-length book? Or did you take to it OK? I always thought your ‘Complete Poems’ retrospective collection amounted to an autobiography, almost accidentally.

RM: I actually enjoyed writing Said and Done. I received a commission from Random House which bought me the time to concentrate on delving into a past, real or imagined. In many ways it’s a prose poem, although normally when starting a poem I don’t know how it’s going to end, with the memoir I knew it was going to end in 2004. I worked on it for fourteen months and wrote 103,352 words if anybody is interested. 

JC:  The ‘Pop Poet’ tag brought yourself and Adrian Henri in particular a lot of sneering from the poetry establishment. Fellow traveller Brian Patten avoided it all to a large extent by escaping south early on and establishing himself in ‘respectable’ literary circles. You’ve pulled through all that, partly due to sheer staying power and outliving your critics. Good trick, that!  Although you’ve received a couple of gongs, a lot of people must wonder why you’ve never been made Poet Laureate, unlike Adrian’s protégée, Carol Ann Duffy, who I recall pulling pints in Peter Kavanagh’s pub, a.k.a. The Grapes, in Liverpool 8. Have you been overlooked, or, like Ben Zephaniah, have you turned it down? Andrew Motion said he became intellectually paralysed after being made Laureate and couldn’t write anything. I suspect it’s like getting a first class university degree – it makes your family proud but is ultimately meaningless when you’re faced with the blank sheet of paper. Any thoughts?

RM: I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down and assume that I have been regarded as ‘not serious enough.’

Read part two of this HIP profile here

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