Roger McGough heads to the seaside

He’s from Liverpool, lives in London and has just brought smiles to Gloucestershire, but Suffolk is looming large in the life of ‘the patron saint of poetry’. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

POET Roger McGough is just back from a few days at the Cheltenham Literature Festival – an opportunity to catch up with other writers and old friends. He had two sessions timetabled, drawing on his A-to-Z collection of poems about animals real and made-up: An Imaginary Menagerie. (Think of an anaconda in a Honda, and a handy catapillow.) He joked about how one reading was earmarked for “schoolchildren” and the other for “children and families”. Where did one group end and the other begin? he’d pondered, waking up at 3.30am in a panic and wondering how to make the shows different. “So I decided to wear different jackets. That should do it.”

It’s McGough in a nutshell: humorous, impish, unpretentious, displaying perfect timing, as dry as the summer of 1976, and definitely – definitely – gently poking fun at himself lest anyone thinks he’s showing off.

Festivals such as Cheltenham always present good opportunities to road-test new work, he says. Did he try anything in Gloucestershire that he might bring to Suffolk this week, when he’s here for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival?

“Ooh! Ah! You’ve reminded me. Visualiser!”

Come again?

“It’s an overhead projector thing, but not quite. It’s back projection: you’re able to face the audience and draw illustrations. I used it for the kids’ show, where I was drawing these pictures, and it was great. It’s reminded me: I must ask and see if they can get me one at Aldeburgh.”

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Roger is the big-name adult who will share the spotlight with the winners of the young poets competition at the opening event on Friday, November 4. He has a couple of slots on the Saturday, too.

Coincidentally, his adaptation of Moli�re’s satirical comedy Tartuffe has just been at The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich – part of an English Touring Theatre autumn excursion.

Was it daunting to be tinkering with the most famous work of the 17th Century French playwright? – the tale of a hypocrite who feigns virtue.

“I was given all the freedom in the world, really. I was a bit in awe of it, but I had to get over that. What I did was get a direct prose translation. Then I had the French as well, to which I referred.”

The poet was actually on a Saga cruise ship, as the “poet in captivity” for a couple of weeks, as he applied himself to Tartuffe. “When I started, I really thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but, in fact, once I gave voice to the characters it all came tumbling out. I did it, actually, not quite but almost in one sitting.”

Scenes were emailed from ship to Liverpool, so director-to-be Gemma Bodinetz could view progress. Roger says his dispatches were sent “with my heart in my mouth – or my stomach in my mouth, as we were in the Bay of Biscay at the time – but she said ‘Yeah, you’ve got it. Can’t wait for the next scene.’ So I went bang, bang, bang; right through.” There are some delicious lines. When merchant’s daughter Mariane learns she is an intended bride for the shyster, she says: “Than be ‘tartouffed’ by that two-faced actor/I’d rather remain virgo intacta.”

“What Gemma is very good at is making them (the cast) play it for real,” says Roger. “There’s an awful rhyme – sovereign and bothering – but if you play it straight it’s OK. You don’t play it for the laughs, but it makes the whole thing sing along.” The poet acknowledges there have been darker adaptations, but people seem to be enjoying his “take”, and the intrinsic messages are intact.

Accessibility (that clunky but useful word) is important to him. Denser kinds of poetry, he realises, can alienate many potential readers and listeners. They find it boring, “and, to be honest, I’ve been to many readings myself which I’ve found boring. It’s getting the right sort of poems to people at the right time”.

Roger’s actually optimistic about the form. He’s convinced it meets a need in many people, and suspects it could come into its own as a form of communication during these tough times of austerity. “It’s a way of people expressing their feelings. It can be amusing, it can be direct, it can be very off-the-wall.”

One of the keys is exposing children to the spoken word, rather than expecting the magic to simply leap off the printed page – particularly if some of the language is a bit tricky.

“Too often, in schools, poetry is taught by teachers who perhaps never liked poetry at school themselves, and they’re a bit afraid of it; or they’re afraid of doing anything contemporary and modern because it can’t be ‘marked’, so they tend to go to a book with the old standards, in a sense. It takes courage to choose contemporary poetry and take a chance, and try out stuff with children and encourage them.”

At school, he himself enjoyed reciting poetry, and choral verse and drama. “I didn’t understand some of the poetry – Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Verse; Milton and Donne and so forth. Went over my head. So I didn’t do it beyond 15.

“I failed English, so I didn’t do it at university or anything. Maybe not a bad thing: doing other things – French and geography. When I started to write poetry at 18 – I didn’t start till late – I didn’t have that fear of making a fool of myself. I didn’t have to show it to any lecturers or my contemporaries. I didn’t have that English academic background.”

So what started him off?

“I always say things like ‘listening to a recording of (Dylan Thomas’s poetic radio drama) Under Milk Wood’. I remember Christopher Logue coming to uni when I was 18. Also, I started writing short stories and pastiches of the French poets I was reading then.”

There was an impulse to write. “Certainly the aural thing, listening, was important to me, but I didn’t know I was going to ‘be a poet’. The poetry I was writing was really for myself.”

Publication came not in a poetry magazine, “which I thought was a bit high-brow”, but in the university newspaper. His work often commented on the politics of the day or life within the corridors of academe.

“I’d always thought poetry had to be huge . . . metaphysical . . . and so on. I thought ‘Well, I can’t do that. Maybe what I’m doing isn’t poetry . . .’ It was only in my first teaching job – I was teaching boys in a comprehensive in Liverpool – that I started to use my own poems with them, because they couldn’t fathom poems from the golden treasury of verse either.

“My poems worked with them, and I realised that, being parochial, there ain’t nothing wrong with that, if that means talking to the people around you. Have confidence in yourself that you don’t have to be obscure.”

His work often has a serious and poignant underlying point, but it’s dressed in down-to-earth language and covers universal concerns. Poems talk about hamburgers and Frisbees, laundrettes and contact lenses, late trains and packed buses.

Speaking of the passage of time, Roger will be 74 the week after his appearance in Aldeburgh. Poem Pay-back Time talks about an elderly person hoping his children will give their old dad (or mum, I suppose) as much attention in their dotage as the children received while young. Does he worry about the advancing years?

“A lot of the recent poems have been about ageing – your friends dying; that sort of stuff. You try not to dwell on it. (There’s) the children and grandchildren – and I’m busy, touchwood. It’s your health, I think, more than age. You can be young and ill, and that’s horrible.”

He does fret a bit, still, about “performing” – despite being on stage hundreds of times. “I’m not a natural performer.” There’s a good quip: Favourite journey? From the centre-stage mic to the dressing room!

Roger most likes playing with words in his head and writing – the done-in-private aspect of a poet’s life. He does recognise, though, a need for warmth from an audience.

“When I put a show together, I do tend to go for poems that will entertain, or be comic – to make them laugh, because them going out happy, that’s important to me. But I will always put in the serious ones.”

Back in the 1960s, he was one of the zeitgeisty Mersey Sound poets. With Mike McCartney (brother of Paul) and John Gorman he formed the pop group The Scaffold, which topped the charts in 1968 with Lily the Pink. Roger also worked on the script of The Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine.

Do people often want to talk about those heady days?

“It does come up. If I do a question-and-answer thing, often it’ll be less about the syllabic content of a poem than ‘How many records did you make?’” he laughs.

Does that grate?

“No. No, no, no. But I’m always aware that young people in the audience won’t know what I’m talking about! You have to explain ‘I was the Bruce Springsteen of my youth.’”

Perhaps Tinie Tempah would be a more modern analogy . . . “Yes. You have to keep updating it. OK. ‘We were a cross between Oasis and the Cheeky Girls,’ then!”

• Aldeburgh Poetry Festival details:

Roger and out

• Born 1937, in Liverpool

• Son of a docker

• Studied at University of Hull

• Worked as a teacher and lecturer back in Liverpool

• In company with fellow poets Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, his work was popularised in the bestselling Mersey Sound poetry collection in 1967

• Has also written for theatre, film and TV

• Has published more than 50 books of poetry for adults and children

• Described by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy as ‘the patron saint of poetry’

• Awarded OBE for services to poetry in 1997

• CBE followed in 2008, as did the Freedom of Liverpool

• Presents Poetry Please on BBC Radio 4

• Father of four

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