Poetry centre stage as Roger McGough returns to Belfast
Called ‘Liverpool's own poet laureate', Roger McGough captured the voice and mood of a generation as one of the Mersey Sound poets. He tells Joanne Sweeney that his upcoming Belfast reading is ‘coming back to the land of his fathers'
THE last time that poet Roger McGough, revered as 'the patron saint of poetry' by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, performed in Belfast, he got caught up in a disturbing episode.
The performance poet, broadcaster, author and playwright was going to a reading with Brian Patten, one of his fellow Liverpool poets who personified the Mersey Sound generation, and although he can't remember where it was, what happened left its impression on him.
"We were going to read at a school hall – it was some community event, I think – and Brian and I were walking on a lovely spring evening across a park garden towards this place. Suddenly, there was gunfire from a Mini that tore up behind us and fired at a barracks," he recalls of the visit, which took place during the 1970s at the height of the Troubles.
"There were people walking towards the reading and they just jumped off the path to get out of the way. There was no explosion or anything like that and afterwards it was like nothing had happened. The people just got up and walked into the gig, saying 'That's life here'. We thought, 'Bloody hell'. It was quite amazing really."
His reading at the 18th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival marquee in Belfast on Saturday afternoon should hopefully be much less frightening; poetry fans will be treated to a selection of the considerable body of work from McGough, who has dominated British poetry for over 50 years.
When we spoke he was looking forward to his gig, saying: "I've been invited so many times over the years and have never been able to do it, so Belfast means a lot to me really.”
McGough is a former member of pop band The Scaffold, which had a number one hit with the rousing drinking song Lily The Pink in 1968, and another hit in Thank You Very Much, probably best known as the song from Cadbury's Roses ads.
He played in the band with Paul McCartney's brother Mike and, for a time, moved in the same circles as The Beatles, who he knew as mates, along with some of the biggest names in pop and rock at that time.
"One minute I was a 24-year-old French teacher, the next I was a member of The Scaffold, performing comic songs, sketches and poetry. Brian Epstein was our manager," he told The Telegraph in 2013. "It was exciting hanging out with Keith Moon and Jimi Hendrix, but I wasn’t cut out for the promiscuity of rock n roll."
His infectious humour and love of the absurd also led him to writing the voice-over on The Beatles' hit Yellow Submarine.
However, apart from his pop sojourn, he is better known for his accessible poetry, which captured the mood of young people living in Liverpool in the 1960s-70s who were heavily influenced by music and culture from America, particularly the Beat poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.
His love and talent for poetry became apparent during his student days at the University of Hull, where he finally picked up the courage to show some of his work to Philip Larkin, who worked as a librarian there.
McGough has since contributed enormously to the canon of 20th century English poetry, popularising it in much the same way that Seamus Heaney did for Irish poetry, and making the path easier for a new generation of performance poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah.
He was awarded his OBE for services to poetry in 1997, a CBE last year, and was recently honoured with the Freedom of the City of Liverpool. McGough twice won of the Signal Award for best children’s poetry book and is a recipient of the Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors.
This is a year with several major milestones for the poet, who turns 80 in November. It's the 50th anniversary of the now Penguin Classic anthology, The Mersey Sound, which featured his poems along with poems by Brian Patten and the late Adrian Henri, a collection that has sold more than 500,000 copies.
His epic poem of love and lust Summer With Monika is being republished with illustrations by Chris Riddell and Penguin is publishing 80 of his children's poems in a New and Selected Poems collection later this year, with plans to publish 80 of his 'adult poems' next year.
Despite his advanced years he continues to present the popular BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please, and is touring around the UK for the rest of the year. He's also hosting a sold-out homage to The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, performed by The Bootleg Beatles with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Liverpool on May 31, 50 years to the day after the album was released.
McGough is looking forward to reading in Belfast, which he describes as "coming back to the land of my fathers" – his maternal grandfather William McGarry left the city to look for work in England.
"Some of my poems are set in Belfast, such as The Identification, and a lot of poems are about the Irish part of me and about my family," he said. "I'm from a large Irish Catholic family – there were seven in my father's family and 13 in my mother's – I was taught at a Christian Brothers school, and remember some of the songs that we used to sing were even about the IRA, so it was all there," he says.
"But at the same time, we were the sort of family that didn't refer much back to it. My father was Roger, his brothers called William, John and Frank, there were no Seamuses or Patricks, so we kept our heads down and got on with it because we were very aware of it [our Irish heritage].
"It left me not wanting to bring attention to yourself, yet part of what I do is to quietly bring attention to myself. I like being on stage but I don't like people looking at me."
:: Roger McGough will be reading at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival marquee on Saturday at 2pm. Ticket are £14 and available from www.cqaf.com