Roger McGough: I did that DNA heritage thing and found out I'm 70 per cent Irish
Dubbed by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy the 'patron saint of poetry', Roger McGough will be in Armagh in a few weeks to impart some of his worldly wisdom at the John O'Connor Writing School. He told Jane Hardy about knowing Philip Larkin and The Beatles, his Belfast roots... and that summer with Monika
ROGER McGough remains a cool dude at the age of 80. The prolific Mersey poet turned Radio Four literary expert is a member of a band called Little Machine (“We played alongside Fairport Convention”), still eschews capital letters and sounds very young. Down the line from a leafy part of south London, he laughs at this description.
But is poetry still cool, I ask. He says: “Yes, it's like acting without a stage. Although it all seemed fairly academic to me at the start, apart from the Beat poets. I was part of that early 60s generation that went to university or art college and came out with ideas above their station.”
McGough's alma mater happened to be Hull University, Philip Larkin was chief librarian and also warden of his hall of residence.
“I did see him around, but I was 17, he was a lot older and my voice was even younger then. I'm not sure I would even have known what to say to him but it made me realise you didn't have to be dead to be a poet.”
Nonetheless, McGough did send the great man some of his poems and received an encouraging response. “So blame him…”
The man described by friend and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy as the “patron saint of poetry” – not least because he presents Radio Four's popular long-running show Poetry Please – is coming to Armagh in November to spread the word about the importance of poetic form, and how to produce it, at the John O'Connor Writing School and Festival.
The question you have to ask is, can creative writing actually be taught?
“It can be passed on, I think, although education now is about information, not imagination. But young people like the performance poet Kate Tempest, are doing it, and it works.”
He starts his poems in longhand, then moves to a computer. McGough's forthcoming collection, Joinedupwriting, examines his identity with trademark wit. One of the poems is called The Full English. He explains the irony, saying: “I did that DNA heritage thing and found out I am 70 per cent Irish, not surprisingly, and 16 per cent English.”
McGough has family links to Northern Ireland. "The last time I was in Belfast I ended up staying in the Europa Hotel. I was looking for my grandfather's road; he was a McGough, my grandmother was a McGarry. Funnily enough, he was brought up in the road next to the hotel and my grandmother came from the next street but one.”
McGough's popularity ensures he remains constantly in print. In the show he's also bringing to Armagh, As Far as I Know, he dips into his back catalogue. One of his seminal works, a long poem entitled Summer With Monika (1967) was reissued on its 50th anniversary with quirky line drawings by political cartoonist and children's writer Chris Riddell. It recounts with the uncut raunchiness of youth a summer affair when “I spent the summer with Monika/and she spent the summer with me”.
Glorious details abound, like the way the milk bottles collect outside the flat as the couple stay in bed. Asked about the inspiration for what is in effect a courtly love poem, McGough says gentlemen don't tell, adding: “It was one of a series of love poems I wrote when I saw a poster for an Ingmar Bergman film showing a girl by a lake, this Monika with a k.”
Yet Roger McGough, like the other Mersey poets, is also a political writer.
“I couldn't have written about Trump when I was 21 but you can't not talk about him now. Looking back at the 60s, the age of Aquarius, flower power, it seems idealistic and a lifetime ago. But poetry can take the bull or the bullet by the horns, and I remember writing about the situation in Cyprus.”
McGough found his vocation in the groovy decade although he had already found his voice.
“I discovered I had an aptitude for light verse at university, doing funny and political poems for the magazine that wasn't full of Latin verse.”
He and the other Mersey poets emerged from the literary and music scene of the time. McGough says now he feels they're slightly misunderstood: “Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and I adopted Londoner Adrian Mitchell. We're often seen as anti-establishment but we were never anti anything or anyone. We just wanted to become another kind of poet, not the London Review of Books kind.”
They succeeded, magnificently. The Mersey Sound, their first anthology, sold over half a million copies and introduced fans to puns and sauciness and a kind of pop sensibility. McGough's poem At Lunchtime, A Story of Love riffs on the possibility of persuading a woman to shed inhibitions on the bus because of the threat of nuclear war. He hopes the idea spreads and it ends: “people pretended that the world was coming / To an end at lunchtime. / It still hasn't. / Although in a way it has”.
Later on, McGough became a pop star when he joined The Scaffold. Lily the Pink, their bouncy version of a trad folk song, spent four weeks at number one in 1968. The band were even managed by The Beatles' producer Brian Epstein and McGough knew the Fab Four. But he insists that music wasn't his real job. “It was the place and the time, good fun but a sideline.”
Unsurprisingly, McGough's four children have followed his lead. “All of them are working in writing in a way, via television and so on. If I'd been their age now, so would I. But when I was growing up, you were supposed to be a teacher or a priest. I attended the Christian Brother's School on Merseyside which was, like other schools, rugged. It made you go undercover. You didn't think about writing or even journalism. I thought I couldn't be a journalist – I wasn't clever enough; I was working class.”
These days the president of the Poetry Society enjoys touring, going into schools, spreading the word. Married to Hilary, a former science producer, he lives near the Thames. Yet the veteran poet admits it can still be tough getting the right words in the right order.
“I've been working on a poem for three bloody days called Gone but Not Forgotten. I hope it will all make sense.”
He doesn't wear his trademark spectacles now as he's had his eyesight corrected surgically. “I've also grown a beard. I don't mind being recognised and it's good to be celebrated but I'd rather not be a celebrity.”
You'll know the voice, though.
:: On Friday November 2 at 7pm Roger McGough presents As Far As I Know at the Charlemont Arms Hotel, Armagh, and will give a poetry industry talk as part of the John O'Connor Writing School on November 3 at 11am. For more details see thejohnoconnorwritingschool.com or call 028 3752 1800