I haven’t done any English after 15 years, but I did French and geography. Oddly enough, did you know that Network Theater in Waterloo was doing my version of The Misanthrope last week, which is pretty exciting? At university, the French department would have considered me the student least likely to adapt Molière to the scene.
I was not very good at French, but reading Rimbaud and Baudelaire led me to poetry, and it was good. We didn’t read poetry in school for fun, but rather we “studied” it. But I liked the choral lines and the recitation of poems like “Jabberwocky” and “The charge of the light brigade”. I didn’t know any modern poetry, I didn’t know Auden, Eliot; but studying French poets was fascinating. But, when I had the chance to go to France for a year, I didn’t want to go. It sounds weird now.
After graduating from Hull, I taught at a boys’ high school in Kirkby, near Liverpool, followed by two years at a technical college where I taught French to intern cooks. They knew how to cook – I didn’t – so I learned things too. They used a Chinese: a conical-shaped colander like a Chinese hat; and the spinach dishes were called “Florentines” because a Florentine princess introduced spinach to the court of France. Then I started making things up and told them the crème brûlée was named after the Battle of Brûlée.
I retired when the scaffold [his comedy, music, and poetry trio] took off, and The sound of the Mersey has been published.
Charles Causley, Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell influenced me then, and Brian Patten is still a friend. I’ve never been musical, although I’ve worked with Jimi Hendrix, Graham Nash, Elton John, Paul McCartney. . . I was a foreigner and a lyricist, and I knew my place.
After having lived these fascinating moments, culturally and historically, I often wish I had paid more attention to them. I generally felt like the youngest person in the room to watch. And I still do, even though I’m 84.
When is a poem intended for children or adults? It’s an interesting dilemma. At one point, I realized that I had always written children’s verses, and to this day there are many poems that challenge this age classification. It’s different with stories, of course, and picture books.
I remember reading my books and stories to my kids when they were young, and I enjoyed the process – without hoping to delight or impress them, just try it out. But, if they were mean, [my wife] Hilary was shouting, “Shut up, or your father will come and read some of his poems!” “
I think the writing is from an imaginary child talking to a part of yourself. SPCK just published 100 best Christmas poems for children – a beautiful anthology of poems that I have edited; and Puffin publish my own new children’s poems: To you ! “Today, I’m writing my first poem” tells the story of a child who has to write his first poem, is fed up with him and all the rules, then finds a release and decides to be a poet. Then there are the mischievous girls, the naughty boys, Vlad the Impala: puns and funny animals.
After The Scaffold was put to bed and my first marriage was over, I moved to London. I have lived half my life here now.
Penguin released Safety in numbers in November – poems written during confinement on the realization that this year one does not go on vacation abroad, and the joys of not having to. Other poems are about death and dying, and the last time you saw someone – I didn’t realize the last time I saw my dad; stand in line, walk around. Containment has helped me appreciate the gift of creativity, its ability to keep the darkness at bay. I try to encourage people, especially young people, to embrace poetry.
I am floral dyslexic. My wife is a passionate gardener – “Smell this, look at that” – it was the same to me. But, last year I started noticing trees, and now I’m starting to see some differences, and it’s pretty good. I am more aware of nature. And it was good, to be under the Heathrow flight path, not to have the planes.
I love to read, and people come in droves (and by bikes). A lot of them ask me if I have my audio job. They buy the books; so I guess poetry means something to them.
Yes, sometimes my toes curl up when I hear poetry readings. That ‘sit and listen’ kind of thing. Its good; but not being academic, not being ing. Bed. graduate, not having the canon, I cannot be anything other than I am. When I read poetry, I’m just spreading what people already know.
Poetry once belonged to an Oxbridge elite, but now he survives on text, youtube and video. If I was young I think this is what I would do.
Poetry does a lot of things. Recently, it seems to be focused on identity: about a story, about a journey, and the more painful the better. We all have a story to tell, and sometimes the way you tell it is more important than the story.
Imagination has sometimes got me in trouble. Jon Ronson’s Culture Wars series, which just started on Radio 4, is about a poem of mine, which was banned in Virginia in 1968. Books have been burned by the Christian right-wing movement because of it. a story I wrote, published in The sound of the Mersey. But it’s a moral story: if you behave badly, there will be consequences.
You need to be careful when writing from different angles. People may think it’s your own voice, your own truth, and it may come back and bite you.
We had contentability. I was loved and brought up to think I was very lucky, even though we lived in a small terraced house with an outhouse during the Blitz. I was born in Liverpool – but, imagine it could have been Manchester! “Some people are not Catholics, you know.” “Do you have to wear glasses, Roger?” Well, you’re lucky you’re not blind. “Don’t be envious.” We learned this from religion, without a doubt, and it gives you confidence.
We weren’t told that just by wishing something to happen, it would make it come true. It does not work like that. You won’t get one hundred percent all the time, but don’t worry. Most of us are losers, looking out the window, and you don’t have to be a star. It doesn’t make you happy.
My education in the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers at St Mary’s College, Liverpool, The Alma Mater of Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Trent Alexander, was good at making us sit upright and behave. There was little time for creative thinking or the imagination. So I brought these hidden skills to life after I left.
Sometimes education is all about information, get the correct answers and continue, get rid of the adjectives. Children say things like: “The candle is crying” or “A little has fallen from the moon”. It’s nice, but they are corrected quickly: “It’s all to do with the atom”; “Go search it on Google.” But imagination is the source of creativity and wonder. Something catches your eye: follow it through the bushes, this is where you find the poem. You don’t know where it is.
I was told that God was there in the beginning, and so I believed him.
Every time we turn on the news another horror invades us. I am desperate for the children who are growing up and who are sensitive to what lies ahead. I try to be positive: don’t worry, it will get better. Please keep your fingers crossed, we can work it out.
It goes back to my childhood and to the ecclesial community. The priests were heroic and intelligent. My mother liked our priest to come to the house. They weren’t all nice and my sister told 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 lost that. The young people had religious clubs and were kind of taken over by older people, but that is gone now.
I may be naive, but I like going to mass. It’s a difficult thing to talk to people. Most of my friends aren’t religious or anti-religious: they’re just not religious, although they can go to church sometimes. It’s the aggression against her that worries me. Do not throw the baby out with the bath / feeder water.
I pray not to be naive. Give me strength, Lord. And, of course, I pray for my family and friends. Each month the list grows.
I’m never angry, really. Impatient and confused about our political leaders
I’m happiest to be halfway to a poem and realize it’s on its way – and, more importantly, he can’t wait to meet me.
I trust human ingenuity and basic goodness.
I would choose to be locked in a church with Blaise Pascal. Do you know Pascal’s bet? Alright, Blaise, can I call you Blaise? Was it a good bet? Classic! I have always been a little on his side. I’m not a gamer, but I can see it, mate.
Roger McGough was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
He reads 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 Bookstore £ 8.99); 978-0-241517352, and To you ! will be published by Puffin in March 2022.