Roger McGough (left) talking to Damian Grant at the Cambridge Seminar 2007
How did a strap-wielding physics teacher affect Roger McGough’s earliest experience of poetry? What was it like to be at the helm of Liverpool’s influential poetry scene in the 1960s? And how did it feel to perform on Top of the Pops with a Number One hit single? At the 2007 Cambridge Seminar Roger engaged in a lively conversation with the British Council’s Senior Literature Consultant, Jonathan Barker, about his rise to becoming one of the UK’s most celebrated living poets.
Having published his autobiography Said and Done and over 40 years’ worth of his poetry in the book Collected Works, Roger fittingly opened the session with a quick reflection of the decade where it all began:
“I wish I had kept a journal in the ‘60s. What was Reg Dwight - before he became Elton John - wearing at The Scaffold recording sessions when he was a backing singer? What did Bob Dylan actually say that night in the Adelphi Hotel? Did I really have a threesome with Marianne Faithfull and Julie Christie, or was I just dreaming? (Just dreaming.) Did Keith Moon and I jump fully clothed into the pool on his 21st birthday? Did John Lennon ever give me back the half-crown he took off the table in Thelma's flat in Princes Avenue? Questions, questions - and I don't have the answers. As Adrian Henri once remarked, plucking a scintilla of nostalgia from his paint-stained beard, ‘If I'd have known that I was living in one of the most exciting periods of recent history, I'd have taken more notice.’”
In the ‘60s the United States had San Francisco, but Britain had Liverpool. At the time, Allen Ginsberg called Liverpool ‘the centre of the universe’. You were very much part of that scene. Can you talk us through what your background to becoming a poet was like and how you experienced the ‘60s? There certainly aren’t many poets who’ve been at Number One in the singles hit parade.
It was strange. I’d grown up in Liverpool with a working-class, Irish-Catholic background. Men of my father’s generation worked on the docks, but I was amongst the first of that post-war generation for whom education was available – I got a scholarship to go to grammar school, and then a university degree. At university I did French and Geography (so I quickly learnt where the capital of France was).
Although I benefited from having an education, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. With my sort of working-class background there wasn’t much encouragement for you if you wanted to do anything within the arts. For instance, I was always told: “What’s the point of drawing? What’s the point of poetry? What’s the point of art? They’re nice things but they won’t put bread on the table. Get a proper job.”
And so I went into teaching while continuing to write poetry. I certainly didn’t enjoy poetry myself when I was at school. In retrospect, it was taught by teachers who probably weren’t interested in poetry themselves. It was in the curriculum so we just had to do it. In fact, the only teacher who did interest me was a man called Brother Ryan (I was taught by an Irish-Catholic teaching order). He terrified us. He used to hit us with a strap when we were naughty. And if you were good you’d still get the strap… He taught physics, and when he came into the classroom he’d talk about physics for a while and then suddenly say: “Ah, to hell with it! Physics: who needs it? What you need is poetry.” And he’d start reciting poetry to the class. He could recite poems by Yeats from the top of his head. When he finished he’d just carry on with the lesson. In a funny way, the poetry from that lesson was more important to us than the poetry from the English lesson – even though the words of Yeats went right over our heads.
Years later when I became a teacher in Liverpool the children were given the same old books that I’d been taught with at school. At the time, I was also writing my own poems – about Liverpool, my grandmother, funny things - so I started to feed the children my own poems instead, not knowing whether they were any good. But the kids loved them. I thought to myself, “Maybe I am a poet. Maybe this is the audience.” My work as a teacher went on for four years, and ever since I’ve been on the run.
During this period I had met a few other people in Liverpool who were also writing poetry, like Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. The city’s poetry scene grew from there. The Beatles had already caused a burgeoning of popular music in Liverpool, and so the city had become not quite the centre of the universe, but certainly a focus of great media interest. The media caught onto our public poetry readings too, and our first poetry book was published 40 years ago this month [July 2007], called The Mersey Sound. It caught the public’s imagination. Prior to that, I think the public believed that poetry belonged to the elite in Oxford, Cambridge or London.
Also, Mike McCartney, John Gorman and I formed the band The Scaffold. Together we did poetry readings and wrote sketches based on comedy and political satire. Brian Epstein became our manager, and we also worked with Mike’s brother, Paul [The Beatle]. The next thing we knew we were making records and had hit singles with Thank U Very Much and Lily the Pink. That was very strange – all of a sudden we were musicians and performing on Top of the Pops. A lot of critics at the time thought that you couldn’t be a serious poet if you were writing pop songs as well. It was a question of the divide between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. I didn’t see it as a problem. Sometimes I was doing Top of the Pops in a white suit, singing and playing guitar, and then rushing off to do Late Night Line Up and talking with people like Yehudi Menuhin about intellectual topics.
You once said that The Scaffold was taken over by a sense of ‘creeping professionalism’.
Yes, because at first we happily combined poetry, comedy, satire and music in our act and we were very popular with students and Edinburgh Festival-goers. Once we had the hits with Thank U Very Much and Lily the Pink [the latter reached the Number One spot in 1968], the white suit suddenly became a sort of trademark and we were doing the cabaret circuit, always accompanied by a band. Our act became less about poetry and comedy and more about music. We were caught up in a treadmill. It all became very silly.
There was an influential LP at the time, The Incredible New Liverpool Scene [Roger appeared on the record alongside Adrian Henri and the guitarist Andy Roberts]. Having poets reading their own works on an LP was a new way of bringing poetry to the people, and it must’ve done a lot to increase the popularity of contemporary poetry.
Yes, I think it did. Also, the book The Mersey Sound sold over a million copies, which is a lot for a poetry book. It was popular with students and I think it helped to make poetry ‘cool’.
The Mersey Sound actually became one of the bestselling poetry anthologies of all time. It was part of a wonderful series of books called The Penguin Modern Poets, and each book featured the works of three selected poets. Two of these books were really popular: number four, which featured Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and number 10, which featured Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and you. I remember visiting friends’ flats at that time and seeing that they all owned the LP and those two books.
We really should pay homage to you and your generation of poets from Liverpool who in fact started the scene as we know it today. Nowadays you can easily find poetry readings taking place in towns and cities all over the UK - we take it for granted that there’s a live poetry scene in this country. There was once a time when a poetry reading was something that took place around a grand piano with a vase of flowers on it.
Yes, I remember going to poetry readings like that myself where sometimes the poets were actually quite condescending to those who had come to listen to the poetry, and they wouldn’t come properly prepared.
We treated our poetry readings like a piece of theatre, and I suppose we made use of our experience of performing with The Scaffold, too – getting used to standing on stage, speaking into a microphone, working out exactly what we were going to say beforehand and timing our pieces to make sure they didn’t go on for too long. We’d also vary the performance content so that we included light-hearted things with more serious stuff, as well as using music. Our public performances were greatly influenced by those that had taken place in San Francisco by Beat poets such as Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso. Poetry had never been associated with music or theatre before, but our generation was concerned with taking it out of the library and bringing it to the people.
* Roger McGough's profile page on the Contemporary Writers website
* McGough, Roger: Collected Poems (Penguin, 2003)
* McGough, Roger: Said and Done (Century, 2005)