Author and playwright Roger McGough on how growing older has changed the way he writes
PUBLISHED: 15:30 12 November 2017 | UPDATED: 11:47 25 November 2017
He's hailed as the patron saint of poetry and is one of Britain's best-loved writers for children and adults alike. We spoke to poet, performer, broadcaster, author and playwright Roger McGough, who's just turned 80.
Now and again, there are claims made for poetry being the new rock and roll. Roger’s not convinced.
“It ain’t, because in essence it’s a bit hard to pin down. Poetry is like trying to grab steam; you can see a shape but you can’t quite define it, it’s always a bit mysterious - but that’s the challenge and the attraction.
“Relax”, he laughs when I catch him mid-tour with literary festival favourites LiTTLe MACHiNe, with whom he recently visited Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre. He jokes he’s looking forward to a few weeks off to do a bit of writing because it generally comes when you’re wondering what to do, when you get a bit bored...
He feels frustrated if he’s not actually producing or writing.
“I want to have new poems to read on stage... if you’re running around, performing all the time you’re not really being a writer and I’m a writer, that’s how I earn a living.”
He doesn’t think his approach to writing has changed. When you’re young, you’re excited to put pen to paper and it flows quickly. You don’t really spend too much time thinking about it. The older you get, the more you write; the more aware you become of getting it right.
“You’re looking for new forms and you get more critical, perhaps, of the work. When you’re young it’s all about falling in and out of love. As you get older, friends are dying and you can’t not write about or be aware of what’s going on around you politically. You can’t just sit down and write a poem about daffodils without thinking about big boots trampling on them.”
His need to sit down with a pen and paper is as strong as it ever was, even though he still doesn’t know what’s going to come out at the end of it. That’s part of the excitement.
“It’s not like writing a novel or a play where you usually have a narrative idea, with a poem you let it take you where it’s going. Sometimes life gets in the way - filling b****y tax forms, the wife going ‘you’ve got to get this’ or the bins are on strike.
“Sometimes you have commissions to write and I quite like that, it’s the craft of being a writer. But then you’ve got to get back to discover what you can come up with yourself. I’ve got another kids book coming out that I want to start polishing.”
Known for his adult and child prose, one provides a relief from the other.
“I don’t think I’ll write an adult poem today, you just sit down and see what comes. If you’ve been delving into loss or aging what’s nice then is to write a poem for children about a cat or something. Poetry for children’s not just silly and funny, it can be serious as well... but that’s where the words take over rather than the ideas in a way and that’s fun. One helps the other in a way.”
Roger thinks poetry is becoming more popular than ever. Growing up it was the book, the golden treasury of verse which was often rather dull. His view didn’t change when he became a teacher.
“It’s often been neglected, it’s a poor relation (to books) in some way. People have thought ‘oh poetry’s not very important’ and it is. Sometimes teachers are a bit afraid of it because they maybe they weren’t taught very well. Sometimes children are afraid, remember those days at school when you had to write a poem and answer questions on it? Some people see chunks of words they can’t make head or tail of and retreat from it.”
While the stories may not have changed, the language used to tell them has thanks to technology and the way spoken word performances have evolved. SLAMbassadors and young poets are more appealing to today’s youth. Short poems can be tweeted or text for those with short attention spans.
They’re particularly good at getting young boys bored with books into reading. Easily digested, whether they make you laugh or think, you carry them with you and that’s a good thing argues Roger because poetry’s a way of developing your own little thoughts, worries and concerns.
When he first became a teacher, he shared his poems with kids who weren’t responding to the set text. “They’d go ‘yes the poems are alright’. It’s just finding the right poems for them.”
He never thought his poetry would be studied in schools, although he wouldn’t have been surprised had somebody suggested it. Deep down Roger knew he had some sort of gift, even if he didn’t know where it came from.
“It’s funny because I didn’t much like poetry at school. I failed English literature when I was 15 and didn’t do English in sixth form, although I quite liked English Language... when I about 18 I read some of the French poets, I liked it as an art. I wanted to paint but was talked out of it, I was told ‘the only people who did art were the ones who weren’t very good at other things’. That’s crazy.
“When I started reading and hearing poets like Christopher Logue, thinking ‘ah, you write poetry about the world around us’ and what was happening in my own little life and I found I could do it and I wasn’t afraid of doing it.”
Roger’s parents thought his career choice strange. His father respected it but didn’t see the point of poetry; dying during Roger’s teens he never saw what his son became.
The writer admits he could easily have found himself back in the classroom had he not found fame with Scaffold - who scored several hit records, including the number one Lily The Pink.
It’s a milestone year for him. Not only did he turn 80 earlier this month, 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of anthology The Mersey Sound and his epic poem Summer With Monika.
“The man who wrote them is still very much a part of me, but I wouldn’t write the same poems now. I wouldn’t change them because that was what they were at the time; I didn’t think in 50 years time they’d still be published.”
He’s been very single-minded in a way in his approach to writing, sticking to what he likes and what he’s good at rather than doing things that could’ve made more money or brought more fame. Making a living out of living on his wits has brought him a lot of satisfaction.
Roger laughs at Carol Ann Duffy dubbing him the patron saint of poetry.
“It’s nice that other poets say those things, that they give you that sort of pat on the back; particularly if you like their work. I like the idea of young poets going on their knees before they go to bed praying to me to get their poems published, that would be nice wouldn’t it? I don’t think it happens,” he laughs.