‘The secret is to outlive the critics,’ laughs Roger McGough, who, at 72, has watched his star rise dramatically in the years since first making his name as a ’60s pop poet, much derided by the literary establishment for – as they saw it – dumbing down the form. Nowadays, McGough is performing his poetry to packed houses, his work is taught widely across British schools and he’s even received a CBE from the Queen.
McGough is a busy man, so much so that we’re surprised he can spare the time to appear at EAFL this week. Talking to Time Out on the phone from his London home, he’s just about to rush off to meet his publisher, having performed to a crowd of 350 the night before. As we talk, we learn that he’s working on poems for publication in The Guardian newspaper, has just finished touring a series of plays he wrote based on the 17th century satires of Molière, and is preparing to reunite with his old band, The Scaffold, for a gig in Shanghai. And here we were, picturing him wandering lonesome among rolling hills and pontificating. McGough is no ordinary poet, it seems.
Although not just a poet, but a pop star too. Just before McGough made poetry mainstream with celebrated collection The Mersey Sound in 1967 (also featuring works by fellow Liverpool poets Adrian Henri and Brian Patten), The Scaffold scored a number one hit in the UK with their version of ‘Lily the Pink’. (McGough recorded in the same studio as Jimi Hendrix. ‘He was a very nice guy, but because I was there at the time it wasn’t like, “Ooh, there’s Jimi Hendrix.” It was just, “Oh, I know him.”’). Among The Scaffold’s members is Mike McGear, also known as Peter Michael McCartney – Paul’s brother. ‘We haven’t been on stage together for 30, 40 years,’ McGough tells us. ‘It’s very odd that after 40 years we’ve been invited to Shanghai to [play for] 15 minutes. Maybe ageing rock star is the thing to go for,’ he chuckles.
Still, McGough is best known – and loved – as a poet. It strikes us as an unconventional way to make a living, considering so few people make money from it. Did he intend his life to turn out this way? ‘No,’ comes the immediate response. ‘I didn’t want to become a poet. I just am. I always though poetry seemed quite difficult, and I’d wonder whether the poetry I was writing was in fact poetry. I remember thinking that – maybe it’s not really poetry.’
At the time, he wasn’t the only one to question his work. The established literati looked down on poetry with mass appeal, and the ‘careerists’ who produced it. Has that attitude changed? He believes so. ‘There’s a whole generation of [performance] poets now who can work with an audience and it’s not deemed unliterary or second rate,’ McGough says. Of his own poetry, he decides: ‘There was a wider audience waiting for it, for poetry they could relate to. I’ve been accused of dumbing down, but it was never that. I just wrote poetry that my family could understand and that my friends would relate to.’
McGough’s poetry is gloriously unpredictable, veering from short and sweet observations about daily life (12-line poem ‘Q’ discusses the modern condition of constant queuing) and humorous nonsense rhymes (‘to amuse emus on hot summer nights/kiwis do wee-wees from spectacular heights’), to musings on mortality (‘Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death’. ‘I go to a lot of funerals at my age,’ the poet says dryly). McGough insists there is no method to his writing. ‘You don’t quite know where they’re coming from – they surprise you, that’s the thing. It’s a little voyage of discovery.’
How much longer poets can keep going on these voyages is questionable, however. Poetry has always been on the periphery of popular literature, but now even fiction is suffering as non-fiction overtakes in the sales charts. Does McGough worry he’s a dying breed? ‘I would like to think there’s always a need for poetry because it survives fashion,’ he insists. ‘You don’t write poems for big sales, you don’t have a master. There are times in people’s lives where a poem just seems to be what they reach for – for a sense of truth.’