Smile, even though we're ageing: laugh-out-loud poetry from Roger McGough
Roger McGough turns 80 next month. Yet the esteemed Liverpudlian remains the epitome of cool, a consummate performance poet, and should have been appointed laureate years ago. Why not have a poet that can make the nation laugh? God knows, we need cheering up.
It would be a shame if his age now rules him out for the laureateship, once it becomes vacant again. For at Farnham Maltings on Friday, where he appeared with the poetry to music group Little Machine, McGough appeared as wry, sharp and commanding as ever.
He is of course one third of the feted Liverpool poets who produced the bestselling anthology The Mersey Sound, which is itself celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. And, given McGough’s musical past - with the pop and comedy group Scaffold and later Grimms, a collaboration with some of the Bonzos - what better way to celebrate these 2017 milestones than to undertake a year-long, nationwide tour blending poetry with music?
It is true that the former schoolteacher who once wrote ‘Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death’ now recites poems such as ‘Payback Time’ – “O Lord, let me be a burden on my children,/ For long they’ve been a burden on me”. But although another poem, ‘Carpe Diem’, begins in a downbeat way, by the end the author is climbing into bed with his nurse. There’s still life yet in the Mersey Poet and nowadays presenter of the BBC’s Poetry, Please.
McGough massaged our funny bones with a series of short poems about eccentric relatives, and a further batch about the unsung husbands of famous women – a nod to Carol Ann Duffys’ The World’s Wife - including Mr Nightingale, Mr of Arc, and Mr Blyton. There was a sly poem about Dylan Thomas picking up lines for Under Milk Wood by eavesdropping in Brown’s Hotel. There were also three about cats, with backing from Little Machine, including the catchy and utterly true ‘The Care Less Cat’, which Scaffold might well have turned into a top ten hit back in the day.
But maybe ageing remained the underlying motif. One poem to tickle ribs, if not artificial hips, turns the weather forecast into a health forecast: “Lungs will be cloudy at first; in some parts for most of the day.” A poignant song about dementia had McGough confessing afterwards: “I think that’s a comic song, although sometimes you don’t know whether something you wrote is funny or serious.”
Some of McGough’s lines are so laugh-out-loud funny that I did just that. My laugh tends to ring out, more so as I get older. Maybe that’s bad form as a reviewer, but I don’t care. My wife doesn’t usually like poetry events, but wanted to come to this one. She remembered a debt she owed to McGough – a poem highly influenced by his early work won her publication in the school magazine. The Mersey poets – McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri – introduced so many of us to poetry, and made us believe that, somehow, we could all do it.
There is a CD accompanying this tour, showcasing the collaboration between McGough and Little Machine – Steve Halliwell, Chris Hardy, and Walter Wray – who have made great strides since I first caught their act at a Rhythm and Muse poetry and music night in Kingston in 2013. They performed some of their own numbers, including a rousing rendition of Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’, and Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’, in which they had the audience singing some of the beloved lines. A moving moment, for this old trainspotter. They concluded the evening’s performance with Byron’s ‘So We’ll Go No More a Roving’, with McGough and audience chorusing.
Concluded? Not quite. The team came back on stage for an encore, which was the old Scaffold chart-topper from the 1960s, Lily The Pink. That felt right.
Roger McGough and Little Machine are appearing together tonight (15 October) at Sherborne literary festival; 29 October at Ipswich New Wolsey theatre; 17 November at Blackheath Mycenae House; 30 November at Fareham Ashcroft Centre; 2 December at Teddington Landmark arts centre
PHOTOGRAPH: NICK WRIGHT