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Photography by Colin Clarke ARPS

Making sense of the world

In celebration of National Poetry Day (6th October), Sam Bennett speaks to Roger McGough ahead of his appearance at Thame Arts & Literature Festival
Photography by Will Wilkinson

"The docks were closing and there was terrible unemployment."

1967. The year of Sgt Pepper, and the year Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten’s poetry anthology, The Mersey Sound came out.

 

“Poetry had been seen as academic and belonging to universities,” Roger McGough says of how his craft was viewed prior to The Mersey Sound – now a Penguin Modern Classic. “Mersey Sound took off and became popular because it did seem like a new voice.”

A poet active in Liverpool back in the sixties, I hoped Roger hadn’t grown tired of talking about the decade, The Beatles, that scene…

“What was exciting about then was I was young,” he says. “You don’t see yourself as being in a movement, you’re just caught up in it. In retrospect you think: ‘yes, how lucky we were’.

“I went to uni,” he continues, citing himself as lucky to get in back then, given his working class background. He was the first member of his family to go.

Roger McGough appears with Little Machine at Thame Arts & Literature Festival on 12th October, 7.30pm at the Spread Eagle Hotel.

 

After leaving University of Hull, he joined the teaching profession. “I didn’t teach for long,” he says, “four years before I took early retirement. But you didn’t worry about being out of a job; you’d think: ‘I’ll go and be a teacher and if I don’t like it somewhere I’ll go and teach somewhere else.’

“There was a sense of freedom which is very difficult [to achieve] today. My kids are in their twenties and it is harder for them.

“But it’s always hard in a way, you know? People talk about the sixties; the flower power, the generation, ‘All You Need Is Love’. It all seemed to be joyous and about having a party. But in fact the reality in Liverpool at the time was the docks were closing and there was terrible unemployment.”

Talking of freedom, Roger has actually been granted the Freedom of Liverpool. “You can do whatever you want,” I joke, aware that the accolade, however honourable, isn’t quite as liberating as this.

“I can go anywhere, free taxis…it’s great,” Roger replies, before confirming the Freedom of Liverpool is really “mainly to do with sheep and cattle – of which I haven’t got many.”

I was a student in Liverpool. Whenever I go back I get a good feeling. “I’m glad,” Roger said when I told him this.

“Isn’t it funny how Liverpudlians always want people to like the city?” He says. “You don’t always get that in other cities I’ve noticed.”

Back down south, he appears at Thame Arts & Literature Festival this year, in a show with poetry band Little Machine. Not long ago, Roger by chance found himself on the same bill as them at a festival in Kingston. “I was really taken by their energy,” he recalls.

They’ve since properly teamed up, even going as far as recording a CD together. “It does feel right for me,” Roger says of the pairing. “Even though I’m not a musician I have knocked around with some very good musicians in my time. Having been used to standing on stages, often with musicians, it does seem a natural homecoming for me to work with three guys who really like my work.”

2017. The 50 year anniversary of Sgt Pepper and The Mersey Sound. It is also the year Roger McGough turns 80. With his collection Summer with Monika (another work celebrating 50 years in existence next year) being re-illustrated by the children's laureate Chris Riddell, he’s ever busy gigging and writing, with an overall aim that strikes me as pretty simple really.

“When you’re young and you write poetry you try to make sense of the world around you, and one continues to do so.”

Roger McGough and Little Machine come to Thame Arts & Literature Festival on 12th October, 7.30pm at the Spread Eagle Hotel.

- Sam Bennett

 

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