Writers

Add to researchRoger McGough

Roger McGough

Simon Weller

Born
Liverpool, England
Genre
Children, Drama, Non-Fiction, Poetry
 
 
Biography
Award-winning poet, playwright, broadcaster and children's author Roger McGough was born on 9 November 1937 in Liverpool, England.

He was educated at St Mary's College, Crosby, Liverpool, and at Hull University. He taught at St Kevin's Comprehensive School, Kirby, and lectured at Mabel Fletcher College in Liverpool and at the Liverpool College of Art. He was a member of the pop music/poetry group 'The Scaffold' between 1963 and 1973. He made his name as one of the 'Liverpool Poets' with Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, included in The Mersey Sound: Penguin Modern Poets 10 (1967). A Fellow of John Moores University in Liverpool, he won a Cholmondeley Award in 1999 and was awarded an honorary MA from Nene College of Further Education. He was Fellow of Poetry at the University of Loughborough (1973-5), Honorary Professor at Thames Valley University (1993) and is a member of the Executive Council of the Poetry Society. He was awarded an OBE in 1997.

He has twice won the Signal Poetry Award: first in 1984 with Sky in the Pie, then again in 1999 for Bad, Bad Cats. He is also the author of a number of plays, including All the Trimmings, first performed at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1980, and The Mouthtrap, which he wrote with Brian Patten, produced at the Edinburgh Festival in 1982. He wrote the lyrics for an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows first staged in Washington, DC, in 1984, transferring to Broadway in 1995. He has written for and presented programmes on BBC Radio including 'Poetry Please' and 'Home Truths'. His film work includes Kurt, Mungo, BP and Me (1984), for which he won a BAFTA award, and he won the Royal Television Society Award for his science programme The Elements (1993).

His Collected Poems, bringing together over forty years of McGough's poetry, was published in 2003, and his live poetry album, Lively, is now out on CD.

Roger McGough's autobiography, Said and Done, was published in 2005. His latest adult poetry collection is That Awkward Age (2009).

Critical Perspective

Roger McGough has been one of Britain’s most well-loved poets since his work was included in the Penguin anthology, The Mersey Sound: Penguin Modern Poets 10, in 1967, along with the other ‘Liverpool Poets’, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. The Mersey Sound has since sold over one million copies. Of the three Liverpool Poets who came to prominence at that time, all strongly influenced by Beat poetry, McGough has had by far the most steady and continuous success, quickly becoming a household name throughout Britain. He is also prolific - he has published over 50 books of poetry for adults and children, along with numerous plays - and he has always been a very active performance poet as well as a writer.

 

McGough is known for his accessibility - his poetry reaches a wide audience and he has always been keen to stay out of the ivory tower of academia and ‘high brow’ poetry that is inaccessible to the general reader. However, as an accessible and extremely popular poet, he has always struggled with the attitude that assumes that his work is not worthy of serious literary attention. He was disappointed not to be awarded the prestigious role of Poet Laureate after the death of Ted Hughes in 1998 (it went to Andrew Motion):

 

'One of the problems is it does tend to be a certain kind of poet […] Male, for a start. Middle class. All those things. Whereas it might be interesting to have a black poet or a lady poet […] or why not a children’s poet?'

(The Guardian, 14 November, 2005)

 

McGough’s trademark is his humour, particularly his sharp comic timing. In his early works, he emphasised humour particularly strongly, for fear of being thought pretentious:

 

'If I’d written a serious poem I’d always end up making it funny, to prove to this imagined reader or listener, which would have been a fellow Liverpudlian, that I’m not better than you. It took a while to have the confidence to be serious.'

(The Guardian, 14 November, 2005)

                       

McGough’s voice has always epitomised the working-class Liverpool of his childhood: down-to-earth, unpretentious, dry, witty, ironic and sceptical. He engages in mischievous word-play, particularly that of inventing his own words or word combinations, and he mocks and subverts clichés and other overly-familiar expressions. In ‘First Day at School’, he uses this approach to convey the child’s overwhelmed and confused state of mind. The speaker is ‘A millionbillionwillion miles from home / Waiting for the bell to go (To go where?)’, while ‘glassrooms’ are ‘Whole rooms made out of glass’ and the ‘Tea-cher’ is the ‘one who makes the tea’. ‘Unlucky for Some’ is typical of McGough’s tendency to see the multiple layers and ambiguities of words, expressions and concepts, in a manner which is simultaneously humorous and insightful:

 

'What do I do for a living? Survive.
Simple as that. “God helps those
who help themselves.” That’s what the
vicar told me. So I went into
the supermarket and helped myself.
Got six months. God help those
who help themselves […]'

 

McGough thus exposes the shifting and subjective nature of ‘reality’, emphasising that there are no fixed truths or meanings, but only perceptions and interpretations. He also uses this approach in his poetry for children, particularly in ‘On and on ….’ which occurs repeatedly throughout Lucky (1993): ‘Is a bad speller / one / who casts a wicked spell? / Is a shop-lifter / a giant / who goes around lifting shops? […]’ This is not merely for entertainment value - McGough encourages children to question the world around them and not take things at face value, in the same way that he himself questions and subverts society, reality and life itself.

 

For McGough, therefore, poetry is a form of subversion, and this can be serious or humorous, or both simultaneously. In his poetry for adults, his use of humour has evolved throughout his career, and his deceptively simple, quirky and witty style incorporates all manner of serious issues and perceptive insights. Even some of the earlier works, such as Summer With Monika (1967; revised 1978) and Holiday on Death Row (1979), are acutely satirical. Geoff Sadler comments on McGough’s particular brand of satire:

 

'His writing tends more to amusement than to bitter anger, and polemics from him are few and far between, usually made from a humanitarian rather than a political standpoint.'

(Chevalier, Contemporary Poets, 1991)

 

 McGough may avoid anger and bitterness, but he does nonetheless take a sceptical approach to life, using dry humour as a way of coping with life’s inevitable disappointments. Perhaps the most apt example of this is the title of his 1999 collection, The Way Things Are. The title poem articulates the voice of a well-meaning father, pouring ‘cold water’ over his child’s imaginative questions:

 

'No, the candle is not crying, it cannot feel pain.
Even telescopes, like the rest of us, grow bored.
Bubblegum will not make the hair soft and shiny.
The duller the imagination, the faster the car.
I am your father and this is the way things are […]'

 

However, though the poem may be read as cynical, the child’s magical and subversive approach to life continues, constantly challenging the father’s limited perspective.

 

Here and there McGough addresses tragedy in his poems. One example is ‘What Happened to Dorothy’ (also from The Way Things Are), in which the careful and deliberate phrasing of the title subverts the familiar rhetorical question of ‘Whatever happened to …?’ by offering an answer, and a tragic one at that. The speaker reminisces over an old photo of himself as a page-boy at a wedding, accompanied by seven-year-old bridesmaid Dorothy. In works such as this, McGough’s deceptively light touch, dry understatement and lack of detailed elaboration give the poems acute poignancy and depth of feeling by jolting the reader:

 

'That’s Dorothy, Maid-of-Honour.
Though only three years older,
in her long white dress,
veil and floral tiara
she could be a teenager.

 

She never would be, though.'

 

The Way Things Are is one of various later works in which McGough displays a deeper compassion, with more of the humanitarian impulse which has always been present. This is not to imply that his use of sardonic humour is any less in evidence, but McGough has gradually become more confident about addressing serious issues, as he comments himself:

 

'If I do a poetry reading I want people to walk out and say they feel better for having been there - not because you’ve done a comedy performance but because you’re talking about your father dying or having young children, things that touch your soul. I hope people will feel better for it.'

(The Guardian, 14 November, 2005)

 

In 2002, McGough published Everyday Eclipses, which combines poems about his own childhood, his experiences of parenthood, nostalgia for the past and musings on death. In 1999, he had been commissioned to write a poem about the total eclipse of the sun. The result was ‘Everyday Eclipses’, which became the title of his 2002 collection. In this poem, McGough chose to examine a myriad of everyday experiences rather than the total eclipse itself - in other words, he celebrates the world of ordinary life, its trivialities and its profundity: ‘The hamburger flipped across the face of the bun / The frisbee winning the race against its own shadow.’ Ultimately, however, ‘Everyday eclipses another day’, ‘One death eclipses another death’ and ‘One birth eclipses another birth’. McGough adopts a similar focus on ordinary life in ‘Reasons for Winning’, the poem he wrote for the 2006 World Cup, in which he rouses the team to ‘Win it for the late train and the overcrowded bus / Win it for granny who can’t understand the fuss […] Win it for the ordinary man in the street […]’ Although McGough’s style has matured and developed over the years, he remains true to his roots as an accessible, down-to-earth poet who is not only in touch with the world of the commonplace and the ordinary person, but celebrates it with an unsentimental warmth and affection.

 

McGough’s Collected Poems was published in 2003, followed by his autobiography, Said and Done in 2005. He also presents Poetry Please for BBC Radio 4.

 

 

Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2008   

Bibliography

2009
That Awkward Age, Viking
2008
You Have Been Warned! A Collection of Cautionary Verse, selector; illustrated by Chris Mould, Oxford University Press
2008
The Book of Liverpool: A City in Short Fiction, contributor, Comma Press
2008
Slapstick, Puffin
2007
Poems for Bootle, Driftwood
2005
Said and Done: The Autobiography, Century
2004
Wicked Poems, editor; illustrated by Neal Layton, Bloomsbury
2003
Collected Poems, Viking
2002
What on Earth?, Puffin
2002
Moonthief, Kingfisher
2002
Good Enough to Eat, Puffin
2002
Everyday Eclipses, Viking
2002
Dotty Inventions, Francis Lincoln
1999
The Way Things Are, Viking
1999
The Big Book of Little Poems, contributor, André Deutsch
1999
Five Finger-Piglets: Poems, with Brian Patten, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy and Gareth Owen, Macmillan Children's Books
1998
The Spotted Unicorn: The Diaries of Chi Wen Tzu, editor, Viking
1998
The Ring of Words: An Anthology of Poems for Children, editor, Faber and Faber
1997
Until I Met Dudley, Frances Lincoln
1997
The Kingfisher Book of Poems about Love, editor, Kingfisher
1997
Ferens, the Gallery Cat, Ferens Art Gallery
1997
Bad, Bad Cats, Viking
1997
Another Day on Your Foot and I Would Have Died, with John Agard, Wendy Cope, Adrian Mitchell and Brian Patten, Macmillan Children's Books
1996
The Kite and Caitlin, Bodley Head
1995
The Magic Fountain, Bodley Head
1995
Stinkers Ahoy!, Viking
1995
Penguin Modern Poets 4, Liz Lochhead, Roger McGough, Sharon Olds, Penguin
1994
Pen Pals: A New Poem, Prospero Poets
1993
Lucky, Viking
1993
Another Custard Pie, Collins
1992
My Dad's a Fire-Eater, Penguin
1992
Defying Gravity, Viking
1991
You at the Back: Selected Poems, 1967-87, Cape
1991
The Lighthouse that Ran Away, Bodley Head
1991
An A-Z of the Elements, with John Emsley, Channel 4
1990
The Oxford ABC Picture Dictionary, Oxford University Press
1990
Puffin Portable Poets, with Brian Patten and Kit Wright, Puffin
1990
Pillow Talk, Viking Kestrel
1989
Selected Poems, 1967-1987, Cape
1989
Helen Highwater, Viking
1989
Counting by Numbers, Viking Kestrel
1988
An Imaginary Menagerie, Viking
1987
Worry: A Phoenix Broadsheet, no. 312, Toni Savage
1987
Nailing the Shadow, Viking
1986
The Stowaways, Viking Kestrel
1986
Noah's Ark, Dinosaur
1986
Melting into the Foreground, Viking
1986
Kingfisher Book of Comic Verse, editor, Kingfisher
1984
Crocodile Puddles, New Pyramid Press
1983
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, contributor, Norton
1983
Sky in the Pie, Viking Kestrel
1983
New Volume: The Penguin Poets, with Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, Penguin
1982
Waving at Trains, Cape
1982
The Great Smile Robbery, Viking Kestrel
1981
Strictly Private: An Anthology of Poetry, editor, Viking Kestrel
1980
Unlucky for Some, limited edition, Bernard Stone
1979
You Tell Me: Poems by Roger McGough and Michael Rosen, with Michael Rosen, Viking Kestrel
1979
Holiday on Death Row, Cape
1978
Frinck, A Life in the Day of, and Summer with Monika: Poems, Joseph
1976
Portfolio no. 3, contributor - limited edition, Steam Press
1976
Mr Noselighter, André Deutsch
1976
In the Glassroom, Cape
1974
Sporting Relations, Eyre Methuen
1973
The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse, contributor, Oxford University Press
1973
Gig, Cape
1972
Out of Sequence, limited edition, Turret Books
1971
After The Merrymaking, Cape
1969
Watchwords, Cape
1967
The Mersey Sound: Penguin Modern Poets 10, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, Penguin (revised edition 1980)
1967
The Liverpool Scene, contributor, Donald Carroll
1965
Underdog: New Poems/edited by Brian Patten, Underdog Publications

Awards

1999
Signal Poetry Award, Bad, Bad Cats
1999
Cholmondeley Award
1997
OBE
1993
Royal Television Society Award, The Elements, best film
1985
BAFTA (Best Children's Programme Documentary/Educational), Kurt, Mungo, BP and Me
1984
Signal Poetry Award, Sky in the Pie