At 83, Roger McGough is our much-loved ‘patron saint of poetry’ (according to Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate). This year, he confronted the dark times of COVID with a new volume of poems called Safety in Numbers: ‘Safety in numbers? Not any more/ The room starts to fill/ I’m out of the door.’
It’s five decades since McGough arrived on everyone’s bookshelves with The Mersey Sound, the 1967 Penguin anthology of three witty young poets from Liverpool – Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and Roger McGough.
Roger was the nicest and best connected: as one of The Scaffold, along with John Gorman and Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear, he had a number-one hit with Lily the Pink in 1968.
How we enjoy his humour, aphorisms (Tomorrow Has Your Name on It is full of sound advice), fantasies (admen ‘turn[ing] the moon into a Coca-Cola sign’) and arch puns. My favourite is Icarus Allsorts, a satirical anti-war poem.
His verse memoirs about his childhood, as a docker’s son who won a scholarship to St Mary’s College, Crosby, are poignant; his poems about modern life are fierce. He sits in the armchair by the nation’s hearth, presenting Radio 4’s Poetry Please. McGough has clear-eyed, unsentimental views of approaching old age. ‘Let me die a young man’s death’ was his original sentiment; later he updated this to ‘Not for me a young man’s death.’
He is repelled by metal and unimpressed by speed. On capital punishment, he says, ‘I live in the capital and it’s punishment.’