Roger McGough’s Summer with Monika

Roger McGough

I have been a fan of Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten ever since I came across The Mersey Sound, Penguin Modern Poets 10, in my schooldays. Published in 1967, the same year as the Beatles came out with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it had the same mixture of whimsy, youthfulness and social commentary. Like the Beatles, McGough, Henri and Patten came from Liverpool; hence the title of their anthology, The Mersey Sound. It was a bestseller and I loved it. Especially the poems Tonight at Noon and Love Is…, both by Adrian Henri.

Recently, I dipped into the Collected Poems of Roger McGough and immediately fell in love with the sequence of poems called Summer with Monika. I loved the playfulness and youthfulness, the whimsy and play with words. They reminded me of nursery rhymes and Alice in Wonderland but with bedroom scenes thrown in.

Summer with Monika
By Roger McGough

1

they say the sun shone now and again
but it wa generally cloudy
with far too much rain
they say babies were born
married couples made love
(often with eachother)
and people died
they say it was an average
                   ordinary
                   moderate
                   run of the mill
                   commongarden
                   summer
... but it wasn't

for i locked a yellowdoor
and i threw away the key
and i spent summer with monika
and monika spent summer with me

unlike everybody else
we made friends with the weather...
most days the sun called
        and sprawled
allover the place
or the wind blew in
as breezily as ever
and ran its fingers through our hair
but usually 
it was the moon that kept us company
somedays we thought about the seaside
and built sandcastles on the blankets
and paddled in the pillows
or swam in the sink
or played with the shoals of dishes
otherdays we went for long walks
and picnicked on the banks
of the settee
or just sunbathed lazily
in front of the fire
until the shilling set on the horizon
we danced a lot that summer...
bossanovaed by the bookcase
or madissoned instead
hulligullied by the oven
or twisted round the bed
at first we kept birds
in a transistor box
to sing for us
but sadly they died
we being too embraced in eachother
but it didn't really matter
because we made lovesongs with our bodies
i became the words
and she put me to music
they say it was just
                like
                anyother
                summer
... but it wasn't
for we had love and eachother
and the moon for company
when i spent summer with monika
and
monika
spent summer
with me

2

ten milk bottles standing in the hall
ten milk bottles up against the wall
next door neighbour thinks we’re dead
hasn't heard a sound he said
doesn’t know we've been in bed
the ten whole days since we were wed
noone knows and noone sees
we lovers doing as we please
but people stop and point at these
ten milk bottles a-turning into cheese
ten milk bottles standing day and night
ten different thicknesses and
different shades of white
persistent carolsingers without a note to utter
silent carolsingers a-turning into butter
now she’s run out of passion
and there's not much left in me
so maybe we’ll get up
and make a cup of tea
then people can stop wondering
what they're waiting for
those ten milk bottles a-queuing at our door
those ten milk bottles a-queuing at our door

I love the image of the ten milk bottles standing against the wall and the poet’s riff on that, about neighbours thinking the residents are dead while the newlyweds inside have a ball. The last stanza about the couple, all passions spent, finally thinking of getting up for a cup of tea is quintessentially English.

The second poem, about the newlyweds, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the summer with Monika though they are from the same sequence of poems called Summer with Monika.

McGough wrote the poems inspired by a poster of the Ingmar Bergman film, Summer with Monika, says the Guardian. I have heard of other Bergman films such as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries but not of Summer with Monika.

McGough himself wrote that article in the Guardian. He wrote it as a letter to Monika. In the letter, published in July 1967, he wrote: “Can it really be more than 50 years since I last saw you?”

He wrote:
In fact, it’s so long ago that when people ask me what Liverpool was like in the 1960s I say that it was like Hollywood-on-Mersey, with music and dancing in the streets, the sun shining every day, and everybody getting stoned and being nice to each other. A joke of course, but the 50s were so dully retrospective and conformist that things could only get better…

And do you know what else they ask? They say: Monika, was she a hippy?…

What was exciting about the 60s for me was that I was young, and there’s never a better time to be young than when you’re young. [But] The summer I wrote about was early 60s, pre-pill, pre-psychedelia, CND not LSD. As for the permissive society, it may have sashayed on to Merseyside years later, but if it ever went to parties, then it arrived just after I had left.