The enduring appeal of Roger McGough

Roger McGough, who stands a chance of being voted Britain’s favourite poet, has another claim to fame. He was a  member of the band, The Scaffold, that topped the BBC Top 20 chart with the hit single, Lily The Pink, in 1968. The trio also included Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear (real name Mike McCartney), and John Gorman.

McGough is the curly-haired, bespectacled one who sings solo the the verse beginning “Jennifer Eccles had terrible freckles” at the end of the first minute in this video.

McGough, with fellow Liverpool poets Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, also wrote the biggest-selling collection of postwar English poems. Their Penguin anthology, The Mersey Sound, has sold more copies than any other postwar poetry collection, says the Guardian. First published in 1967, it has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. I loved it at first sight and have written about it before (here and here).

Now McGough is one of the 30 poets BBC website visitors can vote for in the poll to choose Britain’s favourite poet. The shortlist prepared by a panel of judges includes:

The current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Milton, John Donne, William Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Kipling, Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, and the late poet laureates John Betjeman and Ted Hughes. (Visit the BBC Poetry Season site to read some of their poems.)

But not on the shortlist is the previous poet laureate Andrew Motion.

That’s only poetic justice, McGough might say.

He can’t forget the former poet laureate did not include him in The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry, published in 1982.

McGough told the Guardian:

When Motion and Morrison edited the Penguin Book of British Poetry, we were totally omitted…Those years when Motion was editor of Poetry Review, and Craig Raine was poetry editor at Faber … I felt we were always in the position of having to defend ourselves. We got cheesed off at being referred to as small-town Mantovanis, or the pop brigade. I suppose because we didn’t do English at university, or because the poetry I was writing could be appreciated by my mother or my aunties. It came out of a sort of naivety.

By “we”, he meant the Liverpool poets: Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and himself.

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Poetry reading web site

Anyone in the mood to hear poetry readings should explore Poetry Archive. It contains recordings of poets reading their own poems. It’s a virtual who’s who of modern English and American poetry, ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Roger McGough. I even heard a scratchy recording of Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Immigrants anywhere might appreciate Margaret Atwood’s The Immigrants. As an Indian, and a Hindu, I could easily relate to Sujata Bhatta reading her poem, A Different History:

Great Pan is not dead;
he simply emigrated
to India.
Here, the gods roam freely,
disguised as snakes or monkeys;
every tree is sacred
and it is a sin
to be rude to a book.
It is a sin to shove a book aside
with your foot,
a sin to slam books down
hard on a table,
a sin to toss one carelessly
across a room.
You must learn how to turn the pages gently
without disturbing Sarasvati,
without offending the tree
from whose wood the paper was made.

The poem ends with the Indians’ love for the English language.

There are also poems anyone could enjoy. For example, John Betjeman reading A Subaltern’s Love Song. He reads it with relish in his beautiful voice with a posh accent, and both he and his audience enjoy the humorous love poem. He jokes before the reading and there is laughter at the end. It begins:

Miss J.Hunter Dunn, Miss J.Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me.

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn

The young man gracefully loses the tennis match and they drive to dance at the golf club. The dance has already begun when they reach the club, but instead of hurrying inside, they sit in the car and love takes its course.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. 

I love this poem, it is one of my favourites. It reminds me of my wife and our wedding though it was a traditional Hindu ceremony preceded by no sitting in the car — still, it was, as we call it, a love marriage. We were classmates who went to the library and the movies. Oh well, those were the days.