Roger McGough Q&A: “I might have been the first Liverpudlian pope”

The poet talks Aneurin Bevan, “Lily the Pink”, and voice-activated socks.

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The bestselling poet Roger McGough was born in 1937 in Litherland. He became known in the 1960s with the poetry, music and comedy trio the Scaffold and the poetry anthology “The Mersey Sound”. He presents BBC Radio 4’s “Poetry Please”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being carried down an alley on my father’s shoulders to an air-raid shelter during the Blitz in Liverpool. I remember reaching up to try to touch the silver balloons that were floating above the houses. Of course, they were barrage balloons.

Who was your childhood hero?

Wilson the Wonder Athlete, a character from my favourite comic The Wizard. He was an unassuming superhero who lived in a cave on a diet of nuts and berries until called by his country to win the Ashes, the Tour de France, the Olympics and the Second World War.

Which political figure do you look up to?

The idealist and working-class hero Aneurin Bevan. A champion of social justice who helped establish the National Health Service.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

“Literary festivals that offer writers a warm welcome, expenses but no performance fee” or, “Chairs that John Humphrys has sat in”.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. I recall with great fondness appearing with the Scaffold at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street in 1969, and staying at the Chelsea Hotel. Each night after the gig I listened to the ghostly tapping of typewriters. Dylan Thomas? Arthur Miller? Jack Kerouac? I would imagine reading my poems alongside the noise.

What TV show could you not live without?

I could live quite happily without any. Radio? Now that’s a different kettle of comfort.

Who would paint your portrait?

My wife tells me there are enough portraits of me in the house already, thank you. I tried doing a self-portrait in oils last week, but I couldn’t sit still for long enough.

What’s your theme tune?

Some might say “Lily the Pink”, but I would opt for Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Ignore the jibes of critics,  who are failed poets who end up as nightwatchmen in cemeteries. Difficult but essential.

What’s currently bugging you?

A poem in the new collection begins, “It’s not easy being a poet nowadays,” and explores how Brexit, Trump, etc, impinge upon and unhinge our consciousness.

What would make your life better?

A pair of voice-activated socks.

When were you happiest?

This morning, when jogging along the riverbank, and I came across a holdall full of used tenners and custard creams.

In another life, what job would you have chosen?

Had the girls not got to me first, I might have been the first Liverpudlian pope.

Are we all doomed?

You may be. I’m not. 

Roger McGough’s latest collection of poetry, “joinedupwriting”, is published by Viking. He will perform his work at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 6 April: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers