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Roger McGough at Lowdham opening

16 June 09 words: James Walker
Roger McGough, friend of the Beatles and the People's poet, kick-starts the tenth Lowdham Book Festival in style.

When not being converted into luxury penthouse apartments or fancy wine bars, churches are occasionally used as a place of religion.  Tonight, however, I found a more novel use for these beautiful buildings which at least remains true to their original purpose – as a meeting place for a congregation to be enlightened by a charismatic speaker. He was Roger McGough, an inspirational Liverpudian poet with an impressive CV which includes over fifty publications, attending Hull university when Philip Larkin was the librarian, a former member of cult band the Scaffold and responsible for most of the dialogue in the Beatles animated classic Yellow Submarine.

McGough kick-started the tenth Lowdham Book Festival to a packed St. Mary’s church and was fortunately spared having to compete with the torrential rain which subsided by the time he started his two-hour talk. I must admit that when the doors to the church shut I was half expecting a grinning vicar to pop his head up over the pulpit and declare, with smug aplomb, that we were all victims of his religious master-plan to bring the Lord back to the masses whether we wanted him/it/id or not. Thankfully this was not the case as this is not the first time the church has had a poet in the pulpit, Ian McMillan having talked here previously.

McGough is a great performer, filling the church with raucous laughter on a regular basis with his simple, direct poetry. This included children’s poetry taken from recent collections such as Slapstick to his current publication The Awkward Age. My particular favourite was four poems written from the perspective of men married to famous women, such as Mr O Arc, Mr Nightingale, Mr Mae West and Mr Blyton. So for example, the Blyton tale is written in a twee saccharine language whilst Mr Nightingale tells the tale of an emotionally deprived husband whose wife is too busy gallivanting around the world saving others to help him.
"Coughing and sneezing, I wish I were dead / No angel of mercy at the foot of my bed / Suffering here in the cold and the damp / While you're in the Crimea, swanning round with a lamp." By the end of the poem he realises there is only one way in which he will get any attention: "Oh Florrie, I'm sorry, but this is my prayer / To charge with the Light Brigade and expire in your care." 

These hilarious tales were of course a response to Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife, something which the poet acknowledged; although his dead pan delivery is far more effective. McGough, who incidentally looks like a British version of Larry David, shared some hilarious insights into the nightlife of a poet when he recounted bumping into Carol Ann Duffy a couple of days after she had been made the poet Laureate. ‘Carol have you heard, the Queen’s just died’. (The poet Laureate is meant to write inspiring verse for the monarchy which is one of the reasons the position can involve a certain level of creative compromise. Although when questioned by the audience, McGough said the role was really whatever you made it, perhaps suggesting that it would be a position he would consider when Duffy hands back the reins.)  

I enjoyed the reading so much that afterwards I happily bought a copy of his autobiography Said and Done rather than blag a freebie off the publisher for writing this review. It was then that I realised why the setting was so perfect for a reading. Apart from the fantastic acoustics and the musty smell of history which almost validates the wisdom of the speaker, the church left me feeling inspired and aware of what mattered to me in my life. By attending the event I was able to personally thank a poet for bringing much needed humour into the world. I was able to purchase a book from the Bookcase, an independent shop and thereby support an ethical business whose principles I admire, and of course in attending an event put on by Ross Bradshaw and Jane Streeter I was able to reaffirm one of my core beliefs – that the world is a better place for the spoken word. If you want poetry to exist in your city and want to see a world with more choices than those listed on Amazon, then check out the other events and buy locally. Now I’m off for a pint in the Pitcher and Piano. Amen. 

Tickets are available from The Bookcase, 50 Main Street, Lowdham, over the counter, by mail or by credit card, and over the phone (Box Office is 0115 966 3219 10am-4pm, Monday-Saturday).

James Walker's website

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