Photograph: Will Wilkinson
Persuading a friend to give up their sacred Friday night to listen to a seventy-four-year-old man discussing Alzheimers and similar issues that befall ‘that awkward age now between life and death’ is a difficult sell. That is until you say two words: Roger McGough - Britain’s favourite scouser and the man with the calming voice on Radio Four’s Poetry Please.
was in Nottingham to promote his most recent poetry collection, That Awkward Age
, where he confronts mortality with characteristic humour. ‘You are not here to celebrate/ but to mourn till it hurts,’ he chides in contemplation at his funeral. In Payback Time
he pleads ‘O Lord, let me be a burden to my children,’ which had the audience in hysterics. McGough is a button pusher and like all good button pushers, he knows exactly how far he can push it. He says the things that people think but dare not say, and always with a knowing smile on his face.
McGough’s appeal is that he has reached his twilight years without becoming embittered or arrogant. No matter what subject he discusses, he is always able to do so as if he were a member of the audience, rather than the famous performer on stage. He does this by being self-effacing, which appears genuine rather than coy. McGough is a former member of the sixties pop group The Scaffold
, penning irritatingly catchy classics such as Gin Gan Goolie, Thank You Very Much
, and Lilly the Pink
. He doesn’t tell us about the groupies or name drop the celebrities he hung out with, instead, simply, that the group sounded like ‘a cross between Oasis and the Cheeky Girls’ (though more of the latter). Similarly, he mocks a critic’s review of his work in Bedtime Stories,
‘Oh no, not another night of magical word-juggling at the hands of a consummate craftsman.’ So bad is the poet’s story telling – he confesses he’d prefer to be down the pub – that the mother threatens to send up 'your father' if the kids don’t go to sleep.
Last year saw the Booker shortlist criticised for its ‘readability.’ McGough has faced similarly ridiculous criticisms for his verse being too light and accessible. But this probably says more about the critic than the poet. A closer examination of his work reveals many layers below the humour. Take Dylan the Eavesdrop, which suggests the Welsh poet listened into conversations in his local and then used them in his verse. When he hears someone describe a woman as ‘whacking-thighed and piping hot, thunderbolt-brassed and barnacle-breasted, flailing up the cockles with eyes like blowlamps...’ Dylan Thomas chips up ‘Er...‘Barnacle-breasted’ – that’s one word, is it?’ Not only does this expose the folly of such accusations but by juxtaposing his verse in such an ordinary setting, reveals the magic of his work.
‘Oh no, not another night of magical word-juggling...’
McGough deploys this technique through his spoken performance as well. He’ll give you everyday anecdotes about the vain and painful pursuit of putting in contact lenses, ‘we were never really suited, were we?’ or through a catalogue of absurd and ridiculous mistakes in the aptly titled One After Another, ‘My first mistake was to do the cooking in the nude,’ and then he’ll hit you with something serious, such as a story from childhood when he remembered playing on a beach full of mines. For years he had thought he’d been playing with a red ball only to discover later on that his pet dog had ran into the mines and been blown up. There was a gasp throughout the audience at this deceptive, yet functional trick of the mind.
On occasion, when giving such context to his poems, McGough did seem to lose his train of thought slightly, but the minute he performed everything flowed smoothly. He was remarkably well dressed, captivating, and clearly much loved by the sea of white hair and shining heads that filled the auditorium. It was an absolute delight to see a poet of his calibre perform at a packed Playhouse and hopefully there will be many more programmed in for the future.
That Awkward Age
is available from Viking