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Roger McGough on poetry, pandemic and Prince Andrew's teddies

Many things simply stopped when Covid arrived on these shores two years ago – but creativity wasn’t one of them.

Writers, playwrights, musicians, actors, artists, comedians….and, yes, poets all continued to produce work, with many finding new and inventive ways of communicating and sharing it with their audience.

In the case of Roger McGough, it led to a new anthology of verse – Safety in Numbers – published last November and now forming the basis of a tour which arrives at the Liverpool Playhouse next week.

It’s the Mersey poet’s first time back performing in Liverpool in almost two years. In fact, he reveals, his last ‘gig’ before the country went into Covid lockdown in March 2020 was here at the Museum of Liverpool, talking to head teachers about the importance of poetry in education while Madrid football fans thronged the streets outside.

While he’s lived away from the city longer now than he lived here, McGough says it still feels like home every time he returns.

“I still read the Echo online every day,” he says. “And at the gig at the Playhouse I’ve got a couple of mates coming who I was at school with, which is really nice.

“And, of course, there’ll be ghosts there. And that’s sad. I walk round Liverpool and I don’t recognise anybody. Or you sort of half-recognise people, but there’s less of that now because it’s an age thing. A lot of friends have passed on, passed away, gone away.”

McGough himself has a ‘big’ birthday this year, although you wouldn’t know it. His distinctive voice remains reassuringly familiar, and when we speak, he’s just returned from what he calls “a little jogette…a quick dawdle” around the leafy area of South West London he calls home.

“We didn’t have much nature around Litherland,” he says, recalling his childhood. “Since living in Barnes I’ve started to recognise birds and trees to some extent, although I’m ‘florally dyslexic’ – flowers are either red or white to me. Brian Patten is always telling me off because he likes nature for some reason! And poets are supposed to be good at nature aren't they, and be able to recognise daffodils and skylarks.”

Safety in Numbers was written in a time of Covid, but while there are poems on seaside staycations, an ode to Laura Kuenssberg, and adultery during lockdown, there’s also verse about rising oceans, ghosts and gamblers.

Roger McGough by Allan Melia. And top in a photo by Nick Wright Photography.

He says he “resisted” writing about the pandemic at first “but the poems sort of came out, as they do. They just come up. A poem just comes into your ear. I’ve just done one this week about climbing trees and one about Prince Andrew’s teddy bears.”

Another poem among the wry and witty observations of the world around him is called Creeping up on Poetry whose opening line “Creep up on poetry while she’s feeding the ducks” echoes this, if in reverse.

“That’s right,” he agrees. “You can’t just go up to poetry and go 'right, I’m going to do this'. It doesn’t quite work that way.

“I’ve got this other book coming out in May called Over to You, a children’s book, and the whole thing is about poetry. The first section is My First Poem, about a child writing a poem in school and not wanting to, resisting it, and then eventually falling into…I was going to say the trap then! Enjoying it.”

It wasn’t McGough who resisted writing poetry at school in Crosby, but the teachers who saw it as “a waste of time”.

“They were getting you educated to go into jobs, office jobs, doctor – great, lawyer – great, priest,” he says.

“I remember I also liked drawing and that was discouraged – I’d have loved to have gone to art college.

“Also, the other thing was ‘you’re not good enough’. If you were drawing in class, the art teacher put a cabbage there and you had to draw a cabbage. And he would tell you your cabbage wasn’t as good as Macnamara’s.”

While writing poetry was considered a waste of time, McGough did enjoy singing in the school choir and reciting poetry as part of the elocution lessons his mum insisted that he took.

At university in Hull he started to attend readings by poets like the late Christopher Logue, and wrote what he calls “little Enescu/Pinteresque type plays”.

Recently, he reveals, he rediscovered a poem he had written during a summer break from studying French and Geography, when he worked as a waiter in Scarborough.

“I read it and thought – it’s quite good that,” he says. “It was like it was written yesterday. It’s a voice, it’s an attitude, sort of an ease with the language. So it must have always been there.”

More than 60 years, 100 poetry books (including the landmark The Mersey Sound with Brian Patten and Adrian Henri which marks its 55th anniversary this year), a trio of ‘McGoughiere’ plays for the Everyman and Playhouse, a Christmas number one – Lily the Pink, a CBE, Freedom of the City of Liverpool and his current position as president of the Poetry Society later, and Safety in Numbers shows the voice first heard in that youthful verse remains as strong.

So, what next for the man Carol Ann Duffy dubbed the ‘patron saint of poetry’?

Well, firstly Money-go-Round, his mischievous children’s book based on the Wind in the Willows, is being turned into a musical “which is being done locally – that will be fun”.

And what about another anthology?

“Will I write again? Is it my last book?” he muses. “There will be a last book – like the poem of mine about the last time. But if you knew it was, you’d come to a halt with your life.

“I don't believe in writer's block, but there is a pause. And then you start writing again...and you go oh, that’s what I do!”

Roger McGough brings Safety in Numbers to the Liverpool Playhouse on February 11. Tickets HERE


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