Welcome Back Old Friend

When I was growing up we had plenty books in our house but not a lot of poetry. In fact, I doubt if we had any. At school, poetry was the rhyming stuff you had to learn off by heart about the boy standing on the burning deck when all around had fled and the highwayman who came riding, riding, riding. I have the sort of memory which could get the poem pretty much off perfectly with one or two readings on the day before the teacher asked for a recital, but which let the RAM get overwritten by next Tuesday, so none stuck around for long. This meant poetry never meant much to me through all my childhood and teen years. One man changed all that. Roger McGough, the first poet I ever read for the sheer pleasure of it.

In my late teens I discovered him. He was (is), one of the Liverpool poets. He was a little older than me, but definitely of my generation. He was in a band called The Scaffold, whose other members counted among themselves Paul McCartney's brother. He wrote about family life and strange relatives. About bus conductors and shop assistants. About people with neuroses and deformities. About troubled relationships and the peculiar tensions of living in the "permissive" society. About the threat of atomic warfare and about not looking as good as the advertisements told you to look. There was not a burning deck or a highwayman in sight, and not a lot of rhymes. Above all he was clever. Wittily clever, inventively clever, wisely clever, sadly and sardonically clever. He ran words together and made up new ones. He scattered his words around the page in ways which added to the sense of the poems. I didn't have to be told to read him.I didn't have to try to remember the poems. I bought everything he wrote and read them again and again. And because I was reading Roger McGough, I started to read other poets and to love the sound of words for the sheer wonder and beauty of them as much as for the meaning.

" To her
life was a storm in a holy-water font
Across which she breezed
with all the grace and charm
of a giraffe learning to windsurf

But sweating
in the convent laundry, she would iron
Amices, albs and surplices
with such tenderness and care
You'd think priests were still inside..."

(from Hearts and Flowers )

I built up quite a little collection of slim volumes which I shared eagerly. Too eagerly in fact, as for the past decade or more I have none left. All went, begged borrowed or stolen from me to end up goodness knows where. I have tried to replace them over the years but most are long out of print, and if copies can be found they are sought after and expensive. Then, just last week, long after I had reconciled myself with having to make do with the small volume of selected works, I discovered there had been a Collected Poems produced in 2004. My feet hardly touched the ground rushing for my Amazon.com bookmark. Today Roger McGough, Collected Poems arrived.

I have spent half the afternoon reading words I haven't seen for a couple of decades but which still make me laugh - great out loud belly guffaws of delight and surprise and admiration. I have read the words which helped me process my adolescence, and others, written in his fifties which speak of my present and others from all the ages in between. Some are new to me, some long gone but not forgotten.And there are 400 pages of them - Ahhhh..... Bliss.......

Let Me Die A Young Man's Death

Let me die a young man's death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I'm 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party

Or when I'm 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber's chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns
burst in and give me a short back and insides

Or when I'm 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a young man's death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
'what a nice way to go' death

-Roger McGough


Anonymous said…
You can hear Roger McGough on BBC Radio via the internet:


C S Lewis has a piece somewhere (Undeceptions? aka God in the Dock?) about getting your 'borrowed' books back in the afterlife where the reward of your generosity will be to see your friends' grubby fingerprints transformed into beautiful vignettes.
Anonymous said…
Roger McGough composed the poem most likely to cheer me up...
"To amuse emus on warm summer nights
Kiwis do wiwis from spectacular heights"
Just lowering the tone!
Anonymous said…
Hey Kelvin, that's a nice book on old Roger you got there, can I borrow it for a couple of days?.....
VenDr said…
I keep this one chained to a lectern in my study. You may file quietly in, one by one and have a look. but NO TOUCHING!