A non-preachy writer
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Date: 22 December, 2010

Photo: Greenbelt


'I always hope my poetry is affirmative to my faith. But it does get harder and harder to write about it, though.'


George Luke talks to poet and author Roger McGough

In your long career, you've been a poet, a comedy songwriter and performer... and a French teacher. Which came first?

I probably started writing poetry while I was at Hull University doing French and Geography. I was never a good linguist, but I quite liked poetry; I was introduced to it through French, really – learning the work of Beaudelaire.

Philip Larkin was also in the university as librarian, and that got me going. So I started writing poems then.

When I finished, I went into teaching and taught for a couple of years.

When I was in Liverpool, I met up with some of the people who became known as the Liverpool Poets: Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, John Gorman and Michael McCartney – or Mike McGear, as everyone knows him, Paul's brother.

We were doing poetry and music together, and one of the songs we had was 'Thank You Very Much', which we would finish our shows with.

We recorded it; Brian Epstein was then our manager, and that became a hit, so I left teaching and went into being a singer.

Oddly enough, the Scaffold reunited in September, after 40 years, to go to Shanghai for the Expo. It's a long way to go to sing out of tune for 15 minutes!

Why did you visit Greenbelt in August?

I've been asked before to go to Greenbelt. It always looked like an attractive one to do, but it always coincided with the Edinburgh Festival.

Every year I've been doing the Edinburgh Festival since I was knee-high to a thistle; this year, no Edinburgh Festival for me so I went.

I thought it was something to do with karate or judo at first – you know, get your green belt, then your black belt – but it's more relaxed than that.

Are faith and spirituality subjects you tackle in your poetry much?

They are! I'm a practising Catholic and I always hope my poetry is affirmative to my faith. But it does get harder and harder to write about it, though.

There was a time when I was younger, and all my friends and I – both Catholics and Protestants – used to read about the martyrs.

We just couldn't understand how someone would kill someone, stone or crucify them, just because they professed a faith.

We thought, 'We're glad those days are over!' but then you see what goes on now, and the assumption that's often made that if you're a Christian there's something wrong with you, and this virulent anti-faith thing that goes on in the media now. It makes me sit back a bit.

So it's been hard to write about faith today in a way that isn't preachy.

Have you ever been in a situation where poetry has come out of you in unexpected ways?

It does for me! Often when looking back on my own life and looking at my poems ... take the funny poems, for example.

You look back at the time you had those funny poems, and it's usually a very dark period in your life.

And vice versa; sometimes when you're very secure in your life, you're able to delve into the darkness in your poems.

I received a letter from a lady the other day, whom I've just written back to.

It's a lovely letter; it starts with her saying she liked my work; we had lots of things in common, but she had become an alcoholic.

She asked if whenever I came to Liverpool I could come to this hostel for alcoholics who were in recovery and who had been writing poetry – again, an example of poetry coming out of someone's darker experiences.

Do people still see you as an ambassador for Liverpool?

They do indeed – even though I've left Liverpool 30 years now. I've lived in London for many years, but I'm still an Evertonian and proud of it, My accent comes and goes.