As Far As I Know
Roger McGough Faber, £8.99
Liverpool’s Roger McGough is something of a national treasure in England, a genuinely popular poet who is verbally playful and funny. The poetry has a lightness but there is still — at its best — that sense of a man negotiating the vagaries of being alive and the prospect — at the age of 76 — of no longer being alive.
My first encounter with McGough was in 1982 when I wandered into the Tricycle Theatre on the Kilburn Highroad for a reading by him and Brian Patten.
Knowing nothing of either writer, the revelation of the evening was the fact that poetry did not have to be solemn and obscure, it could be light, witty, warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and a poem could be a vehicle for performance.
Star attraction of the night was the spectacular Mersey accent — which is in the sinews of a McGough poem, making it bounce.
Back in 1982, McGough had just published Waving at Trains, the title poem of which ruminates on the eternal optimism of children standing in a field waving at passing trains, blissfully ignorant of the two-finger signs at the windows that come three miles further down the line.
There is an echo of that happy stoicism in this new collection as Gough renews his vow in a poem, called ‘Vow’, that is as sweet as a nut and includes this faith and wisdom: “I vow to bear in mind that if, at times/ Things seem to go from bad to worse/ They also go from bad to better./ The lost purse is handed in, the letter/ Contains wonderful news./ Trains run on time,/ Hurricanes run out of breath, floods subside,/ And toast lands jam-side up./ And with this ring my final vow:/ To recall, whatever the future may bring,/ The love I feel for you now.”
McGough goes back to another earlier poem, ‘Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death’, where he hopes to go out in a blaze of gunfire rather than serenely in bed, and comes up with ‘Not for Me a Youngman’s Death’, in which he faces the reality that it is not a rock’n’roll gangster lifestyle that is getting him in the end: “no drugs no fags no rock’n’roll/ Time alone has taken its toll.”
Frequently, in books by McGough, there are quite a few poems, often very short throwaway ones, weighed down by groan-out-loud puns that give an impression of the poet as the schoolboy who fell in love with personification the day the teacher told him to write an essay on a day in the life of a penny.
However, while some of his work is simply verbal derring-do, the idea of ‘throwaway’ is a tricky one with McGough because even when he is being deadly serious he lets the lightest of ideas carry substantial emotional weight. In ‘A Cold Calling’, for instance, he casts himself as the cold caller ringing his muse at all hours of the day or night and always coming away with some few lines: “But lately, whenever I remember to ring/ the line is invariably busy. When I do get through/ your voice sounds cold, distant and indistinct,/ as if I were a stranger, just another caller.”
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