Thursday, September 21, 2006

I put the laughs inYellow Submarine

It may have been the decade of free love and free thinking but in Liverpool in the 1960s, even Paul McCartney thought poetry was "a bit too girly".

However, that didn't stop Roger McGough from following his dream of becoming a poet - and as anyone who grew up reading his verse will attest, that determination is something we should all be thankful for.

As one third of poetry collective The Mersey Sound with Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, McGough - who comes to the Arts Theatre on Sunday - managed to turn the stuffy image of poetry on its head with volumes of genuinely witty verse and sellout live performances.

It was after one of these performances that McCartney passed his less than favourable judgement on McGough and his oeuvre.

"I knew The Beatles through art college and my girlfriend, just to nod to and be jealous of even though they were slightly younger," he recalls. "They'd been to Hamburg and had posh leather jackets.

"Paul and George used to come to some things we did but they didn't think much of poetry, Paul told me that himself. He said him and John used to go to a bookshop called Phillips and Matthews and look at the poetry section. He said they quite liked Auden, but he thought poetry was a bit too far out, a bit too weird and girly."

Despite hanging out with musicians and hailing from one of the most important musical cities in the world, it was not an avenue he ever expected to go down himself. But that didn't stop him from having a number one hit with Lily the Pinkwith his band The Scaffold. The group couldn't play a note and so the likes of Elton John, Jack Bruce and Jimi Hendrix had to provide all the actual music for their records.

"My earliest albums always involved poetry and music." He tells scene. "I never used to do it much live but there was a lot of it, jazz musicians would do it because it was another gig but I was never really into jazz.

"I knew quite early on I wasn't a musician. I worked with all sorts of great musicians like Jimi Hendrix but you know that you are not a musician when you get with those kind of people. Sometimes I wish I was and I envy those people but I was always a writer and a poet."

And his abilities to craft the English language in new and exciting ways came in handy when The Beatles ventured into the cartoon world. Many people don't know about McGough's involvement with the animated psychedelic classic The Yellow Submarinebut that's because until recently, his name appeared nowhere in the credits.

"Every time you laughed or smiled at that film, that was me responsible," he says proudly. "But no-one knew it was me because that was part of the deal.

The Liverpudlian poet talks to NIK SHELTON about, Dylan, Brando, The Beatles and Salman Rushdie "I was invited to Liverpuddlianise it. There had been a lot of scripts and the one I got was by someone who was a Harvard professor, it was very erudite.

"I just came in to do a bit of script doctoring but there were a lot scenes that I wrote completely. When my agent tried to get me a credit the Americans behind it wouldn't have it.

"I didn't fight it at the time because it didn't seem that important and I had other things to do. I could tell people but they wouldn't believe me because my name wasn't on screen. It was only in retrospect that I thought, 'That was really mean'."

This and other fascinating tales of a life in words and language are told in his new autobiography Said and Done,which he will be reading from during his appearance in Cambridge.

Among other things, the book relates his encounters over the years with his idols from singers and actors like Bob Dylan and Marlon Brando to fellow scribes Allen Ginsberg and Salman Rushdie.

That he has a big enough audience to write an autobiography and tour with a one man show is testament to the effect his work has had on the nation over the past 40 years. He emerged at a time when the only poets anyone had ever heard of were dead.

But the literary landscape looks a lot different now.

"There weren't any poets when I was growing up. It wasn't until my 20s I heard about the jazz poets in London like Laurie Lee.

That seemed so far off and sophisticated. In Liverpool there was nothing.

"It's a bit more accessible now. When I started doing Mersey Sound it wasn't long after I'd stopped teaching and there was very little poetry in schools.

"The only thing was the Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Verse that I'd had at school.

Nowadays there are so many poets who write for children as well; Brian Patten, John Agard, Benjamin Zephaniah.

"These are names children will know so there's been a breakthrough in that sense."

Roger McGough is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on Sunday at 7.45pm.


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