Roger McGough and the Liverpool Lads: a poet is no longer safe alone


The year: 1963. The location: Hope Hall Club, Liverpool.

Three young performers do funny songs and satirical skits. They will soon be known as The Scaffold, but for now they are listed simply as Roger McGough, John Gorman, and Mike McGear. Fifteen minutes away at the Cavern Club, McGear’s brother Paul is also performing with a band, but using the real last name, McCartney.

Everyone knows the Beatles’ subsequent story, but McGough and his Scaffold companions have never reached such high heights. Only once did they reach the top of the charts, and that was with a catchy song based on the patented drug label of Lydia Pinkham in the 19th century.

We’ll have a drink, a drink
To Lily the rose, the rose, the rose
The savior of the human race
Because she invented a medicinal compound
More effective in all cases.

Mr. Freers had protruding ears
And it made him terribly shy
And so they gave him a medicinal compound
And now he’s learning to fly.

Old Ebenezer Thought He Was Julius Caesar
And so they put him in a house
Where they gave him a medicinal compound
And now he is Emperor of Rome.

We’ll have a drink, a drink
To Lily the rose, the rose, the rose
The savior of the human race
Because she invented the medicinal compound
More effective in all cases.

The scaffolding. The other group from Liverpool

Two of the Scaffold members had reasonable careers, but Roger McGough became – and still is – Britain’s most popular poet. Great prolific, he wrote more than fifty collections of poetry and received twice the great honors (OBE, CBE) of the queen.

Here’s a favorite McGough poem, imaginative, accessible, and maybe just a little off the beaten track.

A stranger called this morning
Dressed all in black and gray
Put every sound in a bag
And carried them away

The whistling of the kettle
The turn of the lock
The purring of the kitten
The ticking of the clock

The bursting of the toaster
The crackle of snowflakes
When you spread the marmalade
The scratching noise it makes

The hiss of the pan
The ticking of the grill
The bubbling bathtub
As it starts to fill up

Drumming raindrops
On the glass
When you do the dishes
The gurgling of the drain

The baby’s crying
The squeaking of the chair
The rustle of the curtain
The creaking of the stairs

A stranger called this morning
He didn’t leave his name
Left us only silence
Life will never be the same

In 1967, a landmark event in the world of poetry was the publication of a book featuring three poets from Liverpool: Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and Roger McGough. It was called “The Mersey Sound” and was named for the River Mersey which runs through Liverpool. You could say that was when McGough’s poems became mainstream. Over half a million copies have been sold, perhaps the most ever for an anthology of poetry. Two of McGough’s brightest poems in the collection are featured in our video: “Goodbat Nightman” and “Stealth is the best part of Valerie”.

The book that shook the world of poetry. McGough is on the right.

* * *

McGough is a master of the word game, altering spelling and punctuation, inventively shifting words or creating new words altogether. He will usually write about “The bells in the batfry” or refer to himself as abitofalad. On a larger scale, here is his bravery description of a participant in the Grand Prix de France.

Poop poo poo!
Come on Oops!
To France in Monte-Carlo,
Here come,
Go for it,
In my super car.
On my way
I can get lost
Towards Calais then St Malo,
Then a detour for a day trip
Through the castles of the Loire.

Damn then!
I love
To crush a flatter peasant
than a pancake
As i walk
On ze pretty essence.
Down the hill
Such a thrill
To see all the chickens scatter
As I slam
Down the highway
In my racing car machine!

By car !
It’s certain,
Now i’m going like the devil
And endure
In each farmyard I pass.
The big price
Is for me
Something great
Life in Pink
Is to assume
I’m driving way too fast!

* * *

As with many humorists, there can be a serious part of the soul waiting to be released. McGough wrote dark poems, but eventually the humor surfaced. As he once said: “Every day I think about death, disease, famine, violence, terrorism, war and the end of the world. It helps me not to think about things. “

Here is a tender and somewhat self-deprecating piece that McGough calls “A Poem Just For Me”.

Where am i now when i need me
Suddenly where did I go?
I’m so alone here without me
Please tell me what did I do?

Once I did most of the things together
I went for a walk hand in hand
I shared my life so completely
I responded to all my requests.

Tell me that i will come back tomorrow
I will keep my arms wide open
Tell me i will never leave
My place is here by my side.

Maybe I just got lost
Like an umbrella or a key
So until the day I come to meet me
Here is a poem just for me.

* * *

Finally, for those of us who have reached a certain age and have one or maybe two generations on our heels, here is a typical piece of the McGough philosophy.

O Lord, let me be a burden on my children
For a long time, they were a burden on me.
May they search and carry, clean and scrub
And do it cheerfully.

That they take turns hosting me
Beautiful sunny rooms at the top of the stairs
With walk-in bathtub and lift installed
At great expense. . . Theirs.

Insurance against the blows of time
Isn’t that what it means to have children?
To raise them knowing they owe you
And you can’t outsource?

What is the money for if not to spend on their education?
Designer clothes, crazy hobbies, the usual stuff.
Then as soon as they win they leave
Well, that’s enough.

It has been a blessing to see them develop
The parental pride that we felt as each one grew.
But Lord let me be a burden on my children
And on my children’s children too.

* * *
Note: Before showing our video, and in the interest of disclosure, I should mention that Roger McGough and I were co-authors of Nathan Lane’s Broadway musical “Wind in the Willows”. Jane Iredale wrote the book and I composed the music. Nobody got rich, but we all got Tony Award nominations, which was fun.

Roger McGough, now 83, a distinguished boy from Liverpool

VIDEO. Our setting is the Old Bull’s Head pub in England, where every evening a trio of actors come to perform the songs and poems of Roger McGough. Special guest Jim Dale, Ginni Ness and John Neville-Andrews are the troubadours, and Jill Tanner the owner. McGough joins us at the end.




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