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Books to Read, Part I

By FAM :: 1 March 2006

There are no plans to use this site for book reviews, but recently, two books have come across my desk, both of which, for different reasons I find noteworthy and would like to introduce here. So as not to create a wasteland of text, however, this will happen in two parts.

The first is Roger McGough’s autobiography Said and Done (Century, 2005). Roger needs no introductions in these pages, but I may be forgiven for remarking that if it hadn’t been for his work and for his 1995 reading in Berne, I don’t think I would have ever embarked, late in life as always, on putting pen to paper and on trying to infect teachers and students with the writing bug as he has infected me.

Perhaps I should also mention that for my money autobiography often makes for tedious reading, partly because some people’s lives are relentlessly dull contrary to what they themselves seem to think, partly because some autobiographies are little more than an extended bout of names dropping with references to “my very old friend” and similar indications of bosom-pallyness with the good and great, and partly because not everybody whose life story may be worth telling can actually write.

Obviously Said and Done isn’t prey to any of these pitfalls and, unsurprisingly, is anything but a tedious a read. Anyone who was around Merseyside in the early and later sixties would have had a yarn or two to spin about what Ginsberg at the time (paraphrased quite freely) described as the centre of the creative universe. Roger, of course, wasn’t simply around Merseyside at the time, he was in as well as part of the creative thick of it. This was a time when Britain was very receptive for all things zany, fun and irreverent, a time when the borders between pop and poetry was blurred to non-existent. An illustration of this is the sibling connection between a now knighted musical giant and a member of the pop group Roger belonged to (The Scaffold of chart-topping “Lilly the Pink” and “Thank U Very Much” fame). But in all this mayhem we need to remember that a career was launched, by all accounts the launch was not always a smooth one, that profoundly changed attitudes towards poetry and is at the root of the current interest in poetry in Britain, both in the media and in schools. What the Liverpool Poets, Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, and their contemporaries achieved, was to wrench poetry from the dusty sections in untrodden parts of libraries and book shops and the not much livelier pages of academic discourse and to bring it back to pubs, clubs, theatres, as well as radio and television audiences.

Clearly, in a story about these heady days the potential second bane of autobiography, gratuitous names-dropping, could loom large. Well-known names do crop up, and often, but there’s nothing gratuitous about this. The folks mentioned are always relevant to the unfolding story, illustrating Roger’s collaboration with pop and rock heroes of the day as well as his contributions, unfortunately uncredited, to the animated film “Yellow Submarine”. The stories in particular the tale of the abortive Broadway show “Wind in the Willows” are told with the humour of a man who doesn’t take himself dead seriously.

And to lay the third potential ghost about tedious autobiography to rest: it goes without saying that someone who has been in the business of writing poetry to delight children and adults alike, knows how to turn a phrase. However, for the serious reader of the heavy autobiography a brief caveat. This is not a tightly structured and strictly chronological account of the life and times of one Roger McGough. The story – or stories – emerge in the course of the book, but in all the writing it becomes clear that here a master of the, for want of a better word, small form is at work, a poet, rather than an epic narrator. Chapters are usually short, almost essayistic, there is ample space for typical McGoughian wordplay and idiom-twisting, digressions are as inevitable as they are invariably diverting, and many passages can be read with almost equal enjoyment by serendipping during or after reading the book from cover to cover. The writing is lively and easy-going; much of the time, it feels as if one is listening to the introduction of a poem during a reading: the cadences, the humour and very much the quick-witted breathlessness or the breathless quick wit of a McGough performance are in evidence throughout. Reading the book with a tempered Scouse accent, were such a thing possible, is as if one was listening to the man himself in easy conversation over a glass of something.

To put it much more briefly than I have, Said and Done is a thoroughly enjoyable read. It may also change some people’s preconceived notions about autobiography…


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