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ROGER MCGOUGH ON POETRY AND LIFE IN BARNES

Spot the famous poet Roger McGough supping a pint in one of his favourite Barnes watering holes. Here he tells us about the reissue of his beloved children’s book You Tell Me! and life in leafy Barnes 

Words: Georgina Langford 

According to Twitter, the 77-year-old Roger McGough’s New Year’s resolution for 2015 was ‘to push myself well within my limits’. It’s a classic slice of dry Scouse wit from the revered poet, whose forthright, frank and funny verses have lined the nation’s bookshelves for the past 50 years. The longtime Barnes resident has penned 100 poetry collections, plays and one autobiography (which documents his rise from an anarchic Merseyside musician to a French teacher and onwards, as he became known as ‘the people’s poet’).

This year sees the reissue of You Tell Me!, a collection of poems by Roger and Michael Rosen, first published in 1981. It is beloved by children of a certain generation for both its silly and serious takes on school life. ‘Books like this are on a publisher’s list for so long that they drop off the end and get forgotten about,’ says Roger, with a wry smile. ‘Thankfully, Janetta Otter Barry at Francis Lincoln publishers is a huge advocate of children’s poetry, and she believes in what Michael and I do. She suggested we ‘refresh’ You Tell Me! and bring it back, so really the energy came from her.’

For Roger, revisiting the book was a good excuse to meet up with Michael, his collaborator for many years. ‘We’ve been old pals for a long, long time, and are great admirers of each other’s work. We are very different sorts of poets, really, and that was apparent when the original You Tell Me! first came out. Michael is more of a narrative storyteller, whereas I focus on more quirky stuff, but between us we aren’t afraid of the more serious subjects,’ he says.

Roger has fought off criticism of some of his poems, such as The Lesson (which describes a metaphorical classroom massacre), for their violent imagery. ‘Michael was always very positive about things like that, saying “you mustn’t give in to one or two people who think poetry should only be about certain things”,’ says the Liverpudlian, who adds, ‘I do like to write something edgy, but not always – I can be as soppy as the next man, if I’m in the right mood!’

‘People often ask me what sort of state poetry is at right now,’ continues Roger, reflecting on his literary sphere, ‘and I would say that actually, it is pretty buoyant! I see young poets performing at festivals, all reading from their iPads, all very energetic, I do admire them! Even here in Barnes, there is a Stanza, an offshoot of The Poetry Society, who perform at The Red Lion pub; I love to get a pint and listen to them. I’m always a bit tempted to get involved but I fear they might chase me away!’ he laughs.

There is nothing the poet loves more than setting down his pen at the end of a ‘long, lonely day slaving away in my study’ and heading out to The Red Lion or The Sun to catch up with friends. ‘The Sun is a particularly nice little local to meet up with people in,’ he says. ‘There are actually quite a few poetry people around. I often see Judith Kerr walking about, and David Harsent – he’s just won the T S Eliot Poetry Award, so I should probably borrow a few quid off him now, or at the very least get a pint out of him!’ Roger chuckles. 

The poet is well and truly part of the furniture in the Barnes area, having lived here for years. ‘This area is good for kids; we first came here because we had young children, so we wanted to bring them up here,’ he says. He previously lived in Notting Hill Gate, ‘and I missed it at first. It was very lively there, and Barnes was a very ‘family’ sort of place, it seemed a little staid in comparison. But in fact, it suited me perfectly, because it is quiet. Barnes always thinks of itself as a village, which I have always found rather quaint, and it is always peaceful. My wife and I like to go for walks around the Leg of Mutton and along the river.’

In fact, Barnes has become such an integral part of Roger’s life that his work has been influenced by our leafy lanes. ‘I’ve written several poems after jogging about in Barnes – maybe after meeting a bird in the park, these fantasy things come out of my brain,’ he tells us. ‘I often like to write after I’ve been out for a jog – but hold on, I don’t want to give the impression that I run miles, just to be clear, I ‘jog-ette’!’

You Tell Me! (2015 reissue) by Roger McGough and Michael Rosen is available now in paperback, published by Francis Lincoln Children’s Books

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