Poet Roger McGough: 'I didn’t do English beyond 15'

The beloved poet didn't take to his strict teachers in wartime Liverpool – but he does recall Brother Ryan and Miss Allen

Roger McGough, the renowned poet, reflects on his school days in wartime Liverpool

I went to school in, errr.. when the war was on. It was Star of the Sea Catholic Junior School in Liverpool, near the docks. I remember that. I remember my mother taking me there, walking along the streets to school. It was a huge building and huge gates, and she pushed me in and then the gates closed. I can still hear her high heels clapping on the cobbles as she left.. anyway.

So that was the school, I’ve engaged my memory and yes I do remember this school. The kindness of Miss O’Brien, Miss Cook, some of the men. Many women actually because probably most of the men were still at war. Everyone did everything, we learned by rote, we learned our lessons by looking at the board. I still have this synesthetic thing, I remember pictures, big laminated pictures of a lady in a flapper outfit sitting down on a chair, and the shape of an H... Ronnie’s red’s rattle says R, so there’s Ronnie running along with a rattle. When I see the world R, it’s red for me, H is sort of brown. It’s quite funny, isn’t it?

So that’s how we learned. I remember, I liked drawing. The best drawer in our class was a guy called John Askew, who went on to become Johnny Gentle. When The Beatles went on tour in Scotland, he was top of the bill… and, yeah, he was good at drawing.

Anyway, I got a scholarship. My dad worked at the docks, and my mum was working between times and she had an eye on the future and she heard about scholarships to the school. And, actually, at Star of the Sea not many people got the scholarship, you know it was a very poor area. Mum heard about a school called St Mary’s College. It was a grammar school, run by Irish Christian Brothers. And so she took me along there and said, "I want my boy to get in." I was 10. They took me in, and mum paid for me to go for a year and then I took the scholarship for the rest of the years.

'The strap was a teaching method'

The Irish Christian Brothers were very fierce; there was the strap and so forth. But they took working-class lads from the ‘pool and tried to push them into the way of the Irish. As you can imagine, the Irish were very repressed in those times, so they tried to take these Irish boys and make them into doctors and lawyers and journalists and so forth. That was the aim I think.

The school was feared but not that I noticed. I didn’t feel bullied, there was no funny business. It was just school. As I say, the strap was used but not just as punishment but also to encourage you to learn. It was a teaching method.

With emphasis on exams, there wasn’t much time for the arts. Again, I was good at art, and had my poems read, but the teachers said there are no jobs in it. So what can you do? You can make a nice ceramic pot or paint a picture, but where’s it going to get you?  

I failed English literature O level but I like English language and passed that. I never read the books, I never read the Thomas Hardy books you’re supposed to. I thought I’d just busk it. That’s not good advice...I’d advise kids taking exams to not just busk it. So I couldn’t do English beyond that and I did French, geography and history at A level, and then went on to do French and geography because they were there. I didn’t do English beyond the age of 15.

Brother Ryan was the physics teacher, and I was no good at physics. He was very tough particularly, rather cruel really. And we were all terrified. Then suddenly, he’d stand up and say: “Ah, to hell with it!" And he’d stand there and just recite a poem, in Gaelic or Irish. It would be a Celtic or maybe a Yates poem that I didn’t really understand. But it was quite fascinating. Suddenly we’d stop and were transfixed while he recited this poem. He didn’t read it out of a book, he did it off the top of his head. And then he could come out of the trance, hit somebody and then back to physics.

That never happened in an English lesson. I was never transfixed in an English lesson.

Roger McGough

So there were all these teachers. And I was trying to think of a teacher who spotted in me this huge potential, you know, which I was brimming over with, all this talent! But it wasn’t spotted – nothing to spot in a way – I was just there, I didn’t know how I was.

We had Miss Allen. It was all men on the staff apart from a female librarian, Miss O’Brien and Miss Allen, who I think was freelance, because she came in sometimes and did elocution lessons. And my mother, again back to mum, she decided what was good for you was not to speak with a Liverpool accent in those days, particularly it was associated with working class and you know it wasn’t fashionable and so on. So I had to lose the accent.

Elocution lessons

Also when I was growing up, maybe it was the war and all of those things, we had a large family and my mum was one of 13. It was always like: “Our Roger here, he’s a bit stupid. He’s very highly strung.” It was said in the same way you’d say, "He’s a bit soft in the head, he’s a bit slow." I think my mum decided that getting me into elocution lessons would be a way of getting me away from my peers and, you know, I wasn’t aware of this. As far as I was concerned, I was normal.

Going to elocution was a way of escaping the class system as well as learning to speak proper. I used to mumble and I learned how to mumble more clearly. And, through Miss Allen, we used to learn choral verse and she entered me into competitions. I thought, "Go on, I’ll learn Jabberwocky." I’ve got a certificate here on the wall... 1948 when I won an award for speaking Jabberwocky and then we did it on stage. We’d all stand together and recite, so I enjoyed that.

I also did the odd play: female parts. The lead female actually. Chiselled checks, soft skin. I was always playing the girl parts. Laurie Taylor, you know BBC Radio 4? He was the leading man. He was my first stage kiss. He was the Prince of Cleeve and I was the Princess. He wasn’t a very good kisser. I didn’t have any particular talent for it, I don’t think, I just did it because it was something to do: much like playing rugby badly. I enjoyed it, learned my lines.

I think I was sort of opened to another world through Miss Allen in a sense.

It’s odd: other people know exactly who did it for them. So many people speak with great respect about someone who encouraged them but I never had that. I really didn’t have anyone – maybe they did, but there were so many kids and maybe there were brighter kids there.

It was quite repressive in a way. I used to think I could say funny things and had a way with language, but it was sort of put down. If you said anything funny in class, you were told to sit down – it was being insolent, being rebellious. If I wrote funny things in an essay, it would be crossed out. Stick to the script, you know. It was discouraged.

The writing of poetry became a rebellious act for me, not against people, but against the world.

Roger McGough was talking to Kate Parker


CV: Roger McGough

Born: 1937, Litherland, Merseyside

Education: Star of the Sea Catholic Junior School, St Mary’s College, Merseyside

Career: Roger McGough CBE is an English poet, performance poet, broadcaster, children’s author and playwright. He will be speaking at Barnes Children's Literature Festival

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