Why should a poet bemused by his washing machine write a book explaining household gadgets? Geraldine Brennan asked him
Somewhere between the young child's belief that the vacuum cleaner is run by an invisible beast called a Hoover-Snake and the adolescent's vain hope that breakthroughs in technology will mean it can pick up the crumbs all by itself, there lies a flicker of natural curiosity about how it really works. It's at this point (probably between the ages of seven and nine) that talk of motors, ducts, hoses and fans might meet with a receptive ear, even while the Hoover-Snake still tugs at the imagination.
We have Roger McGough, whose poems have made magic for two generations out of everyday bus rides, playground bickering and domestic hiccups, to thank for the Hoover-Snake, and the gnomes in the toaster and the polar bears in the fridge. Until I Met Dudley: how everyday things really work, his household technology guide published by Frances Lincoln, is the sort of book he could do with himself. He can't drive or use a word-processor and, on the day I visited, blinked helplessly at the washing machine, his shirts in limbo inside.
He has stuck to flights of fantasy in his explanations, illustrated by Chris Riddell's crazy variations on Heath Robinson.
"I hate machines and I never wanted to know how anything worked," he admitted. "The Hoover-Snake still sounds perfectly plausible to me." How did he manage to be a geography teacher, then, back in Liverpool before The Mersey Sound (his ground-breaking collection with Adrian Henri and Brian Patten) went global? "I just wasn't very good at it."
He has steered clear of the practical technology element of the book. The outlines of what actually goes on in the innards of a dishwasher, a dustcart or whatever are narrated by Dudley, a pragmatic hound with a ring of the People's Poet Laureate about his specs. But that must be coincidence.
The know-all dog is named after Dudley Winterbottom, manager of the Chelsea Arts Club, where McGough is a regular and where he held brainstorming sessions with Doug Masterton, his former publisher and technical collaborator. Masterton supplied some of the non-fiction text for Until I Met Dudley. McGough's contribution is a combination of poetic lateral thinking and a share in the child's perception of monster appliances that adults fume over.
There is certainly a poet's yearning in the open-ended resolution of the book, in which the heroine, enlightened by the conscientious Dudley, hankers after the tales of toast gnomes and polar bears. The enchanting pre-Dudleyisms are as hard to give up as the tooth fairy. And there must be some reason why fridges are so heavy.
The potential for more Dudley projects to dip into is considerable. Volume One hints at the man with the ladder painting the stars in the sky's canvas every night and the elastic-band-in-the-plane theory.
Meanwhile, McGough has been kept busy over the summer with a script for an animated film (by the company which made Yellow Submarine and hired him to brush up the Beatles' Liverpool dialogue) plus preparations for revival Mersey Sound performances with Henri, Patten and Willy Russell. Despite the diversions in his home in south-west London - skateboard in the hall, dartboard on the back porch, lush and tousled garden - he was hard at work while his family were on holiday.
He rarely refuses commissions for poems "unless it doesn't work after an hour or two - they're usually done at short notice". His latest book of poems for children (for anyone, in fact, he insists) is Bad Bad Cats (reviewed below). The title series of poems about a bunch of moggies in the Mafia, full of ominous scuffles on the doorstep, mysterious disappearances and offers that can't be refused, sprang from a commission from the Cats Protection League, and others in the volume were originally written for English Heritage (on Stonehenge) and the National Trust.
He will, he promises, at least attempt a poem for any occasion. Except, possibly, the annual dinner-dance of the manufacturers of washing machines.
* Until I Met Dudley is published by Frances Lincoln, Pounds 9.99