Roger's Mersey beat goes on

13th January 2006 at 00:00
I've never been happy with the concept of "national treasures". This may relate to their origins - fading members of royalty, superannuated TV presenters and the like - or reflect a cynicism about the gap between appearance and reality concerning public figures.

However, if, as teachers, we were to recognise a national treasure, I would be happy to contribute to the lionisation of the Liverpool poet, Roger McGough. I came to this opinion while reading his recently-published autobiography Said and Done.

As English teachers know, "Today we're doing poetry" has an effect on middle-school pupils not dissimilar to the announcement of the start of the bull run in Pamplona. McGough's oeuvre has always taken that response full on and, with wit, talent and accessibility, convinced pupils that poets are not all dead, and their work is not all boring or irrelevant.

How many thousands of students must have made their way to appreciation of the Romantics, the War Poets or modern poetry on the back of the Trojan horse that was a Roger McGough "fun" poem, a painless introduction to the mysteries of rhyme, rhythm and reflection?

His autobiography shows an awareness of his role in, literally, spreading the words. In all his guises - Scaffold pop star, radio presenter, Edinburgh Fringe regular - the same integrity shows through. Never seduced by "stardom", though nevertheless managing to enjoy many of its experiences, his writing and performing, whether for children or adults, has never veered into intellectual bullying, or patronised.

As a result, the great British public have reacted with warmth and support, and McGough should be claimed as the people's poet or, even, a national treasure.

Certainly, as the tone of his book reflects, and despite his association with luminaries such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan, he has stayed true to his role as a wordsmith, figuring that a poem without an audience is like a meal uneaten or a prize unclaimed.

As a young teacher I regularly enlisted him in charming my English classes, shamelessly playing on the fact that we attended the same school to inveigle a visit for little or no fee while he was performing on the Fringe.

He was always brilliant with the pupils and effortlessly gave them the impression that he and I were bosom pals, although he had left St Mary's nine years before I arrived. Never had my stock been higher in the classroom.

The written word can seem increasingly irrelevant to some pupils, but McGough's work still has the ability to charm, engage and give pause for thought.

To quote the great man himself: "Words? Why, he can almost make them talk."

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