Poetry has the power to rework memory and transcend the limits of a straight portrait. Roger McGough discovers the terrible honesty of prose in his autobiography. But does he discover Roger McGough? Sian Hughes is fascinated by the search
Said and Done: the autobiography
By Roger McGough
Poets come complete with "other lives". It comes from spending a lifetime bound up in an art form that does not pay. For everyone who knows a poet by his writing, a hundred more know him as a teacher, TV presenter or tin-plate cutter in a toy factory, to take examples from Roger McGough's other lives.
He is unusually good material for an autobiography as he seems to have lived most of his life dressed up as himself, pretending to be someone called Roger McGough. He begins the book by reading a letter from himself excusing his absence and introducing his stand-in. Later on, we read that he has been plagued by a bag of seemingly random items that keeps re-sending itself to himself, asking him first "Are you sure you are really Roger McGough?" then "Are you still sure...". It emerges that he has been pursued by a work of art, in the shape of a plastic bag containing chewing gum, rail ticket, newspaper and music festival leaflet, with the title "An Incident Regarding Identity". It was produced by art students in Sunderland who were briefed to trail McGough after a visit in the early 1970s, buy exactly what he bought and send the package to him on each anniversary of the performance. This book, which has the flavour of a live gig, confirms that McGough is, as he has suspected all along, a walking work of art.
Expect to be entertained.
I'm a reader. I look in a poem for the truth about myself, not the writer.
And the shock of a poet's autobiography - prepare yourself - is that the book will not be about you, the reader. It won't even tell the story of the "real" Roger McGough, the poet who exists solely for you, who rode a thousand or so miles of train track in the pocket of your coat, or kept you company those critical few nights in SheffieldAlabamaHelsinki. It might even, if you can bear the idea, be the story of a man's life, subject to times, places, coincidences, grief and confusion.
The trouble with fact is that it is so strange. No one would believe it in a poem, let alone warm themselves with the illusion that it was written especially for them. Gillian Roxburgh and her husband dined out for years on the story of The Scaffold, the Liverpool band McGough joined in the 1960s, arriving at their house late on Christmas Eve 1968, reduced to knocking on strangers' doors to track down a television set on which to watch themselves sing "Thank U Very Much" on The Eamonn Andrews Show.
Gillian was in the bath, and had to miss watching The Scaffold watching themselves in order to take out her curlers. She later became a schools inspector, met McGough recently at a schools creativity conference, and told him that she suspected her friends had never believed the tale.
Perhaps now they will.
That's the other thing about prose-truth as opposed to poetry-truth. It has a setting in time and place. People did not always have video recorders or mobile phones. And they put things called curlers in their hair. So McGough's story is the story of a generation. It begins with childlike misunderstanding about the Second World War, games on bomb-sites and raids spent in a cot under the stairs, and moves through questions of where you belong and how you sound, elocution, selective schooling, parental pressure, religion, abolition of national service, pop music, pop art, the revolution that turned Liverpool into a "lucky" place to have lived in during the 1960s, not just another northern city, and the reflection that some social boundaries, at least, have gone.
I hope someone buys a copy for the Queen, who only managed to brighten into a semblance of recognition at the mention of "Lily the Pink" while awarding our hero an OBE for "services to poetry". (Poetry, Your Majesty, those short bits of writing that don't always go to the end of the paper, sometimes make you think a bit about life and stuff? No?) HM will be in good company, I suspect, in searching through this book for the story of three guys in white suits singing funny songs on Top of the Pops and going to parties with really famous people, though she may be less interested than most in the "spot the celebrity" aspect of the work, being something of a name herself. There is plenty for the name-spotter to spot here, from Philip Larkin in Hull University library to winning the last two seats on the plane from Salman Rushdie in a toss of a coin. But this is an autobiography, and not a sideways biography of his times, places and compatriots.
Poetry readers beware: this is the book where Roger McGough discovers the terrible honesty of prose, the inescapable first person masquerading as himself and becoming dangerously convincing. As a small child the poet wandered on to a minefield. He remembers chasing a red ball. When he checks up on the story he is told he followed a dog, who was blown up ahead of him. The poet knows that the truth lies somewhere in the image of the red ball bouncing through the wire, or else in the way we rewrite our mistakes, or the ways we need to be rescued. The prose writer simply has to say he remembered it wrongly. By the end he wishes he had created "a more believable me".
This book should surprise McGough's devoted readers. They might be glad to recognise that the narrator shares some of their pride and pleasure in the success of his work. McGough owns up to some vanity and some regret. He is a self-confessed "TUMP" (Typically Useless Male Poet), and proves it by (a) believing he is the original in Wendy Cope's poem, and (b) assuming that in his case charm, sex and charisma excuse a great deal. Perhaps they do, but I would rather believe I was won over to this narrator by the eternal youthfulness that still can't quite believe it's time to grow up, and the sense of him setting out on the moral journey still wondering who to be, and how best to go about it.