Lifesaving Poems: Roger McGough’s ‘I always wanted to go on the stage’

2013-08-21 13.20.04


I count myself lucky to have been taught by a team of English teachers who I have no doubt lived for their subject.  As opposed to the other teachers we had at the time, they actually seemed interested in what we had to say about things. I am not ashamed to think that they changed my life.

They taught in rooms surrounded by books, with complete sets of Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath, not to mention Beckett, Pinter and Shelagh Delaney. Some of were already a bit battered, whilst others looked decidedly new.

In this last group were several collections by Roger McGough, books like Gig, In the Glassroom, and After the Merrymaking.  These were somehow set apart by their newness. Their front covers had modern-looking lower case fonts, with atmospheric photographs. Their back covers even had portraits of the author. This was unique to me at the time.

I quickly grew to like this Roger McGough that we were reading. His poems seemed funny on the surface, below which I was aware of stronger emotional undercurrents. One afternoon we looked at the poem ’40 — Love’, as powerful yet simple a poem (I had not seen a poem which played with ‘shape’ or ‘layout’ before) as I thought I had seen. It felt part of my world and simultaneously very distant from it, which only made it more attractive.

It was at this point I began asking for poetry books for birthday and Christmas presents. My parents probably thought I would grow out of it.

One evening –not a birthday or a holiday– my father brought home from work a book in a slim paper packet for me as a present. By this time I owned my own copy of After the Merrymaking. This was decidedly different. Inside the front page it said: ‘This edition is limited to 1,000 copies, the first 100 copies being specially bound and signed by the author.’ It was published by Bernard Stone at the Turret Bookshop of Covent Garden in London.

The poems, it quickly transpired, were all thirteen lines long, and were all written in the assumed voices of people I took to be other than the poet of my English lessons, Roger McGough. Like ’40 — Love’ each of them seemed both easy to understand and carrying a great emotional freight. McGough’s subsequent Selected Poems labels the sequence thus: ’13 voices from a woman’s hostel in Soho, 1979.’

Every single one of the poems displays extraordinary control. They look and behave like sonnets which have crucially fallen short of themselves. The accuracy of his ear, not to mention his compassion and lack of sentimentality, is devastating.

I thanked my father, of course. But we did not speak about it, not really. I took this present as a sign from him, if not of understanding, then at least of acceptance of my new hobby. I have not let go of it since.

I always wanted to go on the stage.

Dancer mainly, though I had a lovely voice.

Ran away to the bright lights of London.

To be a star. Nothing came of it though

so I went on the game. An actress

of sorts you might say. I’m the oldest

professional in the oldest profession.

Would you like to see me dance?

I’ll dance for you. I dance in here

all the time. The girls love it.

Do you like my dancing? Round

and round. Ne bad eh for my age?

I always wanted to go on the stage.


Roger McGough, from Unlucky for Some (Bernard Stone, 1980)

Lifesaving Poems



  1. I like the story behind the poem you share with us today even more than the poem. It is a great feeling for the recipient of a gift when someone knows you well enough to offer you a book they know will matter.
    Thank you for sharing, Anthony.


    1. Thanks so much for saying this. I think we are story animals, aren’t we? Whoever it was who said that truth comes better in the form of a story was on to something. What I most enjoy about this blog is remembering them all and trying to give them a shape for others to access.As ever with thanks for your appreciation.


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