Review: Roger McGough & Ian McMillan

Light and shade: Roger McGough. Photograph: Colin Clarke
3 Dec 2015 @ 11.49 am
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Roger McGough & Ian McMillan, Grand Opera House

November 25

There are people who think that poetry is dry, dull and out of date. If any of them had been in the vicinity of the Grand Opera House on the night of this show, they would have been very confused by the gales of laughter and thunderous applause coming from within, as two of the country’s best loved poets shared the stage.

McGough and McMillan last worked together in Sheffield in 1983, and have been telling each other ever since that they ought to do it again.

The York Literary Festival committee made an excellent choice in allowing them to do so, in front of an enthusiastic and near-capacity audience.

For over two hours, separately and together, they shared a variety of work on themes such as family and relatives, getting older, and the strange things that people say.

A Tweet prior to the show suggested this was “the Poetry of the Roses” – McGough is famously one of the “Liverpool Poets”, while Ian McMillan still lives in the village where he was born, near Barnsley.

But little of McGough’s work specifically references Liverpool or the north-west, certainly nowhere near the extent that McMillan’s writing is rooted in his experience as a Yorkshireman.

Deep love of language

There is much more that unites them than simply being poets. Both grew up in working-class areas, surrounded by many aunts and uncles, and both share a somewhat sideways view of the world which enables them to see the ridiculousness of everyday life.

Both have a deep love of language, and the way that it is used day to day.

McGough’s readings may have had more light and shade in terms of subject matter – not just the flights of fancy of Mermaid and Chips, or the wit of Cats’ Protection League and Mafia Cats, but the desperation of dementia (A Fine Romance) and the rock-solid determination that ageing should not bring invisibility and obsolescence (The Cure for Ageing, written for an AgeUK TV campaign).

But even in these darker poems, his wit still flashes. He has now written a PS to The Cure for Ageing, which goes: “If anybody says to you, ‘Well, what do you expect at your age?’ – hit them.”)

Captain Pigwash and Edward Scissorteeth

The bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan. Photograph:
The bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan. Photograph:
McMillan’s contribution was, on the surface, more consistently funny, but the pathos was still there under the surface – in his comprehensive list of the nicknames of men, now long-redundant, in the Sheffield steelworks (Captain Pigwash, Edward Scissorteeth, Hand on Bollocks, Oompa-Loompa) to his adolescent crush on Diana Rigg, as Emma Peel in The Avengers.

McMillan is a keen eavesdropper, and told us several times that all we need to do, to create poems ourselves, is to write down what we hear around us – “Use your right-hand leg!” “Well, it’s only a novelty Coronation Street alarm clock…”

He frequently punctuated his stories with a shake of his head, and, “I wish I were making some of this up…”

As always, the front of house staff were very friendly and helpful with my wheelchair. Level access is partway down King Street, but the box office staff need to be alerted when you arrive, so that they can unlock the door. The accessible toilet next to this door is not overly generous in size, but is well-equipped and very clean. There is always an usher nearby if you need help. The pavement on King Street has now been improved, which makes the journey to and from the level access door a little less bumpy and problematic. If you have a Blue Badge, however, I would recommend parking on King Street itself.

Like McGough, he has no air about him of “I am the great poet – you must listen to me and worship at my feet”. I don’t think his family would stand for it.

His wife, apparently, has suggested she get him a badge for Christmas, reading, “Will spout bollocks for cash”.

Many of his stories are against himself. For example: every week he goes to Wombwell, up the road from his home village of Darfield, with his wife and mother-in-law, for “a few bits”. On one visit, a man pulled up beside him in a car, and rolled down his window.

“You Ian McMillan?”
“You’re on the radio?”
“You’re on the TV?”
“You write books?”
“You’re shite.” And he drove off.

If you get the chance to see either of these excellent performers in future, don’t hesitate to take it. If you get the chance to see them together, then beg, steal or borrow to get a ticket.

I promise you that you won’t be disappointed – and, if you are one of those people who thinks poetry is boring, it will change your mind forever.