Roger McGough, the patron saint of poetry (at least according to Carol Ann Duffy) is back with a collection that mixes some new poems alongside a handful of “revived and revised” poems from yesteryear (with ‘yesteryear’ here being taken to mean the 70s, the 80s and, perhaps stretching the rule a little, the noughties).
Now, if you don’t know anything about Roger McGough, you could argue he’s the thinking man’s John Cooper Clarke – which isn’t to have a pop at old JCC, and more to say that the both of them are a bit rock-n’roll in their way – but where JCC hitched his wagon to stars like Nico and The Fall, McGough started out in bands like Scaffold, and super groups comprising members of The Rutles and Dave, Dozy, Beak and Titch (or whatever they were called). By which, I suppose, we are saying McGough is a little more pop than JCC.
What you have here in Safety by Numbers is – well, a broad church. There are poems about life under Covid a la Roddy Doyle’s most recent short story collection Life Without Children. There are poems about poems. Poems about being a poet. There are poems that, you imagine, have arisen from requests to submit (would you like to create a poem about our nature trail, that kind of thing). I’ll tell you what you take away from this assortment, though: you take away quality.
I don’t read a huge amount of poetry (the level of concentration required for even short bursts of sustained esoterica and abstraction makes me feel stupid) and so inevitably when I do dip my toes in the water, I read a little like Peter Duncan in Flash Gordon (which I realise is a ridiculously old cultural reference but I’m ridiculously old, what are you going to do?), expecting to be bitten at any moment.
Thankfully, McGough is a veritable ninja master when it comes to setting you at your ease. You have nothing to worry about here. Or at least the worst you have to worry about is a little typographical playfulness. More often than not, the snap and crack of word play and rhyme will have you smiling and sitting back in your seat, softly applauding. Sometimes it’s just the pleasure of a well-realised idea (‘Adultery in Isolation’ talks about the effect of the lockdown on the serial adulterer, for example). Sometimes it’s, as you’d expect, the well-turned phrase, the perfect couplet, the finely polished thought (I’ll give you one: “Quornhub: Sexy adult fun for vegetarians”).
All told, Safety in Numbers is a lot of fun. It’s a book that is a pleasure to read. It’s a book that, as you read, you’ll no doubt read aloud to others in the room. You might drive them mad with it, as I did.
Any Cop?: It may be that you are fed up with
“The contagion of fear. Did you remember
To wash your hands after saying your prayers?
Lost in a thickening haze of bewilderment
Lockdowns and letdowns, lecterns and tiers
The relentless profusion of daphs and grata
An endless confusion of chigures and farts”
If so, I’d recommend a daily dose of McGough to deal with your cough and get your head straight.