Roger McGough is 80 today and I honestly can’t think of a writer who’s been so influential on me; I believe he’s the reason I’m a writer today. It’s all because of a very strange picture book he wrote called Mr Noselighter. It’s about a man with a candle for a nose, and it’s strange and dark in a way that’s still quite rare in books for young children. I loved that book so much, I used to make my Dad read it to me over and over. Later, when I was too old for bedtime stories, I would listen in when he read it to my younger sister. I loved the sound of the words, the strange and startling images - the rhymes and the rhythm seized me and I don’t think they’ve ever let go.
I love that book also because it reminds me so much of my Dad. Until the day he died a few years ago, he could recite the whole thing because he had read it so often. When I look at it now, it’s a strange book for a child to get attached to; the images are quite scary, the ideas are surreal and the ending doesn’t offer any resolution. Quite why this would become a touchstone isn’t immediately obvious, except it’s all there in the words, the music and magic of them.
The circumstance, too, played a part. My Gran was a strange and unknowable woman who wasn’t much interested in her grandchildren, and she bought the book. I think she chose it because it was dark and she liked to stir up difficulty. I think she thought it might annoy my Mum, or that she could laugh if it gave me nightmares. If so, it backfired because that book is part of the fabric of our family’s history and despite all the darkness, holds nothing but happy memories for all of us.
I think that might be the secret of all family histories, a sense of happiness despite the darkness, despite the lack of resolution or neat conclusions. Obviously, that never occurred to me as a child, I just loved the sound of it, and the shivers that would travel down my spine as my Dad read a perfectly timed rhyme. From there, I started reading more children’s poetry and I don’t think I’ve ever looked back.
When I was little, I thought there was no one better in the world at reading stories and poems than my Dad. Part of me still thinks that, but looking back I can see that he enjoyed it as much as I did. He also loved words and language and every time he read that book he gave it his all. We both put so much into that one story, and it repaid us a hundredfold.
So, happy birthday to the man who opened my eyes to poetry, who still shares his enthusiasm and talent on Radio 4. And while I’m here, let me take the time to say… read to your kids. You’ll make memories to last a lifetime and you never know when you’re going to ignite a spark.