Dorset Lives – Purbeck’s people’s poet
Nick Churchill meets Elvis McGonagall
Published in September ’15
It takes all sorts, of course it does, but how does a physically imposing, wild-haired son of Perth with a passion for poetry and a penchant for revolutionary politics come to be at large in the Purbeck hills?
For more than a dozen years now Elvis McGonagall, or as his passport would have it Richard Smith, has been carving a name for himself as a gentleman of letters from the home in Church Knowle he shares with wife Helen and the occasional audience of cows.
‘Sometimes I get the feeling I’m being watched and I look up and there’s a line of cows staring at me. I stare back, but they always win. We ended up here after we’d had enough of London. We were skint and with no prospect of being anything else so we moved to the country. We had friends in Purbeck and we sat in the Square and Compass one day and said: ‘This’ll do.’ We’re still skint, I do other jobs to make ends meet, but we’re here.’
The 2006 World Poetry Slam champion, Elvis is a regular on Radio 4 (Saturday Live and a slew of other shows) and has just been commissioned to write a second series of his radio sitcom Elvis McGonagall Takes a Look on the Bright Side. Co-written with Helen and producer/director Frank Stirling, it’s about Elvis trying to find the good in people and in life in general, but the trouble is he’s more inclined to continue plotting the glorious revolution from the comfort of his armchair at home in the Graceland Caravan Park.
‘I’m driven by inertia,’ he declares. The suggestion that perhaps he’s more closely aligned than he realises to Hardyean notions of the innate stoicism of Dorset folk is met with a knowing laugh, but in truth he’s no stranger to making things happen for himself. Following a short-lived legal career Richard trained at the Bristol Old Vic and begat Elvis around the turn of the century after getting fed up waiting for the phone to ring with acting work.
‘I think acting encourages you to be passive so I started writing and as some of it happened to be in verse I thought I’d go out and perform it. Elvis McGonagall is a cut and shunt name, McGonagall after William of course and because I’m Scottish and Elvis because it’s just so wrong, the wrongest name I could think of to go with McGonagall. He has a whole back story and it was a little schizophrenic to begin with, I used to think he was a lairier version of me, but now Elvis and Richard are interchangeable, I answer to both.’
What he’s less sure about is his job description.
‘Poet comes loaded with so many expectations. Some people think it’s small rooms and has to be something quite intense, which it can be, but it’s a lot of other things as well. I do satirical, political material, which is meant to be entertaining and even funny. That can confuse Poetry-with-a-capital-P nights, but then if I do my stuff at a comedy club because it rhymes people think I must be a raving intellectual.
‘So I don’t know, it’s all just words. In Swanage there’s Charlie the Bikemonger and I quite like ‘word-monger’, so that’s what I am.’
With a set list that includes poems such as ‘Let Them Eat Flake’, ‘The Inexorable March Of Western Cultural Hegemony’ and (deep breath) ‘An Analysis Of The Effects Upon The Arts Of The Collapse Of An Unfettered Free-Market, Risk-Prone, Privatised, Profit-Driven, Greedy-Bastard, Turbo-Capitalist Economic System And The Concomitant Economic Policy Of Deficit Reduction And Neo-Liberal Austerity Measures’ Elvis is clearly not your common or garden moon-in-June rhyme hack. But that said, the revolutionary rut is a lonely furrow to plough in Church Knowle, so how does he maintain his ire?
‘That’s interesting, can you be in a beautiful place and still be angry? Well yes, I watch TV and read the newspapers there’s always something to get riled about, or some celebrity doing something stupid. Dorset hasn’t got under my skin to the extent I roam the wild cliff tops declaiming lovelorn poetry – I don’t write any for a start.
‘We have a long history of radical ideas, of rebellion and in Dorset there’s the Tolpuddle Martyrs right at the heart of it, but while it’s good to do the Tolpuddle festival, to just have a laugh among like-minded people, I also really enjoyed some touring work I did in rural Hampshire a while ago playing venues in which I was very much not preaching to the converted. I loved the challenge of that. If you present the material and ideas well enough you can take the audience along with you even if they don’t agree with what you’re saying.’
‘There has always been poverty and inequality in the countryside, but it’s beautiful here and there are some amazing people. I was asked to write a piece for The One Show about where I lived and I ended up labouring over this poem about Purbeck, but I was really pleased with how it came out because it’s nothing like the stuff I usually write about.’
Elvis also comperes the not-quite notorious Blue Suede Sporran Club, hosting irregular gigs at Bridport Arts Centre and the Beach & Barnicott, but more usually at the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers.
‘It means we get other performers down to play venues they otherwise might not get to. So we’ve had John Hegley three times now, Atilla the Stockbroker, Luke Wright, they’re people I know, mates. The Square and Compass is a remarkable place, there’s nothing ersatz about it, it is what it is, people either get it or if they don’t there are plenty of other pubs.’
Elvis made a return to the Edinburgh Fringe this year after a five-year absence and shouted his new show Countrybile from a yurt in St Andrew Square. To do more he needs to write new material and he hasn’t managed a single word yet. If only the cows would stop staring… ◗
Purbeck – The Enduring Isle
Cast adrift from city sirens, an island
A sculpture shaped from limestone, clay and shale
Flower’s Barrow, Ballard Down, Old Harry Rocks –
Its steep backbone, the chalk spine of a whale
Brandy Bay, Tyneham Wood, land ploughed and drilled
Framed by wind-wracked cliff, shifting sand and heath
Crowned with a castle’s shattered silhouette –
Albion’s decayed, proudly ruined teeth
Veiled in ghostly sea-fog on wet dog days
Bathed in star-pav’d silent midnight skies
Where memories are cloaked in mason’s dust
Flint-hard history seen through quarrymen’s eyes
Whose muscle, grit and sweat built cathedrals
With the brittle chime of biddle and wedge
Cutting slabs from salt-sprayed, sepulchred caves
Tilly Whim, Winspit, Seacombe, Dancing Ledge
Thirst slaked clean by Square and Compass cider
As barrels clatter on the flagstone floor
Wood-panelled walls ingrained with song and story
Laughter echoing voices gone before
Mecca for apostles of the fossil
Trigonia and golden ammonite
The iguanodon’s old coastal footpath
Two hundred million sun-cracked years bleached white
Angels slumber in the blue marble beds
With hammer on chisel they awaken
Ironbound beauty slowly brought to light
Engraved deep in a past long forsaken
Now weekend cottages are haunted homes
And the gilded tourist shilling fills tills
Yet this is not England set in aspic
Still life draws breath from these ancient green hills
Timeless landscape for unhurried footsteps
A carving hewn from prehistoric bone
A deep seam of peace, space to think and dream
A living work of art, a precious stone
Elvis McGonagall for The One Show BBC1, May 2014