Wordsmith Festival: John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke. Photo by Gerald Jenkins

John Cooper Clarke. Photo by Gerald Jenkins

First published in Literature by

Two years ago the Bard Of Salford was rifling through his bag of papers onstage downstairs at Komedia.

Now he is returning to Brighton to headline the Dome Concert Hall.

It’s all thanks to the film Evidently John Cooper Clarke, which scored BBC Four some of its highest ratings when it was aired as part of the Punk Britannia season to coincide with the Olympics.

The show reminded the nation what fun the spidery figure was: a cult hero who penned cutting rhymes that captured the anger of the punk days (Snap, Crackle And Bop, his most successful album, reached 26 in the charts), and did it for those who didn’t know how to articulate what they were feeling.

“Much is made of my courage in the face of adversity in the punk years,” he says, thinking back to when he worked as a lab technician by day and gigged with support from folk group The Ferrets by night.

“Before that I was in the working men’s clubs of the north-west of England. And there is one thing you can take for granted in those places – that most of the punters were not interested in poetry.

“So the world of punk rock held no terrors for me. It was a walk in the park by comparison. Except maybe the first couple of gigs when people though it was clever to spit or throw things.”

The spitting did for XTC’s Andy Partridge’s stage career after a spittle bomb landed in his mouth when he gasped for air between blowing the harmonica. What did Clarke do to stop them?

“I didn’t stop ’em. I used to wear mohair suits in those days. As soon as the sputum started flying in my direction, I was out of there.”

Still, he credits punk with giving him a start.

“It got me in front of larger audiences. I realised early on the poetry I write maybe sounds better than it looks. No one gets a publishing deal out of nowhere. Every poet you’ve ever liked has started out by writing pamphlets or whatever. Even back to the likes of John Keats.”

That was a different world, though.

“Somebody liked you that had a few bob and they would give you a generous stipend and a barrel of sherry and tell you to get on with it.

“‘Keep at it Mr Clarke,’” he honks, “‘your poetry is the spice of life,’ but those days are gone. No one has any money any more.”

He’s coming to Brighton as the big draw of the Wordsmith festival, which will be “celebrating architects of text and spoken word” – a pretentious pull you’d never hear Clarke utter.

When he was at his sharpest he dealt with the tastes of the day – holidays in Majorca, the futility of modern life. But by the mid-1980s he was shacked up, addled on heroin, with Nico.

“We all lived in Brixton together. I think we did a joint gig in Brighton once, two nights at The Zap. Mid-1980s. Right on the beach, in the arches.”

He says Brighton is a favourite resort.

“I love the place. It’s a great town. As Keith Waterhouse so memorably put it all those years ago, ‘It’s a town that’s helping the police with its enquiries.’ “It’s got that louche thing about it, ever since the Regency I suppose, or maybe before that. All that fanciful Moorish architecture. It was pretty decadent from the start.”

As well as the recent documentary, aired in May, there’s been film work for the 63-year-old, who is more often mistaken for Ronnie Wood than himself (“I wish his band manager would make the same mistake”).

Plan B had Cooper Clarke performing a specially-composed piece, Pity The Plight Of Young Fellows, in his recent movie Ill Manors. Then there was a role in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control, which proved less taxing.

“I was only playing meself, which admittedly took all me acting talent.

“Thing is, I’ve been practising a lifetime and I look pretty good. I’m telegenic, not handsome.”

He was also added to the GCSE and A-level syllabuses not so long ago.

“That’s been great for me. It introduced my stuff to a whole new generation of readers, one of whom was Alex Turner [of Arctic Monkeys], who has not stopped dropping my name all over the world.

“But I should think so too. If you’re dealing with contemporary poetry, you can’t really leave me out, can you? It’s like rewriting history.”

Technology is not his bag. He might well have hundreds of emails from kids asking for clarity on cultural references.

“I wouldn’t know, I never look at emails. I’m not a cybernetic kind of guy. It’s not that I don’t like them, I love computers. But it’s like collecting Northern Soul records and comics. I can’t go down those roads because I know how great they are.

“If I had a computer, you’d find me dead in six weeks under a pile of pizza boxes.”

He talks as fast as he thinks. It mirrors his writing process.

“None of my poems are finished. They are abandoned. It’s why I’ve not got a book out. Every time I start to write them down in a form that can be typed so it’s legible, I can’t do it without altering or tweaking.

“It’s never over. I just have to walk away from them. Life’s too short to spend on one poem.”

He lives with Evie, his French wife of 22 years, in Colchester. The two bonded over Baudelaire.

He’s an encyclopaedia on culture – bigging up the Lewin Brothers, discussing the French Republic, former poet laureate Andrew Motion (not complimentary) – and is still writing.

“I’ve got loads of new poetry so maybe it will be different this time. I know everybody says this, but no two shows are the same with me. It’s one man, one mic, a verbal thing, but that’s the only consistent thing about it.”

His filing system is still plastic carrier bags with his life’s work scattered in them on bits of tatty paper. Surely he must worry about losing them?

“Yeah, all the time, I’ve people worrying for me. Everybody I know says, ‘When you gonna get them typed up?’ Which then becomes, ‘When you gonna get a book out?’ and I’ve no defence for this. I should have a book out, should have had one out five years ago.”

He’s cites our own Attila The Stockbroker – the communist spy in the city – as the standard bearer for political poetry because he puts complex issues into a simple and catchy form.

When it comes to his own politics, he sides with the man whose BBC Radio 6 Music Sunday afternoon show he guest presented early this year: Jarvis Cocker.

“At end of day, we get politicians we deserve. Jarvis put it best: C***s are still ruling the world. That sums up my politics. Use asterisks if necessary.”

  • John Cooper Clarke is at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Church Street, on Thursday, November 1. The show starts at 8pm, tickets £15/£17. Call 01273 709709

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