‘Now I’m busier there’s more to write about’

Punk poet John Cooper Clarke tries to explain his ever growing popularity while insisting he should be the last one to know where his appeal lies

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Chatting with Doctor John Cooper Clarke – the gaunt, avian, genius Bard of Salford – is an always interesting, often hilarious, occasionally frustrating experience. He meanders, laughs, wisecracks and rambles. Ask him about popular appeal and, half a sentence later, he’s explaining regret at not regularly betting on the outcome of Celebrity Big Brother. And anecdotes concerning the recent regeneration of Manchester and his home city miraculously morph into detailed appreciations of creativity and nuance within corporate advertising departments. If it wasn’t for the constant wisdom pouring forth, you’d likely hear his brain whirring.

“Us dopeheads don’t forget. We just don’t really like talking about it at the time very much.”

Clarke was born in Salford during 1949 and his 50 year career has, so far, encompassed punk, poetry, acting, advertising and television work. Yet it wasn’t until the 21st century that his stock really rocketed. “There’s a tendency to hark back to the days when I was mega, but to my knowledge those days never really were and I’m much more high-profile now,” Clarke explains from his Essex home. “I’ve always ploughed that lonely furrow of the single-minded poet and thought that it would pay out sooner or later.”

He cut his teeth as the “punk poet”, sharing stages with musical luminaries – The Fall, Sex Pistols, Joy Division and Buzzcocks among others – during the 1970s yet eventually became very much the main draw himself. This may have taken decades, yet Clarke is understandably satisfied with his achievements. “I honestly can’t think of another instance where someone tours large theatres with just an evening of poetry. Music hall had what they called monologue artists many years ago but they were always part of a larger bill so I’m a first, I think, and I’m proud of that.”

Pinning down his appeal is a difficult thing. Until we entered the dark days of Covid-19 the fact that, generally, more and more people were heading out to theatres and live venues will have helped, as will Clarke’s appearance on mainstream television panel shows. And just last year a much-lauded slot on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs – something he famously described as having “all the finality of a suicide note, without the actual obligation of topping yourself” – further raised Clarke’s profile. The term “national treasure” has even made the occasional appearance. Yet the obvious fact that Clarke is sharp, poignant, funny and eminently likeable remains the force behind his escalating success.

“It’s a difficult one,” he says, following an uncharacteristically lengthy spell of contemplation. “But I should really be the last one who knows where my appeal lies, otherwise you’re in chronic danger of self-parody. You know – ‘how would John Cooper Clarke say this?’”

He bursts into laughter.

“You have to forget about yourself in the third person as there’s too much going on when you’re writing a poem to go down that road and if you’re going to be a poet of the people it’s pretty important to lead a pretty normal life which, at every stage, I’ve tried to do.”

It’s that pretty normal life that Clarke has now detailed in I Wanna Be Yours, a work the author describes as memoir rather than autobiography: “I’ve had people mithering me to write a book for about 40 years. And they were asking me loudest back in the 1990s, the wilderness years before my resurgence, when it was a case of: ‘Well, you’re not doing anything else – get writing!’ But now I’m busier there’s more to write about and the older you get the more shit that’s happened to you. And a lot of shit’s happened to me. This is one of those books that won’t fit through your letterbox.”

Notoriously, some of those wilderness years were filled with little other than heroin addiction. Couple these with the hedonistic punk years and you have to wonder if there was ever trouble recalling those chapters of his life.

“I never kept a diary. I’ve had souvenirs that disappeared – hang on while I write that down, there’s a number in there; some of these poems write themselves! – and possessions just fly out of my hands but memories, I’ve got plenty of those. There were a few times when I thought back though and wondered: ‘Who else would ever do this?’ And you know that myth that if you can remember it, you weren’t there? Well, look at Keith Richards’ book, so bollocks to that. Us dopeheads don’t forget. We just don’t really like talking about it at the time very much.”

Once again, he laughs long and hard.

Recent days have been filled with recording the audiobook version of I Wanna Be Yours – “I’m getting a bit sick of the sound of my own voice; I never thought that day would come” – but, otherwise, the pandemic curtailed Clarke’s career.

“There was some really exciting live stuff lined up as I’m currently a very popular act,” he deadpans. “But, no more. Getting out there is just what I do really, and the more shows I do the more new poems I write. But I have had other writing to do, finishing the memoir, so in a way it’s played into my hands.”

The book is frank, often touching and, naturally, very funny. Few punches are pulled although Clarke – who received his honorary doctorate from the University of Salford in 2013 – admits to consulting some of those mentioned prior to publication. “I don’t want to get in no trouble here so I’ve run a few facts by people, usually old girlfriends, and asked if they mind being featured. I can’t go around upsetting people at my time of life so there are no hatchet jobs in there.”

But he adds urgently: “Actually, don’t put that in. People will be buying this thing just for the hatchet jobs. I’m shooting myself in the fucking foot there. Do not mention there are no hatchet jobs!”

There must have been the temptation to reheat old grudges though, surely? “Nah. Things have gone really smoothly for me, you know? Somebody up there likes me and I’ve had a charmed life. If you look at things in their entirety, which I’ve been encouraged to do for the last few months, it’s not for nothing that my most recent book of poetry was called The Luckiest Guy Alive. I mean that quite sincerely.”

I Wanna Be Yours by John Cooper Clarke is published by Picador (£20). New tour dates for the summer have now been announced (johncooperclarke.com). Read a conversation between John Cooper Clarke and Sydney Minsky-Sargeant of Working Men’s Club in the current edition of The New Issue, Big Issue North’s sister publication (bigissuenorth.com/the-new-issue)

Photo: Ki Price/Getty Images

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