Culture

Punk poet John Cooper Clarke: 'The drugs? Well, obviously keep away from all that s**t'

Punk poet John Cooper Clarke writes to his younger self about poetry, sartorial autonomy, and becoming a 'modern day Cyrano de Bergerac'

John Cooper Clarke. Portrait by Bryan Ledgard

John Cooper Clarke. Portrait by Bryan Ledgard

It was starting to look like a bright new world in 1965. Musically and stylistically it was a great time. I was completely Americanised thanks to years of Jerry Lewis and the automotive industry. My heroes were The Beatles, the Stones and anything from America. Italy was also important – the designers of scooters, espresso machines and the continental suit.

I had left school by the age of 16, so I was responsible for my own wardrobe. Sartorial autonomy was an important part of one’s development. And that was a fabulous time to be sartorially autonomous. It was easy to be leftfield. The semiotics of what you were wearing, how many buttons you had, were areas of arcane speculation, which suited my temperament. I even worked in the rag trade, in what would now be termed a sweatshop, in Ancoats.

A big turning point was the opening of the Top Rank Bowling Alley in Cheetham Hill. Self-invention was all the rage and you couldn’t do that at home. Four of us pals would do anything to get out of the house where we could smoke cigarettes and swear. We had a circuit of shop doorways in Manchester to hang around in. It was invariably raining. We shouted at passing ships and made a nuisance of ourselves. But the bowling alley was a bright, American atmosphere with Coca-Cola machines, jukeboxes, contemporary furnishings. Altogether a fabulous place to hang out. It cost two shillings to get in, which kept the scum out, and we drank Coca-Cola and listened to whatever anyone put on the jukebox. It changed our lives.

We were modernists and obsessive about it. Our taste was sophisticated and complex and difficult to locate, even in a bustling city like Manchester. That was a full-time job. Every moment of the day was spoken for in one obsessive pursuit or another.

We were the only people I knew who lived in an apartment. Everyone else had Coronation Street-style houses. Ours was a badly converted Victorian slum but we didn’t think so because we had gargoyles. I made a big connection with New York at an early age because most of my social life took place on and off of the big iron fire escape like you see in movies like West Side Story.

I was never encouraged to be creative. But we had an inspiring literature teacher called John Malone, who was a rugged outdoors type but had a weakness for 19th century romantic verse, which he conveyed to a class of hormonal tough nuts. It’s how I imagine the rap scene started – we were trying to outsmart each other with million dollar words from the dictionary. There were chicks in the class, so there was a bit of competition. My school pals will remember this hothouse of poetic development at St Thomas’, which was a rough Catholic school. Put it this way, we had our own coroner!

I used to dream of being a professional poet. This is the career I was always trying to have. There was a series of American comic books called Classics Illustrated, which had Moby-Dick, Treasure Island and Cyrano de Bergerac. I identified with Cyrano de Bergerac’s ultra-romantic sensibilities and absurd nose. Then, of course, there was the movie with the great Gérard Depardieu. Unmissable!

My younger self would be surprised that I became a modern Cyrano de Bergerac. But a man can dream. That seems to be the retrospective message I am getting from all of this. In the words of Elvis, in the second movie he made after leaving the army: “You’ve got to follow that dream, wherever that dream may lead. You’ve got to follow that dream, to find the love you need.”

Don’t get married the first time – skip straight to the second one. That would be the advice to my younger self on his love life. But I couldn’t be happier in that regard. I’m in the Garden of Eden, buster. Don’t settle for less.

I’ve been in Essex for 25 years. If I had grown up here, I would have been more ambitious, aspirational and entrepreneurial – that is a time-honoured part of Essex life but not so pronounced in the north. Do what you want and try not be proved wrong, that has always been the extent of my ambition.

I was always political but not to a morbid degree. In 1965 we had the best prime minister in my lifetime, Harold Wilson. Everyone was happy then. Jeremy Corbyn, your political types, were saying: “He is not a socialist, why doesn’t he speak out more against the Vietnam War?” But looking back, you see what he was doing. Not a single drop of English blood was spilt in that conflagration, yet we stayed pals with Uncle Sam – and that ain’t nothing, buster. That is a level of statecraft that is not available any more.

Going round England in a tour bus with Richard Hell and the Voidoids was an incredible experience. Richard, the late Robert Quine; fantastic people with billions of great stories of the Lower East Side. But I wouldn’t go back.

The drugs? Well, obviously keep away from all that shit. But I am not good at dishing out advice. When I tell someone not to do anything, I can feel it has a hollow ring to it, coming from me. I wouldn’t have paid any attention, who listens to anything at that age? But you have to pay lip service to the pitfalls.

You need routine in your life to write properly. I’d like to say that I walk around with a butterfly net to capture inspiration but that is for amateurs. There were years when I didn’t do any poetry. Now I am very prolific. I work office hours, plain and simple. A retrospective of my work was bound to happen because of the resurgence of interest in my oeuvre. But I can’t wait to get some new shit out there.

Groundhog Day would be fabulous for me, that is a vision of paradise. Every day exactly like yesterday. I wouldn’t go back to any period of my life. I would like to stay exactly in the position I am now. It’s an impossible dream, that level of happiness. You only have to aim at it in order to miss it. But you’ve got to follow that dream.

Anthologia, a one-off collection from Dr John Cooper Clarke, is out now.

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