Dr John Cooper Clarke is regarded in the world of punk poetry in the same way that James Brown is in the land of soul – The Godfather. He conjures up an endless stream of magical phrases and delivers them with his unique Salford drawl, leaving behind piles of people requiring medical assistance due to split sides. His pioneering style has influenced generations of writers and his poem, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, was reworked and featured on the Arctic Monkeys latest album AM.
John recently re-entered the domain of Yorkshire for some special shows celebrating the arrival of the Tour De France. I spoke to him over the phone from his home in Essex.
Poetry and cycling aren’t words you would usually associate with each other. How did these shows come about?
My friend Johnny Green [former road manager of the Clash] – he reports on it every year. That’s what he does these days. He reports for a high-end cycling magazine called Rouleur so he was sent up to cover it. He drives me places, so this time I got a show on the back of him. We figured out why not tie in a couple of shows, one in Harrogate where it set off from and one the next day while we were up there in Sheffield. We also made a program about the Tour De France for Radio 4 which will be broadcast in the autumn.
Did you see any of the Tour?
Yeah, course I did. In fact it went right past our hotel so we didn’t have very far to go. It was a nice day for it, the first of the very hot days of the summer.
What did you think of the way Yorkshire embraced it?
It was incredibly well attended. Unbelievable. You never see that many people out in Yorkshire. Somebody up there must like the Tour De France. When I say up there, I mean in heaven, as that’s the first time I’ve seen Yorkshire with the sun shining on it.
What was the first bike you had?
For a start, I had to save up for it really hard. It seemed to take years for me to acquire a bike. I grew up on a main road, probably the busiest crossroads in Manchester. My mother used to look out the window and say, “You’re not having a bike!” But I wouldn’t shut up about it, so then it morphed into, “I’m not buying it for you. I’m not contributing to your early death.” So I bought a second-hand one. It was a Phillips Vox Populi, gold coloured with yellow mud guards, which I stripped off in the interest of velocity.
And did it change anything?
It got me out and about. I’ve never been much of a saunterer, until now actually. I quite enjoy the life of a flaneur. But back then there was an etiquette to being on a bike. I think the days of the gentlemen cyclist are over, ever since they were conferred with moral superiority. Now they seem to be the carriers of all that is right and moral in the world, simply by not having a car. It has a bad effect on people, that kind of thing. Now they think they can just ride it anywhere.
While we are on the subject of bikes, I still do a lot of cycling now. I’m in possession of a 1959 Hercules Roadster in English racing green. I consider the hours I spend in the saddle to be golden.
Did you have any new material for the shows?
I’ve been writing a lot lately. I have a massive repertoire of poems. No two shows are the same. I can’t prove that as I don’t record them, but they all feel kinda different. There is a level of quality below which it never sinks.
Have you noticed a change in the demographic of your audience since the Arctic Monkeys released ‘I Wanna Be Yours’?
Oh, without a doubt. I’ve noticed that ever since the Arctic Monkeys started touting my name about, there is no age group for my audience anymore. It’s across the board. And being on Have I Got News For You, that helped.
You have such a distinctive voice and accent. Has it ever got you in any bother while on tour?
It’s never got me in any bother, but I don’t think the accent has anything to do with it. But if some people find it charming, I’m glad. I can’t see it meself. My dad was a very left-wing person, but when they started having people reading the news on Granada who had slightly regional accents, he went ballistic. He thought that people like Alvar Lidell should be reading the news, people with received pronunciation, because quite rightly he thought it was more important that the majority of people knew what was going on in the world, rather than some chicken shit regional point being made by shipping in some yokel. Let’s face it, no matter what your accent is, even Alan Hansen understands received pronunciation. Doesn’t matter if you’re from the Orkneys or fucking Cornwall.
Are there any accents you can’t stand?
Most of them. They make you sound like a peasant. I don’t like most accents.
What about yours?
The thing about my voice is I like the tone of it. I have a rich baritone. I’m a fucking fabulous singer. But I don’t see the appeal of the accent if I’m honest. I wish I spoke like George Sanders.
How do you write your material – still with a pen and pad of paper?
Yeah, old school baby. A quill and a parchment. By candlelight. In an attic. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The time-honoured method of poetry composition.
When did you first realise you had a talent for it?
Probably when I was about 13. That’s when I got an enthusiasm for it.
What was the first poem you wrote?
It was some commission we got at school. But I got severely punished once because games had been abandoned because of fog. That was the only thing that could get us off games. It was a foggy afternoon and we were given the job of writing a poem about cricket, just to keep us occupied. Not knowing anything about cricket and not being particularly interested I just wrote, “Rain stopped play”, and then looked out of the window for an hour. It wasn’t appreciated. I thought I was being succinct, but the powers that be saw it as skiving off poetry duty. And I was the poet. Ironic really. But a year later I would embrace the world of poetry thanks to an inspiring English teacher called John Malone.
Have you entered into the domain of social media?
No. Not in any way. Not because I am a luddite, but because I know how great it is. I would never step foot out of the house ever again. It is computer or livelihood. It’s as simple as that. If I got a computer you would find me dead in six weeks under a pile of pizza boxes. No mither.
Do you think the way people use technology today will be detrimental for the future of writing?
Almost undoubtedly. I can’t prove it. Do you know what I always say to people with mobile phones? Be here now.
Are people too busy obsessing over their mobile phones rather than observing the world around them?
That’s right. You have nothing to talk about when you finally meet because you have been talking on the way there. Everybody is a meeting ahead and they change arrangements because they can. Nobody ever sticks to the original plan.
I know in recent times you often toured with Mike Garry, who is a very gifted poet. Is that the case for the upcoming tour?
Yeah, a very popular choice. Mike Garry and Luke Wright. We are kind of a team now.
Are there any other talents out there that we should be aware of?
Poetical wise, millions of them – Tim Wells aka Frankie Mansfield, Salena Godden, Jock Scott, who is not very well at the moment, so catch him out while you can. A very gifted writer and gentlemen poet.
Anything else in the pipeline?
I gotta get a book out real soon. I have loads of new stuff. They have just reprinted my old book, Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt, which is selling very well, but of course I have all these new fans that Alex Turner and Plan B have introduced to my work. There is no age demographic at all to my audience, which is an enviable position for any writer.
Dr John will be hitting the road again this autumn, including a date in Wakefield and a special Christmas show in Manchester.