“What” by John Cooper Clarke (published by Picador)

The ridiculous, the sublime and points in between

Why “What”? What for? What’s the point? Why not why or where or when or which or who or whatever? Well, what does it matter? The point is, John Cooper Clarke, Doctor John Cooper Clarke actually, is a wordsmith, a professional wordsmith, a man who came to this Earth with a wonderful way with words, and he can use them however suits. We welcome them, whatever.
17. March 2024 5:06

Getting married? Then there’s a good chance someone might read out Dr. Clarke’s “I Wanna Be Yours”, his beloved love poem from 1982 in which, to prove his devotion, the poet offers to metamorphose into everyday items: “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust / I wanna be your Ford Cortina, I will never rust”, and so on.

It’s got so that this piece of poetry has become an irreverent favourite at weddings, and often these days a ceremony without “I Wanna Be Yours” is like being nailed to a cross without singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (no, JCC didn’t write that one, this equally revered piece came from Monty Python’s Eric Idle).

John Cooper Clarke and Eric Idle – (let’s add fellow Pythons Michael Palin and John Cleese, also Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and other artistic notables, purely subjectively) who might be referred to as National Treasures in Britain, often undecorated by the Establishment but recognised informally by the general public to whom they have given great pleasure.

JCC is most often referred to as the punk poet or the people’s poet. Even the Poet Laureate of Punk. That’s because he came to our attention in the age of punk music, the late 1970s, and his witty wordsmithery isn’t afraid of naughty words like fuck, cunt and turds. There may be “I Wanna Be Yours” but let’s not forget that another of his early better and longer efforts was the polar opposite “A Love Story in Reverse”.

This vicious load of invective had the lines “You put the pain in Spain, You put the cunt in Scunthorpe” and “Like a recently disinfected shit-house, you’re clean round the bend”, and many equally cruel. The contumely of “A Love Story in Reverse”, a bigger put-down even than Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”, sometimes goes by the alternative title “Twat”, for its ending, “They can’t find a good word for you/But I can/Twat”.

Unlike “I Wanna Be Yours”, this one wasn’t added to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) English syllabus at schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 1990s, bringing JCC to the attention of swatting students, and unaware teachers too.

Unfortunately, the man had spent a lot of years wasted on junk by this time, a bad case of harm in the arm, to the detriment of poetic productivity. Fortunately, after cleaning up,  those needles didn’t seem to have done him any lasting harm and he went on to to revive his career as a live act, perhaps to even wider popularity.

The good doctor has been gaining respectability too. In July 2013 Clarke was awarded an honorary doctorate of arts by the University of Salford, next door to Manchester, where he grew up. This was in “acknowledgement of a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians”.

The newly crowned Dr. Clarke, who also bears the nickname the Bard of Salford, responded to this accolade by commenting that “Now I’m a doctor, finally my dream of opening a cosmetic surgery business can become a reality”. Another time he claimed to have done a routine tracheotomy on a train from Liverpool Street – “I won’t go into it. But it’s amazing what you can do with a Bic ballpoint pen.” That’s our doc. Papa don’t need no gladstone bag.

And Salford City Council honoured him with the Freedom of the City last July for his extraordinary contribution to the world of poetry and unwavering commitment to the arts.

Just a simple photo of John Cooper Clarke, or the mention of his name, makes us smile. We just love the guy, and you’d recognise him if you saw him walking down your street, or any street for that matter, turning heads with his windswept barnet, sunnies and down to his drainies. That’s his sartorial style, as near unique as the scattergun live delivery.

And, stop us if we told you this one before, but in the early 1980s your The Budapest Times correspondent, Osterberg, then living in Sydney, Australia, went on a holiday to homeland England and, on the last night there, jouneyed into town to see the poet perform his rapid-fire readings at the famed Marquee Club in London.

The next day Mr. Osterberg flew back to Sydney – and within a couple of days was again watching Dr. Clarke there, at the Trade Union Club, an inner-city rock venue. The thought that has amused ever since is whether the two of us might have been on the same flight. But if so, how could your correspondent have missed seeing the bard’s wild back-combed barnet sticking up over the top of his seat in Economy Class?

It’s unlikely that the Australian tour promoter sprang to Business Class. Appearing on the late-night Australian rock music program “Sounds”, Clarke artfully brought the conversation round to complain about the “dreadful hotels these promoters have been putting me in. I went to see the manager last night. I said I’ve come to see you about the roof. He said what about it? I said I want one. I said I’ll have pneumonia in the morning. He said you’ll have cornflakes like everyone else.”

Oh, that we had written such gems: “Beans, greens and tangerines, and low-cholesterol margarines… He’s a health fanatic, he makes you sick”. Or “We walked out together, tentacle in hand, You could sense that the earthlings would not understand” (from “(I Married a) Monster From Outer Space”). Or “wives from Inverness to inner London/prettiness and pimples co-exist/pictorially wife-swapping with someone/who’s happily married to his wrist” (from “Readers’ Wives”). What larks they were.

These are from those early punk-’n’-spit days. There was nothing new print-wise for decades until “The Luckiest Guy Alive” in 2018. And what about the whyfor of the new “What”? Like “The Luckiest Guy Alive”, it is a bit hit and miss, though more on the hit side. “What” offers poems that vary from just a couple of lines, such as “Necrophilia” (“Fed up with foreplay and all that palaver/Have a cadaver”) to a couple of pages that tend to ramble and amble, to differing degrees of lucidity. “Smooth Operetta”, for one, sails over our heads

” Ode to the Coast” is a nice little meditation. “Anger Manager Anger Manager” is unclear (“rehassed”?),  “Lines Upon the Death of Mr Bruce Raynolds” (the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery in Britain in 1963) is a rather tossed-off tribute, likewise “Elvis No. 45” (45 what?) offers just eight lines for “a treasure you can measure in gold”.

“Time Gentlemen Time” cleverly uses the landlords’ last-orders call to riff on nature and mortality. “Doomed” too dishes out the gloom but the JCC way is to do it with laughs in equal measure. “Diez Macarenas” is a bit lightweight. And, yes, Frankie Vaughan really did have a song about Stockport, inspiring Clarke to immortalise Sheffield. And so on.

Of course, poets don’t have to rhyme, time after time after time after time, and “What” can be free-form and often obscure (maybe it should be “What?”). And when John Cooper Clarke is obscure, often of his meaning you can’t be sure, and when he’s not clear, is it him or us to blame, oh dear, that’s the fear, that’s the shame.

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