Tab Meets: John Cooper Clarke
A genuinely lovely man
He was late.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Frankly, I would have been disappointed had Britain’s most notorious Punk poet/drug abuser been punctual. When he did finally arrive, he insisted on having a cigarette before speaking to anybody. What a guy. The Union were not pleased.
When interviews started, he was extremely chatty – we were warned he was in a ‘verbose’ mood and we shouldn’t let him ramble on too much, as we only had 5 minutes each. His talk, scheduled for 7, started at 20 past because he insisted that the girl who was interviewing him at the time “didn’t have enough material”. The Union were not pleased.
Two things strike you very quickly about JCC – the first is his look, the ‘deranged mod womble struggling with anorexia’ chic which has stayed roughly the same for the last 30 years.
The second is the narcissism:
“I invented Paul Weller”, he exclaimed without a modicum of self-depreciation, along with “I like poetry because it lets me be famous for my brilliance, not the equipment I have”.
It was actually quite endearing.
His talk started awkwardly but soon picked up pace – yes, he rambled, yes some of what he said didn’t make sense, but for a man who spent almost as long taking Opiates as I have been alive he was remarkably lucid. At the end he performed some of his poetry, rather hilariously not being able to read his own handwriting mid-verse.
I asked him afterwards how he felt about speaking in a venue that was renowned for being as affluent, white and male-dominated as The Union, and whether he still saw himself as an anti-establishment figure.
He replied that he was already two thirds of the way to being rich, white and male, and that he had never really considered himself to be anti-establishment – it was something people had just assumed. He mentioned having poems commissioned by Sugar Puffs, saying that he didn’t see advertising as a challenge to his principles if it was promoting something so tasty and sugary.
His favourite profanity is “Drek Fresser” – Yiddish for ‘Shit Eater’. Unfortunately, it’s a “bit too niche” to make an appearance in any poems, so instead he will stick to good old-fashioned “motherfucker”.
Having worked with the likes of Elvis Costello, the Buzzcocks and more recently the Arctic Monkeys, he is pessimistic about the modern music industry:
“It’s finished. People don’t buy records anymore. I don’t understand why it’s still here, people seem to be able to get whatever they want for nothing. I don’t think it’s a good thing.” He added, rather smugly, that it wouldn’t really affect him.
In his talk he spoke at great lengths about how he aimed for timelessness in his poetry, which he later attributed to his love of Romanticism as a young man, enjoying the overarching themes which people can relate to.
Finally, I asked what he made of Cambridge. He said that, while learning is extremely important, it is not the most important thing in life. If his own daughter wanted to come, he would encourage her, but he said he didn’t mind how academic she turned out to be.
At the risk of sounding obsequious, he was a lovely man – one who thought a lot of himself, certainly – but a lovely man nonetheless, who still managed to be quite down-to-earth despite his cultish idolisation.