THE GOOD DOCTOR
I had a fabulous lunch at Noble Rot with poet John Cooper Clarke. That went on long into the night. …
Photos by Tom Cockram
The phone rings. “Hello it’s Doctor John Cooper Clarke here”. Hallelujah! I’ve only been trying to get hold of him for months. I love the way he always announces himself. That voice; how could it be anyone else? “John Cooper who?” I’m always tempted to say. “How are you Suze?”. Getting him to call me is a triumph in itself. The good doctor doesn’t have a mobile phone or use the internet. He doesn’t do emails “or any of that shit”. So to communicate with him requires sending smoke signals, semaphore, talking to a lot of men about a lot of dogs
I get to John eventually through his mate Tim Wells, or Swellsy as he calls him, a very dear friend of John’s who used to put John on his regular poetry evenings when times were hard for him. The gigs were called “Rising” with the tagline, “Tough on poetry, tough on the causes of poetry”. Wellsy is from Stamford Hill, “a big lad with a good tailor”, an expert in vintage reggae and a local character . Thank god he doesn’t share Clarke’s view on social media. So I message Tim and say “Can you get John to call me? All I want to do is take him out to a really nice restaurant and do an interview, loosely based on food and wine”. Just how loose I’d very little idea.
Anyway, months pass and eventually the good doctor calls. Can we meet at one I ask? He settles on 1.30 because he “doesn’t want to get up too early”. The night before I panic. What if he doesn’t show? I message Wellsy again who says “He’s good with appointments. Us old school chaps usually are”. And he is, of course, right.
A lovely woman called Siobhan has also emailed me as she appears to be looking after him that day to tell me he’s going to be a bit late. Being John Cooper Clarke, I realise, means having lots of young women continually trying to make sure you are where you say you’re gonna to be - without phones anything can happen. Which I now see is a great way to live. The car pulls up outside and it takes some time to get him out as he’s deep in conversation about some court case with the driver. There’s no one this man doesn’t talk to. Anyway, here he is. Rock ‘n’ roll
. Funnily enough I met him yonks ago and food was involved then too. He knew I was in the audience as he’s an avid tabloid reader and I was at The Mail on Sunday with another of his favourites, Peter Hitchens. Yes, I know. He invited me backstage and there he was holding a plate of cold meats. “Hello,” he said, “May I tempt you with my fabulous charcuterie?’. Not a line you hear every day.
Off we went with Swellsy to a tiny club where he did an impromptu gig. “Is that really him?” people kept asking. As if it could be anyone else. He knew the area well as it was where he used to come to score. When we got in the minicab, the driver asked him to put a seatbelt on. “What if I wanna fookin’ die?” he said. Since then I’ve seen him all over the place and used to worry as he carried his poetry around in a couple of plastic carrier bags. This is a man whose work is now on the GCSE syllabus. I Wanna be Yours is one of the nation’s favourite wedding poems. And at long last he’s written his memoirs, now out in paperback.
When he sent the book to me he’d written something so “unwoke“ – no NOT in that way – that I burst out laughing. I cannot repeat it here as I am in enough trouble as it is. I remind him now that the last time I saw him was on stage in Hoxton where he was shooting the breeze with Johnny Green, another utterly marvellous old school gent who used to manage the Clash. He was talking about when he lived with Nico who loved hoovering and especially liked the Shake and Vac ads on the telly. He then did an impersonation of Nico singing “Shake and Vac. Bring the Freshness back”.
It was hysterical. “Was it true?” I ask him as we sit down at the table. “Print the legend kid” he says. “Print the legend”. Dan suggests we sort out food before I start the interview. Big mistake. John does like to eat, though of course no one believes that. He used to have a line in his show about walking around Manchester where people would shout “Get back on the skag, you fat bastard”. “Is there anything you don’t eat?”, Dan asks.. Some people have a list, don’t they? But few could match the good doctors’ – “Falafels, flapjack and tripe.” We have David Léclapart Champagne ‘L’Astre’, and Dan explains something about growers and John orders oysters, the famous slip sole, and then cheese puff things. You can tell I’m not a restaurant critic.
Anyway we’re now drinking George Vernay Condrieu ‘Les Terrasses de L’Empire’ 2018 which is “creamy” and lovely. “Have some of this bread John,” I say, “The soda bread is wonderful”.
“Oh no darling, you don’t fill yourself up on bread in an ‘all you can eat’ restaurant”. (I’m not sure whether Noble Rot will be using that in its PR blurb). John is now tucking into the grouse and we’re drinking some Chin Chin vino verde which he describes as “a nice breakfast wine.” Some football chat goes on. Manchester United, obviously. John was extremely young when he started going with his Dad. He describes the team as world class even then and he loved his Dad who gave him much sensible food advice such as “You will never get food poisoning in a chip shop – what could live at that temperature?“ and “All the vitamins you need are in a head of beer.” One of the treats of going to the match were the pies which he described as having just “a threat of meat”.
His wonderful turn of phrase is unsurprising. Poetry is his first language, after all. He is steeped in it. He can recite Tennyson or tell you everything you need to know about Rupert Brooke. Just as he has an ear for what he calls true class folk music such as the terrace chants when Manchester United played Liverpool. This is sung to the tune of Top Cats.
You thieving bastards
You thieving bastards
We all know you live on the dole
And live in a fucking shit hole.”
As a child in Salford the only fruit he ever saw was apples and “Rowntree Fruit Pastilles”. He got sent to Rhyl to convalesce after getting TB where he was given lots of sugar. Was it the TB that gave him his lithe physique? He has remained 8 stone 12 lbs all his life. The only time he got fat, he says, was when he was in rehab. What he means by fat I really don’t know. But god knows, it wasn’t always easy. Where he grew up he says, “a victimless” crime was someone getting beaten up in the dark.” He hated violence. But what he did have was this way with words. This absolute feel for language - and a teacher with a penchant for the Romantic poets. Like Michael Gove he believes in rote learning. ”Get it in ya kid. What you learn at 12 may not mean anything at the time but 30 years later it might. ”The public library, the gold standard, the value of rhyme”, these are the things he talks about seriously. These are his values.
“From Rupert Brooke I learnt you can go at different speeds”. Who knew his machine gun delivery derived from that? At 15 he decided to be a professional poet. Of course, he did a lot of other jobs too: “But you must have a vision of victory in your head”.
How did someone from his class have this? He thinks he had good mental health but this is not a concept he has much time for: “Everything is mental health now isn’t it? If everyone is mentally ill, then nobody is”. The solution is, apparently, that everyone should be taught to recite poetry and not be infantilised. He goes off on a riff about Winne the Pooh “The fat fuck. Just get the honey and get stuck in a hole?” In fact he does not like humanised bears in general “Fuck Yogi. Fuck Boo Boo. Fuck the Care Bears”. Um well…yes? Dessert? “Something with fruit.” So he has the greengage tart and there was more wine and I start to think I should begin the interview properly soon.
In his memoirs, it’s apparent there’s no one he hasn’t met yet – he has the extraordinary gift of treating everyone as important. Maybe that’s called charm. Maybe it’s growing up poor. I just know he has it in spades. He simply has time for everyone and so everyone has time for him. When he used to support The Fall he describes Smithy “as being able to reinvent himself on stage.” “And that’s what rock n roll is there for.” He calls him “Captain Charisma”, but he could be talking about himself. Asking him to define things is difficult because he knows everything there is to know about poetry. From Poe he went to Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Indeed his love for his wife Evie, who is French, blossomed over a translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire and Rimbaud are his heroes - and dandies to boot. So is he, though he claims to have dressed the same way since 1965. No one else did stand up poetry when he started. It was Bernard Manning who gave him his first job and there’s still that working man’s club thing going on in his patter. He makes jokes about anorexia and alzheimers that many ‘edgy’ young comics wouldn’t dare make today. Because he can. Above all he knows what poetry IS. “Poetic is when something has a lasting value”. “Poetic sounds incomprehensible, but it’s something that has an impact of daily life.”
Like music, he explains you should never be prepared for it. “It should knock you out every time you hear it, like the first time”. Like Elvis does, his hero. “The Bob Dylan argument is stupid. A poem is not a song.” He wants neither to analyse music or humour because for him they are both “a kind of magic. It’s like dissecting a frog. The frog dies and no one laughs.” The conversation moves effortlessly between high and low and low culture as the wine flows. Van Morrison is a fan and one of the few people he seems star-struck by - Van apparently turns up at his gigs. I decide its best not to go into Morrison’s latest anti-vax works as he goes into a rapture: “I mean Astral weeks….Astral Weeks”
And then Chuck Berry who he adored and Dostoevsky and Dickens, who he first read as comic books. He also watches so much telly. He says he can’t have the internet because he’s an addict, but Freeview appears to have given him a whole new lease of life. “Have you seen Abandoned Engineering ?” he asks me . Er no, what channel is it on? “Ooh it’s on Yesterday.” It’s his favourite. “Also Impossible Engineering. It’s the height of human failure. At least with Abandoned Engineering they’ve built the thing “ He loves Bargain Hunters, Wheeler Dealers ,Salvage Hunters , Find It, Fix it ,Flog It. “I tell you who I l really love…”
At this stage, I can’t imagine. It’s all so mad and hilarious. This is a man who has lived with two of the Velvet Underground, Nico and John Cale, so I’m waiting for the answer with bated breath. “Michael Portillo,” he says. “I’ve learnt so much information packed into half an hour off him. With those acerbic pastels”. There’s a lovely bit in his book where Cale is very tetchy, which John puts down simply to him having a bottle of vodka in the morning and amphetamines all day, while Nico is forever making rice and dahl and eating cubes of raw jelly. Obviously for many years everyone thought he was a speed freak when he and Richard Hell - “a pussy magnet” - were doing heroin. He was an addict for a very long time and it took him an equally long time to quit – “No one wants to.” We’re then off into a conversation about blood tests and how when they can’t find a vein in his arm he says, “let me do it, I”ll get one in my feet”. He seems miffed he’s not allowed to do this in his local hospital.
For some reason he asks me if I love dogs, as he does, pugs in particular. ”The dog du jour”. I say I don’t go for them as they have breathing difficulties . He’s disappointed in me:“You have to love something with difficulties. A perfect gift for the childless. I’m a dog guy. And I’ve lived with a monkey. They are full of nothing but self-interest”. Of course he’s lived with a monkey. .He has also hung out with Gil Scot Heron, the Sex Pistols and seen Archie Shepp play. He went through punk. And hippydom: “cat maniacs who don’t go to doctors”. He remembers every bit of it.
Another flurry of phone calls and someone comes to tell us John has to be somewhere else. Someone else hands him a phone and he says “Oh tell them there’s a mix up with the car”. “Sky Arts,“ he says, “we’re going there now”, he says to me and Tom the photographer who seems to be part of this trip too. I’ve no idea what time it is; it’s dark even though we’re still on the Chin Chin breakfast wine. I imagine we’re off to a TV studio where I can interview him properly with the questions I prepared earlier.
But no. We walk into a kind of club with people sitting around tables and a reading going on. It’s Bernadine Evaristo. Oh my god. She’s amazing. Then Nitin Sawhney does the most incredible performance. “So, you’re doing a turn John?”. I see Melvyn Bragg. “Yeah” What’s happening, I’ve no idea, but I’ve no doubt of the warmth the room has for him. He perches on a stool and does Beasley Street and I Wanna be Yours. I. More alcohol is obviously involved and we go up on the roof for a smoke. As Pete Shelly said of him “when he does appear it’s like the sun breaking through the clouds''. I vaguely remember we should be talking about food and am intrigued that Nico used to put Crabtree and Evelyn Rosewater in the heroin they shot up so as not to get the bitter taste but by now any sense of an interview has gone out the window.
Where even are we? It turns out to be Sessions Arts Club which is said to be cool but I couldn’t really say. We’ve now been at lunch for 12 hours.
“I got the world on a string and I’m sitting on a rainbow” he says towards the end of his book. I hope there’s another one. Another flurry occurs. Another car is arriving. Another person comes with a phone: is he ready to go? ”Give me ten minutes”. Then he’s off, back into the night, Essex-bound to his beloved Evie and daughter Stella . “I’m a made man,” he tells me because The Sopranos used Chickentown on a soundtrack. I’m still wondering when the interview will begin and hate my stupid tape recorder. A pen and paper is all you need really. And a good memory. Well, it’s worked for him. He is indeed a made man. In love with language, with people, with life itself. Cherish this guy. You don’t meet many people like him in a lifetime.
Whatever the real deal is, whatever that means, you know it when you meet it. It’s Doctor John Cooper Clarke.
With thanks to Dan Keeling at Noble Rot.