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Red-brick Midas

John Fleming

I Wanna Be Yours, by John Cooper Clarke, Picador, £20, 480 pp, ISBN: 978-1509896103

The Sir George Robey. London. 1995. A scruff gathering of fans stands before a black line of a man motor-mouthing into a microphone. Much material is familiar – this is like a verbal greatest hits. There’s the one about the haiku: “To convey one’s mood in 17 syllables is very diffic.” And then the magnificent landscape of Beasley Street: “The rats have all got rickets / They spit through broken teeth / The name of the game is not cricket / Caught out on Beasley Street … People turn to poison / Quick as lager turns to piss … It’s a sociologist’s paradise / Each day repeats.”

The audience of about forty is bound together by tight appreciation. The pub carries fleeting musical memories of previous gigs attended in the mid- and late 1980s: the hard smart-alecism of Marc Riley and the Creepers barking out their post-Fall northern-wit rock tunes; the lid-opened, top-hat grebo satire of Gaye Bykers on Acid; these events permafrost-pickled in Löwenbräu pints and lengthy night-bus treks home to Walthamstow. Now in the mid-1990s, the venue and its scale of operation feels reduced, worn, shrunk in the wash. This is no zenith. We have all gone downhill; we are all past our prime, dilapidated like the building. This spoken word/stand-up performance by the legendary “punk rock” poet feels like the fall of the house of Usher. A muscular notion of protective nostalgia permeates the small crowd. The artiste is part-garbed in glamour, part-garbed in the cloak of reduced icon. But this is the man in the flesh, he is still larger than life and these are his cherished words. In this past-expiry date Finsbury Park pub, deal with one fact: aesthetics carry the curse of personal and world neglect.

A few at the front seem particularly fond of John Cooper Clarke. Possessive even. He launches into what appears to be an aside. It is a riff about Japan and its technology, its economy of TVs and computers, its ability to absorb ideas and then replicate and improve them. “Aren’t they just great?” Laughter. Yes, yes, the silly Japanese. Then a change of tone. “Nagasaki. Hiroshima … Not so smart then, were they? Sorry: no cigar Japan.” Most of the audience bristle. This feels cheap and uneasy. Nasty. The diehard lads think it is hilarious and guffaw. After the dark limbo of a perfect pause, Clarke speaks again: “Ahhh yes … What separates man from the beast is his ability to laugh at the misfortune of others.”

It is hard to shake this scene of quasi-moral instruction from my mind. It has grown into a sermon on the mount in the quarter-century that has passed. And now, late in 2020, Clarke’s autobiography appears. I Wanna Be Yours. Almost five hundred pages; published by Picador; mainstream cult credibility. Read it in bursts: the tone is full and familiar from a lifetime of listening. This is the voice and gags of the Beasley Street scribbler in prose.

He lays out his stall from the start: “Poetry is my first language … Rather than a ponderous trudge through the turgid facts of an ill-remembered life, to fleetingly call up various events that best illustrate the flavour of my existence at any given point, this is my aim.”

The attractions of his chosen profession of poetry are outlined in his characteristic mockery of the banal and his draping of it in a mimic of the epic: “You get to wear fine clothes and perfume and nobody pulls you up on it. You get out of bed late in the day and nobody calls you a lazy bastard. A state of reverie and the virtue of idleness are paramount. Any poet will tell you this.”

In numerous interviews over the years, Clarke has joked that Byron and Keats were the rock stars of their day, their motivation not so much iambic pentameter and sessions of sweet silent thought as the pursuit of female company. Unsurprisingly, he echoes this theme again: “Women hold men like this in great affection: it’s a well-known fact.” And later: “I don’t know why, but art-school chicks always had it bad for me. It could have been the Picassoid ribcage but paradoxically I suspect that my reticence was the secret of my success.”

However, as with the start of every life account, we know his path is not exactly going to be easy – not in his childhood, not across the drug-addicted intervening/intravenous decades since and perhaps not even today as someone who might pass for an underground British national treasure acclaimed amid easy hack descriptors as the “real” or “alternative” poet laureate and the “bard of Salford”. His qualification of the north-of-England world into which he was born is hardly a surprise: “The life of a useless flaneur, however, was not encouraged in the 1950s, especially among the blue-collar population of a heavy-industrial metropolis like Manchester.” His father’s advice? An early counterpoint lesson in non-flowery brevity: “Get a job.”

Named for one of his lighter poems, often used at weddings and for declarations of affection, I Wanna Be Yours serves up the guts of 500 pages of rich, post-war, kitchen-sink, sepia-tone melodrama. It fizzles with Albert Finney black-and-whiteism (what fellow Salfordian Mark E Smith’s band The Fall’s 10-inch record Slates describes on its sleeve as “Real Bert Finn stuff”). You get ration books and meagre portions. Health and safety threats (“Bomb shelters and collapsed buildings … our adventure playground.”) Sickly kids. Two-up-and-two-downs. Both his parents were Salford-born: his father was a switchgear specialist (a type of electrical engineer) and his mother worked for a while in a meat pie factory. Their affectionate child-rearing technique was “benign neglect”. He had an uncle who worked as a manager of a tailor’s shop, an early influence in the poet’s life of sartorial indulgence. Clarke’s school reports consistently noted his “lack of team spirit”. A bout of TB at the age of eight led to a recuperative stint with his extended family in Rhyl, Wales: he spent solitary days moping around the promenade and amusement arcades, forging some sort of independence and priming himself for the allure of seafaring classics and cheap crime novels.

His book documents Manchester throughout the dour 1950s and into the brighter 1960s. The detail is vivid and the treatment characteristically amusing and piloted by his literary imagination. The local river Irwell was full of industrial waste: “Everyday it was a different colour. Sometimes the rancid scum on its surface was so thick that birds could walk on it. God help you if you fell in – one mouthful and you would have been dead on arrival.”

Clarke likes words and uses them as imaginative brickwork to impart both anecdote and nuance. The Midas touch of his stage performance is evident in his wielding of phrases to yield a type of brutal yet dandified insight: “It became a cliche among the usual doom-mongers of the social-improvement industry that television ‘destroys the art of conversation’, as if every pre-TV family had been a hotbed of informed debate. If anything, owning a telly promoted conversation: at last we had something to talk about.” Football was an opportunity to use “profane language” unacceptable elsewhere except in the local pubs’ “vault”, “where the beer was a penny cheaper and there was no carpet on the floor”.

No sentimentalist, he gets on with his literary showbiz evolution, striding lankily and large-nosed through childhood, school, false-start jobs, friendships and relationships and what he would probably mockingly call his career, all the time firing from his nineteenth-century, beatnik, jazz-infused, gangster-movie arsenal of words.

Sociologically charged, I Wanna Be Yours bears first-hand witness to northern English life across his seven decades. He was born in 1949 and there is much of the Hogarthian tenement offered by him as authorial inhabitant of this book, and much subscription to the metaphors of wistful emaciation and rough poverty: “Men’s shirts came in three shades: white, grubby and filthy. In my highly polluted pre-laundrette neighbourhood, that was the available colour scheme. Coloured shirts carried the stigma of delinquency: spivs, queers, Latinos, and worst of all, Teddy Boys, who by virtue of their hard-nut reputation as blade artists could wear whatever they liked.”

This almost romanticised squalor affords him a substructure to layer with an equally romanticised escapist sheen of glamour. Always in Clarke’s bemused urban dark, there is a vaudevillian candle glow: its wick dances in the foul breath of working men’s club gurners, dirty laughter, and the limb and torso undulations of the rather plain stripper’s final reveal. People in cheap seats in tricky dives applaud masters of the bawdy and risqué. This is the reassuring postwar Britain of end-of-pier entertainment: there is mass laughter across the class-structured land in which style was slowly becoming a weapon. Humour is cruel, primordially non-politically correct and laced with British xenophobia. Clarke operates ambitiously and elaborately within this world of the cheeky quip and the greasy quiff.

His lexicon and syntax are impressive – he conjugates like others juggle. The sentences are ambitious and tend to succeed. There is something of Edgar Allan Poe in his structure – a Frenchified form that works wonders. His description of clothing is intricate; it betrays his eye as a cat-walking style hound and brief months as an apprentice cutter in a tailoring outfit. You don’t often get the chance read the words “pinking shears” in print: take it when you can. He keeps the ball rolling with forays into music with shifting combos. Before you know it, he is en route to paid work as a performing poet with early tryouts at “reputable businessman” Bernard Manning’s Embassy club.

I went to Rochdale Road and delivered my pitch to the head honcho himself. It didn’t start well. ‘Don’t waste your time,’ Bernard told me. ‘They don’t like poetry here, kid. Half of them can’t fucking read. You want to try one of them colleges.

Hell-bent on getting this early break, he wins over the much derided Mr Manning with a choice sample of his early oeuvre: “‘When the ambulance came she was lying on the deck / She fell off her stiletto heels and broke her fucking neck.’ I thought he’d like that: I mean, it had ‘fucking’ in it and people always laugh when somebody falls over. Every fucking time.”

Clarke describes the type of show the Embassy offered: “It was filthy humour, but otherwise good clean fun. The Embassy didn’t feature strippers – Bernard had his whole family working there: his wife was general manager, his mother was on the till, and all these sweet old broads who should have been working in a cake shop were serving behind the bar, seemingly impervious to the obscene repartee. Not the place you’d go on a first date.”

A clever delinquency hovers over his earlier life. Two weeks are invested as a truant in a school pal’s house “doing the jitterbug and smoking cigs”. In his mid-teens, there are scooters roaring off into the dark towards illicit parties – it reads almost like “grim up north” outtakes from some unmade Russ Meyer film. His obsession with pop music and America is evident. He knows his tunes, his dance hall favs and big band belters. He loves his films. Karate chop off his head and the best of popular culture would bleed out. You feel Warner Brothers films and jazz-lingo-mediated wisecracks bake deeply into him something of the swagger of the angel with a dirty face which is evident in his description of early performances: “I don’t remember being terrified, not even the first time; I think my ambition outweighed any terror. They say about people in show business, ‘They ain’t got something extra, they’ve got something missing.’ … You’ve got to think you are top dog or you wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Clarke’s autobiography is largely self-focused and avoids the sensational. He is casual about golden periods that a cheaper man might have profitably milked. More detail on the punk and new wave years could have mopped up a lot of attention. He was there with luminaries such as The Fall and Joy Division and producer Martin Hannett from day one. The latter was one of The Invisible Girls, the band that backed him on his recorded output and several Old Grey Whistle Test appearances. “It was never really my idea to put music to the poems. At the time though I was publicity hungry, and couldn’t come up with an argument against it … I didn’t really enjoy the recording process, and the results were mixed. Occasionally it somehow hung together by accident, and I was pleasantly surprised, but generally I could only hear the mistakes … Put me working with expert musicians and it’s like nailing my foot to the floor. I listen to my stuff with music and it’s like I’ve been grounded.”

At one stage, Clarke hung out with an impressive fraction of the Velvet Underground: Nico moves into his flat in Brixton, John Cale joined them in spring 1985: “Now I had two-fifths of the Velvet Underground under my roof. I was utterly starstruck.”

He has a deep affection and shared background with the late great Mark E Smith: “I like to think that Smithy and I had parallel careers in the magic realisation of Manchester and we had perfected our thing in tandem.” Eight years older, he saw himself as something of an uncle to The Fall singer. “I’ve worked with the best of them, but The Fall I would watch night in, night out; each performance seemed unique.”

He reputedly named Fall co-founder Martin Bramah’s brilliant band The Blue Orchids (musicians’ forgetfulness apparently replaced Clarke’s original adjective “Blessed” with “Blue”); while he has an early chapter here bearing the band’s eventual name, he limits its content to chronologically appropriate childhood reminiscence: “The thing with our gang is that everybody in it was ill. I don’t just mean we had the measles or something, there was something certifiably medically wrong with each and every one of us: me, recovering tubercular; Barry Shepherd, epileptic; Dave Ankers, chronic asthma; and last, but best of all, Billy Smethurst, haemophiliac. Billy looked pretty hard, but he had an ambulance more or less permanently parked outside his house; the slightest knock and it was instant fucking internal haemorrhage.”

Clarke leaves the rag trade and commences a printing apprenticeship. He frames a romance, brief marriage and relocation to Dorset and then Yeovil in Somerset rather pragmatically: “Married life equalled a lower tax rate. It was a way out of Manchester for both of us. You don’t need to be Claire Rayner to know that this was no solid basis for a lasting union … A no-fault divorce eventually ensued. I was hoping for a charge of mental cruelty, or emotional fascism, or something flash like that, but no: ‘Irretrievable Breakdown’ it had to be.”

He takes a job aged twenty-six at Salford Technical College as a lab technician, delighted that it conforms with his employment plan: “I would always seek out jobs where the pay was OK and the workload negligible if not entirely absent.” Within a few short years, punk happens and he is with Elvis Costello and the Attractions in late 1978 and early 1979 on the Armed Forces tour:  “What Declan [Costello] and I had in common was the presupposition of mass literacy.”

But all the time, his addiction is driving him. He sketches a trip to New York where he has to borrow a gun to score in a terrifying early-1980s Alphabet City. “My entire life was more or less taken up with the junkie routine. I would shoot up three times a day, which would enable me to live the life of a normal citizen: I was a so-called ‘functioning addict’, or so I thought I was. It didn’t impinge on my work, really, although actually it did: I didn’t write so much.”

Back that night in 1995, the George Robey gig ended. The gangly figure of John Cooper Clarke was led off towards a plush archway cordoned off with a cinematic red-braid rope. A woman unclipped it from its moorings and the punk poet passed from my view and upstairs into what I fancied was a Dick Whittington room to slumber beside a plate of uneaten vittles.

The image troubled me over beer with my now recently deceased friend Phil Phillips. For some hours, we dissected the mastery of his Japanese gag routine. The Robey stayed open, now slipping into phase two of its nocturnal operation. Fashionable young folk filled the venue. A late-night cover charge permitted them entry to an emergent nightclub. But if you were in, you could stay in. A slick band took the stage and struck up their weekend sound. The Stygian pit transmogrified into a world of lilting couples and sole Friday opportunists. Phil peeled the cellophane off another black box of John Players Special while I went back to replenish our glasses.

Clarke was standing at the bar alone, unknown to the dancing demographic influx. He swirled a glass of what pretended to be water. He looked reinvigorated, fresh, running off new batteries. There was a jellybean dispenser on the counter. He was inserting a slightly crooked coin into it when I approached him and said I had been at the gig. The coloured candy pellets shot into his hand. He extended his open palm. Quite a selection. “Can I take the black one?” I inquired. “Be my guest.”

We spoke for maybe an hour and a half. He wrote some lines in my dapple-covered milkman’s notebook (I have a dozen of them from this period but tragically I can’t find the one from that particular date). Phil joined me at the bar after a while. Booze and general blur have us calling it a day at say 5am to take a bus home to Ilford. Take care, kid, Clarke said, decades of amusing movie-speak dripping like stage prop paint from a most memorable but sadly misremembered scene.

His poetry collection Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt had been my way of opening the conversation. He bemoaned it being out of print. But the idea of books was dominant. We spoke of Bruce Thomas’s memoir The Big Wheel, about his time as bassist in Elvis Costello’s Attractions, a band with whom Clarke extensively toured. Excitedly, he said “I’m in that!” The pages involve the band, a hotel room and some boisterous behaviour. A picture falls from a wall and the glass shatters. They pick up the broken pieces carefully and deposit them in a pillow case. But what if a cleaner in the morning cuts their hands when they find it? Best to write a note to warn them. What will they write? Clarke (in Thomas’s excellent book he is named “Lord Biro”) deftly scribbled the solution: “Beware! Shards!” He had not seen a copy and exuded the writer’s delight of being in any book.

The newly opened tunnel between London and the French capital provided my return route to Paris a few days later. The meeting with Clarke bolstered me. His personality had sparkled and exuded poet-star rock ’n’ roller decency. I had been in London to meet a producer with BBC Radio Three, highly fortunate they had decided to produce my radio play Downheaval. Lurking unsaid in the ether was the fact that RTÉ had already broadcast a fine thirty-minute version of it in March that year. But the BBC is the BBC and they were proposing we produce a new, 45-minute version that I would flesh out by writing a longer, more elaborate script. I am not sure when a rather obvious idea entered my head (I like to think it was at the bar of Le Soleil in Ménilmontant or Le Piston Pelican on rue de Bagnolet): John Cooper Clarke would be excellent in the role of a David Bailey-type photographer I had scripted as an agent of doom for a young Dutch model about to be propelled back into the red-light sleaze from which she had recently escaped. Without any idea of whether Clarke would be interested or willing – or whether the BBC would accommodate my suggestion – I contacted my producer and let it be known I reckoned the great man should be among the large cast. Not yet thirty, I knew writing the BBC play from Paris and my involvement in its production was one of the key moments in a life of often-thwarted writerly ambition under the magnetic influences of professional distraction and simple laze. Not for the first time, I had penetrated the forcefield of curators and agents and arts facilitators and those with the power and inclination to say no. This was a moment when I felt fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, somehow in backstage control, peering out from the wings at the BBC machine of excellence. I was ecstatic at the idea of bringing in to act in Downheaval this now downbeat John Cooper Clarke and his personification of post-modern greatness in punk art performance. With my brief perch in the BBC via my Dublin-London-Paris-Amsterdam tale of photos, flesh and criminality, I knew I was on the brink of something, some breakthrough, some valuable rut in which I could be stuck for years to come, producing whatever I could, letting flights of fiction and fancy wording be my compass.

Later that summer, I took the train through the Channel Tunnel once more. In BBC’s Maida Vale studios, we spent two days recording Downheaval with a cast of more than twenty actors. Some were from the BBC repertory, others freelancers engaged specifically for the production. Bill Oddie’s daughter had a leading role. As I walked around the functional corridors, I felt strange reverberations: bass tones, jangly and clipped guitars, cheap keyboards, howling vocals. This was a place of birth, a wellspring, a source: a great many John Peel sessions had been recorded here: it felt like a place of sacred tape.

Peter Kavanagh was an expert and deft producer. Owen O’Neill and Kate Hardie and Beckie Hindley turned in some of the many great performances. And Al Hunter Ashton was splendid as the Bailey-type photographer. But I kept hearing him as John Cooper Clarke. The play was broadcast on BBC radio in September 1995 and was well-received, garnering a glowing and perceptive review by Anne Karpf in The Guardian.

In compromised quarters at 20 rue St Maur, I listened to it proudly. My actual creaking floorboards and wooden stairwell had been recorded by Kavanagh weeks earlier for use on the soundtrack. They came back now in dramatic form as the play spilled into the Sunday night ether. It all worked: the tale was terse, poignant, a “demi-monde” of near-despair as Karpf described it. But John Cooper Clarke was absent. Over beers in a BBC Shepherd’s Bush bar, I had been told why. As per my request, the production team had tracked him down through an agent. I think he was living in Stevenage. They asked him to attend an audition for the part of the photographer. He agreed and took the train down to the studio. He was given a printout of my Downheaval lines and by all accounts read them magnificently. “He was just perfect for the role,” I was told. He was given a form for his travel expenses: he filled it in and went off home. “However, it is widely known in the business he is a user. He would not be reliable in a tightly scheduled two-day drama production. We couldn’t run the risk of giving him the role. Sorry.”

1/12/2020

John Fleming is a fiction writer and Irish Times journalist. His BBC radio play Downheaval is available online. This essay is dedicated to the literature, gags and flamboyance of the wonderful John Cooper Clarke. And to anyone who has ever not got the gig.

 

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