Perhaps the greatest difficulty facing any reviewer of the poetry of John Cooper Clarke is resisting the temptation simply to quote all the best bits. The difficulty is further compounded by there being a happy excess of such best bits. In fact, even his worst bits can be relied upon to have a winning phrase running through their otherwise less appealing exterior, as with ‘I know this place like the back of my neck’ in the otherwise scattershot Clown Town. 

WHAT, his latest collection of poetry, as slender and well-turned-out as himself, comes almost half a century after he first began to make his presence felt, as a sort of Salfordian populist punk counterpart to the then-more-popular Pam Ayres. The intervening years, as detailed in his autobiography I Wanna Be Yours, have been far from uneventful. While remaining essentially unaltered in his image, he has been discovered anew by successive generations, whether they have found him shacked up with Nico or snacked up with the Honey Monster as an unlikely salesman for Sugar Puffs. More recently, he has been honoured with a doctorate from the University of Salford, and feted by latter-day synthesiser proselytisers Working Men’s Club in their self-explanatory John Cooper Clarke.

In the main, these are poems that declaim from the printed pages, ringing distinctly with Cooper Clarke’s distinctive voice, a twin blade of the sardonic and the empathetic. Urban and urbane, it’s an authorial tone that, while standing no nonsense, is equally as likely to stand by your side. Cooper Clarke may not find much to love in the modern world, but what he does love, he loves unreservedly, whether it be Tom Jones, Farah slacks or Sheffield.

Main image: John Cooper Clarke (c) Paul Wolfgang Webster

Written for The Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and cribbing its notes from Frankie Vaughan’s half-forgotten, half-serious tribute to Stockport, each couplet of Sheffield is a high-kicking delight, with the lightness of touch to carry off rhyming ‘stainless’ with ‘famous’ with the inky equivalent of a grin and a wink to the camera.

Surpassing it by virtue of its undertow of ambivalence, Ode To The Coast beautifully marries rhapsody and bathos, its lines susurrating with tidal onomatopoeia, as Cooper Clarke evokes ‘a pointless walk along the coast’ across ‘dishevelled and shovelled sands’. With a pier-side jauntiness to its metre, the effect is as quintessentially Northern as Morrissey’s Everyday Is Like Sunday performed by the ghost of George Formby.

A more pronounced ambivalence motors Blue Collar Wallah, dripping with the bohemian distaste for the unreconstructed who prey upon their artistic impracticality. It liltingly evokes the unease of those who would prefer a tower of ivory, but must still submit to the necessary evil of plumbers.

That he rises to sustained anger in only one piece, The Slums of Belgravia Part Two: In Praise of Shame, is, in itself, a pity. Its internal rhyme, ‘we make the laws and the get out clauses’, kicks furiously against the games rigged by an Establishment which not only holds all the cards, but marks them all, too. Belgravia is Cooper Clarke in his satirical prime, suggesting a capacity for work of a broader sword, taking his rapier to weightier issues.

Still, whether he takes up that sword or not is a choice for Cooper Clarke himself. In the interim, his pen is mighty enough. Here’s to his nibs! Long may the ink flow to them.

By Desmond Bullen


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