Sue Flowers finds the Bard of Salford in top form as he plays a low key gig in Yorkshire: satirising the BBC, dementia and the gentrification of Manchester…
The place is Bentham, North Craven, Yorkshire, just a few miles across the Lancashire county border. There’s not much here; a school, a few shops and pubs, a local farmers market and an arts and health organisation. But tonight, we’re here not to watch the cattle going to auction or to undertake a community art workshop; we’re here to see the punk-poet-pioneer Dr John Cooper Clarke.
‘Why, of all places is he coming to Bentham?’ I ask myself; three weeks ago he was gigging at Glastonbury and his tour dates this summer have included Cornbury, Ledbury, Latitude and Wickerman Festivals. Yet nonetheless, here we are in Bentham Town Hall, nestled, not so cosily on a sea of orange plastic chairs, waiting for two of Manchester’s finest politically raw poets, Dr John Cooper Clarke and his good friend and fellow Mancunian Mike Garry.
People I know glance nervously around to see if there are actually any other locals who enjoy the words of this politically succinct punk poet, and remember the hard hitting social realism he batted from the left through poems such as Majorca and Twat (published 2009). We are excited to see him on stage, for it is his quick-witted, fast-punching delivery that make his words really come alive. Also, we wonder whether the inspired words — from a man whose downbeat drug-infused lifestyle made poetry come alive on the streets of Manchester’s punk-rock scene during the 1970s — remain razor sharp.
Thankfully, Cooper Clarke is as acerbic and honest as ever; his new work Get Back On Drugs You Fat Cunt was a humorous, yet overwhelmingly moving reflection on dependency and how getting clean has affected his entire social world. It’s hard to say whether he’s replaced narcotics with alcohol, but he won’t perform until he has a gin and tonic on stage (“What’s that bloody water for? I want a proper drink up here, I’m not bloody dirty”). Through his new work Beasley Boulevard — a reworking of the infamous and popular Beasley St (published 2009) — he pokes fun at the gentrification of Manchester and it’s regeneration processes, having seen first-hand the property development by those such as Urban Splash and the arrival of the BBC to his much beloved Salford.
He goes on to satirise a world he often now frequents, referring to BBC poet presenter Roger McGough as “El Zoro de la Plata” (The Silver Fox), comfortably accepted by the broadcasting establishment but not so by himself. Cooper Clarke is a man that has become well-versed in the snobbishness of the literati, and using this he playfully draws in his audiences through clever and derivative verses about poetic structures such as the haiku, couplet and limerick; no matter what the structure is, he is always keen to challenge us and make us re-think the role of poetry in a world where the cultural elite claim entitlement to it.
Cooper Clarke’s heartfelt puns on ageing became hilarious gifts to us as he shares his thoughts on memory loss and dementia: “Meeting a whole load of new friends every day… Hiding your own Easter eggs…” This is the kind of thing I want to hear if my kids ever want to put me in a nursing home.
And so I was glad I’d seen Dr John Cooper Clarke in Bentham: away from his urban centre, where he was spreading the word that poetry is for everyone — even the local farmer and school teacher — and that it has to be about, above all else, telling the truth.
And hey! Whilst you’re at it, why not have a good laugh?
See Dr John Cooper Clarke perform live in Holland: 3 September 2015 at the Den Haag Paard Van Troje, and 4 September 2015 at the Amsterdam Bitter Zoet
And performing in the UK with Squeeze 25 September-24 October 2015
Pre-order the very first anthology of Cooper Clarke’s work, Anthologia, on CD box set or double gatefold LP now
More from the artist on his website johncooperclarke.com
All images courtesy John Cooper Clarke