❉ This autobiography is a sheer delight – hilarious, beautifully crafted and brilliantly written.
“There are a thousand literary allusions, alongside as many references to just below the radar pop culture as an aficionado could hope for (JCC has an obsession with both the actor Telly Savalas and 70s Saturday evening favourite Kojak), and there’s a rich fifties-to-seventies rock, pop and social history to delight even the most casual of cultural observers.”
Prior to reading JCC’s autobiography, I’d read two unbelievably brilliant memoirs over the past couple of months. I’d read the late Deborah Orr’s plaintive, emotionally brittle and really beautiful Motherwell, and then I’d finally got round to reading Jeanette Winterson’s work of genius Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
Both of these heavyweight books (particularly Jeanette Winterson’s memoir) quite easily and obviously fall into the category of literary. The philosophical elements of Motherwell and Normal elevate them on to a higher literary plane than most writers’ interior musings and the elements of existential angst and the metaphysical quest to make sense of the difficulties of life (particularly in the authors’ fraught relations with their mothers) found in both of these books should see both titles eventually finding their places on A Level and English Lit degree courses in the near future.
Now, John Cooper Clarke does not feel the pains and pangs and negative absolutes of these authors (at least there’s no hints of it in I Wanna Be Yours), although he was born into relative poverty, has been nicked on at least three occasions, has been cheated on by countless partners and was a heroin addict for at least twenty years. He is, however, the ultimate half-full kind of guy – and as he says himself, he’s already had a poem (I Wanna Be Yours) included on the GCSE English Lit syllabus*, met the love of his life in the early nineties and he fucking loves his mum!
So how could JCC’s book be included in the same breath as Motherwell and Why Be Happy? Very simply, the quality of the writing in the absolutely wonderful, laugh out loud, life-affirming I Wanna Be Yours demonstrates quite clearly to the reader that they are in the company of a genius. It’s not just the unbelievable richness of Clarke’s vocabulary that had me marvelling and in tears, it’s the delicacy, intricacy and good old-fashioned skill that he brings to almost every sentence in this magical book.
It’s forty one years since I first saw the ‘bargain basement Baudelaire’ live in the flesh, and over the years I’ve seen him countless times – from him being flavour of the moment to being an also-ran, delivering what was essentially a bad Northern comic’s set of gags (as he freely admits in the book) in lieu of a proper performance of his poetry. I remember seeing him supporting The Fall over the course of three years at the same venue and delivering essentially the same set, with the same poems and the same gags and the same deliberate ‘accidental mistakes’ as prompts, and thinking ”You can do better than this, John”.
If anyone has seen Alfred Molina’s brilliant performance as Tony Hancock in the BBC biopic from a few years back, they’ll remember the down-on-his luck Tony doing the same trick (the accidental mistake, that is) during a desperate stand-up performance towards the end of his life. It’s not that JCC’s performance was poor on any of those nights, but I’d remembered him from the old punk rock days when his performances were mesmeric and charged and unforgettable, so to see him doing a cabaret turn was a bit disappointing. Mind you, on one of those early noughties nights, John’s ageing mum had turned up to see him, and was standing at the back, beautifully turned out and accepting the regal accolades of being ‘John’s mother’ from the punters!
JCC’s sheer positivity and good-naturedness helped him to overcome such relative career dips, and now he’s justifiably up there with Julie Walters and David Attenborough as one of Britain’s national treasures (something he recognises and loves).
I Wanna Be Yours is an epic 470 page doorstopper, but I breezed through it in a couple of days (and I’m somebody who takes his time with his books, has six on the run at one time, and will mull over an idea or even a sentence for hours and hours).
The book is well over two hundred pages ‘in’ before the punk/celebrity/bits that readers are usually interested in come to the fore, but if anything these early sections about Salford/Manchester life – and how JCC reacts to the joys and vicissitudes of life – were my favourite.
John is born into a poor but loving family and is raised in the respectable, no-frills Salford district of Higher Broughton. He is a child who loves music and books and celebrity. The proximity to a cheapish hotel used by Granada TV studios and several snooker halls afford him the chance to witness various celebrities and ‘sports stars’ and the joy with which Clarke describes these encounters is a recurring part of the charm of the book. At one stage, he almost encounters a major TV star in Elsie and Charlie Forshaw’s corner shop. Part owner Elsie regularly deals with the denizens of Coronation Street or any number of Lew Grade’s ITC roster, but has no idea of the actors’ real names, so customers Pat Phoenix and Johnny Briggs are only ever are referred as ‘Elsie Tanner’ and ‘Mike Baldwin’ (their ‘noms de TV’ as JCC would have it) and on one occasion he misses out on a chance encounter with Simon ‘Templar’:
“One day, I went to buy a packet of cigs, and the first thing Mrs Forshaw said as I walked in wasn’t ‘Hello’ or anything, but ‘You’ve just missed him’.
‘The Saint,’ she announced. Not ‘Roger Moore’. Like, not ‘The actor Roger Moore’. Not ‘Roger “Star of TV’s The Saint” Moore. Just ‘The Saint’.
‘Really? Bloody hell! Excuse my French. What, Roger Moore? Roger Moore was here? What did he get?’ I desperately wanted to know what he’d bought, to get a glimpse into his world, and Mrs Forshaw didn’t disappoint: ‘A quarter of boiled ham and a bottle of Wembley’.
‘Any cigs?’ I replied. She answered in the negative. I’ve never forgotten, because I could imagine him saying it in that smooth voice of his: ‘Good afternoon, madam. I’ll have a quarter pound of boiled ham and a bottle of Wembley, please.’
Fantastic! Not only was I in the same manor as The Saint, but now I knew what he had for dinner. It was like I knew him a little bit: we ate the same ham, me and the future James Bond!
The knowledge has enriched my life no end.”
JCC revels in the deft, ironic touch of the master comic writer. He delights in advertising copy and its assorted jingles and slogans, along with rubbish media nicknames and the argots of a host of occupations and writing genres – and he just can’t stop himself from interrupting his writing flow by questioning a statement’s validity or by simply throwing in a gag that he can’t resist. Alexei Sayle said that he once met Frank Carson and though the ageing comedian had a really interesting backstory (being amongst other things an ex-Para who had come from and then left the sectarian divide of Northern Ireland), he couldn’t get a sensible word out of him because Frank only seemed to speak in gags and catchphrases. JCC simply loves old comedians – it was the late unlamented Bernard Manning who gave Clarke his first opportunity of paid performance at the ghastly Embassy Club – but (thankfully) Clarke is no Frank Carson and each gag, pun or TV advert reference is ironically doled out in appropriate places.
Clarke talks of returning to Higher Broughton over the years and seeing the greats of snooker at the Potter’s Club including:
“John Virgo, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, Steve ‘Interesting Davies’…and the Canuck contingent featuring the devilishly handsome Cliff Thorburn, Kirk Stevens of course Bill Werbeniuk, a man of aboriginal Canadian descent who had somehow finagled an NHS prescription to combat the career-threatening effects of the betablockers he took for his high blood pressure. He was a lager-than-lime character. It was a shame he didn’t live long enough to be older Budweiser.”
As I say, sometimes he can’t stop himself, but it’s the knowing use of archaic, arcane and luxuriant vocabulary in a telling context which marks him as being different to, and better than, the sort of tedious show offs such as Gyles Brandreth or the late Leonard Sachs who use/used such vocabulary to impress, but don’t/didn’t. It always seems organic with JCC, someone who simply delights in the use of an apposite word or phrase.
JCC is an auto-didact who can never remember a time when he couldn’t read, and school comes as a big shock to him. It is only the threat of the ‘school detectives’ that keeps him going day after day. Legend had it that this secretive law agency would ‘put your mum in prison’ if you were caught truanting and thus he contents himself with reading everything he can get his hands on – from the great literature of the public library, to his uncle’s lurid pulp novels to his mother’s Woman’s Own and Woman, along with a myriad comic titles both British and American.
The ‘school detectives’ was a lie that certainly reached my neck of the woods when I was growing up, and the oddities of pre-technology life are a constant source of fascination for the author, with the phrase ‘you made your own entertainment in those days’ being an ironic rejoinder to many of Clarke’s observations of growing up in 1950s Salford.
After contracting TB at a young age, JCC is sent out to North Wales to enjoy the cleaner air, and it’s here that he experiences the power of rock and roll through the booming speakers of the Rhyl fairgrounds. He also begins to understand the positive nature of solitude, and one of his mantras throughout the book is that he is not a team player.
Clarke’s knowledge of the Manchester music scene is encyclopaedic and is one of the many brilliant aspects of the book. His love of film is infectious and just like Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s Dad’s Army scripts, he can’t mention a film without mentioning its stars and often the studios that made it. His love of fashion in another recurring motif and obsession and there are many loving descriptions of the changing times and modes:
“The default wardrobe of the Modernist male was the thirty-eight-gramme three-button suit – the wide-awake image of the pepped-up urbanite, the cylindrical uniform of the fast-buck meritocracy. Whatever your build, whatever your age, whatever your social situation, the three-button suit will make the best of any man. A made-to-measure suit, however, only concerned the over-twenty-ones. Before that, a suit on the drip might be outgrown before the cessation of its weekly payments. How miserable would that be? Your first made-to-measure suit on your twenty-first birthday, therefore, was a major rite of passage.”
Manchester’s club scene (from the 1950s to the 1970s) is rendered in unflinching, but loving detail, and I Wanna Be Yours doubles as a tremendous social document of the changing times and how the past is such a foreign country. JCC’s interview for Bernard Manning’s not-exactly-Bohemian Embassy Club is one of my favourite parts of the book. Clarke has a number of jobs during this time of full employment, but his heart is set on being a professional poet, although – Pam Ayres excepted – there are no tangible examples in the UK, with even big hitters like Philip Larkin having to hold down a ‘proper job’ to pay the rent.
Manning’s club plays host to the usual seventies cabaret crap, with dickie-bowed comedians, down-at-heel crooners and other ‘turns’ padding out the bill night after night. Manning is unsure that a poet is the best form of act to be paraded in front of the Embassy’s punters:
“They don’t like poetry here, kid. Half of them can’t fucking read. You want to try one of them colleges.”
But JCC’s audition includes Salome Maloney, his legendary poem about the Ritz club in Manchester, and the inclusion of the big eff word impresses Manning, and paid employment results.
And so a career ensues. Clarke’s dapper, Mod/Dylan/Ronnie Wood Wood/Keith Richards/Blues Brother look remains both striking and constant throughout the next forty years and he is initially embraced as the go-to Punk Poet, with his sharp, snappy poems striking an appropriate chord with the speed-infused punks and New Wavers of the late seventies. I Wanna Be Yours chronicles the punk and post-punk years with great accuracy and affection and takes in the sweep of the whole movement, from London to the provinces and over to the CBGB’s New York scene.
Clarke’s various adventures include living in the countryside (“the idiocy of the rural idyll”), and a year living above a psychopath called Kenny (“aren’t they all?”) in Plymouth, and they are all described in Clarke’s unique and wonderful prose. He enjoys his growing fame, but such descriptions are always tethered by a sense of reality and his own appreciation of the vagaries of fate.
His drug dependence is chronicled in as matter of fact a style as his own positively-charged personality will allow. His rehab sessions and his face-to-face encounters with the dangerous low-lives and heavies who deal with street-bought heroin give you an idea of the daily perils he faced, but if anything this is where the book just falls short of greatness and earning its true literary spurs. JCC never wallows, and – possibly – shies away from portraying the dark depths of his soul which I’m sure were there during his darkest days. Then again, I’ve a feeling that because he has enjoyed life so much, he neither wants to, nor cares about portrayals of such inner torment.
There are better things to do.
The chapters covering his life with former Velvet Underground singer and equally keen heroin enthusiast Nico are fascinating but only really briefly sketched in. He refutes the idea that they had ever lived in squalor (his obsession with cleanliness is documented throughout, and his description of what he mistakes for a Weetabix biscuit might put you off the cereal for life) and has nothing but good memories of his sort-of partner.
A pay-off from a motorcycle accident (JCC is knocked over by a gangster’s car even though he is uninsured and has never ridden a motorcycle before) affords him leave to travel, and there are some great tales to be had of a pre-fame trip to Barcelona, but my favourite of his European/drug stories is when he is asked to look after his brother-in-law’s apartment in Amsterdam (where else?) and is entrusted with the owner’s monkey, Charlie.
Charlie impresses the fastidious, germ-hating John with its ‘deft long fingers and silver fur’ and the fact it ‘was no trouble at all’ – particularly with its impressive toilet habits. Charlie is house trained, and is wont to tug at John’s sleeve to be let out to perform its business when the situation demands. On rare occasions Charlie retreats to its own discreet sandbox to perform its ablutions, and even its stools earn the respect of his fastidious Salford minder, because:
“…given Charlie’s mainly fruitarian diet, with the odd chip here and there, it wasn’t the putrid emergency which daily confronts the cat owner.”
John rarely depicts his depression, but his two weeks with Charlie have a profound effect on him as he finds a modus vivendi and inner peace living with his simian companion, and most of all he finds what he craves most through being drug dependent : a sense of order and routine. His description of life with Charlie is tremendous and affecting (in a gently ironic way), and JCC finds a sense of true happiness which he won’t find again until sixteen years later when he meets his life partner Evie:
“He (Charlie) was living the life of Riley, frankly, sitting about awaiting his daily delivery of ever more exotic fruits. The most mundane object could occupy his rapt attention for hours on end. Occasionally he would root about in my hair and I’m happy to report that his searches proved fruitless. He watched telly. He particularly liked cartoons. I couldn’t work out exactly what they were, but they made me laugh, which seemed to fascinate him, so he’d watch me and them in silence. He was semi-human, no doubt about it. We were a happy pair.”
The final years of (hard) drug-free life are lightly sketched over: Clarke finds the love of his life, cleans up his act, is awarded his honorary doctorate and realises that every single day of his life is precious (not that he ever needed telling), and feels blessed.
There are always great descriptions and passages of pure joy from page one to page 470. When he is nicked by a fat, sweaty copper for minor marijuana possession, JCC describes the situation thus:
“He was that kind of sclerotic Jack Regan type: a bad liver and a broken heart. His marriage has irretrievably broken down, he’s denied access to his kids, and he and his wife have split the house – he must have got the outside because now he’s asking me if there are any vacancies in my building. Some people, hey?”
There are a thousand literary allusions, alongside as many references to just below the radar pop culture as an aficionado could hope for (JCC has an obsession with both the actor Telly Savalas and 70s Saturday evening favourite Kojak), and there’s a rich fifties-to-seventies rock, pop and social history to delight even the most casual of cultural observers.
Most of all though, the book is a sheer delight – hilarious, beautifully crafted and brilliantly written. Clarke’s distinctive authorial (and actual) voice permeate every sentence, and it’s like spending a couple of days with a loveable, rascally and brilliant friend.
I Wanna Be Yours is an absolute riot from start to finish, but if I had to pick out my favourite part, it would be when JCC returns to Manchester for the final time, skint, out of favour, and fearing that he’ll be seen as:
“…that clever c*nt who’d gone to the smoke like he was Big Time Charley Potatoes and now was back like a whipped dog and penniless.”
And amidst the debris of life and career and addiction, other, lesser souls might turn to God or bare the dark night of their souls in full-on, hoping-for-catharsis mode.
Not John. If ever you needed an example of the word indefatigable, it would be John Cooper Clarke, because some place, somewhere there’s always a glimmer of hope:
“Somebody told me that there was money to be made in the field of children’s literature, so I even pitched a series of murder mysteries aimed at the under twelves: Eat Lead Miss, Scarface Junior and Hickory Dickory Dead.”
I was in tears when I read this.
What a man!
And what a book.
Cheer yourself up during this second Lockdown.
And buy it!
* John reckons his poems Beasley Street and Twat** were also included, but after trawling the internet, I can’t find any evidence of this, and - as somebody who taught English for 35 years - the inclusion of either of these poems (particularly the latter) on any of the UK’s examining boards’ proscribed lists seems highly unlikely to say the least. ** ”Sir! Sir! Can we analyse Twat again? Oh, please sir – can’t we read Twat?”
❉ John Cooper Clarke’s ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is published by Picador, Hardback, 320 Pages. RRP £20.00.
❉ Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He has written for Esquire and a host of other publications and will be performing at Calderstones Mansion House (Liverpool) on November 19th.