The intricacy of detail he supplies is staggering, right down to his uncle’s “beautiful pale-blue and cream Dansette”, and you start to wonder: is he going to tell us everything? Apparently yes, because he’s forgotten absolutely nothing. This is the Lancashire lad as mohair-suited Proust, weak of lung but iron of will, plotting his course from antic poète maudit to punk laureate with all points in between. Be warned, however: he doesn’t actually take to the stage until page 203. Before that come screeds of reminiscence about his hungry years and his frequent changes of career.
Although his poetry thrives today partly because of its inclusion on the GCSE English syllabus (a form of state assistance Clarke is happy to accept), it rightly thrives. John Cooper Clarke can show us the universal in a hire car. He is the missing link between Pam Ayres and the Sex Pistols, between Baudelaire and the Beano.
Clarke detonates zingers on every page, plus there are priceless cameos from Chet Baker, Michael D Higgins, Gerry Adams, and even Charles Haughey, as Clarke lets slip that he titled a live album Walking Back to Happiness after a slogan from the Great Houdini’s spell in opposition in the ’80s, when the writer first toured Ireland with Dr Feelgood. An Uachtarán appears as “a ragamuffin young arriviste by the name of Michael D Higgins” who reads alongside Clarke at the Project Arts Centre. “The next time I ran into him, he was the President of Ireland, “ Clarke delightfully discloses.
Clarke has chronicled his life and career in a sprightly memoir, I Wanna Be Yours, from his postwar childhood in Salford, blighted by tuberculosis, to establishment credentials. Much of his tale is as bleak as his poetry, but Clarke is a droll observer of his own life, guiding us through a childhood of benign neglect to later heroin addiction and an often terrifying cast of characters.
There are laughs on almost every page, although the course of his happy-go-lucky life takes a decidedly dark turn after he achieves success by throwing his lot in with the punks. “There were uglier and more drug-dependent people than me at CBGB after all, and they seemed to be doing all right. I wanted my slice of that slutty, messed-up glamour pie,” he writes. Fame, he ruefully observes, is destructive: “You’d have to be some kind of a monster, a sociopath, for it not to devastate your personality.”
As a writer of comic prose Clarke is the match of anyone alive, and his turns of phrase are as sharp as his suits (the view over 1950s Manchester from the fire escape behind his house was “Coronation Street for a million miles”). His drawl is as much a part of his peculiar ars poetica as the words of the poems themselves. Every sentence he writes, you read in his voice. By the end of the nearly 500 pages of I Wanna be Yours I felt I’d not so much read a memoir as listened to an outrageous confession from a psychoanalyst’s couch. The only comment that remains to the therapist is: “All right, Doctor Clarke, but how did all that make you feel?”
It’s impossible not to hear Clarke’s voice, rhythmic and deadpan, while reading his memoir. Like his poetry, his prose style is wry and dry. At nearly 500 pages, the book is long though the language is succinct. Mad anecdotes and whimsical gags abound, but wisdom often lurks beneath the wordplay. Clarke has his unreconstructed moments – there is jovial mention of “whores” and “nancy-boys” – but any mockery is at his own expense. He recalls a gig supporting Be Bop Deluxe at Glasgow Apollo, where he was met with jeering. He lasted just four minutes before fleeing the stage. “Like all artists I have a delicate ego,” he writes, “and what I require from an audience is a unanimous display of carefully considered adulation.”