It was National Poetry Day last week, a date I’m sure you found your own ways to celebrate. I was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where John Cooper Clarke was in residence for the evening, headlining a show that also featured appearances by fellow poets Mike Garry and Luke Wright, a couple of sharp young wordsmiths who by the look of them may not have been capable of joined-up writing when Clarke was in his glorious early pomp and may possibly not even have been born then, Wright especially looking like he’s only just stopped being looked after by baby-sitters and cooed over in a crib.
They were good, both of them, respective highlights of their sets “Saint Anthony”, Garry’s clever, alliterative tribute to Anthony Wilson of Factory and Hacienda notoriety, and “Essex Lion”, Wright’s hilarious riff on the recent apparent sighting of a lion near a caravan park in Essex. Clarke was in no mood to be upstaged, however, by youthful upstarts, however talented, and once he hit his formidable high-speed stride left both trailing in his breezy wake, a human tsunami of wisecracks, torrential outpourings of poetic absurdity, rapid-fire versifying and side-spitting loquacity. He was, in other words, for 90 minutes wholly brilliant.
He came on stage looking as ever like he was made out of pipe cleaners and a couple of old coat hangers, his back-combed Dylan bouffant piled so high it put at least an extra couple of feet on his height and so skinny he could easily have disappeared through a crack in the stage if there’d been one. Is he incapable of putting on weight, like the rest of us? He could probably disappear behind a pencil and very likely casts a shadow that looks like something scratched in the ground with the point of a very sharp stick.
At 61, he is frighteningly trim, a scary hipster scarecrow with gold in his teeth, or at least the ones he has left, and a rasping Salford accent in which he still delivers his material at something only slightly less than the speed of sound, as if he’s commentating on the final furlong of a closely-run horse race or has otherwise lost his mind to excitable impulses, the words, either way, going by in something more than a blur, much like the world seen through the window of a bullet train.
He spends some time tottering around a table piled with notebooks, scraps of paper, pages of text both hand-scrawled and typed, once or twice going into a wobble that makes you think he may fall over, and then starts off with a poem called “Guest List”, which is hilarious but barely over before he asks, as if this is a question that’s been worrying him for some time: “If Jesus was Jewish, why the Spanish name?”
This opens a floodgate of similar conundrums – “What is occasional furniture the rest of the time?” for instance – and a lot of great one-liners, Clarke as much of a stand-up comic as a poet, his patter relentless and usually side-splitting as he ranges across a variety of topics, anything that catches his fancy basically, in a weepingly funny cavalcade of jokes, asides, wry ruminations (“Getting old, it happens to us all, if we’re lucky”, “It’s a gift, isn’t it, to be able to laugh at the misfortunes of others.”), anecdotes and rants at things that annoy or irritate him, which include marine biologists and Terry Pratchett.
Sometimes these routines are even connected to the poems he manages to squeeze into the stream of riotous digressions, as when “Things Are Gonna Get Worse” is introduced by another quick quip – “I went to the doctor and the doctor said, ‘I haven’t seen you for a while, John.’ I said, ‘I’ve been ill,’” – which should in time-honoured fashion have been accompanied by a drum roll and cymbal splash.
Among the newer poems elsewhere featured the highlight is “To A Tiki Shirt”, an ode to that most garish fashion accessory, the Hawaiian shirt, which develops into a wistful reflection on growing old and the ways in which we hold on to our pasts and is very touching. In a nod to his own past, towards the end, out comes the venerable “Beasley Street”, delivered at astonishing speed – so fast, in fact, that it leaves him gasping for breath about half way through and the audience by the end in stunned exhaustion.
I’ll leave you with a final thought, which he shared with us.
“If you have déjà vu and amnesia at the same time, does it mean you can’t remember what happens next?”
Have a good week.
Pic: Rex Features