"I don't remember where I was for the Kennedy assassination, but I remember first seeing the sea. A body of water without borders – immortal, eternal, mysterious." So says John Cooper Clarke, the Salford-born punk poet who has worked with The Clash, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Arctic Monkeys and Mark E Smith, to name just four.
Clarke’s maritime memories have just been utilised by the National Trust to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Project Neptune – the campaign to protect 775 miles of coastline, from Dover’s white cliffs to the Gower peninsula – and the result is the first few verses of “Nation’s Ode to the Coast”, inspired by a visit to a “radiant jewel” of a beach on the Dorset coast:
A nice cuppa splosh and a round of toast
A cursory glance at the morning post
A pointless walk along the coast
That’s what floats my boat the most
That’s where the sea comes in…
Despite the hushed poignancy of the lines, which the National Trust is asking the public to complete (cultural crowdsourcing, if you like), Clarke is a surprising choice. For one thing, he can’t swim. (“I can float. I just can’t propel myself. Thin people make very bad swimmers.”) For another, his 2009 work “I Mustn’t Go Down to the Sea Again” offers a scabrous rebuttal to English literature’s most famous nautical lines, from John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever”. Clarke takes Masefield’s inescapable yearning – “I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide/ Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied” – and throws a sardonic wet blanket all over it:
The rain whips
It drips on chips
They turn to lard
I’d send a card if I had a pen
I mustn’t go down to the sea again
“Anyone my age has memories of a disappointing holiday,” Clarke says about the poem. “If anything goes wrong, it’s doubly sad.” He would, however, be “one miserable motherfucker” to repeat this tone for the National Trust.
Britain’s coast has always possessed a powerful allure for Clarke: “It’s all about holiday and recreation and idleness and fun. The seaside was what you looked forward to all year.” While Blackpool and South Shields were favourite destinations, most regular trips were to Rhyl. Clarke’s first visit was to recuperate from a childhood bout of tuberculosis, during which he saw the resort transformed from off-season ghost town to tourist paradise. “I had quite a lonely existence, then I saw it bloom into this place devoted to pleasure that welcomed working-class people from round and about. It was very poetic.”
By the time Project Neptune began in 1965, Clarke was 16 and chasing more dangerous amusements. “Wherever you have young people you have punch-ups,” he says, describing Brighton, Margate and Bournemouth’s reputation for violence between rockers “with their motorbikes” and mods “with their lightweight Italian casualwear, trying to pull chicks”. Did Clarke himself get into trouble? “In Rhyl? With all those Scousers? Are you kidding?” he exclaims. The cause was his long hair and a polka-dot shirt worn on the cover of his debut album, Où est la maison de fromage?
The good memories win, thanks to the music Clarke heard on fairground sound systems, recent trips to Clacton-on-Sea and an enduring love of the kiss-me-quick spirit. “The sea presides over an atmosphere of general abandonment, the promise of romance. It puts things in perspective and welcomes the philosophical mind.” At the same time, it also embraces an anarchic spirit such as Clarke’s. He quotes Joseph Conrad: “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” But the last word belongs to Clarke himself: “I don’t need an excuse to go to the seaside. Give me a dry day and idle time and colour me happy.”
To put forward your coastline-inspired poetry, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/neptuneReuse content