Anthony Clavane reports.
The stubby, shell-suited Sunday dads eye the bouffant-haired, pointy-shoed, stick-legged degenerate suspiciously. But their sons and daughters follow him around as if he were the Pied Piper. "Oi, Mister, like yer shades," shouts a teenage girl with a nose stud. "Ta, luv," replies John Cooper Clarke.
The artist formerly known as the prince of punk poetry makes a face at his French partner, Evelynne, and continues to push Stella, his four-year- old daughter, on the swing. These piercings, he confides, make him queasy. "Tongues are the worst."
Back in the days when he had thousands of teenage followers, ear, nose and throat studs were all the rage. And during the wilderness years of the mid-to-late Eighties, he himself sported even uglier needle markings. But now that he's the elder statesman of stand-up verse, and, in his own words, "a citizen above suspicion," such self-mutilation is anathema.
Whatever happened to John Cooper Clarke? How did he come to fall among the unshaven and unsightly in Essex? While other punk legends, such as McLaren, Lydon and Westwood, enjoy continuing fame and fortune, he languishes in a cramped, terraced house in Colchester -The Town Where Nothing Ever Happens. (This title became official when an American family started a new life there after viewing its peaceful, law-abiding high street on the Internet.)
I just stopped being famous," he explains. "I'd hate to be one of those people who's famous for being famous. Besides, it's important for a poet to have an ordinary life. To know what a pint of milk costs."
As we make our way to his favourite haunt - a Twenties tea shop - it is difficult to avoid, even in cosy Colchester, intimations of his immortality. Posters show Charlie Chuck's heavily back-combed curls, John Hegley's skinny suit and the grinning features of Craig Charles, whose "The Day My Flat Went Weird" bears an uncanny resemblance to John's "The Day My Pad Went Mad". Most striking of all is Murray Lachlan Young, looking like a cross between Byron and the young Cooper Clarke.
He is flattered rather than frustrated that lesser acts rode to riches on the Ivy League jacket-tails of his talent. "Good luck to 'em," he drawls, in his trademark, nasal Mancunian. He never thinks, "cheeky bugger" - "cos if it's good, it's gonna be uttered elsewhere".
In Jacklin's restaurant, he points out the faded splendour of the wood- panelled walls, orders some hot buttered teacakes and declares himself a great admirer of starched tablecloths. "It's a very poetic area, like seaside resorts out of season. Bound up with a kind of decadence. Something that still goes on but hasn't any discernible use." Again, he insists he himself is perfectly happy being out of season, cropping up every now and then in the admiring prose of Julie Burchill, PhD theses and small poetry clubs (such as the Enterprise, Camden, where he appears tonight). Although he hasn't penned a "Beasley Street" or a "You Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express" for many years, the muse has not deserted him. But the demands of fatherhood have curtailed his creativity. "You become more active, and idleness is the poet's friend, whereas activity's the enemy." There's more to it than that. The excesses of his rock'n'rhyme lifestyle turned him into a junkie. Rehabilitated, with a brilliant future behind him, he says there's no point regretting the wasted years. "Of all the junkies I knew, only three of us have survived. The others are either dead or still on it. Not many leave that club."
It must rankle seeing Lachlan Young cashing in million-pound deals with EMI. "No, not really. Some of his stuff's quite good." The 26-year-old performance poet has acknowledged his debt, but whereas his mentor has no agent or manager, and considers it a point of principle never to "hawk my stuff around or go looking for work to further my career", the new, improved model is an over-hyped, over-marketed graduate of the world's first media performance degree course, based at Salford, Cooper Clarke's home town.
"No populist performer has been so consistently overlooked," wrote William Cook, who believes that without Clarke alternative comedy, let alone performance poetry, would never have happened. He shrugs his shoulders. "In a way, I'd be a bad thing if I was still successful." How come? "Well... I don't want to hold myself up as a success story. Because kids might look at me and say: "I'm gonna do drugs, because you don't look too bad on it." Loads of people who've cleaned up look better than reformed alcoholics."
True; he doesn't look bad on it. Still Keith Richards meets 18th-century courtier. Still regulation shades, three-button jacket and black drainpipes. Still a rocker dandy. Even when he was spouting poetry in front of pogo- ing Pistols fans he stuck to the dress code, "the essential uniform of the paranoid urbanite". As we get up to leave, the waitress reveals that the tea-shop will be closing down next week. "That's shocking," he mutters. "I mean, it's a place out of time, isn't it? There aren't many other places like this around. It's terrible - a great shame."