A life of rhyme: John Cooper Clarke, the 'punk Poet Laureate', grants Robert Chalmers his first major interview in more than 20 years

Who'd be the 'punk Poet Laureate'? There's the heroin addiction, the gobbing hecklers, not to mention the cold shoulder from the literary establishment. In his first major interview for two decades, John Cooper Clarke delivers chapter and verse about life with Nico, 'keeping the dream alive' in Milton Keynes and being mistaken for Ronnie Wood

Sunday 08 November 2009 01:00 GMT

The late Tony Wilson once told me, "I'm not the one who will have his life turned into legend, in the way that happened to Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud. It won't be me. It will be John Cooper Clarke." "Bloody hell," says the poet. That conversation took place 20 years ago, I tell him – when Wilson was still running the Haçienda; years before the release of Control and 24 Hour Party People, films which would help Greater Manchester to become, in Cooper Clarke's words, "a kind of a magical realist place, a bit like Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude."

The poet coaxes a cigarette from his 10-pack of Lucky Strike and, shielding his lighter against the breeze, expertly completes the process of ignition.

"Fancy Tony saying that."

It's late afternoon and we've just met, as arranged, outside Farringdon station, in central London. Anthony H Wilson, television presenter and founder of Factory Records, may have been prescient in many areas, but his prediction concerning John Cooper Clarke has yet to be realised. Passing commuters stare at the artist – identifying his bouffant, dark glasses and silk scarf as suggestive of fame – but don't appear to recognise him. He's periodically hailed by strangers (mistaking him for a Rolling Stone) as "Ron". Even now, just occasionally, owing to what he calls his "complexion of a compulsive blood donor" and a pair of straight Levi's clinging to thighs no thicker than some men's wrists, he says strangers still ask him how much he charges to haunt a house.

"I tell them that would depend on how many rooms it had."

With his wit, unique poetic invention and gift for observation, Cooper Clarke is, I would argue, the greatest talent of all to emerge from his generation in Manchester. He's also the one with the least appetite for self-promotion. Now living in Essex with his partner Evie and teenage daughter Stella, he has attained – at least where the media is concerned – the status of fully fledged recluse. He stayed with me a couple of times in the late 1980s, since when we've kept in touch, but has always declined to speak for publication. He's tried to cancel this meeting four times, most recently on the phone last night.

"I love talking about anything," he says, "except for myself."

A homeless man approaches and asks him for 20p. Cooper Clarke hands the money over.

"Is that all you want, mate?" he asks, his Salford vowel sounds untarnished by two decades in the south-east. (While there's nothing affected about his accent, Cooper Clarke luxuriates in its extremes much in the same way that Linton Kwesi Johnson savours the cadences of Jamaican patois, or Ralph Richardson relished the languid elegance of old-school English.)

The stranger takes the coin and walks away.

"I read in the paper that 90 per cent of tramps and vagrants get that way from a broken heart," Cooper Clarke says. "But they didn't say how rapid a process it is. Does it happen like this: she comes home and says, 'Sorry, Dave. I've met somebody else. It's over.' He says: 'Oh, blimey. You've broke my heart now. Could you spare some change for a cup of tea?'"

Cooper Clarke is described by fellow poet Simon Armitage as "a cross between Sid Vicious, Ken Dodd and Allen Ginsberg". These days he makes his living from touring with his live show – a vehicle for his extraordinary talent for stand-up and the high-velocity poems for which he first became famous, when he was opening for acts such as Elvis Costello and the Sex Pistols. Cooper Clarke may be 60, but he's lost none of his edge; in the several days I spend with him, for instance, he will repeat himself only once.

His work recently became known to a new audience when – in a gesture typical of that programme's inspired use of music – the producers of The Sopranos chose "Evidently Chickentown", from his 1980 album Snap, Crackle & Bop, to play over the closing credits of "Stage 5", the episode, in the final series, in which Christopher Moltisanti relapses into opiate addiction. Cooper Clarke has been a major influence on younger artists, including Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys.

"There is," he admits, "a bit of a resurgence going on."

If you haven't previously encountered his work, you might start with "(I Married a) Monster from Outer Space", a poem inspired by the 1958 film of that name.

"When we walked out – tentacle in hand/ You could sense that the earthlings would not understand / They'd go, nudge nudge, when we got off the bus / Saying 'It's extra-terrestrial – not like us/ And it's bad enough with another race/ But fuck me a monster from outer space.'"

Like most of his better-known pieces, such as his haiku ("To convey one's mood in 17 syllables is very diffic"), this poem does not fully reveal the range and depth of his writing. It would be wrong to dismiss John Cooper Clarke as nothing more than a naïve creator of knockabout rhyme. This is a man whose work has been praised by, among others, Jack Kerouac's co-conspirator Gregory Corso, and the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. His poems are on the GCSE syllabus. Not long before the great Adrian Mitchell died last year, I asked him what had been his most difficult experience as a live performer.

"Following John Cooper Clarke on to a stage," Mitchell said. "Looking back, I don't know how I dared do it. He was just magnificent."

We board a train to Brighton, where he's sold out at Komedia, the stand-up venue. The carriage is crowded. Other passengers stare. Most are returning from the City to Crawley, or Purley Oaks.

"I wish I could drive," the poet says, quietly.

We take a cab to Gerrards, a simple but welcoming hotel near Brighton's seafront.

Rooms here are themed. Cooper Clarke has been given the "Parisian" suite, decorated to look like Montmartre, only better. In these garish surroundings, the poet – a man who once told me that "I never saw a painting that would not be improved by the addition of tropical fish" – seems immediately at home.

"For you," the female receptionist tells me, "we have either the 'Zen' suite, or the 'Alpine.'"

"I'd go Alpine," Cooper Clarke advises. "That way you'll have a pine ceiling, a flugelhorn and a facility for assisted euthanasia."

Backstage in Brighton, comedy icon Frank Sidebottom, the support act, is reciting Cooper Clarke's poem "36 Hours", a gruesome meditation on joblessness, incarceration and death.

"Time flies... slides down the wall," Sidebottom says, from memory, his eyes half-closed. "Part of me dies under my overalls/ I close my eyes and a woman calls/ From a nightmare.../ Shave... shit... a shower and a shoeshine/ That's it... sack time/ Everybody looks like Ernest Borgnine..."

He turns to Cooper Clarke.

"I have two heroes in my life," he says. "You and John Lennon." Cooper Clarke laughs.

"John?" says Sidebottom.


"I'm not joking."

We're joined in the dressing-room by promoter Alan Wise, a former business associate of Cooper Clarke's who managed the actress and singer Nico. The late Velvet Underground chanteuse ("late" is an adjective that recurs when you are writing about the poet's circle of friends), formerly an inti

mate of Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Alain Delon, shared a Brixton flat with the Mancunian in the mid-1980s.

Wise, currently working with The Fall, has been a highly controversial but important influence on Manchester music over three decades. The conversation is not of the kind you might usually encounter backstage at a comedy club.

"You remember that evening with Yevtushenko?" the promoter asks Cooper Clarke.


"Remember that thing he said: 'If you can't love with love that's unrequited, you cannot love'?"

"That was wonderful," says Clarke.

My contribution to this discussion is a complaint about backache. "I've got Nurofen," Wise says.

"You know what's good for back pain," someone interrupts. "That thing the Chinese do... with needles... what's it called..."

"Heroin," says Cooper Clarke.

When Nico died after falling off her bike in Ibiza, in July 1988, her Daily Telegraph obituary remarked that "she gave up heroin for cycling, which proved to be the more lethal recreation".

The ménage she established with the poet was founded not on romance but a shared appetite for what he describes as "the Chinaman's nightcap". (This period is chronicled in keyboard player James Young's memoir, Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio.) The poet rid himself of his 16-year habit in 1992. Now, he makes sure that he arrives at any venue two hours early. "Almost 20 years on," he says, "some kinds of reputation never leave you."

His most serious transgression at Komedia is to be caught trying to smoke a Lucky Strike in the toilet.

"I did a reading at Milton Keynes the other week," he tells me. "I had to get ready in the gents. There was no one in there, so I went into the disabled cubicle because there's more room. And there was something about it that was almost..." Cooper Clarke, who is sensitive to the effect of every syllable, even in routine conversation, pauses for thought. "...residential. When I come out, the attendant is waiting. He says: 'You don't look disabled. What were you doing in there?' And I said – I don't know why, it came to me without thinking – 'Just keeping the dream alive.' That bought me just enough time to flee."

Five minutes into his act in Brighton, there are people with tears of laughter running down their face. His genius – no other word will do – is not easy to capture on paper. With his accent and delivery he could read the telephone directory and get a laugh; Cooper Clarke conforms to the age-old, if ungrammatical, music-hall dictum that a great performer shouldn't just say funny things, but "say things funny".

The days when he had to deal with hecklers (he once responded, to a barrage of unrepeatable profanity: "I hear we have a clergyman in the audience. How did you get in without a tie?") are over. On stage he's relaxed and confident, drifting into surreal anecdotes which reflect his encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture.

He recalls how he was invited to host a Dracula festival in Whitby. "All I know about Dracula," he claims, "is from Hammer films, with their impeccable production values and top-dollar British actors including the lovely Hazel Court. You can imagine the first meeting. 'OK. We've got this Transylvanian Count. He has to drain somebody's blood every day. He's public enemy number one, but you can't kill him.' Somebody says: 'Where's the dramatic tension, if he's immortal? He has to have an Achilles heel. How about daylight?' 'Perfect. Daylight.'"

At the end of Dracula, he recalls, "Peter Cushing rips down the curtains, the sun streams in and that's the end of His Excellency. But they have to make a sequel. 'What now? Daylight again?' 'No. We have top-dollar British actors ' including the lovely Hazel Court. We can't have the punters gazing at the curtains for an hour.' Someone says, 'Garlic.' 'OK. Garlic it is.'

After 14 years of Hammer productions, Cooper Clarke remembers, "Count Dracula has gone from unassailable to someone to whom the following things may be fatal. Daylight. Garlic. A wooden stake through the heart. A crucifix. A shadow of a crucifix. A silver bullet. Holy water. Decapitation. Fire. And – finally – running water. And so, in 14 years, Dracula has gone from being virtually indestructible to the most vulnerable man on the planet. The viewers' allegiance has completely shifted. Now we're not so much cinemagoers, more health and safety officers on behalf of the Count. We sit bolt upright in our seats, looking out for danger.

'Shut the curtains, you stupid sod, the sun'll be up in a minute, what are you thinking of... Turn the tap off, you daft bastard; what are you trying to do, kill the old guy?'"

He goes on to list "a series of songs I wrote where I made one mistake in the title, that later became big hits for other artists". They include "Wherever I Lay My Hat, That's My Hat". He ends with a couple of his more recent poems, including "The List of Shit That Don't Exist" ("An onanist without a wrist/ A journalist who isn't pissed") and leaves to an ovation.

If you've seen him regularly over the years, you might be surprised by the material he's dispensed with. This includes lines such as "I've got amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I can't remember what happens next." Rather quietly, Cooper Clarke has become one of the finest stand-up acts in the history of the art. It is a small part of what he does.

John Cooper Clarke has long declined almost every interview request on the grounds that he has "no new product". His last original solo LP was released 27 years ago, which is all the more frustrating because the few albums he did release on CBS, especially Snap, Crackle & Bop and Zip Style Method (1982) remain remarkable testaments to his gifts as a writer. Cooper Clarke is largely indifferent to them. He doesn't care for the musical arrangements, by another "late" associate, Martin Hannett, producer of, among others, Joy Division. Hannett's contribution is undeniably of its time. But Cooper Clarke's words might have been recorded yesterday.

"Beasley Street", which sounds like Engels' prose accounts of the Mancunian slums crossed with Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row", contains images such as "There's a dead canary on a swivel seat/ There's a rainbow in the road." When it was released, the BBC censored the line: "[Then cabinet minister] Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies/ In a box on Beasley Street."

He closes the show in Brighton with "Evidently Chickentown", a poem in similar mood.

"I do this one live," he tells the audience, "because BBC bleep operators have sued for repetitive strain injury and my swear box doubles as a high-yield pension fund."

One verse of "Evidently Chickentown", in its bowdlerized recorded form, goes:

"The bloody pubs are bloody dull/ The bloody clubs are bloody full/ Of bloody girls and bloody guys/ With bloody murder in their eyes/ A bloody bloke is bloody stabbed/ Waiting for a bloody cab/ You bloody stay at bloody home/ The bloody neighbours bloody moan/ Keep the bloody racket down/ This is bloody chickentown."

When this piece was used in The Sopranos, there was a communal sense of pride among Cooper Clarke's admirers, at the knowledge that this work by the poet could resonate as powerfully with New Jersey as it does with Moss Side.

We sit talking until 2.30am in Buddies, which, in the week, serves as Brighton's one all-night café, and as a safe house from the lunacy of the city's more deranged residents.

"'Evidently Chickentown' has pretty strong echoes of 'Bloody Orkney', that poem attributed to a Second World War naval officer, doesn't it?"

"It does," the poet says. "I didn't consciously copy it. But I must have heard that poem, years ago. It's terrific."

The following morning he attempts to go clothes shopping in the Brighton Lanes. He's drawn to an outlet specialising in outfits suited to the less understated style of Asian wedding. But the owner has nothing to fit Cooper Clarke (5ft 11in, chest 32in, waist 27in, weight 116lb).

We travel back to my house in north London – he has a performance nearby this evening – then walk to Banners café in Crouch End. Cooper Clarke struggles to suppress a flinch when I produce a recording device. His one significant interview in the past 21 years – given to Paul Morley for Radio Four – sounded, he complains, "like an obituary". This was hardly anybody else's fault, in that the poet's recollections were circumspect to the point that other voices ended up propelling the narrative of the half-hour broadcast. Actually, the poet is unenthused by the memory of almost every project he's ever been involved in. Two years ago, Sky TV presented a "John Cooper Clarke Night" for which he chose a whole evening of programming. His selection included a documentary on painter William Hogarth, and a concert by crooner Paul Anka.

"How did it feel when you watched TV that night?"

"I missed it."

Any suspicion that Cooper Clarke might be anorexic is banished as he sees off a goat curry with saffron rice and naan bread. He's barely recognisable as the man I first met in 1988 who was not, quite frankly, an ideal house guest: getting up around 4pm, then sitting up past dawn, working his way through my library of low-budget horror films.

"I imagine some people assume you still use heroin, because of your build."

"Some do. I haven't used junk for over 15 years. It never gets forgotten about. It's all on the internet. But I don't want to talk about that stuff. I have a young daughter. What I would say is that the experience is a terrible one for anybody. All junkies' experience is identical. It's great at first – then it isn't – then it's horrendous. It is the most tedious of subjects. The only thing I have to say is that this is not something you can pick up then leave alone, just like that. It's not that easy."

"Your one famous contemporary at school was the late Martin Ruane [better known as wrestler Giant Haystacks, who weighed in at 6ft 11in and 672 lbs]. How have you stayed the shape you are?"

"I had TB as a boy. They said my skeletal frame never developed properly."

"How did you get tuberculosis?"

"From my mother's sister. It killed her."

"Are you saying your aunt died while you were ill; before you had recovered?"

"Yes. I was sent to convalesce in Rhyl, with her husband. It was a very difficult time. There was a lot of death on my mother's side. In the space of about a year, she lost her mother, her sister and her younger brother, Sid. He died in a motorbike accident on his way to their mother's funeral. It was heartbreak upon heartbreak."

"So where were you in all this?"

"I was in hospital. It was a terrible time. It produced what you might call a hierarchy of sorrow."

Born at Hope Hospital, Salford, on 25 January 1949, John Cooper Clarke has one brother, 12 years his junior. His father George was an engineer. Hilda, his mother, was an unpublished poet.

"If there's a gene, I got it from my ma. Her writing has this effortless quality. I'd love to get it published."

I suggest that the year's schooling he missed through illness might help explain how someone of his obvious ability came to fail the 11-plus.

"Maybe. I went to a secondary modern in Salford. But it was the worst school you could possibly imagine. I hated it from day one."

"You were a mod, weren't you?"

"I was, and it wasn't easy. Where I grew up, the one unmistakable sign of homosexuality was to betray some interest in your appearance."

"You were an apprentice engineer and a lab technician..."

"And a compositor, in the days of lead type. We did all the work for [Manchester's now-demolished amusement park] Belle Vue."

Cooper Clarke married Chris, his first wife, when he was 21. They moved to Shaftesbury, Dorset, where he continued to work as a compositor. The couple separated after three years and he returned to Manchester.

"Any other significant relationships you'd like to declare?"

"Only Evie. She's the one." (Cooper Clarke and the Picardy-born language teacher have been together for more than 20 years.)

By the early 1970s, he'd started to read his poems in Manchester clubs. "I first saw you opening for bands in Manchester around 1977. I remember wondering how on earth you'd come to be there."

"I fell into it. I think because I already looked like a punk."

"It's hard to convey the savagery of those audiences."

"The bottles were bad. Phlegm could be equally intimidating in its own way."

He seemed to have arrived fully formed, performing poems such as "(I Married a) Monster..." and "You Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express". ("This paper's boring, mindless and mean/ Full of pornography, the kind that's clean/ Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine/ Again and again and again and again/ You see all kinds of ugliness and hideous excess/ But you never see a nipple in the Daily Express.") '

At that time, audiences were prepared to assault entire bands, let alone a gaunt figure with a notebook.

"On one tour," Elvis Costello recalls, "he went on between Richard Hell and the Voidoids and ourselves. The fury of the crowds was quite alarming at that time. They spat and yelled at John because he was only speaking. What he did was extremely brave, especially for a self-confessed coward." ("My family crest," Cooper Clarke once remarked, "is four white feathers on a yellow streak.")

"His saving grace," Costello adds, "was that he was really fucking funny."

In his autobiography The Big Wheel, Elvis Costello's former bass player Bruce Thomas recalls an incident in Copenhagen during which Cooper Clarke's hotel room had been trashed. Costello's musicians debated where to dump the pillow case in which they'd hidden the shattered glass from a picture frame above the poet's bed.

"The hotel roof is decided on," Thomas wrote, "but the parcel needs a warning message. The wording is discussed. Danger? Broken Glass? No."

The poet, Elvis Costello recalls, taking up the story, eventually appeared and announced that he'd left a sign reading: 'Beware. Shards.'"

That last word, Costello says, "was rendered hilarious by his voice in a way which is just impossible to replicate in print. I think," he continues, "this might be why he is not greatly regarded by literary snobs. They may appreciate 'a voice' when it comes from 'the underclass', and they can indecently patronise it; but do they ever recognise 'a delivery', as in performance? I believe that John should be regarded as being among the very best writers in Britain. He is oddly close to the kind of absurdity and brutal detail you find in 1960s writers such as Waterhouse, Sillitoe and Braine. As for people who sneer at him as a performance poet – didn't Homer declaim?"

In the streets outside Banners, dusk – which I still can't help seeing as the poet's natural backdrop – begins to fall.

"Were you encouraged by the public performances by Ginsberg, Corso and the other Beat Poets?"

"I guess so, but they weren't really my favourites. Baudelaire was my hero. I read the Enid Starkie biography. I was kind of besotted with him. Then I saw that picture of Rimbaud in an oval frame; he has sticking-up hair and a four-button jacket. He looks like Bob Dylan. I remember wishing I could have learnt French, at school."

I can recall an afternoon many years ago, at just this time of day, when he was living in a flat on the edge of Salford. That day, Cooper Clarke recited, from memory, Baudelaire's poem "The Vampire".

"'You who like a dagger thrust, entered my complaining soul... wretch infamous to whom I'm bound like the convict to the chain; a stubborn gambler to his dice, the drunkard to his revelry... something, something... Fool.' Great that, innit, that 'fool'. In the French it's imbécile."

He'd gone on to talk about Gérard de Nerval. "The guy that wore the powder-blue cape and walked a lobster on a leash. When they asked him: 'Why a lobster?' he said: 'Because it does not bark, and it knows the secrets of the deep.' They were great, all those dudes, but Baudelaire was the baddest motherfucker on the block."

That was the old Cooper Clarke, just a few months before Nico died. Those days seem a long way behind him now.

"How did you come to be sharing a flat with her?"

"I met her after she moved to Manchester, in about 1980." At that time, he says, Nico, who appears in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, "had her own gaff in Sedgley Park [north Manchester]."

Later, "she basically moved in on me, in Brixton."

"They married you off in the music press."

"They did, but Nico would sleep on anybody's floor. If it was warm and had amenities."

"How did you hear that she'd died?"

"From my doctor. I'd seen her not long before; she was well, and looking forward to Spain. It was just terrible."

That night, he performs to 300 people at a club in Islington. The majority of the audience are decades his junior. Like John Peel towards the end of his life, Cooper Clarke has reached a point where he can connect with a new generation on the basis of a shared lack of responsibility, like grandparents do with their grandchildren.

Which is not to say that he shies away from age, as a subject. Tonight, he reads a new poem called "Things Are Going to Get Worse".

"Things are gonna get worse, nurse/ I ain't optimistic/ I got a mouth shaped like a purse, nurse/ And a bungalow smelling of piss and biscuit."

This "mere verse", as some might dismiss it, is the kind of thing that everybody thinks they can do – and they're right, they can. Really, really badly. You might consult the piece by our recently departed Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, on the occasion of Prince William's 21st birthday. "Better stand back/ Here's an age attack/ But the second in line/ Is dealing with it fine.../ It's a day to celebrate/ A destiny, a fate/ It's a taking to the wing/ A future thing."

We arrange to meet the following evening, in the improbably sedate surroundings of the Cheltenham Festival.

Before Cooper Clarke goes on at Cheltenham, in a marquee that seats 200, we have a drink with Simon Armitage, whose initiative has brought his fellow poet here. "I come from a generation that makes no distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture," Armitage says. "It doesn't matter whether it's Shostakovich or the Sex Pistols. If it's good, it's good. John just has this gift for lyricism, metre and rhyme. It's a talent that 'literary' poets would kill for."

Cooper Clarke judges, I would say wisely, that Cheltenham isn't the place to reprise his more robust pieces, such as his popular classic, "Twat".

But the atmosphere does encourage him to include more poetry in his act, including a new work called "I've Fallen in Love with My Wife". This is a touching piece, even delivered, as it is, in a voice of bewildered panic.

The writer's ambivalent attitude to the south is conveyed in his most recent work, "London, Innit Mate", commissioned for this year's London Fashion Week. ("If you can be bothered with/ The Royals, this is where they live/ Like superannuated spivs/ London, innit mate.")

He has an extraordinary talent for impersonation.

While he's fumbling with the notebooks that go with him everywhere, he delivers a reflection on Essex, in a perfect imitation of Ray Winstone. In slightly condensed form, it goes: "Solid gold geezer that/ Lives in a solid gold flat/ With a girl who's a million dollars/ Plus VAT/ And a caviar-guzzling cat."

After the show, in an Italian restaurant, he endures another brace of "Hello Rons" over a couple of beers and a salad.

In the days I've spent with him, every show has been remarkable, every audience appreciative. That said, there was one evening while we walking together in driving rain, struggling to get a vacant black cab to stop (many drivers, when they get close to Cooper Clarke, simply take off). That happened on National Poetry Day; John Cooper Clark was invited nowhere.

He has a substantial new body of work, including what he calls "darker" poems, unsuited to stand-up audiences.

"The reason John is so underrated," Adrian Henri once said, "has to do with his association with music. Apart from one collection [Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt, 1983, beautifully illustrated by his late friend Steve Maguire] he's never been published. People don't expect to sit down and read him."

It's been years since he was allowed to apply his humour and intelligence as a guest on mainstream television: a shame, not least because, if I can venture a suggestion, John Cooper Clarke and Countdown presenters Jeff Stelling and Susie Dent are a triple act waiting to happen.

His recordings can all be downloaded, and are re-released on CD. Now, with new poems, and a new audience, it could be that older fans – who've clung to the promise of a new release much in the way that Billy Bunter's creditors waited for the arrival of his postal order – may at last see their patience rewarded.

Whether or not he produces a new album, it would be condescending and wrong to see Cooper Clarke as having under-achieved. There may be a group on Facebook called "John Cooper Clarke for Poet Laureate", but the truth is that, in terms of the quality of his writing and the affection he inspires, he has already secured the status of a kind of John Betjeman for the Ramones generation.

Unusually for a performing artist, Cooper Clarke has never betrayed signs of self-regard, or even simple ambition. All he's ever cared about has been the writing.

"Are you surprised," I ask him, "at the position you find yourself in, at 60?"

"No... well... yes. When I started, I thought I was getting attention for something that wasn't that big a deal. I felt that, sooner or later, I would be found out."

"And now?"

"Oh, I love what I do now. I really do love it. Much more than at the beginning. Back then, I had a real confidence problem. I'm a much more confident person than I was. I can see the value of what I do. I'm in a good place now."

"Exactly where, at 21, you hoped you'd be?"

"I never had a plan. I think I wanted to be..."

The poet hesitates and fidgets slightly, as if he feels what he was about to say might sound boastful.

"I suppose," he continues, "that I would like people, when they look back at what I have done, to say it was different. I would like them to say it was..." He pauses, and delivers his only repetition. "Special. I'd like them to say I was special."

John Cooper Clarke is at the Ruby Lounge, Manchester on Saturday. His tour continues at Fibbers, York, on 15 November, The Masque, Liverpool, on 19 November, The Thunderbolt, Bristol, on 26 November and The Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester, on 19 December. See www.ents24.com for tickets

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