John Cooper Clarke on Idleness

Photographer Jessie Lily Adams
Words Greta Bellamacina

Did I tell you I am currently shooting a documentary about saving public British libraries; did you use libraries growing up?

Oh yer, all the time. In fact my mum was a big client of the public library system, she always had three or four books on the go at any one time. And yer, we never really had books in the house. That was not because none of us used to read. All the books we needed were in the library or they would get them. They couldn’t do enough for you back then. Literacy was high on the priority list back in the day. So yer, the first books I read without pictures in them were from the library. I remember the first book I got out was Shane by Jack Schaefer. I’d seen the film starring Alan Ladd and Van Heflin, the Western. I also got Billy Liar out of the library that was a great book. You know, what can you say against public libraries? Great idea. But I think they should stick to books. I think the rot set in the libraries when they started getting videos and other things in there. And that keeping quiet rule seems to have gone by the way side as well. You know that sort of nobody talking. Whispering in libraries – fantastic! I think it made them a special sort of place, didn’t it, people just whispering. You know, “Don’t disturb the readers.” You know, “His majesty, the reader.” And then you get tramps in there as well reading the newspapers.

I always feel like my best love affairs are always in the library – silent love.

Silent there you go. What do they say? “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” You can apply that to libraries!

I think A. J. Ayer said something similar – “It’s better to always appear to look like someone who ought to be known.” Never look doubtful – it makes people feel unsafe.

Yer, I think libraries should keep it to the written word – the clue is in the title.

I agree. The freeness of libraries. I think it’s like being a poet – you feel free but it’s a hard existence. Did you find performance poetry was a better way to survive through poetry?

Yer I think it was the only way I could’ve got my poetry out back then. Even if you were a known poet, I don’t think they ever earned very much from book sales. If you look at the lives of poets like T. S. Eliot they always had other jobs. They either worked in colleges or in teaching or like Philip Larkin in a library – there’s a link! I think all poetry should sound good. I don’t make a distinction between performance poetry and other kinds of poetry. So if it doesn’t sound any good it ain’t any good. I think it’s a phonetic medium – like even if I read old stuff. I didn’t used to do it in the library because you have to remain silent but whenever I’ve ever read poetry I’ve been encouraged to read it aloud. I got my poetry bug in school when we all had to take it in turns to read a verse, some kind of epic Tennyson poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ or something, that is pages long. And it would go round the class and each one of us would read a verse from it. That was my introduction to poetry as a phonetic kind of thing, rather than something that you read like literature. It has to have a kind of musicality about it. And you can only really ascertain the musicality of a poem by hearing it. So I always read it aloud, even when I am reading other people’s poems.

Me too. I always say that my best editing comes from reading on stage.

Yer that’s right, you think, that looked great when I wrote it down and just before you think, that’s not easy to say. If it’s not easy to actually annunciate the problem is in the writing.

So it kind of begun at school – I remember I read somewhere that your English teacher inspired you to become a poet?

Yer that’s right. My English teacher, John Malone. I don’t imagine that he is still alive… well it was a long time ago, you know I am a very old person. He was a very red-blooded, outdoors kind of guy – he was a kind of Ernest Hemingway kind of guy. He was always injuring himself in dangerous outdoors pursuits.
But there wasn’t anybody else – the school I went to was a training ground for thugs, and Teddy boy central, in Salford. We had to go to another school to do woodwork; there were no facilities what so ever. But for some reason this guy installed a love for poetry across the whole class. Not just me but everyone got the bug for poetry because of him!
And it was all 19th-century stuff, Byron, Keats, Shelly… And then in translation later I was introduced to the works of Charles Baudelaire. That was a real eye-opener for me… So I fell in love with the life of a poet. He started out rich but then squandered a fortune.
I think the main thing you need to be a poet, more than money, although money buys you this, is idleness.


Because you got to kick things around. Yer, yer, yer, idleness – the main requirement.

And are you idyll?

I have been seeking out idleness my whole life as a result of becoming a poet. Idleness is your friend!

I agree, I usually use the word ‘drifting’.

Drifting too, yer. I guess travel leads to long periods of idleness.

It does, I always think it’s a massive misconception when people say it’s a negative to be a drifter – “Oh, he just drifts around…” Well I think it’s quite great to be a drifter.

Yer, it’s fabulous!

I’ve noticed when reading your book that you don’t use capital letters or full stops.

I didn’t then, you see, but I do that now. It’s a pretty wanky thing to do. You know what I mean? I’m really embarrassed about that now. “No capital letters – who do you think you are? E. E. Cummings?” Its not even that ordinal – I just thought – Oh, I like that! Oh great, that’s cutting edge! But that was 30 years ago.

Well it’s still in the book!

Yer, right – go buy it – don’t let me put you off. Some of it’s alright!

I thought maybe the no full stops and capital letters thing was referring to what you were talking about before, a poem is never finished it is just abandoned.

Too much commitment… No I guess it is very important to punctuate things properly. There was a lot of talk about doing away with the apostrophe, wasn’t there a while back? But I will give you an example where it’s really important to have one. There used to be a butcher in Scotland and they used to make their own sausages. There was a sign on the wall, painted from the 1920s. And it said “Mactavrish Sausages – we’re the best!” and over the years the apostrophe had worn off so it now says, “Mactavrish Sausages were the best.” So there’s an example where an apostrophe is very important, otherwise your giving out entirely the wrong message about your sausages.

Haha! Let’s talk about your personal style; I am sure you get this a lot.

I call it damage limitation – you call it personal style. There is only so much I can pull off.

I think you pull it off pretty well. You’ve always had a similar kind of look…

Well, that’s just it – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? And when you get to my age you have kind of narrowed it down to what you can and cannot get away with.
I have never been better off for clothes, I get up and get dressed much quicker. I used to have to give it a lot more thought. I would describe my dressing as careful!

Something in the black base?

Yer, let’s say a limited palate – it comes from the capsule wardrobe, because a lot of time I’ve had to use public transport when going to shows over the years so I’ve had to perfect the capsule wardrobe. The kind of mix and match and it will never look wrong. Otherwise I would be carrying three suitcases, on my own. I dress the way a kind of travelling salesman might work it out, or something.

I always say practicality is key.

Exactly. Lots of accessories, ties, scarves, pocket-handkerchiefs.

Do lots of fashion brands want to dress you?

I’ve had a few offers but they never follow them up for some reason! They are always very enthusiastic but then I never hear from them again. I blame the fact that I don’t have a mobile phone.

Or an email? I guess after a while people just give up.

Yer, screw this, I will just get Nick Cave!