John Cooper Clarke and Some Other Thoughts from a Sun Lounger

It’s that time again for Liz and me to troll through France in our motorhome, on the look out for swimming lakes, cheese, wine and restaurants. The weather has so far been good but not great so sometimes I’ve been relaxing on my sun lounger, other times I’ve been inside wondering, where the hell is that sun?

As I write this we are about a week into our holiday and the sun has made an appearance. We’ve had three or four really hot days and a few of those spring days where it’s really warm in the sun but move into the shade and yes, it’s freezing. You might be thinking what do we get up to in France? Visit museums? Explore fascinating French towns? Well, we have done all that stuff in the past but these days we tend to relax in the sun, read a lot, sup copious amounts of red wine and visit a lot of restaurants.

In the past we’ve visited the blockhaus in Eperleque, a huge concrete structure where the Nazi V weapons were launched against the UK in WWII. The building was rendered useless by the efforts of the RAF Bomber Command and the heroism of those pilots has guaranteed the freedoms we enjoy in western Europe today. I’ve always been moved by the museums and memorials to those who lost their lives in the war. In one place and I can’t remember where it was, we went to a museum dedicated to the French resistance and an old French chap, noticing that we were English told us how much the freedom fighters were aided by the RAF dropping supplies and ammunitions.

Another thing I look forward to on a long trip is reading. Yeah, I know you might think that’s a bit boring but I do love a really good book and one book that has really inspired me this week is an autobiography by the Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. I should really save all this for a forthcoming book bag blog post but out on the road, drinking fine wines and eating good food, I really need to knock out a blog post whenever I can.

I love the way Clarke tells his story, maybe because he writes a little like me. I’ve always tried to make my posts chatty and colloquial, using the kind of language I might use when talking and John Cooper Clarke does pretty much the same thing in his book. It’s a very observational book and he talks about life in Salford in the 1950s and later in the 60s and 70s and very gradually slips himself into the narrative. It’s not a me, me, me type of autobiography. It’s not I did this and then I did that and then I did something else. It’s a fabulous book and though I’m not that interested in the punk music scene which John was very much a part of, I still love it.

Salford is the twin town to my home town of Manchester and a lot of the places and people in the book resonate with my own memories, even though Clarke is a north Manchester guy and I’m from the south. Many years ago though, I used to frequent a place just on the Salford/Manchester border. If you turn off Deansgate and go up Bridge Street and cross the bridge over the River Irwell, you are going into Salford. The bar there, the Mark Addy, was actually the last place my small family (myself, my brother and my mum and dad) had an afternoon out together. It might have been my dad’s birthday, I’m not sure. The four of us had an afternoon lunch at the pub where they served these really tasty cheese and pâté platters. They came with chunky bread and salad and were really lovely.

Mum had her one bottle of stout and then she wanted something lighter. I ordered her a tea and she was pleased to see it was served in a very elegant way with a little teapot, a small jug of milk and a bowl of sugar.

Some years ago the bar, of which the lower floor was down on the banks of the river, was flooded when the river level rose during a storm. They couldn’t get insurance and the place closed and remains empty till the present day.

Just across the road is a small square where Manchester’s first sports superstar George Best had his fashion boutique. Back in the 1960’s my friends and I travelled into Manchester by bus to hang about Best’s Boutique. We never saw the man in person although what we would have done if we had? Ask for an autograph perhaps? I don’t know but at that time George Best had a kind of local fame that was on a par with a film star. The newspapers even dubbed him the fifth Beatle in the sixties because of his Beatle like haircut and his undeniable charisma.

Best was born in Northern Ireland and came to Manchester to begin his career as a footballer aged only 15. In the 1970s he seemed to fold under the pressure of his own stardom. He began drinking heavily and was eventually sacked by his team, Manchester United. Best died in November 2005 aged 59.

Anyway, getting back to John Cooper Clarke. He decided early on that like Dylan Thomas he was going to be a career poet and to his credit he eventually achieved just that. He was and is very much a performance poet and became famous performing with punk bands in the 70s and 80s. His big problem from reading his book seems to be that he was a habitual drug user, even becoming a heroin addict. In the later pages of this book, it does seem that he is very laissez faire about his addiction and wherever he goes to perform, he always makes arrangements to score his drugs just like you and I might try to source a bottle of milk or a packet of tea bags. On one occasion he finds himself in New York, desperate for heroin. The only dealer available to him is based in some dead-end part of the city and a friend lends him a gun which he is advised to keep in view while he goes up to the seventh floor of a dilapidated building to score. Happily, all went well for him but this kind of thing appears to have been the norm for him, having to do what he has to do to get his drugs. In later life he realises he must break the habit which he eventually does, helped by the love of a good woman who he eventually settles down with.

Much of the text is written in his own rapid fire colloquial idiom and is for me, at any rate, a joy to read. Like me he is a man who loves his pies although Clarke prefers the meat and potato version to the steak variety which I rather like. Like he says though, a steak pie is full of gravy which makes it a little harder to eat on the move.

A memorable moment in the book is when he arrives in Scandinavia for a gig. He is starving but is advised that after the performance there will be a huge buffet laid on. There was, but this being Scandinavia it consisted of a great deal of pickled fish and not the hoped for pies.

Clearly he is a great rock and roll fan and lists various members of the rock and pop fraternity who he has either worked with or bumped into over the years and if you happen to be a fan of punk, Clarke points you in the right direction for either further reading or music listening.

I thought Clarke would have had a back catalogue of poetry volumes but that doesn’t seem to be the case although I did buy one of his few poetry books, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt. That might be my next read.

OK, that’s enough reading and writing for tonight. Time for a glass of some vin rouge and perhaps a nibble on some cheese. Yes, don’t mind if I do . . .

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