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I Wanna Be Yours: John Cooper Clarke’s magnificent and hysterically funny memoir

Book Review: the self-proclaimed 'bargain basement Baudelaire' detonates zingers on every page of his highly entertaining memoir

I Wanna Be Yours
I Wanna Be Yours
Author: John Cooper Clarke
ISBN-13: 978-1509896103
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £20

“I’ll tell you now and I’ll tell you firmly, I don’t ever want to go to Burnley,” John Cooper Clarke proclaims in a typically hilarious poem named after the Lancashire town. When Clarke performs it live, he usually prefaces it with a quip, “Don’t ever go to a town where they still point at airplanes.”

Roddy Doyle once claimed he only reads poetry by Cooper Clarke. “Football is the only sport,” Doyle asserted. “Guinness is the only drink. John Cooper Clarke is the only poet.” Affectionately known as the Bard of Salford and hailed as the Godfather of British performance poetry – although Clarke favours calling himself “a bargain basement Baudelaire” – his publishers heralded this highly anticipated memoir, which was reportedly acquired after a “hotly-contested” auction, by lauding him as the poet Laureate of Punk, a literary rock star, an outlandish fashion icon, and a reluctant national treasure. Kate Moss calls him “the velvet voice of discontent.”

His reputation is primarily built on his spellbinding live appearances, which he has finely tuned since the 1970s

Despite his superlative cult status, Clarke has only published two volumes of poetry in his entire career: Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt (1983), and The Luckiest Guy Alive (2018). His reputation is primarily built on his spellbinding live appearances, which he has finely tuned since the 1970s, when he regularly supported The Buzzcocks, The Clash, and Elvis Costello. I first stumbled upon him in the flesh opening for The Fall in Sankeys, a sorely missed Manchester venue in a disused soap factory and one of the original cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Clarke skirted on the fringes of comedy, music and poetry, a cultural conglomeration that perfectly chimes with today’ s multi-stage festival format. Clarke’s Mancunian childhood was in a markedly more monochrome era. An early chapter titled A Splash of Colour recalls just how startling the advent of colour cinema was in the 1950s. The young Clarke had an insatiable appetite for the popular arts, navigating his youth via Hollywood movies, TV shows and comic books.


The poet grew up in Higher Broughton, a suburb of Salford that also spawned Shelagh Delaney, Mike Leigh, Mark E Smith and Ewan McColl. In his own Salford memoir, Bernard Sumner of New Order claimed he didn’t see a tree when growing up in the less salubrious Lower Broughton until he was nine.

Clarke maintains that his neighbourhood wasn’t the roughest part of Salford. “A number of trees could still be found in one of the several Victorian municipal parks in the area, but posh would be pushing it a bit,” he writes, which underscores that it was a more sylvan suburb than Sumner’s. “Even today, in spite of Media City, Salford is not posh.”

As a child, Clarke spent a period of convalescence from TB staying with an uncle in Wales. He claims to have always wanted to be a poet, despite the obvious misgivings of his parents. “I was a mystery to my mum and dad, and they were a mystery to me,” he notes. “To me being a professional poet was better than notching up a hat trick at Old Trafford.”

One of the most memorable pieces of advice he received from his father, a foreman at the electrical firm Metropolitan-Vickers, was to “never leave a bookies with a smile on your face”.

Coincidentally, Clarke was a bookie’s runner in the then illegal world of off-track betting. “Twelve-year-old kids had the monopoly on this work due to their immunity to any serious prosecution,” he says. Various stints as a tailor’s cutter, a printer, an apprentice car mechanic and a lab assistant are all joyously chronicled.

Clarke detonates zingers on every page, plus there are priceless cameos from Chet Baker and President Michael D Higgins

Long before the filth and the fury of punk, Clarke witnessed icons like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent and the Everly Brothers performing live by nonchalantly bunking into the Manchester Apollo while sound equipment was being delivered during the afternoons. At the early age of 12, he was astonishingly well read, devouring Dostoevsky, Dumas, and Dickens.

A recent episode of Clarke on Desert Island Discs with Lauren Laverne is riveting listening, and I Wanna Be Yours is compelling reading, an eloquent and unconventional memoir from an extraordinary character who has shared stages with some of the most epochal talents of the 20th century.

Clarke detonates zingers on every page, plus there are priceless cameos from Chet Baker, Michael D Higgins, Gerry Adams, and even Charles Haughey, as Clarke lets slip that he titled a live album Walking Back to Happiness after a slogan from the Great Houdini’s spell in opposition in the ’80s, when the writer first toured Ireland with Dr Feelgood.

An Uachtarán appears as “a ragamuffin young arriviste by the name of Michael D Higgins” who reads alongside Clarke at the Project Arts Centre. “The next time I ran into him, he was the President of Ireland, “ Clarke delightfully discloses.

It’s not all gleeful anecdotes, or beer and skittles, as Clarke was chronically addicted to heroin for 17 years, eventually quitting when he met his French wife, Evie, with whom he has a daughter, Stella. “Now I had an overarching desire for something far more precious,” he reveals. “A lifetime of happiness with the woman of my dreams – and heroin precluded its attainment.”

His best-known poem, I Wanna Be Yours, is a popular choice at weddings, and a ballad adaptation of it closes an Arctic Monkeys album. Now, it also christens one of the most magnificent and hysterically funny memoirs of modern times.

Éamon Sweeney

Éamon Sweeney, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about music and culture