The last time I went to see national treasure John Cooper Clarke he didn’t turn up. He was supposed to be supporting The Fall but apparently got lost somewhere between Colchester and Cambridge – it was a shame, but kind of added to the weird tension of a gig that turned out to be a real cracker so I didn’t hold it against him. Seven years later he’s headlining at the same venue as part of a tour promoting National Poetry Month and I figured it was worth a gamble. He’s a poet, you know. He’s allowed to be a bit flakey.
As it turns out the gig’s sold out and this time he’s even got a support act of his own. And not a bad one either: Mike Garry claims the stage with a brash Mancunian confidence that in some ways belies the quality and formal craft of his verse, which observes and comments on the lives of the under-privileged of his home town with wit, compassion and well-directed anger. He speaks of bad nightclubs and underage criminals and seamy rites of passage with an energy and humour that transcend the potentially depressing subject matter and his skill at varying the dynamics of his performance and ease with which he’s able to project to the back of the room make it a bit surprising when he outs himself as a former librarian. He’s clearly in love with the possibilities of language, delighting in expressing his intent as much through the sounds and rhythms of his lines as through their literal meanings, and while he’s as influenced by his co-star as any streetwise performance poet of the last thirty-odd years these extended pieces seem both more ambitious and more subtle than JCC’s barrages of internal rhymes and pithy punchlines. More often than not they hit home, even the stuff about football, a subject on which I’m pretty ignorant. His eulogy to Anthony H. Wilson on the other hand had me grinning like a loon at the alphabetically arranged cascade of namechecks.
This is all however just a prelude to the headline act, who comes on after the interval after a quick introduction by former Clash road manager Johnny Green, whose burly tuxedoed appearance inevitably reminds you of a Hale and Pace doorman. JCC is instantly recognisable, and would be even in silhouette with the trademark pipecleaner-thin legs, sunglasses and Ron Wood style backcombed bouffant still in place decades after he established his place as the UK’s premier punk poet. It’s really quite reassuring, as is his heartwarmingly shambolic presentational style which has far more in common with the schtick of a Northern workingman’s club comedian of the 1970s than it does with the genteel manner of the host of a more conventionally highbrow literary event. JCC takes his time between poems, cracking off deadpan one-liners and playing with the audience’s perceptions of what people might expect from someone of his years and somewhat dubious former lifestyle. He enjoys extending the introductions to readings to ludicrous lengths and repeating what he’s about to do so often that these lead-ins start becoming pieces themselves, and while it takes a little time to get adjusted to this mode of presentation it’s worth it: some of the material in the intros is as good as that in the poems themselves, particularly when the man in the shades stumbles into a digression that evolves into a mini stand-up routine, such as the one about seventeen TV channels devoted to Shark Attack programming. The poems he does get round to reading are a mix of old and new, delivered in his familiar 120mph Salford monotone: a longish rant about life being rotten and/or OK in jail holds its own with old faves like Evidently Chickentown and Beasley Street (which now features a second part called Beasley Boulevard reflecting the gentrification of Manchester). JCC rambles and stumbles about on stage a bit but the fact that he retains the ability to fire these screeds off at such speed gives the lie to the running joke about his encroaching senility, and he seems to be enjoying himself too, which is nice to see. Long may he continue, and let’s hope he’s got a sat-nav installed now.