John Cooper Clarke Q&A: “Happiness is the one target you only have to aim at to miss”

The poet talks press freedom, Elvis Presley and The Simpsons.

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John Cooper Clarke was born in Salford in 1949. He rose to fame in the 1970s as a punk performance poet, and has released nine albums. He still performs live, and his poems have been sung by the Arctic Monkeys.

What’s your earliest memory?

My dad took me to the Rialto cinema in Higher Broughton, Salford, at age seven to see The Searchers. My dad wasn’t much of a movie-goer so it was a memorable occasion, and a memorable film.

Who are your heroes?

All the way, Elvis Presley. He was my hero when I was seven and remains so to this day.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Museum Without Walls by Jonathan Meades. It didn’t so much change my thinking, but it reinforced everything I’ve ever thought about our immediate environments.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I have actually done Celebrity Mastermind (I think they dumb it down a shade). My specialism was the movies of Elvis Presley.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson. Winston Churchill was the right guy at the right time, and everybody seemed happy under Harold Wilson’s watch.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

From a romantic point of view, 1950s America. But I’m happy now. There’s never been a better time to be alive.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Simpsons, because it’s hilarious and there is no better spokesperson for the modern proletarian male than Homer J Simpson.

Who would paint your portrait?

Ideally Jacques-Louis David but probably Hieronymus Bosch. I’ll happily settle for Peter Blake, who expertly avoids the heroic classicism of the former, while evading the monstrous ugliness of the latter.

What’s your theme tune?

I have two. In my stage show I walk on to “Dragnet” by Ray Anthony and His Orchestra, the theme to the popular 1950s American cop TV show starring Jack Webb as Officer Joe Friday. I walk off to “Danke Schoen” by Wayne Newton.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

The best advice I ever had was courtesy of my late father: “Never exit the bookies with a smile on yer face.” I’ve tried to observe that rule, and I’d add: “Never play cards with a man whose first name is Doc.”

What’s currently bugging you?

Recent attempts to curb press freedom.

What single thing would make your life better?

Mass literacy would help me a lot.

When were you happiest?

The pursuit of happiness is the one part of the American constitution that I have a slight problem with. Happiness is the one target one only has to aim at in order to miss. But I consider the hours I spend in the passenger seat of an automobile to be golden, so I’m happy most of the time.

In another life what job might you have chosen?

A reviewer of high-end luxury hotels.

Are we all doomed?

All human life is finite, so yes. But not in any Private Frazer sense, so “don’t panic”. 

John Cooper Clarke’s new collection “The Luckiest Guy Alive” is published by Picador

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state