L19 – Dr John Cooper Clarke

Last night I went to my first event at Leeds International Festival 19 and it was brilliant. It was a stage show whose headliner was the redoubtable Dr John Cooper Clarke, but before he trod the boards we were treated to spoken word performances from Toria Garbutt and Mike Garry, both of whom appear regularly with the good doctor.

Toria was the first to test the crowd, which, unsurprisingly, was a sellout, unlike the thoughts put forward by the performers. From the outset, Toria had the audience, who were still sober and well behaved, in the palm of her hand with her selection of pieces.  Although the sentiments of the works were presented in a semi-aggressive style there was an underlying tenderness in them, especially when she related the story of a woman who had motherhood unexpectedly thrust upon her and the problems she had in coping.  My favourite, though, was the first piece called Subway, which was a metaphor for life in Knottingley, and life in general, being a void where people went from somewhere to somewhere else, a few leaving a mark on their journey, in this case the graffiti on the wall.
Photograph by Miriam Schupp.

It is all too easy to protest and highlight deficiencies in society, but this woman walks the walk by working with inmates of HMP Hull and I am sure that we will be seeing, and reading, a lot more of her work in the near future.  

Should you wish to find out more about Toria Garbutt then please click here to read the recent interview she gave to Leeds Living’s copy editor Mags Richards.  Toria’s latest book, The Universe and Me, is now on sale.  

Second to the stage was Mike Garry, a Mancunian and well-respected poet and lyricist with an impressive c.v.  He worked as a librarian for 15 years before turning to poetry full-time, so it must be a nice change to be able to talk out loud. His work also covered various aspects of the human condition as well as current affairs.  The vagaries of life in Fallowfield and its environs loomed large, making it seem like a downmarket version of Knottingley, but there were deeply personal moments, such as his confession to missing his son who lives in New Zealand and the positive influence his teacher, Miss McCoombe, had on him as a child.

Photograph by Marie Grob.

His two most powerful works for me were the poems about victims of people smugglers on a ship where all you know is that the water is cold and the water is deep. The other was a moving tribute to the much missed Mancunian icon Tony Wilson, best known for his journalism, the setting up of Factory Records and The Hacienda Club.  

Humour was not neglected, especially in the poem about disco night at the Embassy Club in Manchester, which picked out the regulars like Norman Rockwell prints, giving them an air of resignation to their place in the scheme of things.   

After a twenty minute break, we were treated to over an hour of wit and verse by John Cooper Clarke, which seemed to last about twenty minutes. His take on life and the universe is truly unique, although some of his jokes did have dust on them. This made a pleasant change for someone of advancing years like me and I found myself nodding in agreement with a lot of his comments, rather than being upset about them.   

His first riff was on questions no one can answer, such as, what is occasional furniture when it isn’t being furniture? He then went on to bemoan the fact that he had gained weight.  A thinner man you could not imagine; in fact, I have seen more meat on a butcher’s pencil. He put it down to his having given up taking opioid substances for non-medication purposes, which led him into his poem relating the advice that all of his supportive friends have given him:  ‘Get Back on Drugs You Fat F***’. A lot of his poems have unprintable titles.

Photograph by Dustin T Ackrath.

There were odes to hire cars and the musing that just because something rhymes it doesn’t make it true. His mixture of stand-up comedy and poetry prompted me to make a note referring to his one-liners, but he scotched that by saying that he doesn’t do one-liners as he is a poet, and what good is the second line when there isn’t a first line to rhyme with.  Fair point.

The most poignant part came when he began singing Look For The Silver Lining and musing that life today has never been better, but there has never been a worse time to be old.  As we share the same birth year, he had my sympathy when saying that as far as the NHS is concerned, on your sixtieth birthday you cease to be a patient and become a bed-blocker.  Because of this, you should do the right thing and shuffle off this mortal coil if you have a terminal illness so that your bed can be used for a younger person in need of gender reassignment. Political correctness was not a major factor in the performance.

Photograph by Miriam Schupp.

In the same vein, he said that even Alzheimer’s Disease has a silver lining, in that you can hide your own Easter eggs and you get to meet new people every day.  This was at once funny and disturbing as he immediately followed it with his Yorkshire joke about a chap who takes his dog to the vet because it’s swallowed a condom. As he was getting to the punch line he stopped and asked if he had told us why the Yorkshireman took the dog to the vet’s in the first place, and being unsure, he started it again from the beginning. I hope that this was because he wanted to juxtapose the two things, but it didn’t feel like it.  On the other hand, he might have taken his friends’ advice on how to lose his weight.

I must say that I found the evening to be one of great contrasts in both style and content and it was good to hear someone say what they think without fear of offending.  Dr Clarke managed to walk the thin line remarkably adeptly by referring to unmentionable subjects but not being offensive about them. Absolutely brilliant. His new book of verse, The Luckiest Guy Alive, is currently on sale but, rather than pay full price for it last night, now that I am home I intend to order it online to save a few bob.  Had I told you the punch line of the Yorkshire joke, you would understand my motive completely.

Feature photograph by Dustin Ackrath, who is working in Leeds with photographer Mark Wheelwright under the Erasmus programme.

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