Performance poet Dr John Cooper Clarke praises Catholic teacher who encouraged his writing

As he received the Freedom of the City of Salford this week, the acclaimed ‘bard of Salford’ Dr John Cooper Clarke spoken warmly of the inspiration he received from a Catholic secondary school teacher.

The 74-year-old poet, who was brought up in Salford but now lives in Essex, returned to his native haunt to be made an Honorary Freeman of the city. Over his 45 year career Clarke has become something of a national treasure, feted by the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Plan B and with his poems on the GCSE English syllabus. An autumn tour of the UK is largely sold out.

Ceremonial mayor Coun Gina Reynolds described Dr Clarke as ‘a true Salford legend’ who had ‘made an indelible mark on our city and beyond’.

She described how he became renowned as a punk poet in the late 1970s. “He was one of a new breed of alternative poets,” she said.

“His unique brand of wit, intelligence and raw emotion as captured the spirit of Salford and the north and made poetry accessible to everyone regardless of their background. John Cooper Clarke is an extraordinary talent. With his distinctive style and unapologetic observations of life, John has become a voice for the underrepresented and a symbol of resilience. He’s never forgotten his roots and embodies the grit, determination and pride which defines our great city.”

Proposing the motion to make him a Freeman of the city, Coun John Warmisham said: “For me he’s the unofficial poet laureate.”

Dr Clarke said: “[It feels] unique, fabulous. Who would’ve thought that this would every happen. All I can say is wow.”

And he spoke affectionately of the teacher at his Catholic secondary school who turned him towards poetry – John Malone.

He said: “I never learnt to swim, but all those people who went to the pool with him (I was exempt for health reasons). He would apparently dislodge this glass eye and throw it in at the deep end and whoever retrieved it would be ‘king for a day’. It was a regular sort of thing he used to do.

“I always imagined he lost his eye in a fencing accident. He was that kind of guy. He was a bit of a swashbuckler, a bit of an Ernest Hemingway. He went out on speedboats, did mountaineering, surfing, anything like that. He even fell off a precipice in Snowdonia, it might’ve been 100ft. From that day on he had a slight limp.  He was a complex guy, a real tough guy. But he was also a sucker for romantic poetry from the 19th century.”

On his favourite poets, he said: “I used to like stuff by Sir Henry Newbolt. John Malone’s MO was that you had to learn it off by heart, whether you understood it or not. When called upon you had to stand up and recite it. But the one I always remember was Vitai Lampada. John was a terrific conveyor of English poetry. None better.”

Dr John Cooper Clarke is currently on tour in the USA, but returns for UK gis in the autumn: