Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Comfort and joy’s in friendship, provinces and, yes, in poetry

The boys are back in town. John Cooper Clarke, Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland and Martin Newell, 2017.

The boys are back in town. John Cooper Clarke, Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland and Martin Newell, 2017. - Credit: Archant

The boys are back in town. John Cooper Clarke, Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland and my bad self perform our annual Christmas Poetry Bash at Colchester Arts Centre.

The boys are back, 2011.

The boys are back, 2011. - Credit: Archant

The event has been staged in this format for about 20 years now. Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland, gauche, unpolished teenagers in the mid-1990s, are now professional performers, writers and broadcasters of some years’ standing.

John Cooper Clarke, first famous in the late 1970s, was undergoing something of a career dip when we first met 27 years ago.

Now an A-list celeb, he’s been pictured with Paul McCartney, Ron Wood, Kate Moss and many more.

He’s even had his portrait done by Ralph Steadman. People in my own small town quietly invite him for dinner so they can later tell each other (and me, repeatedly) that they’ve done so.

The boys are back in town. John Cooper Clarke, Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland and Martin Newell, 2014.

The boys are back in town. John Cooper Clarke, Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland and Martin Newell, 2014. - Credit: Archant

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Ross Sutherland, 16 when I first knew him, has made radio programmes for the BBC. Ross is probably the most original of us all. His material is oblique and witty, with hidden depths.

I am vicariously proud of my fellow performers, especially Luke and Ross, who for a couple of Coggeshall boys have done better than they probably dreamed they would when they first supported John and I way back in the ’90s.

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When “Young” Luke Wright casually informed me a while ago that he’d met one of my boyhood heroes (Pete Townsend) and later danced with Anita Pallenberg, it did give me a pang of envy.

As for Johnny Clarke: Dr Clarke was born in Salford, Lancs, in 1949.

The City of Salford in those days was a notoriously unhealthy place to live, with, at one time, the lowest life expectancy rates in the country.

As a child, John spent a year in a sanatorium in north Wales, having caught the TB which had earlier killed his aunt.

A few years later, he travelled up to London in search of the bright lights. Having embraced a rock’n’roll poetry career in the late 1970s, with predictable alacrity he succumbed to its mores in the early ’80s. “The road to excess...” he once announced,”...leads to the Palace of Excess”.

He spent the next two decades re-earning his legend. He worked relentlessly until, to his credit, he won it back – and then some. Nowadays, if Dr John Cooper Clarke gets a chest cold, everyone from the greengrocer to senior policewomen want to know how he’s doing.

As for me, Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse. How am I doing? Probably all right. I can only write about the others accurately because I’m outside of them, observing.

I therefore presume I’m doing okay, or else I wouldn’t still be here in their august company. This seasonal quartet is a gang of mutant anti-heroes, each with his own utility belt of special gizmos. If you saw us loitering outside your house, you’d probably phone the emergency services.

Back to this poetry event. It happens only in Colchester. That’s Colchester, Essex. Not London, not Cheltenham, but rufty-tufty I’m-’avin’-the-roast Colchester.

What are we doing? Whisper it. Poetry. Okay, there’s a good dollop of comedy, some mordant social comment and a sprinkling of music.

But, here’s the thing: tickets sold out in early September. Several hundred people came to watch a crew of rugged individualists performing poetry. Colchester Arts Centre and its expert management must be at least one of reasons. The slow cultural strangulation of London could be another.

“London is finished” is a phrase I have heard distressingly often from people whose judgement I’m inclined to trust.

It’s too expensive to travel there and way too expensive to even be present there.

London’s surrealistically high rents are driving its entertainers out of the city. Small venues are closing, one by one. Not that I believe London truly is finished. For now, however, the Arts & Ents brigade are decamping to the provinces at a rate of knots. The decentralisation of talent is beginning to make itself felt. Our capital’s pricing conceit may well enrich the provinces by default.

I realised some years ago that I could exist as a writer and musician without even having to visit London.

Last week, I went for the first time in two years. I did the mission and got out.

Unsurprisingly, London colleagues with whom I deal are only too happy to come out to East Anglia for the day.

Colchester’s annual Christmas Poetry Bash, though, may never be seen in our capital. Not for under twenty grand, anyway. Do we care?

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