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JCC AND ME AT WIVENHOE HOUSE


On a Friday evening, both of us having the night off, Johnny Clarke and I go out for dinner to Wivenhoe House, once a stately home, now a hotel and restaurant. Fifty years ago, my first working band rehearsed here. Our guitarist an economics graduate, with his fellow students had the use of a disused science lab for rehearsals. During our breaks, we’d wander down the corridor for a drink in the posh bar overlooking a croquet lawn. It certainly made a pleasant change from the types of scout-hut facilities which we’d been used to.

Apart from having once been a rehearsal space, though, what’s so special about Wivenhoe House? Quite a lot actually. For a start it’s a highly impressive edifice. Built in the mid-18th century, overlooking the wooded slopes of the Colne valley, Wivenhoe Park estate and its house were the subject in 1816 of a portrait by John Constable. Then, in 1856, while visiting the Colchester garrison Prince Albert and his retinue dropped in to observe the troops exercising. In a commemorative illustration of the occasion, the great house is clearly recognisable.

Another interesting thing about Wivenhoe House and its grounds, is that during the early years of WW2 as well as providing a base for tank crews it served as HQ for the newly-formed SAS. There exists a photo of Winston Churchill himself, on a dank winter day, chatting to tank crews at Wivenhoe Park. The SAS were well-remembered in post-war Wivenhoe and, as recently as the early 1980s, still held the odd get-together in the town’s Station Hotel with locals with whom they’d made friends.

Right now, however, John Cooper Clarke and I having not seen each other for three months are having a bit of dinner. The two of us first met in early 1991. It was a time when I’d back-burnered my music, after my poetry career had unexpectedly taken off. John, who was then surfacing from a quiet period in his career, had relocated to Colchester to be with his partner. As a result, we sometimes found ourselves performing on the same bill. We knew a lot of the same people and found we had much in common. Former secondary school lads, we discovered that we’d both been avid readers of the same periodicals: Mad Magazine, Classics Illustrated, Sinister Tales and Marvel Comics. Comics they may have been but they were all educational in their way, since they prompted curiosity, within their many references, causing us to expand our general reading matter.

When tinkering with our early poems, both of us had learned the value of parodying classic poems. To be good at poetry, it’s acknowledged that you must read much of it. To really understand it, however, it’s educative to parody it. It’s like taking a gold watch apart and putting it back together again. John would probably tell you the same thing. When performing poetry though, it’s also healthy to sprinkle in a few laughs. John’s from the north-west, the engine-room of great British comedy. He also had tuberculosis as a kid, necessitating a long period of recuperation. I was the son of British Army family: moved from pillar to post, attending 11 different schools until I left aged 15. By age 16 I’d lived in more homes than I was years old. Illness and transience – such are the circumstances which will cause a child to take refuge in books. One difference between John and myself is that he’s good at socialising and far more at ease in party situations than I am. Unless I’m actually on stage, I don’t like crowds of people. I prefer quiet corners of quiet bars.

Enter a restaurant with Johnny Clarke, the chances are that the maitre d’ will know his name and he theirs. In this case, the maitre d’ of Wivenhoe House, a charming Frenchman soars over, to greet our party “Ah John!” he says as if we dined there every evening. “Awriight, Lionel?” replies John amiably.

Unlike my own, John’s life-blood is touring and he often appears on TV. I hate travelling and whereas I don’t mind making documentaries, I don’t like doing live TV. I prefer recording studios and radio stations. Since I’m completely immersed in making records nowadays and John’s frequently on tour, we don’t catch up as often as we used to. We rarely talk shop but we do tell jokes. We like the kind of ‘don’t-try-this-at-home’ gags which would probably get you thrown off TV. Such gags are often brilliant in their comic invention, if un-tellable in polite company. We talk about great old music, vanished music and all the stuff the BBC rarely plays. We discuss Stewart Lee, the comedian, whose quiet brutality we admire. There are no phones on the table. Neither of us owns a smart phone. For a former lab technician and a former kitchen porter, both in our 70s, I reflect, we’ve not done too badly. We make a living. You know?

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