By Claire Smith
I can't quite believe this is happening. I'm in a pub in the Lake District, and John Cooper Clarke is telling me how to cook liver and onions. "You have to fry the sage - that's the key - you need to cook it to unlock the flavour."
The original punk poet still looks as if he might not have had a square meal since 1975. He's the same gangly figure, with shades and a tangled shock of black hair. But he's demolishing a plate of chicken and salad sandwiches - and despite my best efforts the conversation keeps turning to cooking, gardening and The Simpsons.
He tells me that Homer Simpson is his role model: "If you wanna know what I think - just look at Homer Simpson."
Whatever he says I can't stop laughing. There's something about that thick Salford drawl which turns even a list of vegetables into a gag. The Bard of Salford has just played the Kendal Calling festival, to a rapt audience in the poetry and comedy tent, many of whom were probably not born when he started his career.
He gives them a sprinkling of his classics - Twat and Chicken Town, interspersed with fantastically funny drawled one-liners delivered with casual nonchalance as he decides which poem to pull out next. He's done a new version of Beasley Street - called Beasley Boulevard - a description of the spruced-up Starbucks version of the urban landscape which somehow manages to be as dark, bleak and funny as the original.
Punk rock doesn't have a reputation for having been a barrel of laughs, but Cooper Clarke always had his tongue in his cheek. "I don't think when I started I was as gaggy as I am now. Then it was extremely declamatory."
He loves the fact that he still appeals to a younger audience, and that although he is forever associated with punk his material doesn't seem to have dated at all.
"I fall between a lot of stools," he says. "It's good in many ways because I can work in rock concerts, comedy clubs and literary venues. I am quite at home in all those situations and I don't change what I do. I've played Latitude [Festival] a few times. I like the literary end of it. There is always a lot of literary people there. If you stay around long enough you are not seen as something that's passe."
I ask him what he thinks about now when he looks back on the punk rock period. "It was a kind of photo opportunity," he says. "But I still listen to The Ramones. In a way they were kind of retro - it is traditional rock and roll. What did they say about punk - that they can't play - but everybody who likes the Beach Boys should like the Ramones."
He always liked American music. "Glasgow is the same as Manchester and Liverpool - west-facing ports. We had R&B years before London. But I knew I didn't like all these people that were around at the time; people like Genesis and Yes. I didn't even have to listen to them, I knew from the names I didn't like them.
"My taste is music was pretty eclectic even then. I have a wide taste in music. Frank [Sinatra] was the best friend a song could ever have. He would rehearse the lyrics for a fortnight then he'd give it 'the Frank'. The jury's always out - Frank or Elvis."
He's still associated with the north of England but Cooper Clarke now lives quietly with his wife and daughter in Essex, watching The Simpsons, growing vegetables and watching Come Dine With Me. "I do eat - but I'm a food snob," he says. "Don't say where I live. Someone wrote it in an article recently and people started coming to my door. I'm famous. People do notice. But they don't know who I am."
People are sometimes surprised to hear he's relocated to the south. "I have always been a bit of a gypsy. I don't find so much difference between north and south. I don't mind where I am. People are always asking me about what it means to be English. I'm always asked to contribute to these programmes about it. If I am asked what it is to be English I always say it is about the culture of banter. It's piss-taking. What do we do whenever English people are together? You take the piss. If there is one English characteristic it is give as good as you get."
It's one of the reasons he deliberately plays with politically incorrect attitudes in his humour, although you'll never find him saying anything rabid or unkind. "Political correctness is a double-edged sword. You see people who mean well but it is a way of not upsetting anybody. It is to do with judgment - nobody wants to walk on eggshells and it is no basis for a friendship."
He's been at the top of his game for so long that it makes little sense to talk to Cooper Clarke about a renaissance in performance poetry. But he has noticed a surge in interest over the last couple of years. "It is really big in London now. There's lots of venues for poetry."
He mentions Luke Wright - of Aisle 16 - who he's known since he was a teenager. For Aisle 16's first Fringe show several years ago Cooper Clarke donated a flyer quote. He's delighted to play to young festival crowds like those at Kendal Calling too, although he makes the odd adjustment to his material. "Tonight was a bit more declamatory. Normally it's a bit more conversational. There were a lot of young ones there. They didn't laugh much at the George Formby gag."
We're running out of time. The lovely staff at the hotel need to go to their beds and Phil the tour manager needs to join his wife and daughter. I'm worried that most of what I have in my notebook seems to be recipes and lists of vegetables - so I ask Cooper Clarke what other people ask him.
There's a pause. "People say to me... Why... Johnny... Why..." he says, and I'm laughing my head off again.
On the way home I realise I've been talking to someone who defies definition, a man who models himself on Homer Simpson but is the thinnest man in the world, a poet who writes about darkness and decay but makes people laugh, a human cartoon, a gentleman punk, a man who has stayed exactly the same for 30 years but never grown stale. John Cooper Clarke is a true original. Catch him if you can.