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Geordie poet Ettrick Scott to support John Cooper Clarke for Corbridge gig

A legendary figure in performance poetry is performing in the Tyne Valley this weekend and that's great news for Ettrick Scott, as David Whetstone finds out

The first gig that Ettrick Scott ever bought a ticket for was in October 1980 at Newcastle City Hall. On the bill were John Cooper Clarke and Pauline Murray.

Ettrick was just 14 at the time. A schoolfriend’s dad was a plugger for a record company. “He got me into John Cooper Clarke very early,” says the man who was then just a wide-eyed fan.

Actually, he is still a bit of a wide-eyed fan but Ettrick is now grown up and at the weekend he is supporting John Cooper Clarke at Corbridge Parish Hall.

For those who don’t know, John Cooper Clarke is a Lancashire-born performance poet who rose to fame in the late 1970s when punk rock was in its pomp – if that’s the right word for a genre which came with Johnny Rotten and rudimentary body piercing.

Cooper Clarke went on stage with The Sex Pistols, The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and, presumably, Penetration, fronted by the North East’s Pauline Murray, one of punk’s best female vocalists. He had the spiky hair and the spiky words and audiences accepted him.

Ettrick Scott
Ettrick Scott

Corbridge Parish Hall might sound a strange venue for such a punk legend but you can guarantee it’ll be packed on Sunday and it’s handy for Ettrick who lives just down the road in Ovingham.

It will be quite an occasion. “When Penetration re-formed in the late 1990s, the band I was in at the time supported them at their comeback gig,” says Ettrick.

“When we landed the John Cooper Clarke support, I realised it meant that I was going to get to play with both of the acts that I saw at my first ever concert, which is well mad. I wonder how many other people can say that?”

I would hazard a guess and say not very many at all. But at this juncture I should tell you that support on this occasion will be supplied not by Ettrick alone but by Pipe Riot which, as the man says, doesn’t sound very punk rock at all.

Pipe Riot comprises Ettrick’s performance poetry, which is rhythmic and rhyming and sometimes rude and often funny, and the music of the Rev Chris Ormston, renowned player of the Northumbrian smallpipes.

“He really hides his light under a bushell,” says Ettrick. “When he started piping he went on to win every open piping competition within three years and he is widely regarded as being the finest player in the traditional Northumbrian pipes style.

“He even played on a Peter Gabriel album (on the 1992 hit single Come Talk to Me).”

The pair were introduced by another Ovingham resident, Aidan Oswell, one time member of The Honest Johns.

“I grew up round the corner from Aidan and he knew Chris. I’d been writing poetry on my own for a couple of years and he sent this message saying, ‘I have a vision of your sweary northern poetry combined with Northumbrian pipes’.”

The two men got together and got on famously. What’s more, they proved that Aidan’s vision worked pretty well in reality. Without further ado, they got gigging.

The blend of poetry and pipes made them laugh and it made me laugh when I put the CD on the player, although not everyone will crack up at numbers like Upon Hearing the News of Margaret Thatcher’s Death and Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus.

Yui Mok/PA Wire John Cooper Clarke
John Cooper Clarke

Ettrick, whose route to the rural bliss of the Tyne Valley was “from Jarrow via Whitley Bay”, found echoes of an ancient artform in the sounds they were producing.

“It’s a kind of traditional Northumbrian punk,” he suggests, citing the radical rabble rousers who could stir up a crowd in the days when social media meant the smoke-filled pub or community hall down the road.

I’d suggest there are also echoes of the music hall in Pipe Riot. There are shades of Stanley Holloway, the master of the monologue, although Ettrick’s words carry many a social barb.

“My entire modus operandi is if you can make people laugh, they’ll start to trust you,” says Ettrick. “Then you can make them think and you can slip your opinions in.

“We could just be a comedy act but I’ve no interest in that. We’ve done gigs for West Northumberland food bank and the campaign for the living wage and just things that I think are right.”

You might have guessed that Ettrick is not of the Tory persuasion. Neither is Chris Ormston a real vicar. His sporting of the ‘Rev’ handle and the dog collar sits alongside Ettrick’s spontaneous decision to grab one of his chickens for the promotional photography.

“I told him I liked dressing up and he said, ‘I’m going to be a vicar’,” says Ettrick. “We look an unlikely duo, the pair of us.

“But we’ve got a tribute act. We played at the Tanners a couple of months ago and this guy came up afterwards and said, ‘I’m here with my mate who’s a piper. Would it be all right if we did some of your stuff?’ We said OK.”

Ettrick says: “I’ve always known I wanted to writer, from a very early age. I remember writing essays in primary school and the teacher reading them out. But I was completely useless at sports and I couldn’t even draw a stick figure in art. My mother was an art teacher, too.”

He left school and became an apprentice stage manager at Live Theatre and then worked in guitar shops and played in bands. Then, with his wife, he ran the Cluny Kitchen in the Ouseburn.

When his marriage broke down in 2009 he decided to go to university and embarked on studies in English literature and creative writing at Northumbria. “Two years in I knackered my back and they said, ‘You’re going to have to take a year out’. I made a pact with myself that I would actively promote the band and take any gig we were offered.”

Since then Pipe Riot have played for the Women’s Institute and the good causes mentioned. Ettrick has published a collection of his work, 23 Proper Manly Poems for Men, Women & Children, and is looking forward this weekend to possibly his finest hour, rubbing shoulders with one of his heroes.

The gig at Corbridge Parish Hall is on Sunday at 7pm. Tickets from wegottickets.com


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
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Mark Douglas
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