There are some writers whose voice, by sheer accident of timing in your life, reach far deeper into your brain than the specifics of what they wrote.
For me, it was the satirist and actor John Clarke, who died suddenly on Sunday while hiking in the Grampians, aged 68. I never met Clarke. But he taught me a great deal about the English language and the Australasian voice, and what can be done with both.
Clarke was a transplanted New Zealander who became an essential Australian presence. As a young man he’d swapped the shearing shed for university without ever losing his clear affection for both worlds. That sums up the sense of duality in Clarke’s persona, firmly at home yet ever so slightly removed from the absurdity around him.
The ideal posture for the satirist, in other words. And his facility with language was wholly unrivalled in Australian satire.
One of my earliest comedy memories was my parents’ copy of The Fred Dagg Tapes. I had no idea who Whitlam or Kerr were, but I hung on every word. You have to. You cannot listen to Clarke even at his most seemingly flippant without sensing the incredible precision of the word choices and the careful elegance with which his sentences are shaped and finessed. Every flourish and detour, every wry circumlocution, is perfectly formed and placed.
In that craftsmanship lies the unnerving durability of Clarke’s work. So much of early 1980s Australia seems impossibly alien now, yet Fred Dagg’s musings on real estate could have been written yesterday:
You can’t write like that anymore. The media that services our Twitter-addled attention spans won’t reward phrases like “probably isn’t going to glisten with rectitude” or “why you would want to depart too radically from the constraints laid down for us by the conventional calibration of distance?,” or writing insider send-ups of literature (“the stark hostility of the land itself – I’m sorry, the stark hostility of the very land itself”) or entire books parodying major poets with perfect pitch.
Clarke could invite his reader into jokes about Samuel Richardson (“he’s probably dead now, he was a very old man when I knew him”) or Ibsen and Monet playing tennis
without a trace of pretension or smugness. His Commonplace pieces for Meanjin reveal a remarkable racconteur with an obvious curiosity for people and places. Above all, his work is shot through with an unflagging affection for language itself. And, in deference to the fact this is supposed to be a philosophy column, we should note his unique take on Socratic Paradox:
To call what Clarke did sarcasm seems at once too crude and too weak. It’s a dryness beyond sarcasm. To work at all, irony has to find a way to signal the speaker’s ironic distance from what they’re saying. The question is how you do it. Sarcasm screams it at you; subtler irony gives you a knowing wink. Clarke doesn’t have to wink. It’s there already, something at the top of the throat, in the posture, in something the forehead’s doing. A near-total irony perfect for dissecting the deadly serious.
Clarke’s was a voice that was Australasian in the best sense: refusing self-importance but finding a deep earnestness in taking the piss.
He didn’t do impressions or voices, he just did his voice. It didn’t matter who he was meant to be: the voice sounded right. It sounded right as any politician you care to mention, it sounded right as Wal Footrot, and it sounded right as the conniving developer in Crackerjack.
It was a finely-tuned instrument in The Games. In a country that lurches alarmingly between cultural cringe and shallow triumphalism, The Games hit the sweet spot in the national neuroses in a way that’s unlikely ever to be repeated.
And it was never better than when he and Bryan Dawe deftly unweaved the tortured logic of the week with paradoxically brutal restraint. Clarke and Dawe was a masterpiece precisely because two middle-aged men in unremarkable suits against a black background, not even attempting an impression or costume, made a space where the latest absurdity could be made to disassemble itself in front of us.
Urgency in wryness. Bemused ferocity. We so dearly need voices like that, but we’ve just lost the best we had.
Vale Mr Clarke. We’ll not see your like again.
It cannot be the final arkle! Surely the inventor of Dave Sorenson, greatest and most persistently injured of farnarklers, will rebuild himself for the next match. Please tell me this is only the umlaut, and John Clarke will be back for the second half. In our more than usually absurd world, we have never needed him more.
I can make no claim to personal acquaintance with Clarke – who died from natural causes while bushwalking in Victoria over the weekend – though by all accounts he was a lovely man. I do, however, feel I’ve known his work all my adult life, from Fred Dagg to last week’s Clarke and Dawe, so I write in appreciation of the work on this terrible day.
It is a magnificent achievement of focused and pitch-perfect satire. He gave voice to a brilliant antipodean acerbity that has always seemed a little old-fashioned in its moral and tonal dignity, and has been so pointedly timely because of that.
The bedrock of his genius is the craft, the total control of rhythm, syntax, and tone. Because he wrote mostly for the screen and in short forms, it is easy to underestimate this quality. He was simply unparalleled. No Australian or Kiwi writer has ever controlled the rhythms and ironies of our English as well.
Internationally, you’d have to admit that Samuel Beckett was tauter, but nowhere near as funny. Other peers are scarce in all the world, even before you take his voice as an actor into account. Go back and read the scripts of the Games, and see if you can find a slip of tone or any emotional or political sloppiness. You may be some time.
His regular mode was disdain and wonderment at the antics of the knaves and fools who run this millennial world. He was the antithesis of excess and profoundly at odds with the dominant celebrity culture. Instead, he has been a voice from the immediate past in this era of globalisation, media glut, and economic liberalism, a voice of understated but never complacent decency.
All this is clearest in the strange success of the Clarke and Dawe skits. His reverse caricature of public figures made no attempt to imitate the person he was parodying, either in appearance or in the more obvious elements of voice.
So far as I am aware, no-one anywhere else has managed to pull it off. If you listen carefully, it really is John Clarke parodying Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull, not by exaggerating the mannerisms, but by inhabiting their patterns of language and clinically exposing their vacuity or dishonesty. It’s a forensic satirical analysis at least half a world away from the swingeing condemnations of our other recent loss, Bill Leak.
Clarke was old-fashioned in manner and also in ethics. Very unfashionably, he valued facts, detachment, and restraint. This led to a deep and coherent form of political engagement that would explode foolishness wherever it appeared. He was broadly of the left, but he called out absurd politicking and the dishonest language wherever he found it.
Satirists are the permanent opposition to power in freeish societies like ours. He fought the abuses of power with wit and irony in governments of all colours, and in the corporate corruption of our national obsession with sport in the Games.
Had he stayed in New Zealand, he could well have had to take on the All Blacks for the sake of a more innocent love of the game. He ducked that fight, and Australia is the richer for it, in our usual way of Kiwi appropriation.
There was nothing soft about Clarke’s nostalgia. It remained a steady and brilliant challenge to value what is good, not just what is new. And he was fascinated by what he saw around him. His was the most generous spirited derision you could imagine.
Every time I have had to choose the tense of a verb in this article, it has been harrowing to have to use the preterite, and not the present. There were so many more knaves and fools for Clarke to excoriate as the tide of blah swirls ever around us.
I think I’ll go out and check the length of the 100 metres track at Olympic Park in memory of him. Perhaps we could go as a group.