Talking to John Clarke: a friend and biographer reflects

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John Clarke: he particularly hated management speak.

Anne Pender, University of New England

On the Thursday before that terrible Sunday when John collapsed during a hike in the Grampians, he sent me an email, alerting me to a typo in a biographical essay I had published about him. I was so grateful to him for taking the trouble to check the text and for pointing out the error, and said so. “Sorry to be a pedant”, he replied. They were his last words to me. The Conversation

We had been having a leisurely conversation about our doings: he telling me how much he was enjoying working with Shaun Micallef, and looking forward to “a little lie down” at Easter. In fact I have been talking to John about his life for about eight years now, on and off: in person, on the phone, by email and sometimes snail mail correspondence.

On many occasions our conversations lasted for hours, with him telling me extraordinary stories about touring the clubs of New Zealand as Fred Dagg with a couple of singers, or about how his friend Ginette Mc Donald talked him in to auditioning for a film role in London with Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Barry Crocker and Nick Garland. He played one of Bazza’s drinking partners.

Once, only recently, he told me about his first radio interview with Robyn Williams in Australia; it took place in 1977 at the ANZAAS conference, in the toilets, so that they could escape the jabbering scientists, with John pretended to be a philosopher and addressed the topic The Meaning of Life.

When I spoke to John on the phone I would often laugh so much that my colleagues would rush along the corridor from their offices to see what was going on in mine.

The author with John Clarke in 2015.

John was not only an entertainer “on stage”, his conversations were full of hysterical laughter: mine, and usually his too, as he recalled events and people. Hilarity took over even if the main point of the story was serious: he recalled the funny and strange conversations he had with people such as Clive James, Peter Cook, Paul Cox and others, with whom he seemed to have had odd and interesting encounters.

The conversations I had with John are the funniest I have had with anyone in my whole life. They weren’t just funny, they were vivid, and full of John’s philosophies about everything. He particularly hated management speak, and after I had been talking to him one day, I noticed an email appear from “Senior Management”. When I opened it I realised it was from John. He continued to send me missives from this and several other addresses.

We talked about Seamus Heaney for hours, as both of us had encountered the man and remained in awe of him; John sent me a recording of Heaney reading his poetry in Melbourne a few years before Heaney died.

Both John and I had Protestant Irish family heritage, and enjoyed Irish poetry. John introduced me to the work of Irish writer John McGahern. We also talked about cartoonists. Both of us knew Nick Garland who drew the Bazza McKenzie character in the comic strip he created with Barry Humphries in the 1960s. And of course we talked politics.

In addition to the profile essay I published about John recently, I have a much longer essay in manuscript about his life for my forthcoming book on comic actors in Australia. It is ready. John has checked it several times and made many suggestions. He has shared photographs with me and provided me with everything I could need. When I was researching it he told me about his childhood, his parents’ unhappy marriage, his loathing of school as a student at Scots College in Wellington, his first few years at University and how he started in satirical revue.

He also told me about his meanderings on his bicycle as a boy on the country lanes around Palmerston North in New Zealand and how he felt when he first saw David Low’s cartoon of Hitler and Stalin meeting, published in 1939; he marvelled at Low’s unique manner of portraying evil.

Clarke was struck by its boldness and clarity, the terrible context and dead Poland, the perfectly mannered stances of the two liars, and by the fact that Low had used their own words to do it. Years later Clarke perfected in sketch comedy what he had seen in Low’s cartoons: he was able to tell a shocking political truth through humour, using the precise words of those in power to skewer them.

I first spoke to John when he kindly agreed to give me an interview when I was conducting research for a full biography of Barry Humphries back in 2008. One of the stories John told me about Barry makes me shiver at Humphries’ razor sharp wit even as I recall it now.

John told me that during the filming of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Joan Bakewell interviewed Humphries for a television program called Film ’72. Dressed as Edna Everage, Humphries slipped easily into the interview. Bakewell asked: “Why is this film set in England?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Barry, referring to the constant strikes and blackouts then bedevilling England, replied, “The film is set in Calcutta but London looks like Calcutta and is cheaper.”

John overheard Humphries’ remark and gasped at its audacity. It was “marketing Dada”, he thought to himself. As I listened to this anecdote I thought, “Only John would use a phrase such as ‘marketing Dada’.”

John loved to talk but he also loved to listen, to find out what a person’s life had been like. He had a way of asking questions that drew out extraordinary answers. John knew all about Barry Humphries’ teenage years and what Barry read as a young man; he knew about Anthony La Paglia’s early life. As a child he had talked with Anthony Burgess about how Burgess cheated death. His warmth radiated from him and he made you feel optimistic – lighter and happier than before you had both talked.

Anne Pender, Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

John Clarke: an unsurpassed craftsman of the Australasian voice

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

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. The Conversation

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.

Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Farewell John Clarke: in an absurd world, we have never needed you more

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John Clarke, who died suddenly at the weekend, called out absurd politicking and dishonest language wherever he found it.
ABC Pr handout/AAP

Robert Phiddian, Flinders University

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. The Conversation

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.

Robert Phiddian, Deputy Dean, School of Humanities, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.