Remembering John Clarke

The recent and hugely successful appearance of Tinkering: the Complete Book of John Clarke is a wonderful if simultaneously sad reminder of just how much we lost last year when the great man passed away while walking in Victoria’s Grampians.

Clarke Tinkering

I was a foot soldier in a particular legion: those who encountered John occasionally but maintained a strong email connection that is now a treasured archive because of gems like these:

“I didn’t see much of ‘Top of the Lake’ but the bits I saw looked like ‘Truth’ shot with very expensive equipment.”

“Good evening and thanks. It’s like NZ in the 60s when a wealthy farmer who’d had quite an interesting war would appear on TV in a tweed jacket, viyella shirt and knitted tie, explaining that if the Japanese wanted more salt in their butter then they were welcome to bugger off and buy it from someone else. Entry level hubris and a lovely tribute to Lewis Carroll.”

“Quade [Cooper] looks to me like one of those footballers who is twinkletoes for about a season and a half and then drifts out of form, imagines himself still a contender and ends up running a pub somewhere, quickly running to fat and being picked up for driving an unregistered vehicle.”

“Neill, S[am]. was in Melbourne a few years ago for some sort of Central Otago pinots festival and I was his date. There were many many pinots; all were good and some of them seemed to come up behind us. I’m recovering nicely and expect to be back on the solids shortly. Macleod, E[uan]. is a fine painter and may even know something about these pinots.”

Clarkeian observations on life, politics, sport, film, the media, art, literature and so much else were always insightful, shrewd and invariably funny, as Tinkering reflects.

In the uproarious “Saint Paul’s Letter to the Electorates”, for example, Clarke casts a Biblical account of Australia’s political trajectory from Kevin Rudd’s arrival to Julia Gillard seeing off Tony Abbott with the assistance of Bob Brown who was also Green. JC’s observations en passant are comic genius: “a man called Peter” was, of course, Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil and Minister for Pink Batts, “a maker of music and a dancer, although he was rather jerky in this latter discipline and it maketh complete sense that he got out of that line of work”. When Peter “spake” as a politician, “people lost all hope. And their eyes glazeth over, and their heads droopeth and in some cases they slippeth into repose.”

Kevin, meanwhile, reassured the hordes that “thou art blessed, for I am thy leader” to which said hordes responded, “bloweth thee not thine own trumpet too loudly, for the walls that come tumbling down might be thine own.” Inevitably, then, Kevin “looseth the plot’ to be lined up by Arbib and Shorten (remember him?) who went to Julia saying “it’s your job to tell Kevin. We’ll hold your coat. And it was on for young and old”. To Josephine Public, they were all wankers. For Clarke, “spillers of seed”.

The appearance of the first in what threatens to be a series of Rudd’s own gospels at the same time as the infinitely more succinct Tinkerings merely underlines how sharp, observant and wry John Clarke was on politics as on all else. Any reasonable and many unreasonable readers will clock how absurd this all was, how frighteningly real.

Then the very next piece after that political spray features Terry Lineen, remembered only by avid New Zealand rugby fans of a particular age, with shards that skewer the modern game specifically and modern sport altogether:

In those days there were four tests a year rather than one a week and they

actually mattered. Nobody sang the national anthem and if a player scored

a try he returned to his position in solitude and waited until the fuss died down

Nobody got paid. The players all had other jobs.

Reading this just as Lima Sopoaga announced he was leaving New Zealand All Black rugby for the English club scene at a massive salary was further reminder of just how good a long sweep analyst John was – he might well have belonged among the Annales school of French historians who espoused the longue duree.

John doubtless preferred the earlier era in sport, as reflected here in his tributes to Peter Thomson, Marjorie Jackson Nelson and Murray Rose. Concomitantly, he preferred the earlier commentary styles to those that now more resemble a national cheer squad than a set of sober analysts. Recently I sat next to a well known cricket “journalist” who constantly referenced matches “we” (“Astraya”) were playing in India, the Sahara, Uzbekistan or somewhere in the outer reaches of the Maldives. Clarke would have loved the geography way more than the craven partisanship.

And then comes the reverential essay on Seamus Heaney that underlines both John Clarke’s knowledge and his supreme ability with words:

[Heaney] still holds a poetry book the way a farmer holds an almanac of

cattle prices and crop yields. He is practical, friendly and weather-wise

and when amused, as he often is, his eyes close with pleasure. The Heaney

nucleus also features an instinct for the resolving chord in things;

for finding the balance in words and ideas.

There is a continuity here. Up in Wellington away back then John Clarke, a year or two behind me in New Zealand’s “new to the university” race, was already looking to probe the national Kiwi psyche. As this book shows, his journey to that point was remarkable enough with parents whose cultural interests put a range of astonishing people into their son’s world: James K. Baxter, the New Zealand poet and cultist; W.H. Auden’s teacher; novelist Anthony Burgess; actress Ngaire Dawn Porter; Barry Crump, New Zealand’s harbinger of Australia’s Harry Butler and Steve Irwin, and a host of others.

Fred Dagg

The cultural probe then appeared as Fred Dagg, the shorts and singlet clad, gumboot-wearing farmer whose sunhat failed to tame a range of errant hair, and whose opening lines to camera might be “Gidday. I’d like to have a word or two with you about the Socratic Paradox, which, without being too technical about it, is a paradox worked out by the late Socrates in order to explain the pitfalls involved in explaining things.”

Dagg became and remains a Kiwi touchstone. A generation or so of followers found in him a quintessentially New Zealand humour that was new, distinctive, national, and not English even though Dagg and alter ego were avid followers of Milligan and the Goons. And it was funny. Tinkering has a hilarious House of Clarke interpretation of real estate and its purveyors. “A ‘cottage’ is a caravan with the wheels taken off” while “’magnificent’ view is an indication that the house has windows”.

If there was a recurrent theme from that time on in among the humour, insight, bubble pricking and general piss taking satire, then for me it was a kindly meant scepticism.

Recall, for example, all the marvellous characters who appeared in the Clarke and Dawe cameo over all those years.

Clarke and Dawe

One of the many classics was the mock interview with the then Senator Bob Collins, a Minister at the time a tanker was involved in a major accident and oil spill off the Australian coast. In what follows, Collins aka Clarke is interviewed by Dawe:

[Interviewer:] This ship that was involved in the incident off Western Australia this week…

[Senator Collins:] Yeah, the one the front fell off?

[Interviewer:] Yeah

[Senator Collins:] That’s not very typical, I’d like to make that point.

[Interviewer:] Well, how is it untypical?

[Senator Collins:] Well, there are a lot of these ships going around the world all the time, and very seldom does anything like this happen … I just don’t want people thinking that tankers aren’t safe.

[Interviewer:] Was this tanker safe?

[Senator Collins:] Well I was thinking more about the other ones…

[Interviewer:] The ones that are safe,,,

[Senator Collins:] Yeah,,, the ones the front doesn’t fall off.

[Interviewer:] Well, if this wasn’t safe, why did it have 80,000 tonnes of oil on it?

[Senator Collins:] Well, I’m not saying it wasn’t safe, it’s just perhaps not quite as safe as some of the other ones.

[Interviewer:] Why?

[Senator Collins:] Well, some of them are built so the front doesn’t fall off at all.

[Interviewer:] Wasn’t this built so the front wouldn’t fall off?

[Senator Collins:] Well, obviously not.

[Interviewer:] “How do you know?”

[Senator Collins:] Well, ‘cause the front fell off, and 20,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the sea, caught fire. It’s a bit of a give-away.” I would just like to make the point that that is not normal.

[Interviewer:] Well, what sort of standards are these oil tankers built to?

[Senator Collins:] Oh, very rigorous … maritime engineering standards.

[Interviewer:] What sort of things?

[Senator Collins:] Well the front’s not supposed to fall off, for a start.

[Interviewer:] And what other things?

[Senator Collins:] Well, there are … regulations governing the materials they can be made of

[Interviewer:] What materials?

[Senator Collins:] Well, Cardboard’s out

[Interviewer:] And?

[Senator Collins:] …No cardboard derivatives…

[Interviewer:] Like paper?

[Senator Collins:]. … No paper, no string, no cellotape. …

[Interviewer:] Rubber?

[Senator Collins:] No, rubber’s out .. Um, They’ve got to have a steering wheel. There’s a minimum crew requirement.”

[Interviewer:] What’s the minimum crew?

[Senator Collins:] Oh,… one, I suppose.

[Interviewer:] So, the allegations that they are just designed to carry as much oil a possible and to hell with the consequences, I mean that’s ludicrous…

[Senator Collins:] Ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. These are very, very strong vessels

[Interviewer:] So what happened in this case?

[Senator Collins:] Well, the front fell off in this case by all means, but that’s very unusual.

[Interviewer:] But Senator Collins, why did the front bit fall off?

[Senator Collins:] Well, a wave hit it.

[Interviewer:] A wave hit it?

[Senator Collins:] A wave hit the ship.

[Interviewer:] Is that unusual?

[Senator Collins:] Oh, yeah… At sea? …Chance in a million.

[Interviewer:] So what do you do to protect the environment in cases like this?

[Senator Collins:] Well, the ship was towed outside the environment.

[Interviewer:] Into another environment….

[Senator Collins:] No, no, no. it’s been towed beyond the environment, it’s not in the environment

[Interviewer:] Yeah, but from one environment to another environment.

[Senator Collins:] No, it’s beyond the environment, it’s not in an environment. It has been towed beyond the environment.

[Interviewer:] Well, what’s out there?

[Senator Collins:] Nothing’s out there…

[Interviewer:] Well there must be something out there

[Senator Collins:] There is nothing out there… all there is …. is sea …and birds ….and fish

[Interviewer:] And?

[Senator Collins:] And 20,000 tons of crude oil

[Interviewer:] And what else?

[Senator Collins:] And a fire

[Interviewer:] And anything else?

[Senator Collins:] And the part of the ship that the front fell off, but there’s nothing else out there.

[Interviewer:] Senator Collins thanks for joining us.

[Senator Collins:] It’s a complete void

[Interviewer:] Yeah, We’re out time

[Senator Collins:] The environment’s perfectly safe. …. We’re out of time?.. Can you book me a cab?

[Interviewer:] But didn’t you come in a commonwealth car?

[Senator Collins:] Yes, I did, but

[Interviewer:] What happened?

[Senator Collins:] The front fell off

Those hapless humans were all lampooned, but somehow you related to and even liked them despite their personal and professional deficiencies. They were everyone, person ordinaire, “there but for the grace of God go I” and “I know a bloke just like that” sort of people. When the politicians’ now favourite “does this pass the pub test” line came along, I wondered if they had ever watched JC because in many ways he invented that examination.

A myriad of examples capture all this, but the supposed interview with a “foreign correspondent” reporting from Washington on the 2016 Presidential race is among the best.  There is the cynical interviewer, the jaded correspondent, a disdain for politics and a quiet fatalism. Clarke at his best.

Since he left us it has been galling to wonder what he might have done with Malcolm Turnbull being fined for not wearing a life jacket; Australian politicians discovering they were ineligible to be in parliament because of claimed to be unknown dual citizenship (I would have loved to see Clarke on “Kiwi” Barnaby Joyce); the same sex marriage plebiscite; the latest throes of BREXIT; the rise of Jacindamania in New Zealand; Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un; Peter Dutton for Prime Minister and all the rest.

Sadly, we miss all that and more but Tinkering reminds us of what we had. John Clarke was and remains great.