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

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

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

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 Clarke 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. Clarke 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 this 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 dishonest language wherever he found it.

Satirists are the permanent opposition to power in free-ish 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.

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