Cogito

John Clarke: an unsurpassed craftsman of the Australasian voice

John Clarke died while walking in the Grampians, Victoria, on Sunday April 9. AAP Image/ABC

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.

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