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Talking to John Clarke: a friend and biographer reflects

John Clarke: he particularly hated management speak. AAP

Talking to John Clarke: a friend and biographer reflects

John Clarke: he particularly hated management speak. AAP

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.

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. 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.