It was the day that Seamus Heaney died: August 30, 2013. I hadn’t seen John Clarke since the late 1970s. More than three decades earlier, we had met in the hallways of Radio Triple J in Darlinghurst, when I was half of a young singing duo and he was a fresh-faced Fred Dagg.
Now, both well beyond middle age, we sat at a small table in the French restaurant below his Melbourne office. I had originally proposed interviewing him about our common passion, James Joyce, but the conversation had developed and digressed throughout numberless, lengthy preparatory phone calls – the kind of calls where afterwards you realise you have red-hot ear. The topic unravelled into unexpected but always fascinating tangents: Bach, Beckett, mathematics, family, Ireland. Each exchange was so rich, I found myself scribbling on anything within reach of my old-fashioned, tethered telephone. Initially I had wanted to know about Joyce’s influence on Clarke – on his style of satire and humour – but gradually my interest became more focussed on the living, breathing Australian-New Zealander satirist I was actually talking with, rather than the dead Irishman (who no longer answers his phone).
With this change of focus came a change of approach. My revised primary subject, I soon learned, had a tendency to duck and hide at the sight of any approaching interrogator. I suspect that if I had gone to John directly with the proposal of doing a profile, I would have got a flat negative; John Clarke was insistently, and rather annoyingly, reluctant to talk about John Clarke. Fortunately, by the time he’d realised that I had managed to dodge what he calls his ‘carapace’ by way of an inadvertent subterfuge – (ie: entering the city via the Trojan horse of James Joyce) – it was too late. And in the end, the entire enterprise seemed to have echoes of Joycean circularity, bringing us back to the places I had wanted to go in the first place, ‘by a commodius vicus of recirculation’, as Joyce says in the first sentence of Finnegans Wake.
Over lunch the conversation careered wildly, as always happened with John. He talked about narrative and a new style of CBT therapy called narrative therapy, which involves patients re-telling their lives in a positive light, editing out moments of misery and trauma, and highlighting happy times. Having spent my life writing misery memoirs, I remember making a mental note to self: Google narrative therapy.
One of the last things John wrote was a piece published in Meanjin about a particular shore bird that he had been researching called a godwit. ‘Recently a small transmitter was put in a godwit which flew from Alaska to New Zealand in one go without stopping to eat or rest. Exactly how they do this, and here’s an ornithological term, is anyone’s guess.’ The piece demonstrated Clarke’s deep interest and knowledge of environmental degradation: ‘Godwit numbers are down this year. . .The reason is that the birds can no longer feed on the mudflats in the Yellow Sea on the flight north. The mudflats aren’t there anymore. Despite international agreements on the crucial importance of the feeding grounds of migratory birds, the area has been reclaimed for housing.’ This is a different side of Clarke, a side that the public didn’t often see or hear. But it was the serious side that interested me: the person rather than the persona. What was behind all those dozens of comical masks from Fred Dagg to Iggy Norant and how did John Clarke, the individual, come to be the chameleon John Clarke, embodying an apparently inexhaustible cast of characters?
After soup and coffee we moved upstairs to his modest office, lined with DVDS and books, and eventually, amid much resistance, I finally got John to talk about himself.
John was born in Palmerston North in the North Island of New Zealand to Ted Clarke and Neva Morrison Clarke. ‘It wasn’t an ideal marriage,’ he said in his deeply understated way. ‘I had developed a whole lot of skills to survive at home – some of them linguistic – the ways you talked, for example. It was never about what you were discussing; never about what it was about. I was a bit like that person in the Roger McGough poem who took up self-defence and became so good at it that he used to go out at night and look for people to defend himself against. After I left home I think I needed to sort myself out a bit. I was like someone who’d come back from a war. I needed to be a bit reconstructed.’
The war, as I came to understand it, wasn’t just between Clarke’s parents. It was between John and his father. As he says at the outset of his 2016 biographical tribute: ‘He and I had a few problems but we’ll let that pass.’ I also came to understand that it was Ted’s talent – his way of talking and storytelling – that John had inherited, and that the ‘problem’ they may have had was simply the old familial one of being too alike. Why is it, I wondered, that we find relationships with people who resemble ourselves so difficult? I had suffered a similar discord with my sister. Perhaps self-reflection is only bearable in oblique occasional glances.
John’s literary ability was also inherited from his mother. Neva was a writer of short stories, reviews, local history and memoir and often talked to John and his sister about the writers she was reading: Katherine Mansfield, Roald Dahl, Patrick White, Katherine Anne Porter, Raymond Carver and others.
‘The clack of the typewriter was the sound you heard when you came in from school,’ John recounted. ‘The importance of my mother being a writer has always been that even though we don’t do the same sort of work, or in the same sort of way, my sister and I were always aware that writing is a legitimate activity, a way of working things out, a private or public mode of expression, a job, a pleasure.’
By the time Clarke got to high school, he was at odds with the system. ‘I kept thinking: this is crap; who are these people? Just bullies talking crap. But if you say so, you got into trouble. I was very bored and lost interest. I drank too much and was a bit of a bloody idiot. But I think my way out of it was instinctive; it wasn’t planned – it was language and humour and writing and talking. That has been my guide. It got me into trouble and got me back out of it.’
In the headmaster’s office he was told he was a troublemaker and assured that the discipline of the wealthy Protestant private school would, in the end, break his spirit. ‘I was only trying to make the other kids laugh,’ said John. When he was finally expelled, a teacher turned on him: ‘You know your problem Clarke? You are completely aimless.’ John disagreed, responding: ‘My aim, during my life, is to make enough money to buy this school and bulldoze it to rubble.’
The school was Scots College, Wellington. Later, as a successful Old Boy, Clarke was invited back several times to talk to the students but politely refused. ‘I’ve spoken with the Principal,’ he said. ‘And he understands my position.’ For much of his career, John claims he had no idea where he was going. ‘Like playing Blind Man’s Bluff,’ he said. ‘But it’s nice to be making a living out of the thing that got me kicked out of school.’
Despite qualifying to go to university early, Clarke decided to join a sheep-shearing gang instead – no doubt a fertile location for the creation of his first and much-loved comic character, Fred Dagg. ‘The shearing gang was an escape, a way of discovering the country, of getting in touch with the national project, like national service. You felt you had got to grips with something. You don’t learn anything deep about yourself while shearing but what I did learn was that I learned by doing.’
He then entered Victoria University in Wellington. ‘I was completely ignited by being at university. I adored the whole experience. I liked the people; I liked the fun and the conversations and mucking about. I wasn’t actually going anywhere – until I got involved in a stage show, which was a complete accident, and then I felt the plug go in the wall as I walked on stage. I thought, “Ah yes, this is the story”. And I decided to write some stuff that would amuse me if I were sitting in the audience.’
When he heard his audience laugh, he felt a peculiar kind of gratification. He went on to explain that he knew what would make them laugh because he was, at heart, ‘one of them’, one of the audience. ‘That’s where I come from.’ But this was typical John Clarke humility: making the whole business of being a funny man, of writing material, indeed, of the entire risky creative enterprise, sound a lot simpler than the neurotic, nail-pulling process that it actually is.
One secondhand story I heard from a New Zealander was that Clarke, even then, was regularly telling stories about a character called Dag (single g) – and that Dag was really just a parody of Dad. John Clarke’s father may well have been the ‘irritant beginning’ that poet Jane Hirschfield believes is necessary to goad the writer into .
By the third year of university Clarke found himself in a semi-professional stage show. ‘I think what I felt was that this business of storytelling and making stuff up and of language being free of any kind of legal system – that this liberated us to be ourselves. And I think we were quite inventive about who we were being – and that’s an important thing. That happened at a time when I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was an average student; not interested in anything particular; what interested me were the people I met and the extra-curricular activities. This was a road I was travelling and I didn’t care where it was going.’
Then came another life-changing discovery at university: Irish writing. ‘I realised that this was the writing for me – more so than a lot of New World writing. I would very often ‘get it’ quite easily. And the same with Irish music, and I thought ‘Aha’.
I could relate to the specifically Irish ‘Aha’ moment. Growing up, I’d had no idea that the name Carey was of Irish origin. (Indeed, I now believe that my father was complicit in keeping our Irish heritage concealed.) So it came as a surprise when, as a twenty-year-old, I was sitting in a bar one night and heard a stranger sing Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’. How could an old dirge affect me like that? Why did I feel like I’d heard it before? What was this overwhelming, if irrational, impulse to travel to Ireland and find the source of this weirdly powerful poem? The word ‘spellbound’, in this case, wasn’t figurative. Six months later I was walking along the Liffey in Dublin, looking for the echoes of the auld triangle that went jingle, jangle.
‘Probably the first writer I read who was Irish was Spike Milligan. Milligan was coming out of the war and thinking, I don’t want to deal with reality; reality’s the problem, so you invent another world. If you can create a world with words, it’s not going to be colonised; it’s not going to be taken over – it’s yours. You can move the furniture around any way you wish; it can be a parallel universe or anything you want. It’s freedom.’
This was where John and I had again crossed paths many decades ago – at the Spike Milligan shows during the comedian’s 1976 Australian tour. We were part of a small huddle of groupies that hung about before, during and after performances, in the hope of gleaning something from the master of humour and storytelling. As one half of a singing-performing duo, I was looking for inspiration for the Salami Sisters stage show while John, who worked primarily in radio at the time, was interested in the comic genius behind the funniest radio show ever produced. And he wasn’t just interested in the jokes.
‘The Goons is a good example of how free humour is – and how freeing – because Milligan can make something imagined in your mind and even though we all know it isn’t – because in reality it isn’t – if we all decide it is, then it will be. So language becomes a venue that is not bound by reality at all. It’s surreal. There certainly weren’t many New Zealand writers writing like that when I was there; they were writing about drowning in a black bog.’
Irish writers also contributed to Clarke’s development as a satirist. ‘There was a course at uni about writing style and one of the first things we read was ‘A Modest Proposal’ by Jonathan Swift. Apparently, he was secretly writing something to people with whom he’d had an argument over dinner.’ Swift’s straight-faced parody, ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick’, uses formal language and conventional rhetoric to argue for a proposal that the reader soon realises is barbaric and indefensible. In other words, the reader or listener, participates in the argument and eventually comes down on the side against the writer or narrator: a rhetorical method that was key to Clarke’s comedy. From that moment in the University of Wellington circa 1969, Swift’s eighteenth-century essay became a model for the John Clarke’s twenty-first-century style satire.
‘With anything satirical,’ said John, ‘if you say the mayor of my town is corrupt and here is the evidence – and you point at the mayor – it gets rhetorical and boring and a bit sanctimonious and often not effective. And if you’re not careful you can become the pompous prick you’re trying to counter. So an early instinct in anybody with a satirical impulse is that, rather than do that, you play that person and pull the roof in on yourself. And ‘A Modest Proposal’ is the paradigm example. To be the person you’re up against; run his argument and have it not work. There was something so loudly subversive about it; this was subversion with a loud hailer. A brilliant piece of writing.’
And then came his discovery of perhaps the most subversive literary figure of all and the ostensible reason for my reconnection with John after so many years: James Joyce. ‘When I first came across Joyce at university, at about 18 or 19, I felt I was reading something that I felt in tune with – without knowing, at that stage, anything about being Irish or being Catholic. While I wasn’t the boy in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – I had nothing in common with him – I could see through his eyes because I recognised what he was seeing; it’s just that his photograph album is slightly different. I was very struck with the ease with which I could identify with Stephen. It read as if it was written in the time I was living in.’ He paused. ‘When you find something you identify with it helps you understand yourself; you just sigh and say, yeah, I’m with you. One of the things that Joyce encourages you to do, I think, is to be yourself, to find out who you are. But defining yourself isn’t easy because you don’t want to define a self you don’t like.’
‘I was never interested in being an actor or being anyone else. I was just interested in turning me into being a job. And I reached a point of maturity where I recognised that this project that I was on – which was me – was absolutely fascinating to me. I am completely self-obsessed. This is what does interest me.’ I asked whether some of that fascination was because the self is so mysterious and surprising and unknown, that parts are always emerging that you didn’t know were there, and that we are, in many ways, strangers to ourselves. ‘Yes, because there are parts that are immutable because they were in there pretty early or are genetic and other parts are changing all the time, so it’s never the same. And defining yourself,’ he added, ‘is an ongoing project. You can never say it’s all done – I’m ruling my homework off and handing it in. You can only say, “I’m up to here.”’
For John, Joyce’s approach to writing, the self, and reality, was liberating. ‘If you’re studying literature and learning that quite a lot of it has structures and frameworks and then you see someone who throws soup all over the floor …Well, in my case, I thought, That’s for me. It’s not a cleaned up reality, not just the good bits edited together. There’s bad behaviour in there too. The tents aren’t all in a row; it’s a refugee camp of ideas.’
Indeed, Joyce is infamous for his depiction of an unclean and messy reality, reflecting what he considered to be real life rather than a romantic ideal. One of the most famous scenes in Ulysses details Leopold Bloom’s defecation:
Leaving the door ajar, amid the stench of mouldy limewash and stale cobwebs he undid his braces. Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.
This is one of the passages that readers found particularly offensive when Ulysses was published in 1922. One critic described it as ‘a rancid chapter which appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a specialty of the literature of the latrine.’
‘It was the intimacy of the way things are dealt with in Joyce,’ John said. ‘Bloom doesn’t stand for things. He doesn’t symbolize a whole of things. He’s Bloom. So it’s not surprising that he has a piss and a shit, whereas with a lot of other people they would have edited that out.’
In 1971 John’s parents divorced and he went to England for a few years. ‘And then I went back to New Zealand because I came from there and I had to start from where I came from. And I thought I’ll go back there and have a go because if it doesn’t work, I’d better get on with something else. An opportunity arose within the television structure that was really designed to keep people out. A couple of us scampered through and it seemed to work.’
It was at this time that Clarke began to understand that the secret to satire which was the ability to say things without actually saying them. And he suspected that this secret might have had something to do with a multi-lingual background. ‘One of the things about writers like Milligan and Joyce is that they’re very often descended from people whose first language wasn’t English.’ (Spike Milligan, who always held an Irish passport, recognised his linguistic background by having his tombstone inscription engraved in Gaelic. ‘Duirt me leat go raibh me breoite’ translates to ‘I told you I was ill’.) ‘I also realised when I was doing some family history that two or three hundred years ago a lot of members of my family would have spoken Irish. So they were people who were speaking Irish, and then learnt English, and there is something subversive about the way they used it because their mind-set is to subvert – to value and use and recognise the structures but to undercut [those structures]. So I wondered if whether, sub-consciously, these things were in play in myself.’
Clarke had been interested in family history since he was a child.‘I asked my grandmother a few things when I was nine and my first notes in the file are in my nine-year-old handwriting.’ In the last years of his life he had continued to research his ancestry in earnest, writing up his family history and getting in touch with relatives in Ireland. ‘Three of my grandparents were born in Ulster within thirty miles of each other; all the ones I knew were good with language, however uneducated or educated. They were all quite playful with language.’
With such a strong Ulster heritage, I immediately wondered whether John’s acute talent for encoding language was part of a broader cultural inheritance. There are historical reasons for why the Northern Irish use of language is different to the Southern, a fact I learned the hard way while living in Derry during the 1980s. Choosing one’s words wisely was more than sound advice; it could also be a matter of life and death. Indeed, for a time, during the Troubles, it became dangerous to speak at all, a fact that was beautifully expressed by the poet Seamus Heaney, himself an Ulsterman, in the poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.
For me, Heaney had been an important influence when I was young and wandering around Ireland vainly looking for my ancestral roots. He not only helped me understand how to live in Ireland and understand the Irish; he had helped me understand and accept my Australianness. As a young traveller I felt that being a white, middle-class Antipodean was a dull, colourless identity and hoped I might re-make myself into something more entertaining in Ireland or more exotic in Mexico. But Heaney’s poem Station Island made me realise that my core was not something I could grind down into anything essentially different. There is no way, Heaney wrote, that the cairnstone can defy the cairn. There are some things, as John said, that are immutable.
Clarke had never tried to defy the cairn in which he was created. Fred Dagg embodied something essential about New Zealand which was at once mocking, affectionate and acutely accurate. Neither did Clarke feel compelled to travel in order to prove himself on a bigger stage or find far-away material to fashion into comedy. Like Joyce, he revelled in the local and the everyday. On his development as a craftsman of words, he said, with typical humility: ‘I was just dealing with the language I was given in a little brown envelope in Palmerston North in 1949.’
But of course he dealt with his little brown envelope in a way nobody else ever had, as though he was playing a game of which only he knew the rules. And because he looked like he was having so much fun, we, the viewers, were always eager to join in. But I suspect that part of his charm was that we never truly understood how he did what he did. Often his Clarke and Dawe segments were as puzzling as they were amusing. He was like a magician whose tricks were so enchanting that it was impossible to catch the sleight-of-hand, even if you were determined to spot it. For all the absurdity of his comedy, there was also an impeccable logic, which was something else we had once discussed at length on the phone.
‘Swift is an example of someone who, in his satire, is saying something but also suggesting the opposite. In logic it’s called reductio ad absurdum.’ Clarke went on to tell me that he was once taught the basics of logic from a well-known professor of maths who specialised in modal logic. (Don’t ask; no idea.) ‘What I realised was that maths is the study of patterns – which is exactly the case in language. For example, often a joke will pay off when the payoff is the third thing. Maths and language have similar patterns and balance. There is a relationship between rhythm, balance and meaning; it’s not just a case of setting out to say something.’ In other words, the pattern and the form are as important as the content.
‘My understanding of maths, of a mathematical equation – is that it sets out two things that are equal to each other. Every idea contains the germ of its opposite. And every statement as well. For example, Churchill’s ‘We will never surrender’. Within that statement is the possibility of defeat, otherwise the statement wouldn’t be necessary. In certain uses of language you are also suggesting the opposite – as in satire.’
I immediately thought of the ultra conservative character that Stephen Colbert played for years on the Stephen Colbert Show. But even more relevant to Clarke’s argument was Joyce’s theme throughout Finnegans Wake based on the philosopher Giordano Bruno’s theory that every power in nature must evolve an opposite in order to realise itself. ‘I like the idea of finding encoded ways of using language when to state anything plainly would lead to trouble,’ said John. Often encoding language for subversive purposes is not about the language specifically, he added, but about the rhythm and the silences. ‘Sometimes it’s the pause or sometimes the answer’s in the question, or the question’s in the answer. Dialogue is good for this because you’ve got two voices. There is a huge amount of modelling for dialogue – catechism is one of them – but interviews with your teacher, your parent, your friend. We have different sub-languages for these different situations.’
Dialogue was the basis for John Clarke and Bryan Dawe and in the process of producing material on a weekly basis, Clarke used dozens of formats: the Mastermind quiz show format, (‘Correct!’); sports commentators as a metaphor for political teams; the school principal and pupil interviews (one wonders if he was constantly sending up his own experience in the headmaster’s office), as well as the direct questioning of individual politicians. More recently he had appeared as a blurred and hooded interviewee with a muffled voice. ‘I devised this because it’s got to the point where no-one tells the truth on TV unless their identity is disguised,’ he said.
I asked if he thought his linguistic skills might have their origin in his Irishness. Was his parody gene an Irish parody gene in the tradition of Joyce and Swift? ‘I don’t know but it became obvious to me that other people thought that and I wondered vaguely why. You see, if you grow up in the New World and you know that your genes don’t come from there, your genes are playing an away game really; you’re not home.’
There is a sense of the exile, John suggested, in all of us white Australians. Our skin and our language betray the fact that we are not really from here. And for some of us, this feeling of exile leads us to search for roots elsewhere. But Clarke had never felt the need to return to Ireland or join the crowds of American tourists on James Joyce walking tours. What really mattered about his Irish heritage was something he already possessed: an acute sense of absurdist comedy and a powerfully inventive ability with language.
Although it may seem fanciful to theorise that a person can inherit an Irish sense of subversion or a particular style of humour or any other aspect of Irishness, the idea of Clarke’s intellectual, linguistic and creative inheritance having an Irish character was helpful to his development as a performer and a writer. ‘I’ve developed my idea of this strand of whatever it is that comes to me from my forebears,’ he said. ‘I’ve defined it and it might be complete bullshit but I can drive it on the road and therefore it’s a car.’
Throughout our long conversation about life and Irish writers and their influence on Clarke during that grey afternoon in Melbourne, it was odd that neither John nor I mentioned the Irish poet who had influenced us both, possibly more than any other. We had talked about Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien and yet we had forgotten to speak of the most important poet since Yeats and a man who Clarke had known personally.
‘During the 1994 Melbourne Writers’ Festival I was a Seamus Heaney groupie,’ he told me later. ‘I went to all of his readings. I’d never heard readings like them. They were breathtaking.’ Heaney and Clarke then shared a few conversations over beers. ‘It was an absolutely luminous period for me,’ he said. ‘Like a wonderful shipboard romance.’
When I was interviewing John on that day in 2013, Seamus Heaney was lying in a hospital in Dublin. His illness was not thought to be life-threatening and, for that reason, none of his family was at his bedside. One story that later circulated about those last few minutes of the poet’s life went like this: the doctor arrived and said, ‘I’m sorry Seamus, there is nothing I can do. Your heart is about to burst.’ On hearing this, Heaney picked up his phone and texted his wife in Latin: Noli timere – Do not fear.
The final part of this account was confirmed by Heaney’s son at the funeral; the poet’s last communication was, in fact, a text to Marie. But the bit about his heart bursting? Surely, that must be apocryphal. What could the doctor have possibly meant? It seems too romantic that a lyric poet could die of a burst heart, and rather too reminiscent of his poem ‘Postscript’, in which Heaney describes a car trip through County Clare, in the west of Ireland. There, on seeing a flock of swans, he experiences the poetry of the living moment:
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Weeks, maybe months later, John and I returned to the question of belonging, of Australia and New Zealand, of writing and writers, of Ireland and Irishness, of the idea of home and the theme of writers in exile, like Joyce and Beckett, and perhaps like Clarke himself. I asked him if he felt he was still playing an away game.
‘After Seamus died,’ John said, ‘I realised that the republic of language is the country from which you are never exiled.’
In April I was working at the Australian National Library when I got an email from a friend: ‘John Clarke just died. Blimey.’
For a mad, desperate moment I thought to myself that it could be another John Clarke. It was a common enough name. Please God, make it be another John Clarke. But a quick look at the internet confirmed the awful truth. Like Seamus, John’s heart had been caught off guard.
When we think of John Clarke now most of us think of an actor and a political satirist. But John Clarke wasn’t just a brilliant comic, he was a gifted writer of screenplays, song, essays, family history, biography and poetry. He was also a wonderful photographer, particularly of birds. If he’d been with Heaney on his drive through Clare, he might well have whipped out his camera and captured that flock of swans.
Like Heaney, Clarke also captured the national psyche. In a country that recoils at self-reflection, Clarke found a way of holding up a mirror to the national character that was oblique and yet sharply focussed. Without him, we have lost a singular vision that clarified our view of the world, as well as ourselves.
‘Irony is the glory of slaves’, was one of John’s favourite quotes, a slightly redacted version of a line from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. John used irony against hypocrisy and corruption and in the service of truth. Or to use Heaney’s description of a poet: he was ‘the good force of a creative mind at work in the light of conscience’.
Who will be our national conscience now?
The last time I had contact with John I was trying, yet again, to convince him to come to Sydney. (How many times had I tried and failed?) The occasion was the hundredth anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising in April of 2016. John had a particular and personal connection to that momentous event. His relative, an artist by the name of Kathleen Fox, had painted a famous picture of Countess Constance Markievicz, as the aristocratic rebel was being arrested, mid-siege, in 1916. When I spoke to him John was very excited because his Irish relatives had sent him an interview recorded with Kathleen in 1963, the year that she died, recounting her experience of the famous ‘poets rising’. Even more exciting had been the discovery that his relatives from the Fox family had had a connection with W.B. Yeats.
While working on his family history Clarke had come across an old photograph in the family album in New Zealand. It was of a house in Dublin where of a wealthy uncle, with whom Clarke’s great, great grandfather’s family resided for a while after falling on hard times. The great, great uncle’s name was Anthony Fox, a wool dealer who emigrated to New Zealand. On further research into this house – in Runnymede, Dundrum of Dublin – he discovered that it was the house where Yeats and his sister Elizabeth set up their publishing business, Dun Emer Press. The Dun Emer Press produced limited editions of books, written or selected by WB, the press’s literary editor. Until Clarke made this discovery, the Yeats Society had believed that there was no extant photo of the building, which was demolished some time after 1908.
John was clearly thrilled – a rare moment of departure from his deadpan tone. ‘It’s the only photo of the house in the universe!’ On learning this I immediately asked him if he felt somehow related to literary royalty. ‘It’s a slight fancy,’ said Clarke, ‘but it’s a really useful one.’
This discovery of the connection, however tenuous, between Clarke’s family and W.B. Yeats, was made many years after John’s publication of a collection of poetry parodies, one of which included a parody of Yeats. During the mid-1980s, as a way of playing with language and practising distinct styles, Clarke set himself the task of writing a book of poetry parodies where he borrowed what he called ‘the language tool kit’ of various famous poets, just as a technical exercise. It is in this book that we find his brilliant parody of Joyce, as well as Yeats, Keats, Louis McNeice, Emily Dickinson and a host of others. Each one is reinvented and relocated to an Australian setting so the book, published in 1989, is called The Complete Book of Australian Verse.
‘I was interested in what came out because things will come out when you’re driving someone else’s car and you’re behaving a bit like them. It’s a bit like saying, ‘Excuse me Keats, I just want to use your microphone for a minute.’ There are few people in the world who would have the audacity or the ability to ask Keats for a loan of his microphone. And fewer who could pull it off. Although John presented himself as a comedian, he had the heart, soul and linguistic brilliance of a poet. His loss to Australia, in my view, is as momentous as the passing of Seamus Heaney was to Ireland. Perhaps our national mourning has been muted because it’s difficult to be serious about a man who made us laugh and was utterly resistant to celebrity. But in April the front really did fall off for the final time and now John’s life, despite all that he left behind, feels tragically fleeting, and his once inexhaustible creative energy as mysterious as the migratory godwit’s.