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Much of what is presented in these two collections of John Clarke’s work has been published in similar forms before, but that doesn’t make either of these books any less essential. Clarke, of course, died suddenly and prematurely this year at the impossibly-named Mt. Abrupt, and it’s reasonable to assume there will be some demand for a career-spanning go-to as we head into Christmas.
Text has chosen to present the project in two parts. Tinkering features a wide range of Clarke’s writing, from Fred Dagg radio scripts to the farnarkeling reports to later essays and reflections. A Pleasure to be Here acts as Tinkering’s indispensable addendum, drawing together some of the best of the Clarke & Dawe scripts. The brief mock-interviews which Clarke and Bryan Dawe presented weekly for decades make up a large part of Clarke’s legacy, and they would have dominated a single-volume treatment. (A Pleasure to be Here runs over a hundred pages longer than Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke.)
Daughter Lorin Clarke, on whose podcast John appeared as a comedy historian, writes in her introduction to Tinkering about witnessing her father’s creative process, which “reflected not much the industrial rigour of the factory as the natural rhythms of conversation. These little linguistic jokes proscribe any hierarchies or even formalities, suggesting a mutual adventure that might continue for some time”. That’s as good a distillation of the nature and the enduring appeal of Clarke’s work as you’ll get. More than any other satirist, he was constantly in conversation with his audience, encouraging us on a “mutual adventure”.
We get to see the origins of that adventure in a set of essays Clarke wrote about his parents and other dear departed. In the essay on his late mother, he recalls seeing an actress in Palmerston North pretending to be drunk and singing ‘Making Whoopee’. The young Clarke was aware that he was “learning about something by seeing it exaggerated”. This would seem to have made an impression on him. He does, after all, spend lines in an essay nominally about his mother on an amdram lady called Bunty Norman. The “learning about” aspect of this seems significant. Clarke is aware he doesn’t know quite what’s going on, realises that the real thing is different from what is being presented, but treats the whole thing as a learning experience about that real thing. It’s not enough to say Clarke was a decent bloke who had respect for his audience (which is true): he also had a profound understanding of – and curiosity about – the interaction between audience and performer. In the Clarke and Dawe interviews especially, but also with Fred Dagg and The Games, Clarke is not so much a star performer as your co-conspirator. All the time, of course, he’s teaching you about something by exaggerating it.
But Clarke’s exaggeration is likely several thousand shades subtler than Bunty Norman’s. There are many moments in Tinkering where Clarke’s sly, playful humour achieves a state you can only really call “beautiful” or “perfect”; for example, when he describes David Lange as “a man who only shaves because it provides him with an audience”. What a line. If Oscar Wilde had said it (and he would have been happy to) it would be on desk calendars and coffee mugs. But it’s for more than a well-turned phrase or three that you should buy this book. In those moments when you can sense Clarke burning to really make a point, he does so with measured, clear-eyed conviction. Here he is on ‘The New Zealand Sense of Humour’:
“…said to be laconic, understated and self-deprecating. Even if true this is not very helpful. As the same claim is not unreasonably made for the humour of the Scots, the Irish, the English, the Australians, the Russians, the Canadians and the ancient Greeks among others.”
Here he is writing in 2008, at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, in a piece he frames as advice from his recently deceased father:
“You can’t have companies borrowing these huge amounts and not have the bloke come round at some stage and say ‘We’ll have the money now, thanks.’ The whole house of cards will go over. You watch.
And I’ll tell you another thing. The world is being destroyed by greed… And this environmental disaster we’ve got on our hands. What’s caused all this? Greed. Same thing. Capitalism.”
And, of course, the ‘Howard Apology’. In John Clarke and Ross Stevenson’s The Games, the actor John Howard gave the apology that the Prime Minister John Howard was incapable or unwilling to give. In Clarke and Stevenson’s imagined present, John Howard uses the opportunity of having the world’s eyes on Australia for the 2000 Olympic Games to apologise to the country’s indigenous people. After acknowledging that his forebears “destroyed” the Aboriginal world, and that the country has allowed social and racial differences “to become fault lines” he concludes:
“I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry. Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future. Thank you.”
The force of ‘The Howard Apology’ has only grown in the seventeen years since broadcast. Much satire is temporal in nature, as Clarke himself acknowledged, and inevitably not all the pieces collected here land as well as this. This would seem to be the key obstacle facing A Pleasure to be Here, which takes in Clarke & Dawe pieces all the way back to 1989. It’s a fair bet not everyone picking up this book is going to remember all the newsworthy moments of Alan Bond, Tim Fischer and Kevin Andrews, and so it’s remarkable that the book succeeds as well as it does. Clarke and Dawe’s familiar cadences bubble up from every page, and reading the interviews en masse is hypnotising. The form is strong enough that the interviews become timeless meditations on the frustratingly opaque and pompous nature of public language. They’re absurd, but often very silly.
Clarke’s only novel, The Tournament, is very enjoyable but maybe a little unfulfilling as a total piece. Even The Games is remembered more for individual scenes which read more like sketches than essential elements of a wider story. The Clarke & Dawe interviews, along with some of the Fred Dagg television material, remain the epitome of his work. He really was at his best in short form comedy, which makes him a great candidate for anthology. These books are a treat and a delight. I was familiar with a good deal of this material before picking either of them up, but was seduced by Clarke’s voice into that mutual adventure all over again. Presumably, Tinkering and A Pleasure to be Here have been released now so you can buy them both for your parents this Christmas. Given the quality of work compiled here, it’d be rude not to go and do just that. But get your own copies as well.
Reviewed by Jonny Potts
Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke
by John Clarke
Published by Text Publishing
A Pleasure to be Here: The Best of Clarke and Dawe 1989-2017
by John Clarke
Published by Text Publishing