Book Reviews: Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke, & A Pleasure to be Here: The Best of Clarke & Dawe, by John Clarke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tinkering_the_complete_book_of_john_clarkeMuch 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”.

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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
ISBN 9781925603194

A Pleasure to be Here: The Best of Clarke and Dawe 1989-2017
by John Clarke
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925603200

Book review: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

cv_lets explore diabetes with owlsThis book is in bookstores now.

I’m a David Sedaris fan from way back, but that doesn’t mean that I’m lining up at the bookshop when his latest comes out. I own three of his books already – four might be excessive. But this title intrigued me – Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. What did that mean? Had David been diagnosed with diabetes and was now going to lampoon it with his caustic wit, making it embarrassing and funny and an infinitely cooler thing to have? As someone with Type 1 diabetes, I hoped this would be the case.

But no, there is nothing to do with diabetes in this book. There is gum disease and fatty tumours. There are colonoscopies and OCD diary entries. But the diabetes reference is a red herring, inspired by an inscription in a fan’s book, when Sedaris refused to write ‘believe in yourself’, or whatever it was he was instructed to write, for fear that his book would end up in a second hand bookshop.

I do admire a man who can write an essay about having his teeth scaled and remain endearing. I don’t find him as uproariously funny as I did the first time round, when I read Naked.

In a way, Sedaris has found a formula. He begins with a contemporary shred – a desire to take up swimming again, say – segues to his nutty family, mentions an exotic animal (sea turtles! Albino peacocks! Flying squirrels! Kookaburras!) and then returns to the set-up to round things off. Still, reading Sedaris’s joyous, misanthropic, visceral take on the world is like hanging out with an old friend who tells the same story over again, but you humour him because it may have morphed into something completely different this time round.

Besides, I am endlessly fascinated by his family. I love the vignettes of his mother, smoking cigarettes and pouring wine out of a 50 gallon jug on the bench whilst pregnant with his younger brother. And his dad, who strips down to his underpants as soon as he comes home, his physique like a wrestler’s, albeit not in top condition. He yells at and paddles his kids, calling Sedaris a big fat zero. This is the reason Sedaris writes – he’s still trying to prove his dad wrong. And yet, when Sedaris phones him to say that his book is number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, his dad replies, ‘Well, it’s not number 1 on the Wall Street Journal list.’

My other fascination comes in Sedaris describing his process. He is a compulsive diary writer. He can’t leave the house until he has transcribed all of the funny things he’s heard and seen – he says he feels too ‘antsy and incomplete’.

He has particular convictions about the word diary: ‘A journal, in my opinion, is a repository of ideas – your brain on the page. A diary, by contrast, is your heart. As for “journaling,” a verb that cropped up around the same time as “scrapbooking,” that just means you’re spooky and have way too much time on your hands.’

This affords me a view of Sedaris the writer – someone whose material is all around him. He is constantly harvesting story scraps, just as he spends every afternoon picking up rubbish in his West Sussex neighbourhood. I’m reminded of a talk given by Lily Richards at the Auckland Library earlier this year, about when she met Sedaris, and he peered at her glasses, giving them his approval. She wanted a meeting of minds but he wasn’t after conversation – he was after material. And in Lily’s case, spectacles inspiration.

One part of this book which I think is a big mistake is Sedaris’s forays into fiction. In each of them he adopts a voice and spits out the hateful, homophobic rhetoric that rednecks might. It’s cartoonish, it isn’t nuanced. Stop it, David, I wanted to say. You’re preaching to the choir. Maybe it was good therapy for him – to become the person that would never read his books. But they made me cringe and wish that his editor was less indulgent.

The other mistake: the China chapter. Sedaris hates Chinese food – it makes him squeamish, and his squeamishness extends to the whole country. As he points out the turds and the hoik, he wishes it were more sanitary, like Japan, where people rinse the dog pee off the pavement with water bottles. How could he get away with being so xenophobic? I suppose he’s made his millions by speaking his mind, and no one’s going to stop him now.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, with reservations. If you were new to Sedaris you might want to start with Naked or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. And you might like to listen to him on This American Life, to appreciate his deadpan delivery in a nasal drawl. Now, when I read his books, I hear him reading to me, a black-humoured uncle in a Louis XIV armchair, insisting on showing me his ingrown toenail, shocking me with his hilarious childhood tales and random hatreds, and his sometimes poignant view of the world around us.

Reviewed be Sarah Laing
(Ed: Sarah is a writer whose third book The Fall of Light is out in July).

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
by David Sedaris
Published by Abacus
ISBN 9780349121635