“He wasn’t just playing with jokes, he was playing with everything.” (Flickr.com: John Clarke)
It was Di Gribble who introduced me to John Clarke. They’re both dead now, leaving that same sense of unfillable loss, of something just gone from life.
John was a man of many conversations and we shared more than a few. In corridors, on phones, in studios.
It always amazed me, early in the piece, that he made time, someone so accomplished, so well-known and adept. But it dawned on me eventually that having a chat was one of the things John liked most, perhaps second only to working.
There would have been other private priorities above these I know — to his family and closer friends — but ours was a particular conversation, full of ideas, wit and a constant fascination with literary and performance form. It had the intimacy of mutual fascination, but not a true closeness.
I used to joke, often to Gribble, about “the long no that is John Clarke”. John was careful, you see. In this time of fame pursued for its own sake, of every passing minute filled with a minute’s worth of senseless fluff, John was a steadying and sober hand.
He was careful of his reputation, and protective of his craft. He would never let a word of his venture out alone until he was utterly confident that it was polished to a certain, quiet, poised perfection.
He loved the boundaries of things, the way recognisable written and visual forms could be teased towards comedy. His satire was steeped in this, the way things are written and done.
I should have been working today on his next column for Meanjin, sending back the snippets he sent me for his blessing. And rewriting. And tinkering. And a quick final fiddle. That might have to wait.
One of the most wonderful things we ever hatched in that small parasitic togetherness of editor and writer was a series of political columns for the ABC’s now departed The Drum website, written under the unassuming pen name of St Paul.
A reflective moment for John Clarke and Jonathan Green at the ABC studios in Southbank. (ABC RN: Serpil Senelmis)
St Paul’s Letters to the Electorates ran through the 2010 campaign, authored, it can now be said, by John, and playing as much with the rhythms and forms of the King James Bible as it did with the hilarious detail of the politics that swam through them.
And that was John’s thing: the form. Fileting the ways in which words and performance work, the better to deploy them for comic effect.
Look at Clarke and Dawe on ABC TV. Consider the premise: an interview in which the subject, without makeup or physical mannerism, assumes the identity of various figures in sport, politics and life; a thin skit made utterly convincing by John and Bryan’s study and mastery of that particular form.
The mechanics of the exchange were utterly perfect, the satire — piercing and brilliantly observed — therefore had the bedrock of a known performance premise. It was John’s hallmark, from Clarke and Dawe to Fred Dagg to various Farnarkeling monologues: he wasn’t just playing with jokes, he was playing with everything.
He loved words, I think, the most, or so it seemed from the way he talked so engagingly about them; about words and the ways in which they might be set down. Poetry, criticism, beautifully wrought fiction.
Words were a world that could be shaped to some sort of perfection, words held every possibility and John crafted his with such skill, such dedication to getting them just so.
He was a writer a little out of time in that; he could never settle for rough spontaneity, would never churn something out just to please.
He had a higher calling: to the fine precision of his craft. And now, on his death, as we look back on the things he has done, we can see the worth of that.
Find me a dead spot, find me an idea of John Clarke’s that fell a little short of the mark. I dare you.