John Clarke has died. He was 68. There will be many mentions of ‘Trev’ and ‘Good on ya’ and the need for gumboots today and tomorrow and into next week. His 40 year old catchphrases were taken from the farms of New Zealand and placed into the mainstream of TV and radio and his frequently funny books and columns. John Clarke was a dag – even before he invented and became Fred Dagg. The fictional archetype – his satirical farmer – then really popularised that term. Along with so many other clichés and catchphrases.
The word genius is so often bungled – and shouting it out almost in panic at the news of a death like this, might only further cheapen it. But John Clarke was a comedic genius. Plenty of people thought so and told him so during his lifetime.
He left New Zealand when it was ripe for satire – he’d only just torn us a new one; he was one of the first to hold up the mirror, aiming it at both the head and heart – he made a career and a life in Australia. There he continued to create amazing works – in character and as himself. Sometimes that blur was never even explained; that blur was part of the magic of his very best works, be it the mocumentary about the Sydney Olympics (so cruelly spot on, The Games) or his interviews of world leaders, politicians and celebrities, in plain-speak; no mimic required, no parroting for his parodies. Those interviews across the last quarter-century – with his friend and working partner Bryan Dawe (Clarke & Dawe) are so good. Like all political satire there is a shelf-life, that’s the point. But the consistently high standard of the short, sharp works of Clarke & Dawe is legendary. That alone would be reason for people to revere Clarke.
But he had already been Fred Dagg. He was the obvious choice to give voice to Wal in the film of Footrot Flats. He had already written hilarious books.
There were movies – some he starred in, some he wrote, and TV and radio appearances. There were columns and commentary and hilarious songs and rhymes. His poetry was almost excruciatingly brilliant, the deadly aim of his satire was never in doubt across so many platforms and disciplines.
And like so many of the best things that infiltrate your life – I have no idea when I first became aware of John Clarke. Or Fred Dagg.
He was just always there. That’s a cliché – but true. My older brother went to a school fancy dress as Dagg. My parents told me stories of his earliest TV stuff – after I’d made my way to the books and the records and then back through the re-runs.
His volumes A Dagg at My Table and The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse might be the two books I’ve read the most; re-reading them in fits of laughter, reading them aloud to whoever would listen…and I found my way to them in part by fluke, in part because we, as a country, never gave up hope that Clarke was coming back, that he remembered us, that he was one of us.
I love that he was only ever an accidental ambassador. New Zealand was where he was born, in inspired his earliest comedy, but he knew the bind of it. He knew when to get out. His work was too good for just here, in a time when that was about all you could hope for if you lived here: A New Zealand Audience (only).
We held on to the hope and idea that Clarke loved us as much as we loved him.
He held on to the idea that work was satisfying and necessary. And he ploughed the field of satire, farmed alarming results.
Remember Death In Brunswick. And Crackerjack. And Fred Dagg’s “Greatest Hits” album. And everything already mentioned. And loads of other things too. One of the many things to admire is the incredible quality-control. Not a miss to consider, and if you want to pick whatever you think that nit might be or spy where it might lie the body of work that towers over and above makes any dismissal of any minor note irrelevant.
We all have our memories of Clarke and Dagg, two different characters but to so many they were one and the same.
There will be other, finer tributes. I’ve rushed this out – for no other reason than to try to appease the shock. For I am quietly devastated by this news. I’ve just lost a hero. And when I say ‘I’ it’s with the knowledge that I really mean ‘We’. He was one of my favourites. He was one of my heroes. I know a lot of people will be thinking something along the same lines. I just don’t want to speak for others.
But if I did I would have to say, of course, that we didn’t know how lucky we were…
R.I.P. John Clarke