Conversations with Clarkey: Remembering a friendship with John Clarke

by Peter M. Winter / 15 July, 2017
Beached as: John Clarke (left) and friend Peter Winter, in a photo taken around 1980 and titled by Winter, “A couple of packets of frozen vegetables.”

Peter Winter had a 50-year mateship with John Clarke, the acclaimed Kiwi satirist who died suddenly in April, aged 68. Clarke’s wit, humour and humanity live on in his TV and film performances and in his writing – as they do in these personal messages sent to a friend. 

J.P. Clarke of the Manawatu was a mate of mine for nearly 50 years. Despite travel and work, we always kept in touch – letters at first, then an easy transition to email. If you were a mate of Clarkey’s, you were a mate for life, for never has there been a man who prized loyalty and friendship more. Clarkey saw mateship as the essential, unifying ingredient of Antipodean life. He saw it was disappearing, too, and that bothered him. He resolved to hold firm to the idea of it. And that’s how I now find myself with a treasure trove of his thoughts, all masked by the characteristic silliness of his singular creation, Fred Dagg.

There were a couple of simple rules that governed the correspondence. First, nothing whatsoever was to be taken seriously. Any event, however significant, was considered ripe for what he called “the treatment”. Second, the overall metaphorical context governing the conversation was sports. Great efforts were made to sign off in a novel way, most often by using the name of an ancient All Black from when we were kids. Terry Lineen, perhaps, or Pascoe Brown. (His middle name was Morrison, but he adopted the nickname J.P. – short for “the jape” – because he reckoned “J.P. Clarke of Manawatu” sounded more like an All Black and increased his chances of selection.)

The object, of course, was always to lighten the day. More precisely, it was to show off, to demonstrate how linguistically dexterous you could be. That being the case, I usually found myself on the losing end of the rivalry. I didn’t care less. Conversations with Clarkey were special. And besides, I was too busy laughing.

In answer to a question about the health of his father: “The old boy has bounced back. He can now be found early most mornings looking for Germans on the Eastbourne foreshore. This week he had his first haircut since the surgery. In answer to the question was he any better-looking, he confessed he was strangely drawn to the mirror and was beginning to see what the fuss was all about. Write often. Yrs, Clarke of the Yard.”

A thank-you note for a birthday card: “Young man, I received your kind card and I thank you for your thoughtful impudence. My age is now very advanced of course and, while this can be a limitation (one thinks here of sudden bending, one thinks of inward platform dives and of anything involving complete encirclement by hyenas), it nevertheless brings with it the deep respect of the broader community. There is no empirical evidence for this but I sense it. Mick Williment.”

John Clarke in 1975.

 

The endless worrying about the All Blacks: “You may be aware that the All Blacks, for so long impervious to your counsel, have at last begun to listen. An essentially new lineup has been assembled on the basis that the two key modes are defence and attack and both have to be nailed. The vaunted Poms beat them about two months ago but failed to cross their line while the plucky Kiwis scored a try and should have scored another. They then went to S Africa, thumped Messers Bok, who had thumped the Wallabies. They then came here and thumped the Wallabies so badly that two of their seven tries were scored from kickoffs. Aust beat S Africa here last weekend in the repecharge and if they had any brains they’d all have announced their immediate retirement. This weekend NZ hosts the return Aust/NZ match and the lads in the dark shirts are unbackable to win it. Their defence is excellent and there is no obvious weakness in the backline, with the two fastest players in the game on the wings. Your clear instructions to a tee. You have had your critics. Let’s not pretend. But I take my hat off to you and if I have one tiny doubt it is that Marshall, a remnant of earlier days, has the brain of a very small bird. Best wishes from all of us, R. Ben Cheated, Ben Mistreated. N. Willah. R. B. Loved.”

A nativist dislike of the archetypal British sporting attitude: “Herewith guidelines for all BBC World Cup commentators: 1966 will be mentioned approximately 10 times a match. Regardless of what two teams are contesting the final, England must be mentioned within the first minute. Should England play Germany, mentions of Winston Churchill, Dambusters, the Luftwaffe and Adolf Hitler will be compulsory. And 1966. Nationalist stereotypes must be adhered to. The Germans are arrogant. The Spanish are bottlers. The Argentines are cheats. The commentator shall refer to the Falkland Isles in passing at some point in the match if England plays Argentina. All Scottish members of our commentary team must continue to refer to England as ‘we’ or ‘us’. The phrase ‘bulldog spirit’ should be used as often as possible. When England bows out after the first stage, we must emphasise that it is a massive blow to football and a serious loss to the World Cup, for England has been the spiritual home of football since… 1966. Yours ever, Caulton.”

A birthday wish: “Dear Mr SideStep, I am reminded, largely by lunar rotations, that the speedo on the walnut dashboard of your life has recently made a quiet clicking sound and the number in the right-hand column has increased by one. I yield to no man in my respect for you on this occasion and, as you may have read, I arranged for school choirs across the nation to lift their voices in songs of praise for the great ‘Tusitutae’, talker of crap. We salute you and hope you had a good day and cleaned up after yourself. George Wilder.”

After an illness: “I mentioned my physical appearance only in passing, since I don’t want to draw attention to it. This is partly out of consideration for your infirmities, which, as you are well aware, cannot be entirely masked by commodious jackets and mountain boots. Since you raise the matter, however, my youthful appearance is a cause of much comment in the community here. I went for a swim the other day and was virtually piped ashore when I emerged, taut and glistening, from the life-giving waters of the ocean. My legs, in particular, are considered a highpoint: powerful and yet retaining their perfectly tapered form. My head, I will concede, is not best viewed from the side or from behind. From the front though, it is, as a group of Norwegian tourists told me yesterday, ‘magnificent’. The main thing of course is not the cheap bauble of display, it is that I’m well. I was tearing up some old telephone directories (I do a lot of charity work) this morning. I must teach you how to do this. It’s not all pure strength. It’s technique too. I know this isn’t your long suit but if we persist I’m sure we can turn your condition around and offer hope to millions of other bibulous ruins. With esteem and good wishes. Old Tom Morris.” “With our customary gift for organisation, we found ourselves tumbling over the finishing line this year and being wrapped in a blanket by race officials, our gait wobbly and signs of effort playing about our person. We are just happy we got here. As you may know, large parts of southern Australia have been on fire lately. About 700,000 hectares have been burnt out in Victoria. Then on Christmas Eve, the temperature dropped from the high 30s and 40s, to eight and on Christmas Day it hailed, which was pretty funny. The sense of relief is probably visible from space. The drought, of course, goes on and will shortly be in its ninth year. Crops have failed, rivers have dried up and stock prices are very low because it’s hard for farmers to retain animals without having enough water. The government has begun to sense that global warming is an actual problem and is already spending money on photographs of themselves in hats, looking concerned. All please stand. Roger Boon.”

For no reason in particular: “The Australian Open tennis starts down the road next week. I can still get you a wildcard but I’d need to know by Sunday morning. If you’re still off-colour, I’ll play the mixed but your child-bride will need to keep her head down. My serve, always a triumph, has lost something of its accuracy in recent seasons and although I got to the quarters in Dubai, there was some wear and tear on court officials and adjacent catering staff. In the Men’s Doubles I’m sure we can coast through the first few rounds on my shot-making and your lightning reflexes. We might then have a big dinner and plan an approach to the finals. I look forward to it. Stay warm and best to all there. The Manawatu Mauler.”

On the responsibility of being a grandparent, while still smarting 15 years later from losing to me in the World Frisbee Championships, played between us on a Melbourne beach in 1979:  “Very good to hear from you and to see yet further proof of the fineness of your collective fettle. You all look well and very happy. Your own personal beauty is, of course, well known to us and is a hallmark in any aesthetic determination we might make on any issue. I’m sure others will respond but while I’m at the beach I thought I’d write to let you know the matter of the youngster’s frisbee development will be supervised by me and on that basis you may invest some confidence. I remain an example to the young and a model of consistency in open competition. ‘He can’t possibly be that age,’ I hear people expostulating as I sprint past them to take an easy catch with the mixture of zen and physics that characterises the play of the genuinely gifted. I shall teach her to do this and to mimic my perfectly weighted throws across the wide brown land. Leave it with me. All best, J Clarke, Manawatu (2 tries, 2 conversions, 4 penalties, 1 drop goal).”

The iconic Fred Dagg.

 

On the tedium of celebrity obligation: “It’s gratifying to note you are still mounting attacks and running the ball wide. This is how Australia got up over the Lions on Saturday. It gives the midfield backs a shot at glory. Bernadette is a nice-looking and very friendly person who got involved in left-wing politics and has retained all her marbles. This throws her into extravagant relief against some of the other attendees at the eisteddfod the other night. One man attempted to hypnotise me with a description of the means by which he runs a company with his ex-wife, selling wheelbarrows. A woman who has lived in Melbourne for 40 years explained to me her reasons for wanting to return to Auckland to die. A small group of well-wishers enumerated for me the reasons the removal of Australia’s first female prime minister is unrelated to gender. Alistair Scown.”

On birding: “Greetings and thanks for your advice on the curlew sandpiper. It would be a vagrant bird in your area and I wondered if they were going to your place this year, instead of to mine. There are many birds on your list that also appear here although there are others on your list I don’t know. We had a long-billed dowitcher here this year. Never before seen in Australia. They think it got with the wrong group as they were leaving Siberia and must have been using the P Winter Migration Map rather than the Official Winter Migration Map, and it spent the year in Bendigo rather than in your backyard. Bob Burgess.”

On his father’s wisdom: “My father’s role in building the retail reputation of the then-burgeoning Palmy has maintained its momentum over the years and looks like a stayer. I handed him a Fred Dagg album once and he said ‘What are these selling for?’

‘$4.99,’ I said.

‘How many units do EMI think they’ll sell?’

‘They think they’ll sell about 3000 to 5000.’

‘They must be mad. Make sure they can supply more at short notice. You’ll sell a lot of these.’

‘Why do you think that?’

‘It’s November. This is a good gift line.’

He was right. He didn’t like me much at the time but he knew his onions. Fergus McCormick.”

After an illness: “I mentioned my physical appearance only in passing, since I don’t want to draw attention to it. This is partly out of consideration for your infirmities, which, as you are well aware, cannot be entirely masked by commodious jackets and mountain boots. Since you raise the matter, however, my youthful appearance is a cause of much comment in the community here. I went for a swim the other day and was virtually piped ashore when I emerged, taut and glistening, from the life-giving waters of the ocean. My legs, in particular, are considered a highpoint: powerful and yet retaining their perfectly tapered form. My head, I will concede, is not best viewed from the side or from behind. From the front though, it is, as a group of Norwegian tourists told me yesterday, ‘magnificent’. The main thing of course is not the cheap bauble of display, it is that I’m well. I was tearing up some old telephone directories (I do a lot of charity work) this morning. I must teach you how to do this. It’s not all pure strength. It’s technique too. I know this isn’t your long suit but if we persist I’m sure we can turn your condition around and offer hope to millions of other bibulous ruins. With esteem and good wishes. Old Tom Morris.”

Clarke with Sam Neill in Death in Brunswick, 1990.

After my own recovery from illness: “That is great news. I’ll slip you back into the Wednesday side and we might give you a run against Counties on the 15th. Welcome back. The lads are pumped. In your absence I’ve been trying to teach the forwards to read. Better weather is here and as you can imagine, the surf community is awaiting my return. It is not far away and if gym-work over the winter months is any indication, I’ll start as a very long-priced outsider. Perfect. Bring it on. Sonny Bill Clarke.”

On posterity: “It is said the Barrett family have your picture above the fireplace in the house in Pungarehu. You should have a statue erected in your honour in New Plymouth, draped in the amber and black. It is the least they can do after all you achieved on the playing field. My statue in Palmy will follow. I will be swinging a golf club. A driver, of course. In that way my swing will forever remain a silken example to the young. Ron Hemi.”

Just a general status report: “I remain in harness doing television each week and am currently working on a documentary about Australia’s relationship with sport; in the course of which I’ve spoken to a great many brilliant and very amusing people: Herb Elliott, Ralph Doubell, Shane Gould, Murray Rose etc and I hope we can fashion something interesting from it all. We were going to make a third series of The Games, a project produced for the ABC before the 2000 Olympics and which the BBC was talking to us about doing in co-production before the London Olympics. The comedy chief we were talking to at the BBC loved the project, loved the scripts and the DVDs. It possibly won’t surprise you to learn he then left the BBC and formed a production company with a writer and sold back to the BBC a programme based on ours. Lovely. Sydney Going.

And finally, the perennial conflicted attitude towards his homeland: “I don’t know whether you got to NZ this year but it now seems to have had its social structures dismantled, its assets sold off and its management entrusted to the Lilliputian cavalry. The state and the economy are now strangers and I don’t see much good coming of it. Capital requires only a return and will act to ensure it. The experience of a permanent expat going back to NZ is one with which few people who have remained there can identify. Perhaps this is the case with people from other countries, since the place we come from is a metaphor for the past, and the decision to move away finds fortification where it will. The problems will have to be solved by someone else. It’s a sad mess. The Louis MacNeice poem ‘Valediction’ expresses in dark ink his thoughts as he is pulling away from Belfast. I found it very easy to understand. JP. Himself. All remain standing.”

You will now understand why I mourn so deeply for my old friend. That character you saw in different guises on television? That was no act. It was him. He was especially kind, he was true, his profound intelligence challenged us, his punctuating wit exposed the absurd pretensions we see around us every day. So like many, not just those privileged to be numbered among his mates, I will miss him for the rest of my life.                    

Peter M. Winter is a writer who lives on Georgetown Island in Maine and in Barcelona, Spain. He grew up in Taranaki and attended Victoria University. His short stories can be found at: medium.com/@peterwinter

 This was published in the June 2017 issue of North & South.


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