My dad, such a Dagg: Lorin Clarke talks about her father's influence and legacy

by Russell Baillie / 15 May, 2018
Having a tinker: John and Lorin Clarke in 2003. Photo/Jay Cassells

Having a tinker: John and Lorin Clarke in 2003. Photo/Jay Cassells

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The daughter of legendary satirist John Clarke pays tribute to her late father while carving out a successful writing career of her own.

Lorin Clarke remembers a moment during her first year at university when an English lecturer started discussing a James Joyce novel.

That’s odd, she thought, isn’t it a kids’ book? After all, her dad had played a tape of it in the family car in an era before audiobooks were common. She knew it well. And there were those other Wiggles substitutes on family road trips: Dylan Thomas, the monologues of Ruth Draper and Joyce Grenfell, readings of Cold Comfort Farm, cassettes of The Goon Show.

Dad was a bit unusual like that. Dad being John Clarke, possibly the greatest and definitely the smartest and best-read comedian of his generation on both sides of the Tasman. When he died in April last year, two nations mourned. For Australia, it was his decades on television as a satirist that were remembered. For New Zealand, it was his short but revolutionary turn in the 1970s as spokesman for the rural sector, Fred Dagg.

Lorin Clarke remembers her father as a fun and mischievous presence during her childhood, and an influence and sounding board in her own writing career. She is coming to the Auckland Writers Festival for a session honouring her father, and to perform a reading of her hilariously whimsical 2017 kids’ book, Our (Last) Trip to the Market. Clarke has written, script-edited and directed for television, radio and theatre, and she also writes a, yes, hilariously whimsical magazine column about the small joys of life entitled “Public Service Announcement” for the Australian edition of The Big Issue. When a posthumous collection of her father’s writing, Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke, was compiled, she wrote its touching foreword reflecting on their writing relationship.

“A lot of people I’ve worked with tend to get in a bit of trouble when they think of criticism as a problem or an insult,” she tells the Listener from Melbourne. “In my family, being critiqued is a favour. If I ever said to him ‘What do you think of this?’ He’d go, ‘Oh gimme a minute’, and then he’d have a think and he’d have what he called a tinker. He would write a few things in the margins and suggest this and suggest that. I would ignore some of it and I would take some of it on, just as he would if I did the same to him. That process just teaches you so much.”

Lorin Clarke: making her own mark.

Lorin Clarke: making her own mark.

Though the apple may not have fallen far from the tree, Clarke says she never wanted to be her dad and he never wanted her to be. “There are similarities and there are similar instincts in our editing processes, but I’ve been able to carve out my own personality as a writer, and I haven’t felt restricted by his very distinct personality as a writer.”

Lorin was born shortly after her father and mother, Helen, arrived in Melbourne. Clarke had been frustrated with his treatment by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), despite Dagg’s runaway local popularity, so he decided to start again in Australia. He was soon a regular fixture on Oz radio, then television.

Growing up, Lorin and her younger sister, Lucia, didn’t realise that what their father did for a job was a bit different from the norm. After all, he still mowed the lawns on weekends like other dads, though she did wonder why the gumboots he wore in the garden were so big. The boots, it transpired, were purloined from the NZBC costumes department and now reside in Te Papa. “It always felt slightly foreign and strange when someone would say, ‘I saw your dad on the telly’. It was usually adults. Adults say strange, confusing things to children.

“But it wasn’t like being Julian Lennon, who was sitting at the breakfast table and said, ‘You’re John Lennon’. I didn’t have a moment like that.

“He and my mum were quite a private unit. For a family who had someone in the public eye, they managed to keep to themselves a little bit, and I think that was probably quite a useful thing for us as kids because it wasn’t confusing in that way.”

When Clarke died suddenly at the age of 68, while out birdwatching with Helen in the Grampians National Park in western Victoria, Lorin found herself thrust into the role of family spokesperson.

“In a way it wasn’t difficult – well, it was, but it was made easier by the outpouring of love and support for him from his audience and the people who worked with him.

“It was just such a lovely reaction from New Zealand and Australia … I said something along the lines of, ‘If you felt you had a connection to John Clarke, you did’, and that’s what it felt like. We wanted the audience to know that he felt that, too. A very important part of his creative process was his close relationship with his audience.

“Despite [our grief] suddenly going from the private to the public, it felt like such an act of generosity on the part of his audience. It just was such a lovely thing. So that was why it wasn’t as hard as it could have been.”

John Clarke continues to pick up fans across the world, thanks to his YouTube channel. And Tinkerings is one of two posthumous collections; the other is a compilation of scripts from his Clarke and Dawe mock-political interview series.

Lorin has kept her father’s voice messages and emails from when they would compare notes, often late at night, about what they were working on. It sounds like there’s material for a possible memoir: Daughter of a Dagg, perhaps? “I’m not sure, really. Dad was such a great storyteller and had so many stories in his life. He was endlessly entertaining about any topic. In fact, sometimes you just had to press pause and go and get yourself a cup of tea.”

Lorin Clarke is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 18 and 20.

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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