My last email from John Clarke

It was one of those heat brimmed Melbourne days that swarms your body and underlines the verdict, I was not made for this soil. I was late. ‘Busy’ – that what is our default mode and typical posture these days.

Trying I was that day to inject a conversation about history between the daily merry-go-round of meetings about meetings. A group of us had gathered at Val Noone’s house to hear a story from a man who had an old radio recording about the painter Kathleen Fox and one of her particular paintings, the only known eye-witness image of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, the arrest of Countess Constance Markievicz.

I listened to the old recording heave and cackle in the cool of the house. Simply glad of shade, and to be taken to another time. The man spoke. I had never seen him, never heard of him before, but boy did he make me laugh. I don’t know whether it was his voice, sentences delivered plainly, honestly and with curt tension. I am not sure if it was the glint of his eye that winked of an inside joke on life, that he might tell you, if you were interesting enough.

A friendship began with John from there. I realised who he was when Clarke and Dawe appeared on the television one night, that’s the guy I screamed to Sarah, with all that energy of a kid that has had one too many colas. Sarah nodded and I was absorbed in a satire that illustrated genius.

A remarkable man 

For over the best part of nearly twenty years I have worked in and around that world, and word, that can give one the shivers, the media. Scrambling to keep drive time presenters and producers happy in Ireland, testing the patience of stern marines in Washington DC, failing ingloriously to try tell the story of Europe in enchanting Berlin. It is an odd world, teeming with the vainglorious and loud, real, truly gifted talent is rare, but remarkable when you encounter it.

Think about the simple mechanics of Clarke and Dawe and think upon its longevity.  The show began in 1989, the Soviets had just left Kabul, lessons about acid rain were brought into our classrooms to try and inspire a generation to action, the tumbling of the Berlin Wall unleashed hope of a new world free of fear, while Like a Prayer bounced around our Walkmans. Two men choose devastating satire and it would compete against all trends, somersault over all new ‘directions’ and suit tastes across every generation for over a quarter of century. Much of our smiles today comes from late night couches dripping with celebrity or forced glossy banter. Clarke and Dawe relied on the sheer power of language and the mastery of storytelling.

I don’t have the experience nor am I as close a friend to John as others to comment deeply on the brilliance of this satire. I can only observe on the conversations we had on a friendship that I will deeply miss. Always once a week, always from a private number – John rarely used a mobile. ‘Eoin, John Clarke here’ was always the curtain raiser. At the very minimum conversations lasted an hour.

The lost art of listening

Just a few weeks ago John, a good friend Fergus Shiel and I were in the Moat on St. Patrick’s Day celebrating with a small passionate group about  the production of an Irish Australian history documentary, that Sarah and I made, which was due to air on SBS the next day. Fergus called me the night we heard John had passed and brilliantly observed, with passion, that John Clarke was a man that listened. Immediately I knew that was it.

John adored a good conversation. Good conversation is not simply noise, it is listening. Clickable, flickable, searchable. We have become fixated on the immediate, eroded our patience, and ‘busy’ as we are, have lost the art of listening. John Clarke was one of its last disciples.

If you want an insight into John Clarke and how he deeply valued the everyday that we and I daily stomp through, read his exchange with a florist, published in Meanjin just a few days before he died. Our conversations flitted from the etching of Roger Casement and Elizabeth O’Farrell from Irish history, to the casting of history to the mound in screens abundant with unreality reality, to the little morsels of joy lost but still to be found in the everyday. He took great joy in parodying with dramatic theatre some of my experiences as I related everyday emails. His core grew hot with the importance of the arts, not in that vaulted, high brow sense, but from the experience of a man who had experienced the power of the arts to pull you up from your bootstraps and deliver a smile and nugget of insight to you and I.

I write this article with tears in my eyes for a man I knew only for a year. One day we met on campus, an hour John, I just have an hour, four hours later as the sun dwindled behind we were still fighting to tell each yet another story. Am I crying for John? Am I crying for his family? I think I am crying partly because I failed to listen.

The evening in the Moat would be the last time I would see John and over the course of the night he kept telling me about an Irish Times podcast he had listened to about the late, stylish and strikingly beautiful, Maeve Brennan, who kept the beat for The New Yorker, and who like John, had the gift to see and the ability to paint the story of the everyday.  He kept repeating a line from the podcast to me, one too personal to share. But I was busy. Too anxious as host to truly listen, worried about my guests, worried about thanking all, worried about everything and nothing.  The very next morning he emailed me a link to the podcast. Too busy again I set it aside until the night I heard of his passing.

My own recently departed father, muchlike John in razor wit with a canny sense for the bullshit, had a saying that he or she was one of the greats. Fangio was one of the greats, Maria Callas was one of the greats, D.J. Carey was one of the greats. To borrow Da’s lexicon John Clarke was one of the greats.

John Clarke
Fergus Shiel, Eoin Hahessy & John Clarke at the State Library Victoria

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