There’s a story about John Clarke that my dad related to me many moons ago after I’d first discovered The Fred Dagg Tapes. It relates to John’s performance as an extra in Bruce Beresford’s rowdy 1972 classic, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. There’s a scene in the pub before ‘Bazza’ leaves to head overseas. After much boozing, Barry Crocker in the title role, makes to leave and the gathered carousers bid him a riotous farewell. There’s much feigned (and probably even some genuine) drunkenness, and the over-acting is so thick you could bottle it. Everyone’s giving Bazza the exaggerated slaps on the back and faux-abuse that characterises the Antipodean demotic. Amid the yelling and the spraying of beer, the slapping and hat throwing and the over-ockered cries of “SEE YA, YA OLD BASTARD!!!”… a silent, seated figure in the background simply sips from his pot and, without the glass leaving his lips, casts his eyes in Bazza’s direction and slightly raises his little finger in a contrastingly subtle gesture of acknowledgement and farewell.
Watching on during the filming of this scene, Beresford noticed this tiny masterpiece of comedic understatement and turned to co-writer Barry Humphries and said, “keep an eye on that bloke; he is comic genius.”
John Clarke died on Sunday the 10th of April, 2017 at the age of 68. He was out birdwatching, photographing birds and hiking with friends and family in the Grampians National Park in Victoria’s west. All the reports I’ve read have stated that he collapsed and passed away quite suddenly, of natural causes.
Given these circumstances, it’s tempting to trot out some venerable old chestnuts like, “we should all be so lucky”, or perhaps, “at least he died doing what he loved.” Indeed the press has not been slow to strap on the cliché nosebag but it is difficult to be scathing; these sayings become hackneyed through overuse but they are overused because they are apt. Never have they been more so.
My brother phoned to see if I’d heard the news. He was effusive with admiration for John’s contributions to the arts and I mentioned that he was also a staunch conservationist and advocate for Australian birds. My brother’s prescient response came, “it seems like everything he did was a community service.” I couldn’t agree more.
I feel compelled to write about John’s passing though I know very little about him. I know his work well but I never knew him personally; he was a friend of a friend at best. But I know he was a passionate birdwatcher. I was the grateful beneficiary of his knowledge of Phillip Island’s birds, which was top shelf, while planning back-to-back Twitchathon tilts with my fellow Manky Shearwaters teammates. It’s this side of John, his deep love of birds and his enduring support of numerous conservation projects, particularly relating to the welfare of Australia’s birds, which was a revelation to me in recent years. He was a skilled bird photographer and a busy birdwatcher, and an active member of the Western Port Seagrass Partnership.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the interview format he developed with Brian Dawe was the series the duo put together for Birdlife Australia’s shorebird conservation project. For a few minutes on most Thursday evenings, John effortlessly occupied the skin of politicians and public figures using his own voice, his own face; no costume, no overt mimicry. He exploited their language and engineered brilliant, recognisable impressions using that alone. But even when filling the role of a Red Knot, a Ruddy Turnstone, or a Red-necked Stint, this form spun pure comedy gold. They were hilarious vignettes and artfully informative, bringing the grim plight of shorebirds in the East Asian - Australasian Flyway to an audience that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to reach without him.
He was a great Kiwi adopted as one of our own. An intellect and an incandescent talent. An acerbic wit with a knack for poignant satire and poetry. A hard-working and gifted writer. A very funny bastard. A conservationist. A nature photographer. By every account a genuinely lovely bloke. And a birdwatcher.
What an amazing man. What a loss.
When the news of John’s unexpected departure came through yesterday, I was unsure what to do with the air of melancholy that descended. So I went birdwatching.
The weather was foul but I packed the camera and headed for a stretch of the Yarra that I survey regularly. Despite the soggy skies, there were huge cartels of Rainbow and Musk Lorikeets chasing their nectar fix up and down the river corridor. Galahs upended themselves on the power lines allowing the drizzle to tickle their undercarriage. A family of Eastern Grey Kangaroos, marooned on this island of green girt by suburban dreck, lifted their heads at my intrusion. Ten eyes—and ten ears—followed my progress. They periscoped after my passage like sock puppets. They laid back down and vanished into the grass again. A wombat was grazing the side of the path ahead and shambled off into the bush, accelerating like a remote-controlled car. Yellow-faced Honeyeaters and Silvereyes shot along the riverside vegetation prospecting and squabbling as they went. A pair of Gang-Gang Cockatoos ground their way through a rasping conversation high in a tree above me. A posse of Australian Magpies blocked the path ahead and barely moved aside to allow me past. They peered at me indignantly through beady eyes as they cocked an ear toward the topsoil listening for invertebrate prey. Evidently my seismic interference was not welcome. I turned to head homeward and passed under a low branch where two Tawny Frogmouths were doing an amateur job of blending in. They regarded me with a misplaced air of “we can see you, but you can’t see us”. After a short walk I was back at home and only then realised that the rain had held off and I’d actually managed to get a few decent shots.
It was a good day on the paddock; the sort of afternoon I’m sure John Clarke would’ve enjoyed.
He’ll be missed.