Mr John Clarke

Things that don't quite fit anywhere else go here.

A few weeks ago I took some photographs of shore-birds, many of which are migratory and fly to the arctic in our autumn to breed. Some of the godwits I photographed had orange leg-tags and when I zoomed in I could read the letters and numbers, so I reported these on a website which tracks migratory birds and which tells me these birds were tagged one year ago, in exactly the place. This means that during 2016 they flew from here, up over the South Pacific and southern Asia to China where for millions of years they have fed on the mudflats in the Yellow Sea between the mainland and the Korean peninsula. Then they fly further north to either Siberia or Alaska. And after the breeding season they fly all the way back. Recently a small transmitter was put in a godwit which flew from Alaska to New Zealand in one go without stopping to eat or rest. As a result more research is being done about how the birds sleep. We used to think that each godwit would take a turn at the front, go like the clappers for a while and then slip back into the peloton for bit of a rest while fresher godwits moved forward and took over. Not the case apparently. Micro-sleeps is the current wisdom. Exactly how they do this, and here's an ornithological term, is anyone’s guess. Godwit numbers are down this year and the Curlew Sandpiper and Eastern Curlew numbers are so far down both species are now classified as critically endangered. The reason is that the birds can no longer feed on the mudflats in the Yellow Sea on the flight north. The mudflats aren’t there anymore. Despite international agreements on the crucial importance of the feeding grounds of migratory birds, the area has been reclaimed for housing.


For some reason I’ve been to a few florists lately. Last week I went into one about an hour out of town and was having a look around when a man came over and asked what I’d like. I said I wasn’t quite sure and he said that was fine and he pointed and said he’d be over there if I wanted any help. I thanked him and in fairly short order I moved away from the arrangements and settled on some fresh flowers. I caught his eye.
‘Worked it out?’ he asked, coming over.
‘Yes, I believe I have’ I said indicating my choice, ‘I think I’ll just have a swag of these.’
‘Lilies’ he said. ‘Yes, beautiful. Good choice.’ And he collected a generous handful and we went over to the counter where he began to wrap them.
‘You’ve been out of the florist game for a while, haven’t you.’ he said.
‘Yes, I have’ I conceded.
‘Thought so’, he said, and continued wrapping. ‘We’ve pretty much given up the term ‘swag’ these days’.
‘Really?’ I asked. ‘What expression do we use these days?’
‘Oh’ he drawled, in what A.A. Milne would call a wondering kind of way. ‘‘Bunch’, mostly, these days’.
‘Is that right?’ I said. ‘Bunch’ of flowers.’
‘Yes. A lot of people call them bunches now’.
‘Goodness’ I said and I paid him and left.
I’ll be going back there. He’s good.


A friend’s house was burgled the other day. A couple of replaceable modern devices were taken and a small amount of cash but the main contribution to her sense of shock and violation was that there was stuff everywhere, books pulled out of bookcases, accounts and professional records tipped out of folders, the filing cabinet upended and the contents tossed about and clothes hauled out of wardrobes and cupboards and thrown all over the floor. All the kings horses and all the kings men were quickly on hand and eventually order was restored.
When she was explaining the drama to her neighbours one of them reported that his brother’s house was completely cleaned out while he was away over the summer. Everything worth anything was stolen in broad daylight. The police investigation revealed that entry was effected by the jemmying the back door open and the rest of crime was committed as follows: a large van was backed up to the front of house at about 9.30 in the morning and for the next hour or so, several men carried things out of the house and put them in the van while another man mowed the lawn.


In 1972 I was driving a delivery van for Barkers, which was a titanic London retail institution in Kensington until encountering an iceberg one night in dense fog about a decade ago. Some of the people to whom we delivered were very grand and a bit Miss Havisham but a great many of them were kind and interesting. Lady Fremantle, for example, was about eighty-five and she had a maid who was hot on her heels, so when I arrived with the week’s groceries I’d carry them through into the kitchen. We’d often have a chat and on a cold day we’d sit at the table and have a hot chocolate. If they needed anything shifted, lifted or removed, they’d ask me but ‘only if it would be no trouble' and if anything need to be posted, I’d drop it in the mail. Lady F was from a naval family and hanging in a slightly askew frame on the wall was the first order Nelson had written with his left hand after he’d lost his right arm. There was also a couple called Lord and Lady Graves, who were in films and were stars on the London musical stage and to whom I was delivering one day when I was invited in. ‘Come in’ said Peter Graves. ‘I’m Peter Graves. You’re a New Zealander aren’t you?’ I said I was and he said ‘Yes, please come in. We’re very sad today. It’s is the anniversary of the death of our dear friend Inia Te Wiata. We’re just going to have a quick drink. It would be great if you could join us.’
A bottle of whiskey was produced and Peter spoke about the great baritone and we had a quick drink. They then both told some excellent stories and we had a couple more quick drinks before speaking of a great many things and there was some very enjoyable singing at some point and I think we had some salmon as a few more quick drinks were put away. I then left and continued my delivery round, of which I have no clear recollection.
During the 1980s I worked on television series on which one of the senior writers was James Mitchell, who’d written ‘Callan’ and ‘When the Boat Comes In’ and whose experience in writing series television was very considerable. After the first script meeting Jim came over and said ‘We’ve worked together before haven’t we?’
‘No, I don’t think so’ I said.
‘Yes we have’ he said. ‘I’ve seen you before’
‘I used to deliver your groceries Jim’ I said. ‘You live in Bedford Gardens.’ James was a working class Tory and was inclined not to speak to people who delivered things, but he was always very nice to me after that first script meeting.
One of the advantages of the Barkers job was that if I wanted to go somewhere in London, to the National Gallery or to the Tate or to the V and A, I could drive up to the front door and provided I left one of the back doors of the van open to indicate I’d just ducked in to deliver something, I could park there as long as I liked.


Long before winning the Nobel Prize, Seamus Heaney was aware of the danger of allowing oneself to be elevated by others. He told the story of Anteaus, a great warrior in ancient Greece, enormously strong and born out of the earth itself. Anteaus would challenge his opponents to a wrestling match in which he would neutralise them, wrap his arms around them and crush them to death. Anteaus was eventually defeated by Hercules. Hercules was a famous warrior too, but he was also very smart and he’d been studying Anteaus. He had worked out that when an opponent threw Anteaus down on the ground, it made Anteaus stronger because he drew his strength from the earth. So when Hercules and Anteaus fought to the death, Hercules defeated Anteaus by lifting him off the ground and holding him up.


Something else we get from ancient Greece is the story of Narcissus, although perhaps our understanding of it has drifted slightly from its mooring.
In a nutshell, Narcissus is out hunting one day when Echo sees him and falls in love with him. She follows him and talks to him. She has never seen anything as beautiful as he is and she declares her love for him. When Narcissus rejects her, Echo is broken hearted and disappears, leaving only her voice.
Then Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, punishes Narcissus by leading him to a pool in which he sees an image so beautiful he becomes enchanted and visits the pool each day to gaze at it. Ultimately he realises that the image cannot love him and cannot even exist independently of his act of looking at it. As with Echo, Narcissus’s love is obsessive and unrequited, and he kills himself.
Oscar Wilde, who was a Greek scholar, recognised that characterising Narcissus’ obsession as ‘self love’ misses the fact that what he is enthralled by is a reflection. It is not himself as he knows himself to be. The image is reversed. He is beguiled by a perspective of himself he hasn’t seen before.
In order to highlight this otherness, Wilde added an addendum to the story in which, after Narcissus dies, the pool weeps and becomes salty with its tears.
The forest creatures gather around and sympathise. They understand that the pool would mourn for so beautiful a young man as Narcissus.
‘No no’ says the pool, and it explains that it mourns because when Narcissus bent over and looked into it, it could see itself reflected in his eyes.


Oscar Wilde’s two sons were brought up under the name Holland after the surname Wilde, previously illuminated by one of the greatest gifts in the history of the theatre, had become associated with what was called ‘gross indecency’. Both Cyril and Vyvyan Holland served as officers in the First World War. Cyril was killed by a sniper but Vyvyan survived and after the war he worked sometimes as a lawyer and sometimes as a writer and translator. In 1947 his second wife Thelma, who was from Melbourne and who later became the Queen’s beautician, was invited to Australia and New Zealand to give a series of lectures on fashion in nineteenth century Australia, and between 1948 and 1952 Vyvyan and Thelma Holland lived in Melbourne.
Among Vyvyan’s published works is ‘Drink and Be Merry’, which although it is essentially is a book about wine, contains a story about the remarkable skill level of the painters Braque and Derain.
The two young men shared a rather long studio and each operated at one end of the room. They developed the habit of throwing things to each other and once they’d reached Olympic standard at hurling and catching any article regardless of shape, they worked out to throw a carafe full of water underarm the length of the room, spinning it backwards so that the water stayed in it. At the other end of the room the recipient would judge the rotation exactly and would catch the carafe by the the neck as it arrived.
At the time it was common to be offered all sorts of wine in a restaurant, but it was difficult to get the waiter to bring water. One evening Derain dressed for dinner and entered the Cafe de Paris at the fashionable hour and ordered a meal and a carafe of water. A few minutes later, after Derain’s water had arrived, Braque entered and sat at a table about the distance from Derain’s as existed between their easels in the studio. Braque ordered his meal and then stood up and said ‘This is monstrous. I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes and I’ve asked for a glass of water and what do I get? Nothing!’
Those assembled were further astonished when Derain stood up and said ‘You want a carafe of water sir? Voila’ and he spun the full carafe over the heads of diners to Braque, who caught it perfectly, slowly poured himself a glass of water and flung the carafe back over the heads to Derain.
‘Thank you sir’ he said, and both painters sat down as if nothing had happened.

Another admirable piece of spontaneous public theatre was established by the Australian cartoonist Paul Rigby in the late 1950s, through the formation of the Limp Falling Association. Members of the association would gather, often in venues where refreshments were available and would go limp and fall to the ground. This would happen in the middle of a room or along a wall or at a dinner table and in a couple of more orchestral instances, in a group of twenty down a full staircase. At a time when Australia has lost touch with its identity it is regrettable that not only has this tradition been lost but that there is not a Federal Minister of Limp Falling, charged with revitalising an important symbol of folkloric independence. It cannot be that the activity is too absurd. There are many federal ministers engaged in idiocy of a far greater magnitude than going limp and falling to the ground. In fact it might help if some them made inquiries and joined the Association.

A while ago I received a letter from Susie. When we were very young and she was Susan, we were in the same class at primary school. I rang her at the gallery she was running in Northern New South Wales, to thank her for the letter, to say hello and to ask her a question. 

Susan had been in a memory of mine for sixty years and I’d always wondered whether the memory was accurate or whether, over the years, I’d edited it anecdotally to the point where, like Captain Cook’s axe, it had six new heads and nine new handles and no longer bore any necessary resemblance to Captain Cook’s actual axe.
I told Susan this and asked if she remembered an incident which might conform to these general guidelines. She thought for a minute but sadly she didn’t. I told her that was OK and she asked me if I could give her a clue. I told her I didn’t want to give her a clue because I wanted her memory to exist on its own so I could check mine against it.
‘I’m sorry’, she said. ‘I don’t think I can remember it. We were only in the same class for a year.’
‘It didn’t happen at school’ I said.
‘Really?’ she said, more deeply mystified. ‘We didn’t know each outside school did we?’
‘It’s OK’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter’.
‘Where did it happen?’ she asked.
‘It happened at a birthday party’ I said.
There was a pause.
‘Oh my God’ she said to her own considerable surprise. ‘It was at David’s birthday party.’ She then described a memory which she didn’t know she had, and which was almost a complete facsimile of my own. We were seven or eight years old and there were a few of us looking at an old shipwreck on Waiterere Beach. Susan and I and a couple of others were on the seaward side of the vessel when a very large wave came in and swept us out to sea. David’s older brother ran into the sea yelling ‘Who can swim? Who can swim?’ Susan and I both yelled out above the roar of the sea that we could swim and he rescued the other kids first, running into the waves again and again, fishing kids out and getting them to shore. In my mind Susan and I were just off the coast of Peru by the time he got to us but in fact we probably weren’t far out. I felt no panic or fear and I remember being comforted to see Susan’s head bobbing in the sea. She had big hair and she was to the north of me and we were both bobbing in the enormous sea.
By the time we came in there were some very concerned adults on the beach and we were put into dry clothes and we ran back along the beach to the house. For some reason the song ‘Hi-Lily Hi-Lo’ ran all the way back to the house, in my head, in time with my feet on the wet sand. I’ve never heard that song without the feeling that I’m running along that sand in the late afternoon in a big man’s jumper. And I’ve never thought of Susan without the idea that she and I are together, bobbing along, and that we’ll be fine.


The sparkling Christine Collins was a gifted actor with a particular understanding of the voice. She became an acting and voice coach in London but for many years before that she worked in Beckett plays, often as second voice with Billie Whitelaw as first voice. Many of these productions were directed by Beckett himself and Christine told good stories of working with him. One of my favourites concerned a meeting at Beckett’s 70th birthday party which was held at Beckett’s apartment in Paris. Christine had met many of the guests before; they were academics, Beckett scholars, publishers or broadcasting and theatre friends. But she got talking to a very interesting man in the kitchen, whose understanding of Beckett’s work was remarkable. He seemed to have seen or read almost everything Beckett had done and seemed to have a been a friend of Sam’s forever.
‘When did you first meet Sam?’ asked Christine.
‘The first time I saw Sam’ said the man, ‘he was sitting in a railway carriage between Foxrock and Dublin. He was trying to read and there was a lot of noise in the carriage, schoolboys and so on; so I went over to him and said ‘Excuse me. If you’re trying to read, you might like to come with me. It’s a bit quieter in the next carriage’ and I took him into the first-class carriage. There was no-one in there and he had the place to himself.’
‘And where do you work?’ asked Christine.
‘Oh, I’m retired now’ said the man.
‘I see’ said Christine. ‘And where were you before you retired?’
‘I was a porter on the Dublin railways’ said the man.
‘So you’ve known Sam for a very long time,’ said Christine.
‘Yes’ said the man. ‘Except for the war I’ve been to every one of Sam’s birthdays since he was nineteen.’

When Beckett was a young man he studied languages, experienced matters of the kind described in his story ‘First Love’, was mentioned in Wisden (Dublin University v Northamptonshire, left handed batsman, left arm medium pace bowler) and went to Paris, where he met James Joyce and other exiles. Joyce was a generation older and his eyesight was problematic, and Beckett became an amanuensis. Much of what Joyce wrote in this period was dictated to Beckett. When asked many years later what the difference was between the two of them, Beckett said Joyce was a synthesiser whereas he was an analyser. In his own writing he said, he tried to reduce things to the essential, whereas Joyce wanted to include everything; every sensation, every sight, every sound, every thought and feeling. As an example, he recalled that Joyce was dictating Finnegans Wake one day when a man arrived to see him and Joyce said ‘Come in’. When Beckett was reading this section back, he got to ‘Come in’ and Joyce stopped him and considered the merits of a completely extraneous phrase. There followed a brief discussion and Joyce decided to leave it in.

Beckett had earlier appeared in a celebrated court case in Dublin in which the surgeon, athlete, senator and pilot Oliver St John Gogarty had been successfully sued for libel. When they were students, Joyce and Gogarty lived together in a Martello Tower and Gogarty appears as Buck Mulligan in ‘Ulysses’. The book begins in the tower with Buck Mulligan gently mocking Joyce while shaving and looking out at ‘the snotgreen scrotumtightening sea’.
Many years later when Gogarty was a senator he was captured by IRA gunmen and only escaped by diving into the River Liffey and swimming across. In one version of the story he was shot in the arm while swimming and when he turned up in the senate the following day with his right arm in a sling, he was questioned by opponents about what had happened. He reported that he had sprained his wrist falling from his bicycle and wanted to keep it immobile. When questioned further he removed the sling and rolled up his sleeve. There was no bullet wound and the matter was dropped. Gogarty had in fact been shot in the other arm.
While he was swimming across the river that night, Gogarty promised the Liffey that if he survived he would bring it a gift, and years later he and Yeats and President Cosgrove were photographed on the riverbank where Gogarty released two white swans, from whom the white swans on the Liffey today are descended.


When I was even younger than I am now, there was a book in our house called ‘Plutarch’s Lives of the Greeks.’ I was a bit busy being a child at the time and didn’t read the book but a few years ago I bought a spoken word version of it and I listened to it in the car. As I drove, a world opened in my head.
Plutarch was a Roman and was writing about what we can learn from ancient Greece about how to run a society. Each chapter describes a particular individual contribution to the rise of ancient Greece. Themistocles for example. Themistocles’ response to the impending attack of the enormous Persian army was to order the construction of 200 ships. He sailed the ships across the Aegean to Persia and made loud and offensive threats before turning and sailing back toward Greece in full sight of the Persians who changed their plans and put their very large army on ships and set out after the Greeks. The Greek ships led the Persians into the narrow straits of Salamis where the smaller Greek vessels were more manoeuvrable and where the much smaller Greek army was positioned on the hills to welcome any Persians who managed to get ashore. The Persians were comprehensively defeated and Themistocles remains an example of how superior tactics can triumph over superior numbers.
This lesson was not lost on Alexander the Great, who was waiting in the wings of history. Before he was great, Alexander was nevertheless thought to be heading in that direction. One day his father Phillip of Macedon was presented with a magnificent, huge, strong and beautiful horse. Unfortunately, at the presentation the horse was wild and unmanageable. Alexander was twelve or thirteen but he demurred and said it hadn’t been established that the horse was unmanageable. Phillip snapped at his son and the conversation went something like this:
‘Alexander, since you’re such an expert, would you like to have a crack at riding the horse?’
‘Happy to, yes, by all means’ said Alexander.
‘It’s an easy boast Alexander’ said Phillip. ‘Talk is cheap. What will you give us if you can’t ride the horse?’
‘How about I give you the value of the horse?’ said the boy, who didn’t have the money.
The horse was then brought out again and Alexander walked out to the horse, talked to the horse, stroked the horse, got on the horse and rode the horse, to amazement on all sides.
Asked later how he did this, he said that when first presented, the horse had been petrified. There were people yelling all around his head, robes flapping and men pulling him this way and that. Even more terrifying to the horse was an enormous monster moving about on the ground. Realising that this was the horse’s own shadow, Alexander dropped his robe and turned the horse to face the sun. The enormous monster disappeared. Alexander was given the horse, which he named Bucephalus, and together they conquered the known world.


I watched a movie called ‘Clueless’ the other night. I’ve seen it before and it’s twenty years old but it still holds up as an amusing cautionary tale about a pampered young woman with nothing better to do but manipulate the lives and feelings of her friends in the belief that she is assisting them to find love, about which she knows nothing. In order to enjoy the movie you don’t need to know that it is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma,’ (and a very good one too). I also recently watched a movie called ‘The Queen’, a drama starring Helen Mirren, about the behaviour of the Queen at the time of the death of Princess Diana. I struggled not to see this as ‘Toad of Toad Hall’. The Queen, who is Toad, lives in an enormous house and is tolerated only because in the English social structure it is a sustaining pleasure for the poor to look upon the wealthy with love and admiration, as is also the case in Australia and in many other egalitarian nations. When the Queen/Toad behaves badly however, Blair/Badger needs to go and say ‘Excuse me. What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re in a fabulous position and everyone wants you to stay there but if you’re not interested, the media/stoatsandweasels will completely take over and tear the place apart. Do exactly as I say or you’ll have this whole thing in the ditch’. The Queen then does as she’s told and Badger goes out and deals brilliantly with the stoats and weasels. Nothing changes. Reform has been averted. Big win for Badger, who wins the next election going away. Diana is nationalised as ‘The People’s Princess’ and Ratty and Moley go back to buggering about on the river.

When Paul Cox was moved from hospital into palliative care, we prepared ourselves for tough news. Paul was getting smaller and weaker, his voice was in retreat and family and friends had attended his bedside to say their goodbyes. His siblings flew out from Europe. I didn’t expect to see him again.

A week or so later, Paul decided he was going home and explained to the palliative care people that although he loved them dearly, he would not be dying just yet. He travelled home in a Popemobile-shaped taxi and began blessing people as he passed them in the street. This cheered him up enormously and when we saw him a few days later he rose to meet us, offered us coffee and sat rather grandly in a chair, chatting for hours with a keen emphasis on the future. His voice was stronger, his memory was wonderful, his manners were elegant, his talk was clever and in some cases what he said was astonishing. At 7 o'clock each evening, for example, he went out on to his little balcony in Melbourne and raised both arms high in the air in order to receive healing waves being beamed to him by a woman in Uzbekistan. Paul was very amusing about all this but as he said, ‘at this stage I believe in nothing and everything.’

A few years earlier, the first time he was going to die, he received a liver transplant and, in a state of profound gratitude, he continued writing and making films. Last year he made a movie in which David Wenham played a man who has a liver transplant and falls in love. Paul met his partner Rosie when they were both receiving liver transplants. He was in his late sixties at the time and she is a beautiful Balinese woman of somewhat more tender years. ‘I know what you’re thinking Johnny’ Cox said to me when he introduced us. ‘Rosie is much younger than I am. But I want you to know Johnny, my liver is younger than Rosie’s’.

Half a lifetime ago Paul and I wrote some films together and we’ve always stayed in touch. I’d never written a movie before and I quickly learnt it was no use suggesting to Paul a thematically consistent sequence involving sport, for example. That wouldn’t fit in a Cox film. Too healthy. And there wasn’t much interest in men who fixed cars and called each other ‘mate’. Paul’s films looked like Dutch interiors with dappled light playing through the window and they were full of urban characters who were ill at ease, often slightly wounded or suffering from incongruity of some kind. As with many collaborations, we wrote by talking a lot together and then writing separately. Paul’s house was always full of good conversation. At one stage Werner Herzog was living in a shed in the backyard with a dingo. Peter Watkins also lived there at some point, while he and Paul were discussing a film project. Peter had made the brilliant 1964 docudrama ‘Culloden’ in which 1960s British journalists report live from a battle which occurred in 1745. This strategy of anachronism was new in 1964 and the effect in ‘Culloden’ was terrifying.

Paul’s public presentation was that of a serious artist but he was nevertheless given to fits of amusement which produced a snuffling and rumbling sound such as might occur if a badger were attempting not to explode. When he regrouped, he expressed matters once more in his formal mode, which was not unlike an antiques catalogue. A suggestion which would solve a problem was ‘good,’ a great idea for a scene was ‘fine,’ and if he completely approved of a whole section of plot and dialogue he would pronounce it ‘very fine’; as in ‘I read that section again last night Johnny. That really is very fine’. When ‘Lonely Hearts,’ the first film we wrote together, was about to be released thirty-five years ago, Paul wrote me a letter which I have always kept. In the last line of the letter he said he hoped that having worked on this film together and seeing it come to fruition, would ‘strengthen our shy human friendship’. It did.

Having received blessings from Uzbekistan, Paul announced he was going to America. The only people who thought this wouldn’t happen were those unfamiliar with Paul’s willpower. The doctors wouldn’t allow him to fly across the Pacific for fourteen hours so he’d negotiated overnight stays in Bangkok, Dubai and Frankfurt and then a trip across the Atlantic to Chicago. His film ‘Force of Destiny’ was to play at the Ebert Film Festival and Paul had been invited to speak. Rosie would go with him and make sure he rested, ate the right food and took his tablets. The couple left on April Fool’s Day and that night Rosie, whose canonisation is imminent, sent a message reporting that Paul had gone out to dinner in Bangkok. This was probably a PB for the palliative care unit at the Austin but Cox was just limbering up. After Dubai and Frankfurt the official party arrived in Chicago and Paul made a gracious, honest and very engaging speech to an audience who couldn’t believe quite what they were watching. Following the festival, Paul and Rosie made their way home and Paul was planning another movie. The fact that he died on Saturday will probably slow him down a bit although I expect he’ll call sometime during the next week or so with a revised schedule. ‘I’m still going to do it’ he’ll say. ‘Why not? I have some good ideas. I want to talk about it. Come to dinner.’

Paulus Henrique Benedictus Cox 1940 – 2016

This is our father. He and I had a few problems, but we’ll let that pass.
The photo was taken somewhere in North Africa or Italy during the Second World War.

Ted was born in Wellington in December 1914. His mother had just arrived from Ulster. Ted used to say he was designed in Northern Ireland and assembled in New Zealand. Like many children of migrant parents, Ted was keen to fit into the culture of the new place. His father’s instinct was to hang on to the old place. He thought nothing in New Zealand was good enough; the culture was no good, the politics were no good, the rugby wasn’t a patch on British football. But as a boy, Ted wanted to be like the other kids. Ted played rugby. Ted was a New Zealander.
Quite early in his life, Ted developed a self which he presented to the world, partly as a way of fitting in and partly to put some distance between who he was and who he aspired to be. One characteristic of this developed self was a carefully edited history. Even people who met Ted in his eighties and nineties thought he was the product of an educated and rather comfortable English family.
The real story is considerably better.

In 1914, in the far north of Ulster, around Coleraine and Portrush, his mother Margot Hamilton, 26, unmarried and working as a nurse, discovered she was pregnant and with the First World War approaching she left Northern Ireland and travelled alone on the long sea voyage to New Zealand. There is no evidence that any member of her family ever communicated with her again. When she arrived in Wellington she had little money, no work and she knew no-one. When the time came she was admitted to the Alexandra Hospital for unmarried mothers, where she had an emergency C-section and was delivered of twin boys. The first boy was named after the father, whose name was Edward Clarke. The second boy was named Stewart, after the matron of the hospital, Miss Stewart. The births were not registered, a procedural slip which may have been finessed by Miss Stewart, and while the babies got a decent start and Margot recovered, Miss Stewart took the the little family in. She had boarders at her house and she installed Margot as a housekeeper.

In 1919 there was a flu epidemic that killed more people than had just died in the First World War, and Margot caught it. The doctors told her to leave Wellington and move north, where she could get some sea air. So she moved slightly up the west coast of the North Island, the world capital of sea air, and Eddie and Stewart were brought up in and around Karehana Bay and Plimmerton.
After the First World War, when Ted was six, he was sitting on the verandah one day when a man came in the gate and Ted looked up as he approached the house. Ted always remembered seeing his father for the first time, from the shoes up. Edward and Margot were married at Miss Stewart’s brother’s house in Hawker Street, the births were registered, Edward got work as a carpenter and the semblance of respectability began to be constructed. The boys went to the local school, the beach was only a few yards away and the family had a succession of dogs and cats. They didn’t have any money but life was good. Ted’s father was a fine fiddle player and people would often stop outside the house on their way home to listen to him. Ted had only a small repertoire of stories of his birth and childhood and they created only very general impressions. He spoke of his mother’s family in England as if they were all close, despite the fact that they were neither close, nor in England. The facts were not the point. The point with Ted was always fitting in. Having the right effect. Creating the right impression.
Ted felt less in common with his father and he certainly looked like his mother and although he argued with her about politics (she was a socialist and he was pretending to be a free market capitalist) he never stopped admiring her determination, her stoicism and her dignity. No-one knows where the boys' father was between 1914 and 1920. Ted always said he was fighting in the war but he couldn’t remember where and there’s no record of him in any of the services. Stewart thought he was jailed for his involvement with the Ulster Volunteers in the sectarian violence of 1913-19 but there’s no record of him either in prison records or in those of the Ulster Volunteers. Margot and her boys and their friend Mary Stewart remained close and there are photographs of the boys with Miss Stewart until she died. When they were young they would sometimes go into town by train and stay with her for a few days and she would make a fuss of them and take them to see things around the city. For forty years Margot worked for the Red Cross and for other charities which helped people in trouble. It had been tough but she knew she’d done well to bring herself and her boys to a new life in New Zealand.

The boys were bright, keen and talented, Ted was a good schoolboy sprinter and a very handy tennis and badminton player. Stewart, who had inherited his father’s gift for music, wanted to be a concert pianist. But when they were 14, the world was hit by The Great Depression and unless their families had money, teenagers had to leave school and get a job. Ted got a job at McKenzies, a retail company with branches all over the country. Stewart got work with Ballantynes, a large retail outlet in Christchurch where he worked for some years until after the war Ballantynes burnt down, at which point he also got a job at McKenzies.

Ted was good at his job and during the 1930s he became a manager and began to climb from branch to bigger branch; Nelson, Timaru, Napier, New Plymouth, Gisborne and Auckland before he was called up for military service in the Second World War and after training in Trentham and drafting into the 7th anti-tank unit, 66394 Clarke left New Zealand and arrived in the middle east during one the great crises in the war. The North African campaign was beginning and The New Zealand Division was sent up through Palestine, Syria and Lebanon to defend the oilfields against a possible attack through Turkey, and then they were pulled back to defend Cairo from the German advance from the west which was occurring at speed under Rommel, and there followed throughout late 1941 and 1942, some of the most significant battles of the war. Ted was in all of them: Sidi Rezegh, Mersa Matruh, Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat Ridge, El Alamein, the Libyan and Tunisian campaigns and then up through Italy, the Sangro River and Monte Cassino. In the lives of anyone in the New Zealand Division in the Second World War, these years remained vivid. In his nineties, Ted could still describe in detail these events, his own actions, his feelings and his love and high regard for those who shared those experiences with him, Tony Ballard, Keith Garland, Maurice Spence.

Except when he was at home, where he often looked like a pantomime lunatic, Ted was always well turned out. He wore good suits, brogues and a shirt and tie. He knew the prestige brands and he understood the value of a gesture which signified class and breeding. Eric Townley, another of his army friends, told me that all through the war, Ted was always clean-shaven, even in battle. ‘Your father’ said Eric, ‘was the cleanest man in the Western Desert’. One of the things Ted had with him during the desert campaign, was a small book of poetry he’d bought in Cairo, and like a lot of the men, he read and committed to memory large tracts of English verse. His standard greeting in the morning for the rest of his life was from the Rubaiyat:
‘Awake for morning in the bowl of night
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight
And lo, the hunter of the east has caught
The Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.’

He also loved Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark'
'Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert-
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art’. (He loved that last line).

He also learnt, either from his father’s repertoire or from troop entertainers, great slabs of British Music Hall and he could recite all that too. He had a good singing voice, kept perfect time and he loved entertaining people. He knew bits of Sid Field, Flanagan and Allen, Arthur Askey and the Western Brothers. He sang ‘Beautiful as a Butterfly’ very well. He also recited a silly sales pitch he’d got from somewhere: ‘All wool and a yard wide, this product is wiff-waffed on both sides and bevelled all around, has hot and cold folding doors, two kinds of water, clean and dirty, it’s guaranteed not to rip, tear or bust. Recommended not by me; recommended by a better man that me. Recommended by the maker’.

On the way back to New Zealand after the war, the troop ship Ted was on stopped at Melbourne for supplies and anyone who wanted to go the theatre was invited to attend a performance free of charge. Ted put his hand up and that night he went to one of the big nineteenth century theatres in the city. He couldn’t remember what the entertainment was, but before it began, a man in a suit came out in front of the curtain and said ‘Ladies and gentlemen. We’re fortunate to have in the audience tonight, a party of New Zealand soldiers, returning from the war in Europe and the middle east. You men are very welcome here, we hope you enjoy the evening with us and we wish you a safe trip home’. The audience then spontaneously stood and applauded. Ted said this was the first sense he had of being home again and he never forgot it. Whenever he came to Melbourne he always went to the Shrine of Remembrance. He didn’t go inside. He just wandered around the huge courtyard and stood by the eternal flame for a while and then he said, every time, ‘They do this very well, don’t they? They’re very good the Aussies. If you’re ever in a war, try to make sure you’ve got the Aussies on at least one flank. They’re very tough and very smart. I saw a lot of them in the desert and they’re terrific in battle. They never give up. They never know when they’re beaten.’

In 1944 in Senigallia, in Italy, when he’d been wounded and was working at Headquarters for a while, Ted met Neva Morrison, who was from Gisborne and was with the New Zealand army secretarial corps, the WAACs. Anna and I are the children of Ted Clarke and Neva Morrison. When we were growing up they were living in Palmerston North, where Ted was the manager of the McKenzies store. He used to tell the story of employing people on staff and if they were honest and responsible people he’d hire them but he always asked them one question. ‘Who wrote Grey’s Elegy?'
Once a bloke seemed confused and Ted said 'It’s not a trick question. An elegy is just a poem. It’s like being asked 'Who wrote Grey’s poem?’‘
'I don’t know anything about poetry’, said the bloke.
‘No, you don’t have to know anything about poetry’ said Ted. ‘Who wrote Grey’s poem? Look out the door there. You see that shop across the Square. What is it?'
'Hopwood’s Hardware.'
'Right. Hopwood’s Hardware. Do you know who owns it?'
'Mr Hopwood.'
'Right. Mr Hopwood owns Hopwood’s Hardware. Who wrote Grey’s Elegy?'
'Oh’, said the bloke. ‘Mr Hopwood’.

He once got sent some kerosene heaters from Head Office. He’d asked for one. They sent him ten. They were terrible and they smelt and no other branch could sell any. Ted sold all of them. He put one out the front of the shop, turned it on so it glowed and felt warm, and he put up a sign: ‘Limit One Per Customer.’ He was a particularly good retailer.

Ted’s brother Stewart went away to the Pacific War and had also come back into McKenzies and during the 1950s he was the manager in Rotorua. They were both pretty smart boys and in 1960 they were both promoted to Head Office, Ted as the Buying Controller and Stewart as The Sales Controller. Ted was on the board of Manakau Knitting Mills and other companies in the McKenzies group, and he travelled overseas in 1962, 1964, 1965 and 1970, when hardly anybody did, including going very early into China, buying merchandise in Europe and Asia (I think his favourite country was Austria). Business was good, the company grew and eventually the parent company, Rangitira, sold the McKenzies stores, and the McKenzie Trust, which is an investment company, became the biggest philanthropic organisation in New Zealand history. The Clarke twins helped build this great enterprise.

Ted and Neva’s marriage was not a runaway success and Ted buried himself in his work and for some years refused to acknowledge that he and Neva were effectively living separate lives. After their divorce they both remarried and Ted retired and took on some consultancy work.

When he had grandchildren, Ted gradually began to drop his guard. He managed this rather well and he was wise enough to recognise the benefits.
‘These feminists’ he would say. ‘Good grief’.
‘I’m a feminist Ted’ one his granddaughters would say.
‘No, no, no,’ he would clarify. ‘You’re a very beautiful young woman.'
'Do you know what feminist is Ted?’ she would say.
‘You tell me’ he would reply, and he would then sit back and enjoy a small tutorial from which he would emerge wiser and smiling with pride. ‘I just had the most interesting conversation. God those girls are intelligent. Absolutely wonderful.’

As he drifted through his eighties and into his nineties, Ted was sustained by his great love of the family, by which he meant a slightly fantastical skein of connectedness and common interests and ethics running from his mother, whom he adored, through his children and grandchildren. He also loved his sport and music, which he took up in a big way in retirement and from which he got a great deal of pleasure. He was also a perceptive student of the human race. He had an excellent memory, a great gift for words and talk, an interest in world affairs and ideas and a very dry sense of humour. When he had an operation a few years ago to remove a cancer from his temple I rang him and said ‘How are you?'
'I’m good thanks’.
‘Was the operation a success?'
'Yes. They seem very pleased'
'Are you any better looking?'
'I don’t know about better looking but I caught sight of myself in the mirror this morning and I can certainly see what the fuss is all about’.

Ted was a dignified, gifted and remarkable man. He started with nothing and succeeded in almost everything he did. He was interested in history, language and the society he lived in. A generation later and he’d have been at university and may have had some other choices.
But Ted made the best he could of the situation he was in, as he saw it. He was unhorsed from time to time and there were difficulties. And he was troubled by these difficulties. He looked at these difficulties and in later years he tried to address them. If he didn’t deal with them or didn’t deal with them effectively, he would want to acknowledge his own failure. It was not because he did not want to. He was a loving, attentive and frequently hilarious grandfather and he said repeatedly in the last week of his life, ‘When I go into orbit, I’ll go into orbit with a smile on my face’.

Edward Alexander Clarke 1914 – 2008

We had a gratifying response to our ‘At Least Malcolm Uses Verbs’ quiz and we thank everyone who entered. The winner was Carl Sruhe, of Carlsruhe. Well done Carl. A mighty effort. For the record, the answers were as follows:

  1. True. It’s tomorrow night. If the skies are clear, we should see the deficit move across the face of the moon at about 4am. If you go to www.finance.lostway.gov.au you can see Mathias Cormann explain why it is not happening, why it’s not his fault and why he and Joe Hockey were smoking cigars.

  2. True. There has never been a better time to be an Australian, although there might have been a better time to be Mal Brough.

  3. True. If the employees at Clive Palmer’s nickel business had had the good sense to form an entirely useless political party, they’d have been paid unaccountably large amounts of money just before the business went broke.

  4. False. Buying or borrowing a stock on the assumption that its price will fall and repayment can be made at a lower price, is called Short Trading or Short Selling or simply Shorting. Shorting a bill with a stated face value may be less attractive due to the lower beta coefficient. Bill Shorten is therefore not advisable.

  5. False. Adani is not a judge on the X Factor. Adani is a coal company obsessed with protecting the environment and creating Australian jobs.

  6. True. The book is called ‘Go the F… to Sleep’ and it begins ‘Once upon a time there was a little boy who thought he was still Prime Minister….’

  7. False. The quote was taken from the final diary entry of Scott of the Antarctic. Scott of the Treasury is still out there somewhere.

  8. True. Santa received a great many letters last year and couldn’t possibly answer all of them. He made an exception in the case of two young Australians. ‘Dear Eric and Kevin’ Santa wrote, ‘Thank you for your letters. Please stop asking for the same thing each year. You got it the previous year and it didn’t work. Even Joe has worked this out. Love from Santa’.

  9. True. George Pell has a heart problem.

  10. True. Corey Bernardi has been put on earth in order to make it clear that there’s always someone less fortunate than yourself.

  11. False. The third umpire is often under a great deal of pressure and has pleaded this week with cricket-lovers to stop abusing him. ‘Dear Kevin and Eric’ the umpire has written. ‘I’m sorry you’re so upset but the video clearly shows Tony well out of his ground. He had also been bowled, had stepped on his own wicket and had attempted to punch the man at short leg. Please stop appealing. It’s not going to happen’.

  12. True. People who begin all their sentences with the word ‘So’ are being allowed into Australia in increasing numbers. The government denies this a crisis. ‘So these people literally have nowhere else to go’ said a spokesperson.

  13. The quest to find the least diplomatic person in Australia has been completed. The winner has won a position as Australia’s ambassador to the United States.

  14. False. The picture shows Tinker Bell. Julie Bishop is petite and she flies a lot but Tinker Bell was not present when Malcolm called Scott about how to fix the Tony problem.

  15. False. A Liberal Party spokesman has denied that Ian MacFarlane will be receiving the 4c per litre petrol discount or the set of steak-knives. ‘I’m afraid Mr Macfarlane does not qualify for our Loyalty Program’ the spokesman said.

  16. False. ‘Call me Ishmael’ is the first line of Moby Dick. It is not a tweet.

  17. False. People who claim to be ‘discussing some issues around that space’ are not taking over the country. They are entitled to express themselves as they wish (although if they ever get together with the people who begin their sentences with ‘So’, an emergency hooter will sound and the entire area will be cleared).

  18. True. Some of the yachts in the Sydney to Hobart Race this year were forced out of the event by wild weather. This was enormous news, having only previously happened in every other year.

  19. False. Australia won the ODI series. Hawthorn was not involved in any way and Jonathan Thurston did not drop a goal in the final seconds to clinch the title for Queensland.

  20. False. The Essendon Football Club had a very decisive board. A hover-board is a device for starting fires.

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