Mr John Clarke

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Last weekend in a beautiful area just north of Brisbane, Marcus Craig died, aged 73. Marcus and I worked together in the mid 1970s at a club in Auckland called ‘The Ace of Clubs’, an allegedly sophisticated barn in Cook Street run by Phil Warren. In business terms the stage entertainment was part of a smoke and mirrors argument designed to help obtain a liquor license. As I was leaving one night after the show, a quite small and very drunk patron was engaging in racial abuse and attempting to punch the very large and extremely sober bouncer. The bouncer, who had clearly dealt with sophistication before, grabbed the front of the man’s shirt with one hand and turned it slightly so it became a handle and then he ran the surprised loudmouth about a foot and a half up the wall behind him so his feet were off the ground. ‘Listen mate’ he said softly to the man. ‘If you hit me. And I ever find out about it. I’m going to be fuckin annoyed. Now, go home’. And he left the man to crumple gently on to the ground and consider the position in its many aspects.
Marcus was the main entertainment at the club in those years. He appeared in drag as a character called Diamond Lil, often with the excellent Doug Aston as his partner and a house band led by Doug Smith. When I was there the marvellous Bridgette Allen was also on the bill. Bridgette could sing anything and could still the room to pin-drop or light it up like a Christmas tree. Doug Aston came from a British music hall tradition and often added form and structure to what Marcus was doing. What Marcus most wanted to do was sing opera, so he’d get the drag schtick working and then repay himself with an aria so unrelated to anything else in the show or to the way he looked, that the audience was delighted to find itself somewhere it had never been before.
Aside from being a terrific performer, Doug Aston was a caring and perceptive man who knew Marcus well and looked after him when he struck the occasional iceberg. For Marcus, the club and his work on-stage were life itself. He threw all his energy into it, his timing was fabulous, he was very generous on stage and he could really sing. Danny la Rue and many others specialised in glamorous costume changes and in Danny’s case in representing a cavalcade of great female stars. Marcus simply went out as Lil, with the burners on high and the safety catch off. His costume and demeanour were exaggerated to a point where you wondered whether he was impersonating a female or impersonating a female impersonator. Whatever he was doing, he was very good at it and the audience loved it. I don’t know when it all came to an end but some time during the 90s he moved to Sydney and after a period working at the Australian Opera Company, he moved to Queensland where he had a classical music show on Brisbane radio.
He remembered his days on stage with great fondness and with some pride. He was right to do so.
Shalom Marcus.

When I was at university the form guide provided to students of the novel was produced by the Cambridge flat-earther, F.R. Leavis, who named the great novelists as George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and Jane Austen. Lawrence was probably an honest mistake and rehabilitating George Eliot after the Dickens/Thackeray boom was at least courteous but what Conrad was doing in the side no-one knew and selecting Henry James was obviously a cry for help.
It was some time before I returned to reading of any kind and it took decades before I could get near Jane Austen, approaching only at night, through biographies.
During the 1990s, however, many of Austen’s works were adapted for the screen and it was possible to actually respond to them rather than be told what the examiners would be looking for.
The novel I knew best was ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ (Discuss. 30 marks).
In the BBC adaptation it is observed that if the writer’s asides to the reader are removed from a novel, what is left is the plot. Beefing this up and pouring music through it can elevate it slightly but the writer has gone and in the nineteenth century, before the writer was the subject of the novel, the relationship between the writer and the reader is the key part of the arrangement.
In the TV version Elizabeth is beautiful and her mother is a neurotic shrike who insists that her daughters marry the richest men they can find. Elizabeth then marries the richest man she can find, a smouldering stallion she can’t stand until she sees the size of his huge house. In other words we are invited to view Mrs Bennet as a hysterical peabrain with the values of a provincial snob and to imagine somehow that Elizabeth undercuts these values by fulfilling them. This is not terribly ironical and diversionary tactics are employed by the BBC to distract us; extra scenes are added which are not in the novel, such as Darcy peeling off a few laps in his own personal lake and then wuthering off through a Constable landscape.
The main problem here is not the silliness of Cartlandising the story but a misreading of Elizabeth through the removal of the writer. Like Anne Elliot in the more faithful movie adaptation of ‘Persuasion’ beautifully written by Nick Dear, Elizabeth Bennet is not conventionally beautiful any more than Jane Austen was. She is wise and perceptive and she sees folly in idle foreplay, manipulation and dissembling.
In ‘Persuasion,’ the Elliots' house is being rented by an admiral and his wife, who talk to Anne about being at sea together. Jane Austen had two brothers who became admirals and most of the men in ‘Persuasion’ are in the navy, so she knows whereof she speaks. The wife of the admiral tells Anne what it’s like going all over the world together, making a life, charting a course, defining a relationship outside the conventions of English society. Anne listens with keen interest and is persuaded. Like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Anne is rather assured, so when she behaves badly or makes a mistake, she does it in spades. Hence the self-knowledge lesson, when it comes, is exemplary.
The movie ‘Clueless’ catches this better than the film version of ‘Emma’, the novel on which it is based, because it doesn’t mistake film for a visual medium and it concentrates on the language of the central character and narrator. So we hear the mockery, the fun, the difference between what is said and what we see. In the BBC ‘Pride and Prejudice’ there is no narrator, no irony, no Austen. And to save you the trouble of reading Leavis, it’s not the stories; it’s the way you tell them.

In 1976 I was in the vaudeville business. The odds against this were fairly high. It wasn’t what I’d set out to do and I dropped stones all the way in so I could find my way back out.
Fred Dagg was working nicely on television but the going rate for two minutes of heroically underprepared material wasn’t sufficient to trouble the scorer, despite having doubled from a base of $38 in 1974. In order to make a living it was necessary to tour the country, take in washing and live on what my father called ‘a glass of water and a look up the street’. One night after a high quality workout at a cabaret in Auckland, I got talking to Bob Hudson, a boy of about the same age who’d been in the audience. Bob was from Sydney and had just had an enormous hit across Australia with ‘The Newcastle Song,’ an ironical tribute to the city of his youth. We were both dealing with the Micawberish aspects of being writer/performers and we agreed to meet up again in Wellington the following week. Helen and I were considering moving our base from Wellington to Auckland at the time and we spent a couple of days driving around the beautiful Waitakeres imagining ourselves somewhere up there, in the bush.

When we got back to Wellington, Bob and I had various things to do and we arranged to meet after I’d finished doing a record and book signing at James Smith’s. This was to be done in character so I was dressed in a black singlet and shorts, fashionable footwear of the period and a hat. Fred had a discerning audience of all ages and a large lunch-time crowd had gathered in the great emporium. After a while I noticed that Bob had found the place and it all seemed to be going gangbusters when the police arrived. Three policemen walked purposefully up past the queue of waiting citizens and directly to where I was sitting. ‘John Clarke?’ said one, a born leader of men.
‘Yes’ I said.
‘Step outside please’ and they waited for me to stand up, put down the tools of my trade and join them on a very public and completely silent walk out into the street. The population of Wellington quickly poured into Manners Street and watched as I was taken, in full costume, to a police vehicle for questioning. I’m pretty sure the crowd would have ruled out the prospect that I was a murderer. They were probably tossing up between sex crimes with small animals and some sort of tax fraud, possibly involving the $38.
‘You are John Clarke’ checked one of the policemen.
‘Yes’ I said.
‘Thought so’ he said.
‘What’s this about?’ I asked. ‘I’m actually supposed to be in there doing a signing.'
'Are you the owner of a red Mazda car, registration number HRV683?'
'Can you explain why your vehicle was seen last week in the Titirangi area driving very slowly and sometimes stopping in gateways and looking up driveways?'
'Yes’ I said. ‘I was driving around Titirangi last week'
'Were you driving slowly?'
'Yes, we were looking at houses’.
‘Your vehicle was seen in that area at that time'
'Yes. That would be right. That’s where it was'
'The vehicle was reported as behaving suspiciously.'
'Who says?'
'The person who reported it. The vehicle was reported as behaving in a suspicious manner.'
'Couldn’t you have rung me or written me a letter about this?'
'We read in the paper that you’d be here today so we thought it’d be a good time to pop down and clear this up.'
'Do you mind if I go back inside now and do what I came here for?'
'No, that’s fine. Just checking. Thank you Mr Clarke'
I went back into the store and completed the signing, explaining to people that my vehicle had been behaving suspiciously the previous week in Titirangi.
I never heard any more on the matter.

Bob Hudson, who tells this story rather well but who requires oxygen around the bit where the police haul me out of the signing and question me in the street, had a radio show on what was then 2JJ in Sydney and had been playing stuff from the Fred Dagg records, so when I was looking at working in Australia I found that he’d made me quite well known. A very smart and kind person, Bob has also given me very good advice a couple of times and he and his wife Kerry opened their house to Helen and me when I knew no-one else in Sydney and didn’t know what I was doing. We worked together on various projects, notably writing material for Bette Midler’s stage show. Bob later completed a PhD in Archaeology and now works at Sydney University, specialising in the medieval Buddhist period in Burma.

Early in 1970, when we were about 20 or 21, John Banas, Ginette McDonald, Paul Holmes and I generated a series of late night comic shows at Downstage Theatre, which then occupied the upstairs floor of a boating club. Our shows were presented on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights after the main play had finished. We built an audience quite quickly and we wrote and added new material about every 4-6 weeks to keep them coming back. Some of the sketches parodied film and television but were filled with references to New Zealand life and politics; ‘The News in Briefs’ for example, which featured Holmes in his underpants reading the news and which the audience loved, was full of standard sketch material but with scurrilous references to prominent locals.

Holmes was a likeable and rather naughty boy from Hastings. I arrived to pick him up one night before the show. He was working as a waiter at a place in Oriental Bay and we were running a bit late and Holmes whipped a bloke’s coffee cup away from him in his haste to clean up and leave. ‘Hang on a minute’ said the bloke. ‘There’s still coffee in that.’ Holmes slapped the cup back down again and glared at the bloke. ‘Well fuckin drink it’ he advised.

Paul and I had grown up with a lot of the same sounds in our ears and he was a particularly keen observer of the cadence and idioms in local radio. If you asked him the time he’d look at his watch, lower his voice slightly and say ‘It’s Firestone Tyres time 4.26 Clarkie. Firestone. Where the rubber meets the road.’ John, Ginette and Paul were young Turks in the Downstage acting company but acting wasn’t really what Paul wanted to do. He really wanted to be a radio. His special forte was racing commentators. In a previous show I’d written a piece for myself to do as Peter Kelly and had established to my own satisfaction that it resonated with an audience and that racing and its language and associations worked as metaphor. When I met Paul I saw that he didn’t do just Peter Kelly, he did Syd Tonks and Dave Clarkson as well and could confect a broadcast as all three of them. We would sometimes do this together, in pubs. We’d get an empty jug each (try this yourself; it’s better into an empty jug) and we’d make up a race call, crossing to each other when we needed a break. Paul’s favourite race was Peter Kelly’s call of the 1970 Wellington Cup and he’d generally wind up with ‘….and with three great strides Il Tempo will take the 1970 Wellington Cup…..’ and the rest would be lost in delight and general uproar in the bar.
When I wrote a Kelly piece in those days I gave it to Paul to perform. He did them superbly. He would disappear into their rhythm, adding little flourishes and including people he saw in the room as part of the race-day atmosphere. It was a piece of idiosyncratic magic and was a joy to watch. The audience loved the sound. It was the sound of New Zealand on a Saturday.

That winter, we were asked to provide the mid-evening entertainment for the annual ball at Chateau Tongariro. We tailored the show for the crowd, lacing it with references to Griff Bristed and Grady Thompson and other citizens among the snow community. We had to make do with a very small rostrum for a stage and we changed behind a screen. There was nowhere else to go and as the lights dimmed we might have been Christians at the Coliseum. The crowd was very large and had been engaged in rutting rituals and wassail.
From the outset the show went beautifully and Holmes doing Peter Kelly was a sensation. When he finished the racing commentary the crowd lifted the roof off. We looked at each other as they roared and whooped and it was pretty clear that he should repeat it immediately, in its entirety, which he happily did. The response was even greater this time because Holmes now relished something he knew was working and he eased the throttle open and gave it the herbs. The crowd went nuts again when he finished and after we completed the show he moved away to the bar and did it a third time.
We were all feted afterwards but Holmes was the genius of the night and he was never the same again. He didn’t go to bed that night and he didn’t stop talking as Peter Kelly for the whole rest of our time at the Chateau. He couldn’t stop doing the thing they loved. He was captured by the audience’s love for what he was doing and an addiction was born. Holmes could giggle about how silly it all was but these were the first steps towards a towering need and towards a belief that if you get the voice right, it doesn’t much matter what you’re saying. My very fond memory of Paul tells me he didn’t always agree with this rather dangerous proposition. He was a good fellow and a very gifted natural performer. He was full of affection for others, loved every bit of his life and at his best he was magnificent. We’ll miss him.

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.

Be fair or foul, or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself, upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.


The National Library of Australia is a large and impressive contemporary building looking out over Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. Among the documents on display there at the moment are very early maps and atlases, Cook’s Endeavour journal, records from Bligh’s unusual voyage, the original sheet music for Waltzing Matilda and the handwritten notes passed between Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm in the loud and freezing cockpit of the Southern Cross as they flew across the Pacific in 1928.

Downstairs is a Newspapers and Microfilms reading room which holds millions of records. It’s a researcher’s dream and is full of people working on their projects. Some of the records are available only on site and among these is a copy of the New Zealand Electoral Roll for 1893. Not only do you have to be in the building to view this; you need to be on a particular computer. I was there this week and I went to this otherwise unremarkable device, sat down, opened the New Zealand Electoral Roll for 1893 and typed in the name of my great grandmother. Eliza Jane Fox. Up she came. Eliza Jane Fox. Waiapu electorate. Gisborne resident. Married. The 1893 New Zealand election was the first election anywhere in the world in which women voted. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have a runner in this event.

I also looked up Eliza’s mother, Matilda Keys. Not there. No appearance Your Worship. Matilda was also eligible to vote in this election but perhaps chose not to. Maybe it was all too modern for her. She’d crossed the world from Enniskillen, a perilous journey which took nearly half a year, she’d lived in often very tough circumstances, had five children, buried two husbands and had survived and made her own way, but perhaps voting was a bridge too far.

For Eliza, as for many of her generation of New Zealand women, suffrage was a significant advance but was only a beginning. She was part of the effort to get a hospital for Gisborne and she later played a role in this and in other aspects of local politics. She came from immigrant stock and perhaps recognised the opportunity given to those who settle in a new land, to define themselves in a context different from that of their parents. Eliza’s parents were from the old world; she was from the new. They were formed and shaped and taught in Ireland; she grew up in New Zealand. Her parents were Roman Catholic; she was a free thinker who was married in the Knox Presbyterian church in Dunedin when she was slightly pregnant and she sometimes played the piano in a church in Gisborne which she refused point blank to join.

Eliza’s life falls within other great patterns of her time. Born in the Victorian goldfields in 1862, she arrived in Dunedin as a baby when the Otago gold rush was attracting people from all over the world and at the age of twenty she married a man from Dublin who played rugby for Otago and Poverty Bay and was the New Zealand rowing champion. Together they brought up seven children, most of whom I knew.

If I were the New Zealand government I’d publish the names of all of the women who voted in the 1893 election. And I’d hope that anyone related to them or descended from them or living in the same area today would consider doing some research. What happened to these women and to their children? It’s still only about a hundred years ago. These are the women whose sons went to the First World War. Eliza lost a nephew at Gallipoli. One of her sons was gassed in France. Her grandsons went off to the Second World War, one with the New Zealand Division in North Africa and Italy, the other a decorated pilot and the only survivor of his original squadron. Her daughters and grand-daughters included teachers, writers and organisers.

If we don’t do some work on our own history, our great grandchildren will have to pay to access it online or find it on a special computer in someone else’s library.
Most of the women who voted in 1893 would have been photographed. If we try really hard we might find images to match the names. Here is Eliza Jane Fox in later life, with her grandson.

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