Like many of us, I loved John Clarke’s work as a satirist, actor and poet. One of the things that made John’s wit so distinctive to me was its sense of history, no doubt developed by his wide reading in literature and interest in his family’s past. Do you recall that line in The Games when the minister’s secretary remarks on how many VCs were awarded at Gallipoli despite the terrible losses? John’s reply—‘Yes, I have no uncles’—was a pithy summation of the enormous cost that New Zealanders suffered in the Great War.
As I experienced a few years ago, John could talk at length about ANZAC and the First World War. It was the second global conflict, however, that I think held greater interest for him. I suspect it was because he grew up in the years immediately after the war, when tales of daring and courage were popularised in books such as Reach for the Stars, The Guns of Navarone and The Naked Island. But second, and perhaps more significantly, it was because his parents had met in the Mediterranean theatre where they were serving as members of the New Zealand armed forces.
It’s probably no coincidence that John began having regular talks with Ray Parkin and Weary Dunlop in the 1980s, at about the same time that he became a parent. I’ve seen this pattern elsewhere: we start to have children and suddenly our parents become interesting subjects on their own terms; people like us. John’s own father, not given to public speaking, started to say things in old age that invited similar reflections. At a small funeral in New Zealand, Clarke senior eulogised a friend who had fought alongside him in North Africa and the Middle East all those years before: ‘I knew your father,’ he told the mourners, ‘as none of you knew him. He was at my side in every major battle we fought. I saw him under fire and I can say this to you today: he was magnificent.’
At a friend’s place in mid-February John Clarke was standing in the backyard near a couple of wheelie bins, tucking into his meal and chatting to a fellow guest. I went up to him and said hello.
I took the chance to ask him about his time with Ray Parkin and Weary Dunlop, when the two of them were old men. Parkin, a midshipman, and Dunlop, an army surgeon, had become prisoners of the Japanese in Java after the fall of the then Dutch East Indies in 1942. Eventually, they ended up on the Thai-Burma railway. As far as casualty rates went, the railway wasn’t the worst place that one could find oneself labouring for the emperor. That honour went to the men held captive in places like Ambon. But when you had beri beri and a tropical ulcer and the speedo was on, comparisons of that sort probably weren’t front of mind.
I asked John what he thought was the key to Parkin and Dunlop’s survival. He didn’t answer me directly, but instead told a couple of stories that each of those men had related to him. Parkin had said that in the navy, on board ship, he had a very small area that he could call his own, measuring about three foot by three in the old scale. Within that space Parkin could really do whatever he wanted and he enjoyed sketching ships he’d seen in ports around the world. Anyone who’s read Parkin’s book on HM Bark Endeavour, which Melbourne University Press published a few years ago, will attest to his eye for detail. In captivity, Parkin kept up the practice. Within the small private space that he metaphorically carried with him as a prisoner, he continued to sketch from memory, swapping notes with other captive sailors about the details of ships he was drawing. Did that funnel go here, or there? Was it further forward or aft? It was Parkin’s commitment to that practice, John thought, that kept depression and despair at bay. You can see those sketches now illustrating the pages of Parkin’s trilogy, which to my mind ranks alongside Don Charlwood’s work as one of the finest examples of Australian wartime writing.
During the 1980s, John Clarke and Martin Flanagan used to meet Weary Dunlop at his house on Toorak Road. They had an eye to developing a TV mini-series—a medium then in vogue—on the experience of captivity. The Flanagan clan’s association with Dunlop was through their father, Arch, a fellow prisoner on the line. On one occasion, in the parlour where they would always meet, the conversation turned to Weary’s experience of the first few weeks of captivity in Java. The men under Weary’s command were young and fit and suddenly didn’t have a lot to do. They certainly didn’t have much experience of being held prisoner. Weary could see that it was a potentially explosive situation. He requested an audience with the camp commandant and suggested that it might be in the interests of the Japanese to allow the prisoners to hold a sports tournament so they could let off some steam. The commandant liked this idea. You can imagine Dunlop’s relief. Then suddenly the commandant came up with a suggestion of his own: that it would be a great honour for him to demonstrate the superiority of the Japanese race by competing in the tournament. It’s fair to say that he was not in peak physical condition and Weary had to think quickly about an alternative. ‘Would it not be a greater honour,’ he suggested to his captor, ‘to compete against me as the ranking Australian officer?’ He considered this for a moment. Of course, the commandant nodded. A date for the tournament was set and the two men faced off against one another. Weary, the former Australian rugby player, over 6 feet tall, told Clarke that he was beaten by his Japanese counterpart in every competition except one. ‘What was that?’ John asked.
‘The high jump’.
The lesson that John wanted to relate from those two stories was not so much about the clichéd things we hear about war: particularly mateship. No, for him, the lesson from Parkin and Dunlop’s captivity was in maintaining a presence of mind that brought perspective to the cruelty they were confronted with. The stories the two men told him were also about having the good sense to turn what must have seemed the most parlous situation to one’s advantage, even if for just a moment.
There’s a lot more that John Clarke related to me that afternoon in February. The thought did occur to me that inviting him to walk Toorak Road once more and to record his recollections of meeting Weary thirty years before might appeal to a lot of people, particularly those who have met their parents, so to speak, through the lives of others. Well, I’m sorry to say I never got around to doing that. But I am grateful that he took the time to watch a short film I’d recently produced on lantana and about which we later chatted on the phone. He offered me some helpful advice on improving the voiceover and structure. It’s a better film for those insights.
To John’s wife, Helen, his family, close friends and collaborators, my sincere condolences on your loss. Having one’s life cut short on Mt Abrupt is its own punchline, I guess. But I wonder if in taking the time to listen to the insights and lessons from the lives of people like Ray Parkin, Weary Dunlop, and even his own parents, John Clarke developed an even deeper appreciation for just how lucky we are. The sense of kindness that he carried with him shone through in the stories that he shared. It was also there in the advice that he gave to me as someone he hardly knew. It’s generosity of that sort I won’t ever forget.
May he rest in peace.
Damien Williams is an Australian historian and director of a production company called Lantana Lane Productions. His co-written book on pilgrimages to World War II sites was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013 and later short listed for the Australian Historical Association’s Ernest Scott Prize.