Rachel Stewart is winner of the 'Opinion Writer of the Year' award at the 2016 Canon Media Awards.

Rachel Stewart: John Clarke made us appreciate ourselves

Tramping in the Grampians.

That's where our Fred met his maker. In the wilderness, watching his beloved birds.
By all accounts, John Clarke came to his love of birds late in life. He "loved losing himself in nature" and found the birdwatching hobby a respite from celebrity because "the birds just don't care about me".

Indeed, he died taking photos of birds on a bushwalk with family and friends. What a way to go.

In a 2012 interview published by Australia BirdLife, he explained that the joy of birdwatching came from being reminded what a "pipsqueak" you are.

"One of the principal joys of birdwatching is that you are being responsive to the world, you're just another creature. You are the tool of the world. You are not mastering it, or moulding it to your image or any such piffle, you are reminded of what a pipsqueak you are."

As a falconer, and a human being, I'm down with that. But I'm also down with what that incredible human being - John Clarke - brought to the world.

In 1976 - age 13 - I took Fred Dagg's LP back to California with me, after a visit home to the family farm for Christmas. I played it to my American friends over and over, and they looked at me like I was an alien. I told them that from now on they had to call me Trev. They didn't.

I was obviously homesick for the damp, muddy Whanganui farm. Fred Dagg's persona positively reeked of that place. Gumboots, shearing, haymaking, and flagons of DB. All class.

I was too young to fully comprehend Clarke's genius but old enough to know he was something distinct. Different from anyone else before. He took my childhood of the 70s and threw it down the party line. Three long, one short. Pick up. It's for us.

Pundits have said he invented the farming vernacular. Nope, he didn't, but he did take it and run with it.

My father was already yelling at the dogs "get in behind" - and other unrepeatable commands - and advising any random tractor operator to "kick it in the guts". Trevors were everywhere, and gumboots were too.

John Clark showed us Kiwis appreciating Kiwis at a time when we weren't so great at it. Photo / Supplied
John Clark showed us Kiwis appreciating Kiwis at a time when we weren't so great at it. Photo / Supplied

But how Clarke did it was the brilliance. He reflected rural folk back to themselves, and all during a time when politics wasn't quite as tribal as it is today. Pre-MMP. Pre-intersectionality. Pre-internet. An easier, gentler, and arguably, more boring time.

What he conjured was Kiwis appreciating Kiwis, which was unique. Given we were a nation specialising in not showing an obvious liking for each other, that was a first.

He also caught the absurdity of it all. Life. That thing we all take so seriously, you know, as if it's the only one we have. Which it is, I'm picking.

The LP I took back to the States was my cuddly blanket. It made me real, my childhood real, New Zealand real. Because when you're thousands of miles from home, and pre-pubescent, you kind of need a touchstone.

It was Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits, and his dulcet tones interminably graced the Berkeley air. The album cover sported the words "London, Paris, New York, Lumsden, Taihape, Winton, Tokyo, Whakatane". Ridiculous and portentous. Small town and global. Taking the piss, yet seeing the time to come.

I was too young to fully comprehend Clarke's genius but old enough to know he was something distinct.

He talked about the Wainui hill, and "over she goes, Trev". It felt so true when he sang about the fact that we didn't know how lucky we were. Then there was his unforgettable version of the Toreador Song from Bizet's Carmen. My favourite opera, as it happens. Hmmm.

All I know is this.

For me, he personified an era like nobody else I can think of. Oranges, browns, yellow dimpled glass and overloaded fly strips. Gumboots at the back door, the front door and the side door. In the boot of the Cortina. Just in case.

John Clarke was greater than the sum of his parts. He did satire like no other. He was an exceptional talent, born of eclecticism and massive grey matter.

He had no truck with politicians or fools. No empathy for powermongers or sell-outs. He was his own man. A rare breed.

When I look up at the birds I'll think of him. Fly free, John.

- NZ Herald

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Rachel Stewart is winner of the 'Opinion Writer of the Year' award at the 2016 Canon Media Awards.

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