Maybe it was because I'd just been discussing Bram Stoker's Dracula, but when I was introduced to Murray Bramwell — he was a postgraduate student just arrived from New Zealand, I was a lecturer in English — I said, 'Welcome Bram'.
Not a disastrous gaffe and Murray quickly and amiably helped me to make the adjustment but it looked for an instant as if I was cheekily but clumsily trying to invert his entire name (Welbram?) and this was enough to cause me a severe attack of the blushes to which my doggedly tan-resistant pallor succumbed in those youthful days with embarrassing alacrity.
We became good friends despite an age difference my way of a decade or so. Starting his new life in Adelaide, Murray wrote memorably for Adelaide Review and met David Matthews (related? Yes, eldest son) who was enjoying a postgraduate gap year busking in the Mall and pondering his options.
Witty and loving a laugh themselves, David and Murray were fascinated by the then flourishing art of stand-up comedy and satire and decided to have a shot at seeing what made it and its growing army of practitioners tick. And so they produced Wanted for Questioning: Interviews with Australian Comic Artists (Allen and Unwin 1992). In the rather prescient introduction to this book Murray and David write:
'[H]umourists and comedians have to become experts on human behaviour and human institutions. They hold a fun-house mirror up to nature and reveal the incongruities, discrepancies and absurdities they find. Their territory is the gap between what we wish and what we ruefully know. In the late 20th century that gap has become the abyss ...
'The earth is deluged with electronic data on such a scale that meaning becomes secondary. Never have we needed guidance more, never has it been less in evidence. This century has had so many demagogues, prophets and dangerous loonies grabbing for the steering wheel that we distrust the very idea of leadership. Recent history ... presents us with a seemingly relentless pageant of grief ...
'Comedy brings relief and shoves a stick into the spokes of manifest destiny at the same time ...'
One of the 30 comedians, satirists, cartoonists and writers they interviewed was John Clarke. 'I first met John Clarke five years ago,' Murray recalls in his 1992 introduction to the interview, 'even though we grew up in the same town in New Zealand and for a while went to the same school. My claim to fame is that I nearly knew John Clarke. Recently when we looked though his school photos we realised that we knew every kid in Palmerston North in 1960 except each other.'
"As I write, Christopher Lawrence on the ABC's 'Classic 100: Love' program plays Schubert's Notturno and dedicates it 'to the memory of John Clarke, true lover of Schubert'. Poignant serendipity."
Clarke is wonderfully forthcoming in this interview with his young compatriot, almost loquacious, and as the sentences and musings and ideas unfold on the page you can hear that saturnine voice in imagination, and can see the apparently impassive features lit suddenly by a gaze made lively by the sheer humour or outrageousness or madness of things.
Noting Clarke's generosity towards Matthews and Bramwell, Matthew Ricketson, in an otherwise fine tribute, speculates that Clarke, 'though he rarely discussed his ideas about satire', uncharacteristically 'opened up' on this occasion, 'perhaps because the authors were academics and [Clarke] judged the book would be read by few'. This unnecessarily sour note with its ritual jab at academics is given the lie by among other things a couple of sentences in the authors' acknowledgements: 'John Clarke, éminence grise, has oiled wheels, opened doors and prodigiously advised. Without him and of course our generous interviewees, this book would have remained a glint in someone's eye.' The book's title, as Ricketson points out, 'was Clarke's, but readers didn't know that'.
About five or six years later, maybe in 1998 or 99, I met John Clarke when our paths intersected in Melbourne University's Tin Alley. David had introduced me back in the Wanted for Questioning days when Clarke and the two authors had lunch to celebrate the book's publication and invited me along but I felt very diffident about assuming he'd remember me, a mere hanger-on. While I was conjuring with these doubts Clarke veered so as to cross into my path and said, 'Gooday Brian, good to see you again. How's David going?'
As I write, Christopher Lawrence on the ABC's 'Classic 100: Love' program plays Schubert's Notturno and dedicates it 'to the memory of John Clarke, true lover of Schubert'. Poignant serendipity. And in my inbox is an email from David in the UK, sent on hearing of Clarke's sudden death: 'So very sad. I've just seen the news. I was friendly with the great man years ago and always thought I'd run into him again some time.'
Brian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.