When I heard the sad news that comedian John Clarke had died, and read how he loved to be in nature, to bushwalk and photograph birds, I remembered he was a swimmer too. He’d been part of the Save Fitzroy Pool campaign back in 1994 and when I dug around in a file I found a transcript from a Radio National program, Drowning by Numbers, with some witty words from John.
“If they close this pool because it’s not making money, obviously, libraries are in trouble and it’s frankly not looking all that clever for parks. They can put a fence round the park and charge you to walk on it, or they can get rid of it; they can sell it to raise money. Footpaths are also running at a loss; there is not a single footpath anywhere in Fitzroy that is doing anything like returning any kind of proper return on investment.”
In tributes, I noticed he often used a swimming-type turn of phrase: “I loved the life, the creative pool I was doing laps in,” he told Graeme Blundell at The Australian. In another interview with Fenella Souter for The Good Weekend in 2004, he talked about his time at university when he latched on to some fantastic, clever, talented people who were multilingual and played instruments. “It was fantastic for me,” he said. “I couldn’t get in the swimming pool fast enough.”
In the same article, Fenella Souter said as a child Clarke excelled at swimming, was a champion diver and he still loved to swim today. Friends spoke how he was known for his long conversations with anyone from the local shopkeeper to the pool attendant, I imagine at his local, Fitzroy Baths.
And then I remembered he’d written the foreword to Murray Rose’s book, Life is Worth Swimming. So, the best tribute I can give to this funny and wise New Zealand-Australian, is to reprint some of those words about a momentous day back in 1956 at the Palmerston North Municipal Baths where John Clarke’s love of swimming most probably began.
“I first saw Murray Rose swim in 1956 in Palmerston North, New Zealand. I was about eight years old and was an office-bearer in the Manawatu Junior Swimming Team. We’d recently had a character-building win over Horowhenua at Foxton, so our tails were up. One afternoon, we were invited to attend a special meet at the Municipal Baths, where an Australian team would compete against local yeomen drawn from as far away as Ashhurst.
“Murray and Jon Henricks were tall and enormously powerful and looked like film stars. They were also very relaxed; their swimming looked effortless and they won everything. Murray had a long, rhythmic stroke and his turns were fluent and efficient. The tumble-turn had yet to be developed and, in those days, swimmers touched the end, drew their feet up ready to push off the wall again, aimed themselves back down the pool, had a bit of a look around and then pushed off for another lap. The Australians did this so fast they were halfway back up the pool again before we recovered the power of speech. Like a lot of other brilliant displays of physical strength and skill of a very high order, this was not only deeply impressive, it was also beautiful to watch.”
Vale John Clarke, 1948-2017. Your wit and humour will be missed!