Book review: Would That Be Funny?, Lorin Clarke

Lorin Clarke reveals much about her brilliant father, warts and all, with honesty and wit.

John Clarke was a political satirist, comedian, writer and actor, and one of the best known and most loved faces on Australian television. More than six years after his 2017 death, he is still missed by his innumerable fans. So this book by his oldest daughter is most welcome and, not surprisingly, does nothing to diminish his reputation.

The man in the public eye had an excellent relationship with the “love of his life” wife, Helen McDonald, and his two daughters. Lorin Clarke and her younger sister idolised him and seemed to be amused rather than irritated by his peccadilloes. 

At home John Clarke was almost always full of wit, laughter and repartee. He dispensed wisdom and advice disguised as humour, but ‘Dad was the most complainy, substandard housework non-starter you could imagine’. Clarke conveys this observation with the same light touch she uses throughout the book. She mentions that one of her father’s “endearing features” was his propensity to stop and chat with anyone he happened to meet.

So his family knew, and lovingly tolerated, that when he went to the post office to mail a letter it could be an hour or two before he would return, having had numerous conversations with strangers he met on the way as well as the post office staff. And there you have it: a habit that to some would be irritating is remembered as endearing. 

The book abounds with many anecdotes that Clarke recalls with a delicate touch. She tells tales of an idyllic childhood in Greensborough and later in Fitzroy. Perhaps the most conventional part of the book is the collection of family photographs. This memoir is not presented in diary form or in strict chronological order. Family anecdotes, some featuring grandparents on both sides of the family, mingle with childhood reminiscences. The effect of all this is to create an intimacy between the author – and to some extent, her family – and the reader. 

Here and there, she includes a list, such as the one headed ‘things that make me feel like my dad’:

  • Catching a frisbee
  • Reverse parking
  • Swimming laps
  • Locking eyes with a particularly lovely bird
  • Having my hands in my pockets
  • Filling in forms with careful handwriting

The children of the famous can face particular challenges, as often the world perceives them through the image of the parent. While this book is much more about John and the extended Clarke family than it is about Lorin Clarke herself, she does touch on this subject. She received a scholarship to study politics, creative writing and literature in Boston and says there was something important she ‘hadn’t quite seen coming when she was there’.

‘Nobody knew who my dad was. They couldn’t have cared less’.

She recounts, ‘It wasn’t freedom from my family I was enjoying, it was being able to trust, for the first time since I was a kid, that people were judging me on my own terms.’ There are many advantages in having rich, famous and successful parents but being seen in their shadow is not one of them.  

What this memoir has achieved is what I would have thought to be impossible. Clarke reveals a great deal about her father, warts and all. She tells us something about herself. She reminisces about her youth and her family life without undue intrusion into her family’s privacy. She recounts episodes from an idyllic childhood without boasting. The glimpses she gives of her adult self help round the picture, for there is no doubt the child is parent of the adult, as Wordsworth may have said. The book is amusing, witty and honest. 

Read: Book review: Cast Mates, Sam Twyford-Moore

Her father would have been proud; the brilliant photograph of them both on the front cover of this book says it all.

Would that be funny? Growing up with John Clarke, Lorin Clarke
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922790361
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288pp
Release date: 29 August 2023
RRP: $35

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.