Joan Clarke
[ Issue 44 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Joan Clarke

Bikwil salutes Joan Clarke

Joan Clarke

Bet Briggs here gives her tribute to her old friend, recently departed. 
 

Her last book, her autobiography, in which she describes dramatically her Depression childhood, her battle with polio and her years as a young woman working in Sydney during World War II, embraces all those developing interests with clarity and compassion, enthusiasm and poignancy.

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For Joan — Bet Briggs

Copyright


My friend, Joan Clarke, has died. On Tuesday June 1 2004, the first day of winter, on what turned out to be an Indian summer kind of day, my writer friend, Joan, aged 83, let her life go.

Now I struggle to write of her life and her passing and Joan would have understood profoundly about the struggle with both writing and with life. She was, still is, will always be a courageous human being, and in the written works she leaves behind, that characteristic is reflected and burns brightly.

Bikwil readers will have met Joan, via her two memorable contributions: Wagner’s Revolutionary Years (signed Joan Clarke), in the Wagner Fest issue No. 10, November 1998, and In Memory of Oscar (signed Joan Willmott-Clarke) in No. 20, July 2000. Both articles illustrate her fine writing skills, the first as researcher and social historian, the second as a memoirist and storyteller. Joan sent me a typescript of the latter; it’s a gem and a true story told with gentle whimsy and pathos. It is marked: “Dedicated to my grandson, Joel Clarke, for his 14th birthday on 30 January 2000”. It may have been one of Joan’s last pieces of writing.

During her long creative writing years Joan wrote and published several books. Two were in collaboration: Girl Fridays in Revolt (with Zoe O’Leary) (1969) and Gold (with G. Weller). Her works as sole author included Just Us: A History of the Association of Civilian Widows of Australia; Dr Max Herz: Surgeon Extraordinary (1976), her excellent biography of the man who operated on her as a child with polio; and The Doctor Who Dared: The Story of Henry Price, MD (Berlin); MB, BS (Brisbane), (1982). Their titles alone indicate the breadth and range of Joan’s interests, passions and vision.

Her last book, her autobiography, in which she describes dramatically her Depression childhood, her battle with polio and her years as a young woman working in Sydney during World War II, embraces all those developing interests with clarity and compassion, enthusiasm and poignancy.

Joan was 73 when she finished and published All on One Good Dancing Leg in 1994. Interviewed about it by Judy Adamson in The Northern Herald, August 4 1994, Joan said: “I’ve had a damn good life. I’m still having one. I’m not finished yet. Not by a long shot.”

That “damn good life” was a busy and fascinating one. Joan ran her own secretarial business, freelanced as journalist and editor and, besides the books I’ve mentioned, she wrote plays, articles, radio scripts, poems, and worked tirelessly and passionately on behalf of writers and other disadvantaged people to overcome injustice and intolerance.

In pursuing her humanitarian and literary goals — inseparable it seems to me, now — Joan travelled widely in Australia and overseas to participate in writers’ conferences and to do her research. That travelling was to be the subject of her next biographical memoir. Travelling was demanding, but she did it, as she said to me once, blithely, “all on one good travelling leg”.

“That’s got to be your title,” I said and she agreed.

She was still planning to write it in 2000. But the fire expressed earlier in those words in the 1994 interview was burning low, particularly in the last seven years of her life, and was finally too low for her to write her sequel to dancing.

Yet, as I read these words again, as I write of her going and our parting, I’m thinking:

“What a mighty spirit! Joan, you’re not finished at all. Even when, as you requested, your ashes are thrown in the Pacific Ocean, you will still be dancing, still travelling. And your words will be hear for us to hold and cherish for their truth, like those you wrote when you remembered yourself as a tiny child seeing ‘the splash of colour’ of the morning glory — it’s a poem:

. . . purple, bell-shaped flowers . . . soft and silky, drooping towards me. I want to touch them but they’re too high to reach . . . I can only look so I look and look and look . . . and the purple and the green and the sunlight are inside me forever . . .

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