Fred Dagg in love

A memoir by Penny Bieder on her sweet romance with comedy genius John Clarke.

Fifty years ago.

We were out on the streets of Wellington in 1970. Vietnam, apartheid, The Bomb. Lambton Quay echoed with thunderous protests. My three flatmates and I were highly political.

John – everyone called him Nobby - would never come on the marches with me, but he would drop me off at the start in his ancient Wolseley and meet me after at the Western Park Tavern in Tinakori Road.

He would wrap me up in his warm scratchy polo neck seaman’s jersey when the cold southerly blew.

He would make me fall about laughing so much I ached with the stitch.

He would call his dear friend Michael’s Vauxhall car “the Vocky”.

At the pub he would buy me a brandy and ginger ale (a truly dreadful drink) which I would nurse as they ploughed through their beers.

On a stormy night in Wadestown he dragged half a fallen tree along my verandah when he arrived to take me out and presented it to me as a kind of bouquet.

He would bring along his new friend from Hawkes Bay who would date my beautiful flatmate Cathy. He was called Paul Holmes. Paul was very self-conscious of his scrawny, thin legs. He called them his underpinnings. But not so much that I didn’t see them horribly bare and skittering along our hallway from Cathy’s room.

John’s stubble grew gingery and he had quite a crop of freckles.

He would take me down Orchard Street to sit at the kitchen table with his mother Neva and his lovely sister Anna of the long eyelashes.

He would start a letter to me “Hello Dreams” and not get much further. He would sign it at the bottom and post it to me anyway, a largely blank page.

He would drop me off at the station when I caught the Gisborne railcar home to Palmerston North. When he met my father, a stern secular Jewish refugee from Europe he was horrified, or rather, terrified.

When I turned 21 he spoiled me rotten. I still have the beautiful book he gave me on British art (photography by Snowdon).

He was very good at hugging.

"He was very good at hugging": Penny Bieder with John Clarke, Wellington, 1970.

He would work on his late night revues at Downstage with Paul, Ginette McDonald and John Banas. I would sit in on rehearsals and sell tickets at the door. The shows began at 11.15pm to packed-out student audiences.

Downstage director Harry Seresin was generous and let them use the main stage rent-free after the evening play. John couldn’t resist filching a few of Harry’s art nouveau posters.

The shows were hilarious, huge hits and early manifestations of Fred Dagg and Lynn of Tawa would make an occasional appearance.

He would be discreet about his time at Scots College and growing up in a posh house in Wadestown.

He would read widely and wisely. He would quote the classics with perfect recall and I would be corrected often. I was doing a double arts major and loving the small group who would meet in James Bertram’s office for tutorials. We would drink Earl Grey tea and eat Mrs Bertram’s biscuits. A photographic portrait of Lili Kraus the Jewish pianist would gaze benignly at us from the professor’s wall of Chinese mementoes.

From the city, John would look with longing and love at the countryside. He was envious of Paul’s Hawkes Bay haymaking summers.

One night we went to a séance at Kate Eliot’s place and the glass spelled out “peer of the realm.” I looked across the table and recognised John’s deadpan expression.

He would have yellow nicotine-stained fingers from his roll-your-own fags. He would get drunk quite often but he was always gentle and he had a lovely giggle which made his gingery moustache twitch.

He was never beautiful but I adored him and was devastated when we broke up. I continued to hear about him as we both travelled overseas and I remember pangs of envy when I heard about his new Australian girlfriend Helen.

Each year he had begun a new degree – commerce, law, arts. But the theatre was his heart and he dropped out of university. It didn’t matter. He was utterly brilliant. And he was my Nobby for just over a wonderful year. After he dumped me he came back to me for another try. But I was just 21. So then I dropped him.

Silly me.

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