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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
“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.
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”.
got to be your title,” I said and she agreed.
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.
I read these words again, as I write of her going and our parting, I’m
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 . . . ”