In the mid-1980s my friend Pat Hayes was letters editor at The Age. In May 1985, amongst the usual letters about politics and news and issues of the day, he started receiving letters about a curious sport known as farnarkeling.
The letters were riffing on the imaginary sport created by satirist John Clarke.
Open to a sense of mischief – a letters page needs its lighter moments – Pat started to run a few letters. The letters generated more letters. Pat couldn’t publish them all but he kept them in a manila folder in a filing cabinet in his office at the old Age building at 250 Spencer St, Melbourne.
I met Pat in the early 1990s when he was editing a supplement at The Age called Home. He kindly published my stories about being a home-dad. Living in the same suburb, and with young daughters of the same age, we struck up a friendship: Pat the crusty wise old-school journalist from way back, myself the ever-naïve freelance writer.
When the Fairfax bean counters started doing their sums in late 1992 they closed the Home supplement and before long Pat was out the door, a box of memories and folders under his arm. A lover of the great outdoors, he started a caravanning and camping magazine called On The Road.
Ten years ago illness and family circumstances saw Pat move across to the other side of the Melbourne, almost an hour’s drive from his previous abode. He had to say goodbye to his magazine, he had to down-size into a retirement village/nursing home, where the TV and his black and white cat Missy keep him company.
When I visit, which is not as often as I should, I note the journalistic mementoes on the walls: a cartoon by Leunig dedicated to Pat, a framed photo of Pat being dragged from a picket line.
During one visit, in 2011, he rummaged amongst some belongings, took out a manila folder and said, “Here, do you think John Clarke would be interested in these letters? There could be a little book idea. Do you think you could contact him for me?”
I imagined that for John Clarke, farnarkeling was a distant memory. “You never know,” I said less than convincingly, and drove home with a bundle of 85 unpublished letters.
I read them all, of course. Would the great satirist be interested? Could The Unpublished Farnarkeling Letters be a little book? What about copyright and permissions and the like? And how was I going to find Mr Clarke?
In June 2011 I sent an email:
Dear Mr Clarke,
A former letters editor of the Age, Pat Hayes, has given me a manila folder containing many unpublished letters about farnarkeling, all written in May of 1985.
Pat tells me that during the spate of letters in 1985 there was some correspondence between the two of you. The manila folder also includes copies of hand-written and typed farnarkeling scripts.
The 85 letters are not the pick of the crop – the best letters, of course, were published – but they may be of archival interest.
The letters run the gamut of topics, using farnarkeling as a springboard (I hope I’m not mixing metaphors there), to make points about tax reform, the balance of payments, Medicare, Prince Henry’s Hospital, the rebel cricket tour to South Africa, the education curriculum, sports sponsorship, and other issues of the time.
Several letters try to dig deep into the etymology and origins of farnarkeling.
Several of the letters are on official letterheads from schools (public and private) and universities. One letter, written in purple ink, is from a nine year old boy calling for farnarkeling to be allowed in schools.
The letters include references to Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, F.R. Leavis, Germaine Greer, and other eminent cultural figures.
A few letters, including a neat poem, express bewilderment at all the correspondence.
Most of the letters are typed, some are hand-written in quite attractive script…
Pat gave me the folder on the weekend, wondering if there might be a way of publishing some of the letters, along with those that appeared in the letters page of The Age, as a book.
Would you like me to post you the manila folder and its contents?
John Clarke replied:
Dear Vin, I’ve spoken to [book publisher] Text and if you can get me the material or a copy thereof, I’ll discuss it with them and we’ll see where we go from there.
All best to Pat and yourself,
I didn’t worry about ‘a copy thereof’. I simply put the manila folder in a large envelope and mailed it via Express Post. A handful of phonecalls and emails ensued. The final correspondence, July 2011, was brief but optimistic:
Will be in touch after speaking to Age people. Text are keen.
I last visited my friend Pat on April 6 this year. We talked about family and health. The TV, as ever, was on. ABC 24 Hour News. His cat Missy climbed and clambered. The framed photo of Pat being dragged from a picket line was still on the wall. The Leunig cartoon too. I don’t recall us talking about the farnarkeling letters.
Three days later, April 9, John Clarke died of natural causes while bushwalking in the great outdoors.
Farnarkeling is engaged in by two teams whose purpose is to arkle, and to prevent the other team from arkeling, using a flukem to propel a gonad through sets of posts situated at random around the periphery of a grommet. Arkeling is not permissible, however, from any position adjacent to the phlange (or leiderkrantz) or from within 15 yards of the wiffenwacker at the point where the shifting tube abuts the centre-line on either side of the 34 metre mark, measured from the valve at the back of the defending side’s transom-housing. Sourced from mrjohnclarke.com