A Tribute to John Clarke

24th July 1939 – 6th November 2018

Written by Bob Pringle

I met John for the first time in the early 90’s, in the Rockingham Arms at Wentworth, a renowned music venue at the time. We were introduced by a mutual friend, the writer J.P. Bean, when all three of us turned up to see an Irish blues musician. After that first meeting, I didn’t see John again until a few months later, when I was taking part in a long distance relay race in the Peak. Each team had about 12 runners and, although I knew the tri club was fielding a couple of ‘ringers’, I didn’t know who they were. I was waiting and keeping warm at the hand-over point in Bradwell village hoping I’d recognise whoever turned up when suddenly running straight at me in a Hallamshire Harriers vest was the bloke I’d met in Wentworth months earlier. He passed me the baton with a look of relief and I headed off into the Derbyshire hills. I mention these two events because, in those first two meetings, we had three of the elements for a long-lasting friendship; sport, blues music, and beer.

Throughout his life, John showed talent for many sports including football, rugby, and boxing. Above all though, he was a runner and a damn good one at that. He posted 32 minute 10K’s for his former club, East Cheshire Harriers, and could still run a 2 hour 38 marathon in his late 40’s. By the late 80’s however, the sport of triathlon, was gaining a reputation as being the ‘new marathon’ and in 1986, a handful of early pioneers formed Sheffield Tri Club with our first meeting in the now demolished Sheaf Valley Baths. Always up for a challenge, John soon showed he could be as competitive a triathlete as he had been a runner and it wasn’t long before he joined the club. He won age-group medals at home and abroad, making friends wherever he went. He was an enthusiastic ambassador both for the sport and for Sheffield Tri. Some years ago, John broke the neck of his femur during a race and was never quite the same athlete again. But it says so much about John that, just hours after the accident and in a hospital bed waiting for surgery to pin his leg, he told me all about his plans for getting back into training. He wasn’t a man to give up. But it’s perhaps his role as a coach for which he will be most fondly remembered. After his accident, he threw himself whole-heartedly into coaching at the running track and poolside. John welcomed everyone with a smile and a joke, and was always happy to share his experiences of training and racing. He enjoyed leading Sunday bike rides out into the Peak, an area he knew well.

John loved all good music but especially the blues. He had a house full of CDs featuring the old timers like John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, and Muddy Waters. Anyone who called round to visit him in Hathersage would invariably find him listening to the American blues station, Aardvark Radio. John and I saw many blues artists together; two of John’s favourites were the American singer Big Daddy Wilson, and the Canadian guitarist Matt Andersen. Just before John died, we saw the legendary New Orleans style keyboard player, Victor Brox. John often said to me that if he had a single regret in life, it was that he’d never learned to play an instrument.

As for the third element of our friendship, the beer, I don’t think I need to say much. The son of a publican, John went on to run his own rival pub, the Friendship Inn in Glossop, so it’s fair to say he knew a thing or two about good beer. Everyone who knew John will agree that there’s little he liked more than telling a few tall stories pint in hand. Occasionally John would tell you the same tale twice, but more often you’d hear the same story three or four times and with different endings. It never mattered; we enjoyed listening to his tales almost as much as he enjoyed telling them. Here are just a few.

John told me he was expelled from school at 15 for forging a classmate’s sick note. The boy was called Francis but John spelt it “Frances”, so his deception was easily rumbled and he was sent home. John knew he’d be in deep trouble but thought his dad would speak to the headmaster and get him reinstated. No such luck; his dad got him a job as an apprentice plumber! And that was the start of John’s varied career which took him from plumber to army medic, publican, alcohol counsellor, probation officer, cook and maybe others.

In the army, the source of many of his stories, he was on guard duty late one evening when a high ranking officer tried to enter the camp without ID. John recognised him immediately but still challenged him to show his ID. The officer, clearly unimpressed, asked “Corporal, do you know who you are talking to?” to which John replied “No sir, you don’t have ID”. A great joke John thought, but a month of toilet cleaning duties changed that. Whilst in the army, John made a name for himself as a boxer. Before his first fight, the referee called the boxers to the centre of the ring to touch gloves. Nervous and with no experience of boxing, John thought it better to get the first punch in and, instead of returning to his corner to await the bell, he just belted his opponent. Immediate disqualification followed but he was nevertheless given a place on the army team as the most aggressive boxer they’d ever seen. He told me many times what a good boxer he’d been but I’d always say “have you seen the state of your nose?” Luckily for me, he always laughed. Perhaps as a result of his army background, John frequently referred to me as Captain Bob, but in the Sheffield Tap one night he shouted across “Get us a pint Colonel?” It never happened again; my promotion was as short-lived as it was flattering!

There are plenty more stories, and plenty of people who can recount them, but one of his funniest stories can’t be related in full here. All I can say is that the story ends with him walking into a Manchester shoe shop one afternoon, dressed in a suit, collar and tie but without either shoes or socks. His words to the assistant were “Size 7, brown, and don’t ask.”

John faced his illness and subsequent treatment with stoicism and characteristic optimism; he wasn’t a man to give up. Sadly however, the cancer took its toll and John eventually became too ill for anyone to visit. Our last conversation was when he rang me to say goodbye and I’m not ashamed to say I wept as he told me “I’ve had a great life and I’m not afraid”. John died two days later but I know that for me, and for many others, he remains an inspiration.