Scratching for a living

2014-10-10 00:00

IT is hard to believe that it is now almost 25 years since I first sat outside the office of the editor of The Witness , nervously clutching my portfolio of cartoons.

I had spent the previous six months swanning around Europe — taking in the old Hapsburg Empire capitals of Vienna, Prague and Budapest, and getting my first taste of life behind the Iron Curtain — and my bank account was now telling me I needed to find a job. Fast.

I was not overly hopeful about my prospects. The Witness had not employed a full-time political cartoonist in its long history, and I had not worked full-time as a political cartoonist, which, in my view, kind of stacked the odds against me.

Fortunately for me, in Richard Steyn I was to meet an editor who knew what he wanted, and since having a cartoonist fitted in with his vision for the future of the paper, he was prepared to take a chance on me. At the time, I was not sure if his confidence in me was entirely justified. I had my doubts as to whether I would be able to cope with the relentless pressure of the daily deadline.

Somehow, though, I have managed.

If Steyn gave me my big break, my longest and most fruitful working relationship was with John Conyngham. In many ways, he was the perfect boss for somebody with my authority issues. Patient, understanding and very wise, he was always ready to give me sage counsel if I needed it, but was otherwise happy to let me take my ideas and run with them — even when this meant that the cartoon I came in with at the end of the day bore absolutely no resemblance to the idea we had discussed at our morning conference.

During all this period, my daily routine has not varied much. Each morning, I get up at around 6.15 am, read the papers and then try to decide what is the most important news story of the day, or at least the one that most readily lends itself to some form of humorous-satirical comment.

Having chosen a topic, I next have to decide what sort of angle I am going to take and what type of visual metaphor I need to employ to fit the topical comment I wish to make. In many ways, this is the most difficult part of the job. The actual drawing is the easy bit.

The challenge is, of course, to try to find the shortest way to get the most information across in the funniest way.

My best cartoons are, invariably, the ones that grow out of a genuine sense of anger over something I have witnessed; usually some misuse of power. If dislike provides the beginning then the end is to get to the truth.

Once I have the germ of an idea, I try to put it down as rapidly as possible. Normally, I rough it out in pencil first and, once I am satisfied with the image, I trace it on to better-quality paper and then ink in the detail.

Then I show it to the editor. If he is happy, it gets published.

At the end of this month, this routine will, officially anyway, come to an end when I formally retire. The grim finality of this looming milestone has certainly got me thinking about how I make my living.

I have never been sure, for instance, if what I do actually counts as real art or not; or whether this even matters. In the end, cartooning is a job like any other (not as well paid as some) and like all jobs I have my off days when I don’t feel like working, or when inspiration fails to strike.

If it has one big perk, it is that I can, within reason, be as rude as I like about people I don’t like, which is not something they allow you to do in too many other professions.

Nor am I the least bit offended to be called a mere cartoonist (I recently heard of a fellow scratcher who insists on being called a lampoonist; others prefer the term visual satirist). As someone who makes his living out of poking fun at the self-importance and pomposity of others, it would do me no good to start getting ideas above my station.

Looking back on my career, I can still not say with any certainty, either, how much difference my cartoons have made. Back in the first flush of youth, I still possessed enough bravado and naivety to believe I could change the world and that if I just showed the politicians the foolishness and error of their ways, they would be amenable to change and development.

Since then, I have learnt to set my sights less high because I have come to realise that no matter how much ammo you expend, the bad guys just keep on coming. There are far too many of them for me to stop them all in their tracks.

I have no intention of quitting, though, and while there is still ink in my pen, I plan to keep on potting away.

Who knows, maybe one day, I might actually win one of these lost souls over to my cause?

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