No - one looks at the world quite like Michael Leunig. His poignant, often controversial cartoons rarely fail to touch a chord. Here, in an extract from a new book about heroes, he reveals how he met the duck and Mr Curly, tackled the question of God and learned the art of the unsayable.
A duck, a clock, a moonÖ
I always had animals. We would shop at the market for our weekly food and once I bought a duckling and it imprinted on me, used to follow me around everywhere. It would try to follow me to school. Coming home, Iíd turn the corner and the duck would see me and come running Ė not a dog but a duck! So I always got ducks after that. I like their conformation, they are playful and goo Ė humoured and innocent with those rounded beaks and all; they arenít as predatory as chooks.
I didnít mind my own company as a child; I was happy playing alone in the sandpit.
I built fairy homes in the garden and in the flower petals I would make little beds for the fairies to sleep on, and in the morning I would rush out to see whether theyíd visited and sure enough they had, I was sure, I could see the marks. To this day the way is probably not too different Ė when I make a cartoon Iím making a little fairy garden in my mind. Itís the same feeling. Iím engrossed in creating this fantasy, believing some magic is going to come into it, and when they get published itís my hope that people enter into it in the way the fairies entered into my garden places.
I was tremendously self Ė occupied, perhaps made more so by something that happened to me when I was about eight, a very formative time.
Iím walking along this path in the sunshine, happy as a bird, never been happier. I think this was the first significant time my mother had let me go alone to a slightly risky place Ė this thing every mother or father must face. The child says, "Mum, I want to go to the beach with so Ė and Ė so", and she says, "No, no, no." But one day sheís got to say "Yes", with her heart in her mouth, and this way that day and I went.
I remember being so excited as we headed for the rubbish tip, then without warning I was up to my thighs in red Ė hot coals and tangled wire and the pain was so horrendous I almost blacked out. My cousin Robert dragged me out and I looked down, scamming in agony, and all my shin was peeled and hanging and I tore at one leg in desperation and my skin came off like a stocking.
Every time I hear of a burn I get a sense of that particular searing, shocking pain. Robert, a very strong, quit boy, a couple of years older then me carried me up this steep slope into the schoolyard and put water on my legs. This was not the conventional wisdom at the time and everyone said heíd done the wrong thing. Then he put me on the bike and dinked me until he found a doctor and I was carried into a waiting room and I remember these people all aghast at seeing this poor, whimpering boy.
I can only imagine what my mother must have felt, allowing her child out alone for the first time then seeing him horribly burnt, not being able to walk for six months, going under anaesthetic to get the bandages off, suffering sustained pain, nearly losing his toes through amputation Ė they were worried about gangrene. The doctor was a young doctor, just came through medical school, and he took a big risk, it seemed, in not amputating. He never charged us a penny for all his care and he visited often and taught me to walk again.
But these long periods of feeling cut off from the world, lying there in a darkened room, in a cocoon of aloneness, pondering, hearing children playing and knowing that I was confined and these great bandages and all the pain, have to learn to walk again, were significant. It seemed so unfair. I can remember my sister peering into the room and not coming as close as I would have wanted them to, as if they were frightened of this suffering little boy. I wanted everybody to be closer. People were kind, but they had to go on with their lives and I used to dread it. I felt incredibly lost and abandoned.
I was shocking at sport. I was a mischief Ė maker and youíll never be forgiven if you donít take sport serious in this country. I remember one day I was playing footy, Australian rules, in this school match and I had the ball and the goals in front of me, no- one in sight. I could have kicked the goal, and the teamís saying, "Go on, kick." This was to become a defining moment for me. I thought, "This is ridiculous Ė here I am, Iíve got the ball, thereís the goal, no Ė oneís gonna stop me Ė I can kick the goal and be a hero, right?" But I thought, "Nope, Iím not going to do that Ė itís too obvious." I felt almost tyrannised by the expectation, like I was a bit player in a fate that had to be fulfilled.
All eyes were on me and I said to myself, "what Iím gonna do is try to provide some extraordinary moment for everyone", and the only thing I could think to do was just keep running through the goals, which in Australian rules is not a try, and thatís what I did. I just kept running and laughing and I turned around and looked back. I thought Iíd find them all laughing and applauding, but no! Never was forgiven for that.
Forevermore Iíve always done something a bit like that. When Iím working on a cartoon and thereís the punch line saying, "Yes, thatís the joke, you have to do it", Iíll say, "I canít do that, itís too obvious.í Thatís the creative moment Ė just when you think youíve found the solution or that gratifying opportunity, all youíve really found is the doorway into the deeper thing beyond yourself which Iím compelled to go through, out of a kind of a daring mischief, a curiosity, not knowing whatís going to happen. Thatís where you really start to make the thing that sounds you. That refusal to kick the goal has focused for me something thatís happened time and time again. I know whatís going to happen if I kick the goal Ė itís just another damn goal and we all go home.
In my third year at Swinburne Film and Television School, the principal called me into his office. We used to be sent off to life drawing classes and I would not bother turning up. As it happened, the week before Iíd been offered a job on a new dally newspaper so when he said, "I think youíre wasting your time hereí, I said, "Yeah, probably I amí, and walked straight into a good job.
I started work at Newsday, an afternoon paper to itís big sister, the Age. I was given free rein, just tossed in at the deep end. Suddenly I had to produce a political cartoon by half past nine each morning, six days a week, and that meant starting pretty early, looking at the dayís news, and I didnít know anything about journalism or the wider world of politics. All I had was bravado.
Over time, I drew less upon my feelings as a result of the news, and a personal type of cartooning began to emerge. Newsday only lasted six months, so after it folded I moved to Nation Review, a much more intellectual kind of paper where I really started to develop my style Ė ink and wash instead of just hard black line, and a more individualistic, eccentric point of view.
One symbol had already emerged: the duck. It was in the midst of a mental block back at Newsday one Saturday morning when I had a total disillusionment with politics. It was all too grim Ė the Vietnam War and the Liberal Government of the time being so conservative. Iíd been to Canberra and seen the hypocrisy of the politicians, these bitter enemies in the house all drinking together afterwards and making deals and talking to the journalists and I thought, "This is all bullshit. Itís a kind of organised sport and Iím not going to be a part of it."
That morning, the Saturday editor came in barefoot singing a song Ė heíd been to a party the night before and heíd lost his shoes and glasses Ė and unconsciously I must have thought, "This is the day to make something new.í I drew a cartoon about a fella who put a teapot on his head and climbs on a duck and rides into the sunset. I was sick of having to make a political point to a deadline, to be rational and relevant, of having the weight of the worries of the world on my shoulders. This cartoon was a rebellion against all that compliance Ė a quick, mad, absurd thing aí la Spike Milligan and the absurdist tradition. Other people were also probably sick of all this relevance Ė they needed a mystery, a fairy story, something they could not quite understand so they could lose themselves in it and laugh.
I took it to the editor and he sort of looked at it bleary Ė eyed, without his glasses, saying, ĎI donít understand it but I sort of like it."
The big nose thing started at high school. [My friend] Rodney used to draw a big Ė nosed creature and so did I. We called it the "thing" or "it"". For me it became a tool. I found I could say the unsayable with this strange, wide Ė eyed expression on the face Ė forlorn, hopeful, mischievous, you couldnít be quite sure. Sometimes just a draw that little character looking at the moon or at a duck, in the midst of a political article, was a funny juxtaposition for some reason. There was no punch line, it was just an oddity, a curious thing like a little musical chord on the page.
Then Mr Curly came into being. It was at Nation Review, in an atmosphere of playing with the drawing and suddenly adding a little curl on top of the creatureís head because I liked the look, the funniness, no explanation, and out of that I thought, "Yeah, maybe this little fellow with a curl on his head lives in a world where there are only curly things." So I started to put this together in a picture and itís one of my favourite drawings to this day: Mr Curly comes home to this little idyllic cottage with curl on its roof, to his wife and children with little curls on their heads and a dog with a curly tail. He comes home to a curly worldÖ
Over the years, other symbols have emerged roosters and angels, more recently goats and devils. Roosters are cocky, loud and pompous, but they run for cover at the slightest provocation, whereas goats represent robust life, a bit of good, healthy aggression in the face of difficulty.
I understand in retrospect. Itís like Iím drawing playfully, crating something that doesnít exist, a little fairy garden, drawing with the love of what Iím doing, lost in it, allowing the unconscious to come to life, not being tricked by the intellect. Then, maybe 10 years later, I look at the drawing and understand, "Of course this curly is a yearning, a symbol of his oddity, of what he feels is almost embarrassingly silly about him and lo and behold, he finds a whole world of oddity.í
What makes you feel so alone and strange is in fact normal. Thereís a lot of curliness in life and you can have a homecoming Ė there is a place for you and for that aloneness, that eccentricity, and thereís a fulfilment of it eventually, itís no longer the cause of your outcastness. So thatís the curl. Itís the curious, unique self and, if you find that, you find the connection to the whole world because the world is curious and unique and authentic at its best level.
There was all this loneliness in my cartoons and people would say, "Gee, these characters are so lonely, disconnected, depressed." And Iíd say, "Yeah well, thatís not me. Iím just interested in that because I think it makes a funny drawing.í But later I understood it was me in many respects; my hand was doing it ahead of the
Iíve drawn some haunting prophecies. One that springs to mind is a cartoon of a man totally disconnected from his mother in later life. Itís something I did quite early: thereís a women in a park with a pram collecting beer bottles to sell. I had seen a women do this and to me it was a very sad scene, so I drew this woman passing a man sitting on the park bench, drinking, and heís finished a bottle and she picks up the bottle and puts it in the pram and moves on. He says something like, "That was my bottle.í Then he says, "That was my mother. That was my pram." It was terribly bleak, I donít know why I did it.
In 1989 I was asked to contribute a cartoon to a new paper, The Sunday Age. I felt there were already heaps of jokes about. Iíve always been guided by a sense of what people might be needing, what nourishment is required, and youíve got to make a guess about that. At the time, I felt we were becoming too false and tricky, too complicated and cool and fashionableÖSo instead of trotting out more cartoons, I started writing prayers. I donít know the editorís reaction Ė I think he was too busy and confused and I suppose Iíd been able to establish just enough credibility that I might be on to something, that he let it go.
But a lot of people had complete disbelief. My friends thought Iíd become a born Ė again Christian! I hadnít but Iíd discovered the word "God". I though, "What is this damn word that everyoneís so worried about, that Phillip Adams writes endlessly debunking?" My father used to say. "God strike me blue", and Iíd say "God Almighty" and "God this" and "God that", and a lot of good people use it reverently. Bach wrote music for God. So without even defining the word, it seems to be cherished by some people and hated by others, so I thought, "Maybe it represents something profound that I donít understand but at least I can talk to. Maybe it means many thing, maybe when you say it, the heart hears it, the same as the word Ďloveí." I thought, "I want to bring these words back into my language and use them comfortably." So I wrote, "God grant me what I donít expectÖ"
In these prayers, I addressed the realm of the unknown and mysterious, an old yearning. I wanted to say these words publicly in the newspaper as another way of addressing the problems of our time, of our society, of our psyche, of peopleís personal suffering. And they worked somewhat. I know they worked because a lot of those prayers have been taken up here and there - they have been used in America and translated into Russian, French and Italian. A lot of them were too sentimental, or a bit odd because they were done on the spur of the moment and under pressure, so theyíre a mixed bag but there are some things in them that seem to express what needs to be spoken. Theyíve had a practical function, too - in peopleís therapies and in their religious ceremonies, funerals and weddings, and I love the idea of art as a tool.
At least now I can use "God" quite easily and with some confidence, and I know a lot of people share this word and thereís some wacky interpretations of it but my interpretation lies in the realm of John Keatsís "negative capability", a word for the unsayable and profound in life. It refers to something truer than we can ever know and something that is immensely personal and meaningful, the point where all living things are connected. Itís not located anywhere in particular but if you say, "Oh, I did that for God", I kind of understand what you mean. This is your deeper, truest expression; it has nothing to do with earthly values and profit. And when you say "God" in dire circumstances it means somewhere the heart knows good still exists, there is meaning and value ever in the midst of terrible chaos and evil.
For me, spirit is the impulse towards life, the Eros in a person leaping forward, whereas soul refers to something possibly long Ė suffering, where meanings are made, where there is a sense of this gathering of perceptions, that our death is not the most important thing, nor our life.
And I feel a sense of collective soul, too, connected to the whole of life, but all this seems to be denied by the achievements of our time. The success of our political and corporate life has been at the expense and neglect of the soul. As a result, very sick souls are making important decisions. That is why I decided that finding and nurturing oneís soul is a social and political act as well as a personal one.
Sometimes I go into a church, any church, as a place of refuge and I see these people who are struggling with a remnant of sometimes, and sometimes good words are spoken from pulpits, and some segments of the Bible can be very poetic and mystical, so I see all this as a resource, like going to a park or reading a Zen haiku. I have my own rituals, like planting trees.
In gaining an appreciation of the unsayable, I found a love of language. In the early days, I made very silent pictures hopefully to be interpreted anywhere, but as Iíve got older I have become more respected of the resonance of words and words as symbols, as magic things, as sound, too. Words are sensuous. I love juxtaposing symbols Ė a duck, a clock, a moon. Just by putting them in relationship to each other a mood can be fostered, and similarly with words. Words are so ancient, sounds and hieroglyphs evolving over thousands of years, they can be very narrowly explicit or full of life and mystery. So Iíve gone back to words as hieroglyphs because a lot of my work is hieroglyphic Ė recurring symbols, repeating chorus, verse, chorus, verse. I make no apology for the amount of repetition in my work, I love repetition. It consoles, it confirms, it grounds. I donít feel confined to one form and sometimes I use words, sometimes I am didactic, especially in my cartoons where I am trying to explore a childís consciousness. I feel increasingly weíre living in a society where it is very difficult to bring up children Ė they canít walk on the road or play in the bush, they are being streamlined into things quickly at school, playtime is being diminished, they are being saturated with television.
Iím entirely sympathetic to the enormous battle of being a parent but Iím also watching the emergence of a culture whereby there is an expectation that a child can be "planned in" Ė have a kid, put the kid in the creche at three months, go back to a demanding job Ė and I canít help but think there is a folly in this for everyone. Everything is too quick, too soon, and so in my cartoons I raise this knowing thereís going to be flak. Iím being the angelís advocate if you like, and in one very wordy cartoon about a child lying in a creche I opened up a can of wormsÖI supper opened it up and was flooded with all sorts of mail.
There have been a lot of difficult cartoons with a difficult gestation, especially when I donít know what I am precisely saying. My work is often very personal and confessional and full of my individual quirks and prejudices, so I make myself open and vulnerable and I have been left feeling foolish and exposed sometimes, and thatís not a comfortable feeling. But a lot of the things that I thought have been harmful have in fact turned out to be therapeutic and sometimes thereís a response years later from someone who says, "That became a little icon for me."
This happened with a terrible cartoon I did. It offended so many women and they dumped me, writing letters saying, "You traitor! You swine!" The cartoon was in response to a continuous run of articles by female journalists promoting a pernicious notion that women were essentially a superior kind of life form and if you canít find a mate it is not your problem, it is because men simply arenít good enough for you. I thought this was essentially untrue and not very helpful for relationships generally. There was one particular article which was a real schocker Ė I thought it was just going too far Ė so I sat down and went too far, too.
The cartoon was called New Recipe, Old Recipe and it was saying, "So youíre one of those women who think men are inferior. Well, itís time you sat down and had a look at yourself. Maybe youíre just a pain in the arse, maybe youíre this, maybe youíre that." And I said all the worst politically incorrect things you could possibly say deliberately because I was sick of being repressed by what youíre publicly not allowed to say about women. I went on, "Hereís what youíve got to do, youíve got to get into the kitchen of give and take." I knew the sky would fall in and it did.
Lo and behold, I get a letter from a woman saying, "Two years ago I abandoned you. I read that cartoon and I was so hurt, my man and I had a huge fight on the basis of it. We actually split up because it brought so many things to the fore and I was so furious with you. Iíd had enough of men and I went into a very bad period of my life and was very depressed." She continued, "But strangely enough, I didnít throw that cartoon out and eventually I put it on the fridgeÖ and Iím just writing to tell you that we are reunited and I have never been happier and I want to thank you profoundly because that cartoon played a very important part in our lives!" It was lovely to get this response. I think the best art unlocks something and sometimes with that unlocking there is anger or bemusement but sometimes it triggers a new pondering.
Sometimes I put too many words in or the words arenít necessary and I pull them out, but in some cases words are there because I want to address a specific psychological truth like in the cartoon of a man crying into a bottle and the women floating to the top. I wanted to explicitly say that until a man discovers his emotional life and his gentle, vulnerable side, until he gives it expression, he never will find his women or his soul, and until he does find his soul he will be tortured and depressed and miserable underneath a fair bit of bullshit.
Men in Western culture are crippled by having to be warriors. Fighting and bullying is drummed into boys. Thereís the aggression in male sports, and in workplaces, in business and politics. Maybe men have been made hard because theyíve seen the brutality and they havenít relaxed yet, historically. Things may be changing slowly but thereís still a pretty though, brutish male culture going on out there and itís ruthless.
Our culture is so lopsided. Historically, women have been made to be too passive and submissive and I think the genders are very disconnected as a consequence, yet it is so unnecessary. Our biological differences give us a slightly different grip on the handle of life but we need that in each other Ė it gives life its dynamic.
I always try to see other angles and sometimes Iíve dismayed my friends in doing so. When that dreadful war broke out in 1991, when Ireq invaded Kuwait and the Americans became involved, I was in at The Age office and many of my colleagues were gathered around televisions sets watching these flicking obscure images with a gung Ė ho attitude of "Bomb the Arabs". Iím not very loyal sometimes: while everyone was displaying this hysterical, lynch Ė mob mentality, I went out and bought a copy of the Koran.
I came back and started reading, and I was absorbed. This was my fist real encounter with the Koran and Iím trying to understand the spirit of these people and I read and read. I remember some fellow coming in and saying, "Oh, you should see whatís happening on television, itís astonishing! What are you reading?" and I said "Iím reading the Koran." And he said, "The what? What are you doing that for?" and I said, "I donít know, at this moment I just want to read the Koran."
Anger was expressed to me on the position I took on the war in Kuwait, but from the word go I held the Tao view that if we must go to war we should enter battle solemnly, gravely, sadly, as if we are attending a funeral. I think this modern warfare, this hyped Ė up kind of cheap nationalism, this xenophobic thing, is repulsive.
There was something in the behaviour of the American was effort Ė the use of these electronic camera Ė linked weapons and the fiendish glee with which television viewers participated in this Ė that I found deeply disturbing. It was as if Hollywood and the military had finally come together in a perfect union and thatís the ultimate cynicism: was as entertainment.
I did some very strong cartoons and prayers. I wrote a prayer asking that the American people be healed from this and it caused real anger among colleagues. Two of those prayers were published widely in America and an American nun contacted me about a year later saying how my feelings were shared by many Americans.
Recently, I have done many overtly political cartoons. Itís part of an emerging sense of duty to the earth and the environment, and to the notion of community. We need a healthy community just as we need an environment that is healthy and which sustains us and itself. Economic and political principles are a practical way of creating or destroying community. The world vitally needs an economics based on human need. Politically we have become too individual Ė rights focussed: I want this, I want that. But thereís a trade Ė of; sometimes youíve got think of your duty, oneís human responsibilities.
An edited extract from In Search of Heroes:
Stories of Seven Remarkable Men by Gina Lennox,
published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $19.95 paperback.
Reproduced from the Good Weekend magazine, June 13 1998, for the benefit of those on the Leunig mailing list who are unable to obtain the newspapers which carried this article. Copyright David Syme Ltd. Thanks to Lynda de Lacey for sending me the hardcopy and Roberta Spano for the typing.
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