Back in the 1960s and ’70s growing up in the coastal NSW city, colloquially known as the ‘gong, our old black and white telly beamed John Gorton, Billy McMahon, Al Grassby, Rex Connor, Jim Cairns (and Junie Morossi), Gough Whitlam, Khemlani, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser into the lounge room of our young immigrant family, as did the tellys of millions of other Aussies from all corners of the globe.
Politics was a nightly soap opera, played out during our 6:30 evening news broadcasts.
It was a time of politically incorrect larrikinism.
The everyday lives of our hapless pollies were hilariously documented by the pens of some of the best cartoonists on the planet – Paul Rigby, Larry Pickering, Bill Mitchell, Clarrie King, Frank Benier, Jeff Hook, Les Tanner, Bruce Petty and Ron Tandberg (sorry to all the others I left out – there are just too many to list). Adelaide-born and raised, Pat Oliphant exported our uniquely irreverent style of cartooning to America in the ’60s, changing forever how Americans drew and viewed political cartoons.
Those were the golden days of fun – and freedom of thought – when we instinctively laughed at ourselves, at our pollies and the silliness of the world, long before we became offended and outraged, before we sought ‘safe spaces’ from others’ opinions, before ‘cancel culture’ meant changing the name of a cheese to protect ‘hurt feelings’ or fretting over who moves first at chess because the colour of a chess piece offends virtue signalling, cultural mal-appropriates.
The ’60s, ’70 and ’80s were the heyday of Australians taking the piss out of each other and ourselves. I was a wog, you were a skip. We knew how to laugh at each other, laugh together, how to get along, to play footy, cricket and wogball, and to belt each other in lunchtime brawls – then get up the next day to do it all over again.
We had larrikin politicians in office – Hawke, Fred Daly, Jim Killen, Gorton – often renowned for their love of wine, women, song and clever banter, for better or worse, but mostly for better.
Our TVs were filled with home grown comic geniuses, Hoges, Norman Gunston, Dame Edna, Grahame Kennedy and Bert Newton.
Our newspapers were owned by a larrikin businessman, Rupert Murdoch, with an appreciative sense of humour and a very large soft spot for cartoons. I was fortunate enough to work for Murdoch for a decade or so during the ’80s. I fondly recall a one-on-one chat with Murdoch about his favourite cartoons at his London office, his shirtsleeves rolled up, collar and tie loosened, while dealing with reckless Fleet Street print unions during the Wapping dispute. Regardless of what others reckon, I was struck by his earthiness and broad grin during a well-conceived crisis of his own instigation to crush the unions – while he laughed at memories of his favourite Rigby cartoons, recounting punchlines word for word.
But I digress.
For an Aussie immigrant’s son, who could draw a bit, I really didn’t have much choice. Surrounded by all this mischief and fun, I had to become a cartoonist.
At 16 years old, when the vocation officer visited our school classroom, pointing to my classmates, asking what each intended to do for a living, most said, without too much thought, they expected to get an apprenticeship at the local coal mines or Port Kembla steel works.
When the finger pointed to me, I naively blurted out, “cartoonist!”, like that was a completely normal response.
Naturally enough, I was asked to step outside into the hallway for a dose of reality, then given a quiet lecture on why I had to be…'”…sensible and realistic…”.
Undeterred, I went back inside, sat at the back of the classroom, where I continued drawing the teachers a la Pickering calendars, passing the sketches around to my classmates down the back. The commotion and chortles from the rear of the classroom inevitably got me busted.
With cartoons confiscated, I was told to stand in the corridor until after class, at which time I was asked to appear at the staffroom door for a further ‘consultation’ with the teacher – which always ended up with said teacher asking me to sign the cartoon “…in case it might be worth something someday…”.
So, without much encouragement, I scribbled away in my bedroom, then mailed the cartoons (remember stamps and envelopes?) to my favourite cartoonist, Larry Pickering.
A few weeks later I received a reply from Pickering – just a short, two sentence letter on The Australian letterhead.
Your work shows tremendous promise. It’s up to you how long you stick at it.
That was all the encouragement this aspiring kid cartoonist needed.
I drew like crazy, sending cartoons to anyone I could think of, including then editor of the afternoon Daily Mirror, Mark Day, who published a 2-page spread of my crudely drawn cartoons, predicting the ‘next Pickering’.
All that doodling paid off.
I was eventually offered an art cadetship at Fairfax around 1980 where I was one of four art cadets on the 6th floor of the Fairfax Broadway building in Sydney, one of whom was a fellow aspiring cartoonist, Mark Knight, later of the Herald Sun.
Within three years of his five-year contract at The Australian, Larry Pickering decided he’d had enough cartooning. It was time to follow his childhood dream of training a Melbourne Cup winner, and his new passion, running a tomato farm.
Larry called me up.
That afternoon I met with Ken Cowley, then News Ltd chief, Larry and the Daily Telegraph editor, Adrian Begg, and offered the gig as cartoonist at The DailyTelegraph. It was an astounding leap of faith by news execs in an unproven teenager. The only qualification needed was to answer the question, “Do you think you can do it every day?” To which I blurted out a nervous, “Yes!”.
Never was there a more apt example of throwing yourself in the deep-end and swimming like hell.
At 18, I was offered a contract as The Daily Telegraph’s cartoonist, where I drew for a decade or more.
When the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror merged, 10 years or so later, there was room for just one cartoonist.
I was presented with an unexpected list of conditions by the then boss of the Daily Tele, John Hartigan, but the terms were too repressive for me, including the editor choosing multiple topics of the day, and me drawing numerous ‘roughs’ which the editor could, and would, reject. These were unnecessarily onerous and stifling conditions, which hinder the creativity of good cartooning. My previous contracts over the previous decade, drawn up by Ken Cowley, granted complete cartooning freedom of expression and had worked perfectly for Larry Pickering, Bill Mitchell and me – but more importantly, for readers.
I explained to John, I wouldn’t be able to do my best work, if told what to draw each day.
John replied these new terms had already been agreed to by the alternative cartoonist, so I was looking down the barrel of a metaphorical gun at my head, or a shortened cartooning career,
“Oh well, it looks like you’ve got your cartoonist,” I said, not knowing what was to come next.
For more than a decade, I’d been the recipient of creative freedoms earned by Paul Rigby, Larry Pickering and Bill Mitchell, granted to cartoonists by Rupert Murdoch.
But Murdoch was now out of the building, long-consumed by the company expanding globally, leaving the day-to-day running of his Aussie newspapers to his editors. In my experience, it’s a myth Murdoch interferes in the daily decisions of his papers, a clueless accusation usually charged by those who’ve never worked for News Ltd (now News Corporation). It may have been the case at one time when he was based in Australia, but not during my time at News. Individual editors make their own minds up.
So, at the time of my, um…’choice’….to stay at The Daily Tele, I preferred to not live on my knees. It was time to move onto unknown and unchartered territories.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that decision opened up a whole new world of freedoms and experiences for me, outside the corporate news world.
I gathered my pencils and paper, threw them into the back of my 1959 pink Cadillac convertible, and drove around Australia with my beautiful new bride, Michelle.
We knocked on the door of every newspaper in the Eastern States of Australia, from Cairns to Warrnambool, signing up almost every local newspaper without a cartoonist, pioneering cartooning and news feature syndication with my new company, Australian Newspaper Features (ANF), providing a whole host of cartoons and other content to local papers Australia-wide.
In that pre-internet time, black and white cartoons (and copy) were delivered via a fax machine. Today, everything is emailed or uploaded in colour.
I watched over the years as the internet lit a spark, growing like a wildfire.
Social media, Google and blogs grew into an all encompassing global phenomena, redirecting advertising gold from print to the tech giants and to smaller blog sites.
Where once, multi-million dollar colour printing presses were required to produce and deliver the written word and cartoons, where the creation and distribution of information necessitated a corporate building of reporters, proof-readers, photographers, artists, printers, administration and management staff, today anybody with a laptop, internet connection and a $5 monthly ISP account can have a WordPress news publication up and delivered direct to the public in an afternoon.
And so it is, in this ‘new normal’ world of Covid-19 and evaporating ad dollars, that over 100 news print publications have been forced to close down in the past few weeks.
Most of my paying newsprint customers no longer exist. Hundreds of journalists, managers, printers and photographers are also out of work.
Time for me to get a real job. My late dad would be pleased.
I can’t believe I got away with it so long.
Thanks for the ride.