A bob each way, Jon Gadsby

The Other Side Of The Ditch: A cartoon century in the New Zealand-Australia relationship
Ian F Grant
Tandem Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0958232008

Thoroughbreds, Trainers, Toffs and Tic Tac Men: A Cartoon History of Horse Racing in New Zealand
David Grant
Dunmore Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0864693990

For a number of years now, I have held an admiration for
 cartoonists something akin to awe. The brevity, the succinctness and the lethal targeting on the part of New Zealand’s daily and weekly caricature-artists should be a source of national pride and wonderment. We do it here and we do it well. Ian Grant’s book mines the rich reef of Enzed cartooning with an added bonus: he brings the Australians in as well, although sadly, by Grant’s own admission, the Aussies do not have a great deal to contribute to the project.

The idea of an examination of 100 years of New Zealand-Australia relationships by way of cartoon is an inspired one. As Grant says, “At their best, cartoons snatch and preserve the essence of an historical moment. Cartoons are, in a sense, the pulse on the feelings of the day …” Sadly, or spitefully, the pulse seems to be in one wrist only. New Zealand archives are full of cartoon works featuring the “lucky country” and its luckless inhabitants, whereas there is little historic reciprocation from across the ditch depicting the “shaky isles” and their shaky denizens. Perhaps this tells us something about the relationship between the two from the start. We care passionately about our Australian cousins. In return, they treat us with the contempt we deserve.

As Grant observes, “Few countries bicker and grizzle about each other more without actually going to war.” This manifests itself strangely in that Kiwis feel culturally and morally superior to Aussies, and yet secretly inferior because of a perception that “they’re doing better than we are”. Australians parade their overt superiority in almost all fields these days, while knowing, deep in their heart of hearts, that they are our spiritual and intellectual inferiors. And so the war – and a one-sided one it is – continues to be fought on the dialogue pages of the newspapers.

The earlier cartoons tell a rather different story. It seems that the perception was once reversed, and the Aussies had an idea that we were doing better than they were. This, and embarrassments about a convict past, led to trans-Tasman resentment, exacerbated by New Zealand’s persistent refusal to commit to union with the sun-baked continent. We could have been a state of Australia, and still can. Considering the state of our respective “dollars”, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea. The cartoons in Grant’s book plot a graph of the swings and roundabouts of the rivalry between what are, essentially, two family members.

In more recent times, rows have erupted at the dinner table. Tom Scott has Paul Keating addressing the nation with a confused Jim Bolger in the background: “I want to assure the citizens of this wonderful little country that I don’t dislike all New Zealanders … only the ones I’ve met so far …” Moir’s “Spirit of ANZAC” has a dogged and desperate John Howard, armed and in camouflage gear, sneaking along on border patrol – while a hippie Helen Clark dances along behind him throwing flowers in the air. Moir, again in the Sydney Morning Herald, has an engine labelled “Ansett” dropping off an Air NZ jumbo. “There is no need to panic,” the captain announces.

Ian Grant’s book asks a number of questions, including why we engage in such intense rivalry. “New Zealanders and Australians are really very similar,” he points out, ”but work hard at enlarging and distorting the differences.” Does this explain it? Are we so similar that our identities are threatened when one or other of us becomes too 
prominent? The family thing again. Away from home, we are brothers-in-arms, be it on the beaches of Gallipoli or in the pubs of Earl’s Court. It seems we only fight at home in the kitchen. Nothing wrong with keeping it in the family, I suppose. Long may it continue, eh.

Another Grant – David – tackles the history of horse racing in New Zealand, also by way of cartoons. I know what a “Tic Tac Man” is, or was. He was the bookmaker’s assistant, whose job was to watch the other bookies and note any changes in the odds they were offering. Any change would be furiously semaphored to the perspiring principal by means of hand signals from afar. This form of communication was known as “Tic Tac”. These and other quirky revelations are what make this book quite fascinating. Through David Grant’s commentary and the efforts of the cartoonists, one comes to realise what an enormous effect the sport of kings has had upon the culture and very psyche of this country from almost the beginning of European settlement. Interestingly, Maori took to horse racing like ducks to water, rapidly forming their own clubs and competing successfully with the colonists’ best and brightest.

The racing of horses was probably the first form of organised social event in the New Zealand of the early white settlers. It was certainly the country’s first professional sport. David Grant’s painstakingly assembled collection of cartoon history documents its progression from races in the scrub and on the beaches to the first rudimentary “clubs”, with grandstands constructed hastily from whatever local materials were available. These were colourful days and colourful meetings, and the cartoonists had a field day. As organisation led to regulation, and regulation to control by statutory bodies, the lampoonery continued. As an old friend once said to me: “Everyone knows racing’s a mug’s game, but who’s going to stand up and say so?” The cartoonists have been saying this very thing, some bitterly, many affectionately, since the first flag was dropped, and the first commentator shouted “This time!”

It’s surprising the amount of column inches our national publications have devoted to horse racing cartoons over the years, including a number of notorious front pages. Though on something of a back-foot now, faced with Lotto and the “pokies”, racing continues to be a national obsession. Come Melbourne Cup day, find me an office in the country that’s not running a sweepstake, officially or not. Grant documents the often erratic course of the sport from around 1835 until the present.

Even for the person not remotely interested in things of the turf, a striking social and political history emerges through this cartoonery. Issues of ethnicity are covered, and women’s rights. Cartoonists have had a feeding-frenzy over the issue of women jockeys, both pro and anti. Racing, until the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1977, was one of the last bastions of male supremacy. To see the tone and nature of the messages change, as women begin not only to ride racehorses, but to win ostentatiously in some of the country’s more prestigious races, is to witness a dramatic changing of the guard, relevant in fields far from Riccarton and Ellerslie.

And there’s always the underlying premise that “it’s a mug’s game”. The subjects are all crooks in the eyes of their illustrators, many of them enthusiastic punters themselves. The owners, the trainers, the jockeys, the judges, the commentators, the starters, the stipes and the stewards are all affectionately bent. Only the horses come through unscathed – with the odd notable exception. According to Thoroughbreds, Trainers, Toffs and Tic Tac Men, even the occasional nag’s been on the take.

Jon Gadsby is a writer, actor, and columnist.


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