Brockie: A Memoir in Words, Cartoons and Sketches
New Zealand Cartoon Archive/Fraser Books, $39.50
David Lange called Brockie “the thinking man’s cartoonist”. Which is pretty nice of Lange, considering that Brockie had drawn him on various occasions being pissed on by a giant bulldog, with his head cut off, naked and (very frequently) in drag. Mind you, Lange was far from alone. Robert Muldoon, Jim Bolger, Colin Meads, Kim Dotcom and even Keith Holyoake have all, at various times, been stripped and humiliated by Brockie’s pen, which has been scratching away at public reputations for more than 50 years.
Now in his 80s, Brockie has written a fascinating, heavily illustrated memoir, edited by Ian F Grant and published by the New Zealand Cartoon Archive. Packed with caricatures, personal sketches and entertaining anecdotes, reading Brockie is rather like sitting down with the man himself over a bottle of wine (or several) and listening to him sharing memories and yarns while flicking through a pile of old notebooks and drawings.
“My parents could not draw to save themselves,” Brockie begins, “but they inadvertently pointed me in the right direction.” At four, they enrolled young Robert in a kindergarten where Miss Youngman taught him to draw with pastels, and Brockie’s been drawing ever since. The only time his pen seems to have been stilled was in 1962 when, at the age of 30, Brockie suddenly contracted polio in Palermo, Sicily.
One day I was running along a country railway track and kicking my boys’ football over the house, the next day I was stricken with polio and found myself a quadriplegic, unable to move a muscle, and driven to the Ospedale degli Benfratelli, an isolation hospital for paupers in Palermo. I was unconscious and delirious for days.
It is typical of Brockie that he refuses to dwell on the desperation of the months that followed. Before long, he’s describing the memorable characters who populated his long hospital stay: a handsome young monk “who kept inviting my good-looking sister to visit the gardens at his monastery”, a blind barber who shaved him daily with a cut-throat razor, and the eccentric Doctor Cerrito, who
entertained me and my sister by shooting his pistol out the window of my ground floor ward … . Dr Cerrito once shot a blackbird in the ivy overgrowing the morgue and the bird was served to me for dinner that night – crumbed and deep fried.
It took three months for Brockie to regain enough use of his hands to sketch a grinning Dr Cerrito, pistol and all. And another nine months of “intensive effort” before he was back on his feet and able to return to normal life: “I could actually walk to the bar and order drinks!” And so the adventures resumed.
Born in 1932, Brockie’s story serves as a window on New Zealand over 80 years of cultural change. He remembers his family gathering around the wireless to hear the BBC news. As a schoolboy, he collected scrap to help the war-effort and joined the “joyous crowds milling around Cathedral square” on VJ day. At 18, there was compulsory military training and the revelation of Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male. His student years were spent dissecting animals in the zoology lab, eagerly pursuing girls and exploring the library’s art department, where he discovered a rich history of caricature, from Gustave Doré to Saul Steinberg. Vacation jobs included a milk delivery run to Island Bay with horse and cart, and surveying timber for the Forest Service. In fact, over the years, Brockie has worked for many iconic New Zealand institutions, including school publications, Salient, the DSIR and Te Papa. He played chess with James K Baxter, car-pooled with Davina Whitehouse, had morning teas with Gordon Walters and married Bob Jones’s sister. He witnessed the rise of the underground press (drawing cartoons for the notorious Cock Magazine) and the emergence of ecological science (working for the nascent Animal Ecology Section of the DSIR under Count Kazimierz Wodzicki).
The scale of social change in New Zealand since Brockie began drawing is summed up in the caption of a sketch of Wellington’s iconic drag queen Carmen, who stood for the city’s mayoralty in 1977: “Nearly all the outrageous planks in her policy have since been enacted into law.”
For all the accolades Brockie’s cartooning has earned him over the years, art has never been his main focus. “Art is a frivolous sort of side issue with me,” he recently told Kim Hill; “science is the real stuff”. Dr Robert Brockie (as he is known to academia) is a New Zealand authority on hedgehogs and possums (“my biggest contribution to the world’s knowledge of possums was to calculate that New Zealand swarmed with over 70 million of them”) and led a 25-year landmark study of the ecology of the Orongorongo Valley. Some of the most beautiful drawings in this book are extensions of his scientific work: precise, delicate studies of rats, flowers, fish, spiders and butterflies, some of which appeared in Brockie’s 1992 book, City Nature, a guide to the plants and animals of New Zealand’s urban landscape.
In contrast, his cartoons are brutal and earthy, with little respect for propriety or “good taste”, stripping away the trappings of power to reveal the flawed, ugly humans beneath. Politicians and officials are often drawn naked, in underwear or in drag, swimming in a bucket of poo or sprawled on a couch, desperate to seduce the public, each other, or whoever holds the cash. Bodies are grotesque: flabby, sagging, wrinkled and hairy. Faces scowl and leer, full of insincerity and pompous self-regard.
Then there are the dozens of personal sketches that are my favourite part of this book: elegant palm trees swaying over Hawaii, an intricately decorated houseboat in India, an overgrown woodshed in Hawke’s Bay, a Japanese squid boat at a Wellington wharf, the busy chaos of Italian piazzas, the dense New Zealand bush. Of course, the absurd and grotesque are here, too: a madman on the streets of Bombay, the terrifying matrons of the Wanganui Women’s Guild, Arizona farmers in enormous ten-gallon hats and New Yorkers with pinched faces and thrusting bouffants.
In talking about his cartoons (something he clearly feels uncomfortable doing), Brockie reaches for words like derision, mockery, absurdity. “I am … endlessly entertained by ridiculousness,” he writes. “Cartooning also allows me to let off a bit of steam so I don’t feel so impotent in the face of a preposterous world.”
But perhaps the art and the science aren’t so far apart after all. Whether he’s counting squashed hedgehogs on the road to Kaitaia, mocking a deceitful politician or sketching a lover’s tangled hair, Brockie seems driven by a passionate devotion to observing the world around him exactly as he finds it, in all its scruffy, ridiculous, irresistible, ugly beauty.
Of course, observing is not the same as declaiming, and there are certain details Brockie declines to share. Again and again, he refuses to be drawn into painful introspection (“we’ll draw a veil over those distressing days”), instead consigning significant personal dramas to a wry aside: “For complex reasons that needn’t detain us here I abandoned my Wadestown family and took up residence with an enigmatic probation officer”; “subsequent events, best left unrecorded, resulted in me marrying, in 2004, a remarkable Ukrainian woman.” Brockie even turns a suicide attempt into a short humorous anecdote, complete with a sly, self-mocking punchline.
Such reticence may occasionally leave the reader wishing for more, but it’s only fair to remember: we are sitting here with a stranger, sharing a bottle of wine and a few of his best yarns and stories. He has been a generous, entertaining and intelligent host, and we cannot ask for more than that.
The review of Dylan Horrocks’s latest book, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, from our Spring 2015 issue, is available in the online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.