Pretence and defence, Melinda Johnston

Bromhead: Scratching a Living
Peter Bromhead
Penguin Books, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143574200

In the Cartoon Archive at the Alexander Turnbull Library there is a marvellous ink caricature captioned “The loveable fun-loving Monsieur Bromhead”. Drawn in 2001 by caricaturist Dinah Priestley (a regular contributor to this publication), it shows a well-dressed gentleman with slightly vampire-like teeth. It is a particularly memorable image, where the celebrated cartoonist has himself been caricatured. Good cartoons, like Priestley’s portrait, present their subject in such a convincing manner that, once seen, it’s very hard to see them in any other way. And so, for better or worse, it was this picture that I couldn’t help but imagine as I read Peter Bromhead’s latest book. It’s possible, therefore, that I’ve been unduly influenced by Priestley’s drawing; but, as I read, I began to feel that the mannered, detached quality captured in her cartoon was equally strong in this memoir.

Throughout the text and in the media release and various interviews, Bromhead has been at pains to stress that he doesn’t want to be taken seriously. However, I also sense a desire to set the record straight and, given his very public profile and arguably infamous reputation, it’s reasonable that he would want to tell his side of the story. There certainly seems to be something that compels cartoonists of a certain age to write their memoirs, Bromhead’s book coming hot on the heels of Bob Brockie’s own self-titled text (reviewed in NZB Summer 2015). But, whereas Brockie’s book relied on diaries as memory aids, Bromhead’s media release declares that “rather than a straight autobiography, it’s a quirky mix of storytelling and cartoons”. I wonder whether storytelling is, in fact, the operative word here. The issue of memory is raised early on, Bromhead writing: “I’ve always had a vivid memory and an eye for the quirky.” Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the rather more common phrase “vivid imagination” and when, in the very first chapter, he recalls his christening when he was two months old, I realised that this was a series of humorous adventures, rather than dry history.

As a result, the book is an enjoyable read. I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions as Bromhead leads his readers from his troubled early family life, through his wartime experiences, then on to life in New Zealand and his successful dual careers as a designer and cartoonist. Employing an episodic style, he presents life events, both big and small, in neatly packaged chapters. The picaresque element to several sections provides a fitting literary equivalent to the cartoonist’s role as the truth-speaking rogue, unmasking one and all. Bromhead has noted that “whatever I’ve written, I want people to be amused by it”, and in this he is successful, as he recounts entertaining incidents, such as his surreal meeting with prime minister Keith Holyoake.

The first third of the book is dedicated to Brom-head’s life in England. The stories of his mother’s attempt to kill him by pushing him from the top of a double-decker bus, coupled with nights sheltering during the Blitz, certainly leave a strong impression. Overcoming these early trials, he moved to New Zealand and into cartooning and interior design. Bromhead is evidently proud of having held the role of curator at Auckland Art Gallery and of lecturer at Victoria University, both without school certificate, and there is a sense of him wanting to show how well he’s done. Certainly, the many details of cars purchased, holidays enjoyed, homes built, awards won and salaries earned, leave the reader in little doubt of that.

Overall, though, the book is pervaded by an ironic detachment. Kim Hill prefaced a recent interview by saying that it is “a life of bold adventure in one way or another, in which even failure has been turned into rueful albeit disingenuous entertainment.” Similarly, Michelle Hewitson wrote in the Weekend Herald in 2012 that “he’s reinvented himself, basically from scratch”, further suggesting that “one of his many acts is to pretend he is somebody who just ‘bumbles’ his way through life”, before concluding this is “complete nonsense” and you “can but applaud the performance”. Hewitson’s comments came before this memoir, but they apply equally well to the book, in which Bromhead insists that he fell into various roles.

In line with that pretence, the book begins with a prologue subtitled “How to justify yet another autobiography”, in which he insists that his publisher made him do it. In conjunction with the self-deprecating, deadpan delivery, one wonders whether it is a kind of elaborate defence mechanism, cutting critics off at the pass by showing that he, too, doesn’t take it seriously. Similarly, his insistence that he went from taking three days per cartoon to a process that “often took less than half an hour” suggests a kind of not-bothered attitude that circumvents criticism. However, there is also something about this detachment that fits with one concept of what a cartoonist should be: the indifferent observer, prepared to mock everyone. As if to demonstrate this, the final chapter is opened with a cartoon of Oscar Wilde, paraphrasing his quip that “Life is too important to be taken seriously”. This also fits with Bromhead’s attitude to cartooning itself: “As a cartoonist, I decided early in my career to follow the philosophy of remaining a political eunuch: like a professional assassin, anybody could hire my services to lampoon anything or anybody left or right of the political spectrum.”

Ultimately, it seems that Priestley’s mannered caricature aligns with the Bromhead presented in his memoir. Both offer a portrait that is at once compelling and at one remove. If there is a touch of the vampire about him, then it’s the sort represented by the elegant, but jaded, stars of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. And, given the way the author flirts with his reputation as a so-called ladies’ man and claim to be New Zealand’s oldest father, it’s a title that Bromhead himself would no doubt enjoy. When taken in the prescribed “not serious” dosage, however, the memoir is an enjoyable and funny look back over the long life of one of New Zealand’s most popular cartoonists.


Melinda Johnston is a freelance writer who is currently based in Leipzig, Germany. She holds a PhD in the History of Art from University College London and was previously cartoons librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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