Biting wit, with an undertow of melancholy, Jim Mora

Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir
Tom Scott
Allen and Unwin, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877505911

 

We all store trivial moments that hang around in the hippocampus for some sort of reason. I remember the late Kenny Everett on Capitol Radio in London back-announcing the song “Suspicious Minds” once. “I could have been Elvis”, he mused, “if only I’d had the talent, the looks and the voice.” Many of us who observe politics professionally to any extent have this sort of feeling when we compare our contributions with Tom Scott’s. At the same time, I found in Drawn Out that he and I have a lot in common: origins, experiences, acquaintances and matters of taste. Like him, I laughed at Three Men in a Boat from the very first page, and “Taumarunui On the Main Trunk Line” (though it’s great) has never failed to depress me. There are many opinions of Tom’s in this book. With Everett, whose true genius was in his skill on radio not television, you had to be there for the wit of it, the timing, and the plaintive-perfect voice. That is true of some of Tom’s old material too, now, which he resurrects in this new memoir. He makes good – but some puzzling – calls with the prose he summons from his past, from writings in the various publications that have had him on the payroll.

I still have a copy of his final Masskerade (the Massey University capping magazine). The two gags he reproduces from it are precisely the two that I have always remembered, and would have chosen: his own astonishing and gruesome anti-apartheid cartoon (a young African man with his head chopped off isn’t dead, just “developing separately”), and John Clarke’s hilarious advertisement for a used car dealership owned by Ron Ratbag and Dave Bastard. His capping mags got Tom into major bother with politicians and university authorities. For many young iconoclasts, the mockery of tempora et mores stays in a backwater as they join the mainstream and stop biting hands that feed them. Tom kept biting, and made that a mainstream feature of political commentary. It’s interesting that Three Men in a Boat receives a mention in Drawn Out, because Jerome K Jerome also had a very hard early life, got into trouble as a satirical magazine editor, and his most successful play for the stage was both funny and sad, with its central character a daylight theist.

Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir (and it is) recounts Tom’s entire life to date, and concentrates to a surprising extent on his impoverished upbringing in rural Manawatu. It is admittedly fascinating, this childhood that he remembers to the same astonishing degree that we encountered in Angela’s Ashes. The power of recall is so formidable that it’s a relief when he gets occasional details wrong (Peter Snell never won the mile at the Rome Olympics). His heavy-drinking, much-discussed Dad was handsome, “a youthful Bill Clinton”, but père et fils were destined never to get on, no matter how much latent love there was between them. That we glimpse why there was such deep, enduring tension between father and son without fully understanding it is part of the memoir’s attraction, as Tom tries to work it out in his head and on the pages. A scene, after his dad’s death, when he discovers how literally he was excised from paternal affection, is chilling.

Tom is cursed with a condition he describes as negative buoyancy (he sinks like a stone in water), but its antithesis has been a kind of life buoyancy that has seen him always bounce back from some heavy setbacks. We learn that he plucked wool off dead and bloated sheep to sell, to afford clothes that would make him socially acceptable as a teen; but there were lovely moments of joy, like his cycling home in the dark “guided by starlight on fence wire”. When he does feel very happy, his mouth fills with the taste of butterscotch. He doesn’t name the condition, but Dr Google suggests he was born with something called lexical-gustatory synaesthesia. There have been regular butterscotch moments in that smart mouth (“You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace,” said Frank McCourt), but also the taste of ashes in failed marriages and tribulations that warranted a capital “T”.

It goes without saying that here is an important (often hilarious) writer and immensely gifted cartoonist, insightfully chronicling quite momentous changes in our political and social landscape. I have always regarded Tom Scott as talented even beyond the level of recognition he has received, “a brilliant bunch of guys” as the New Yorker once said of Clive James. In his search for metaphors and similes in this memoir, he reminds me of James, actually. Getting a straight answer out of his father was “like picking up mercury with chopsticks”; MP Joe Walding was “not afraid of a knife and fork”; “people in India don’t drive on the left-hand side of the road so much as favour it slightly”; David Lange “flipped the country over like an old, stained mattress that needed airing.” There are also images that are laboured, like “swimming laps in a pool of my own sorrow” at the news of John F Kennedy’s death, or TVNZ boss Neil Roberts having “more pirate charm than a flotilla of Johnny Depps”. But when Tom is on form he can produce humorous writing as good as anyone using the English language. And he quotes the bon mots of others cheerfully and regularly, which is fun. Glen Campbell, after meeting the Queen, said he had seen her face on stamps so many times he had to fight an urge to lick the back of her head.

I don’t really know Tom (I think I interviewed Glen Campbell at more length); we have conversed via microphones and had an occasional chat in person. I have been much better acquainted with people closer to him, an interested spectator, hearing stories, piecing together my impressions of him from other people’s. Most of us apprehend our politicians in the same sort of second-hand way. He, though, has been very near the centre of power in New Zealand; politics corralled most of his talent for a long time.

He writes superbly on both Norman Kirk and Lange. There is a tragic Kirk anecdote involving a bloody bout of diarrhoea by the side of the road on his way to a function which makes you weep to read it. Lange’s mercurial cleverness and great kindness are described; so are his careless impulsiveness and the hopeful idealism that aroused the suspicions of conservative New Zealanders, like his admission in an early television interview that “these things are emotional and not necessarily coherent, but I can tell you it’s what the Labour party is all about.” Of our major politicians, it was Lange he seems to have been closest to emotionally, and there was communication long after the former prime minister had been “released from the banalities of political theatre”. His account of the highly-publicised feuds between him and Rob Muldoon goes into a satisfying amount of detail, but it’s not just gossip. Both major political gatherings overseas and ruckuses at home are chronicled here, though the memoir loses interest in politics after the Bolger years and concentrates on the successful forays into plays and screenplays.

His cartoons are used sparingly; they have been reproduced in book form before. There are just enough photos to remind us of his travels (including those with Ed Hillary) and triumphs (Footrot Flats et al). There is a grand – now poignant – picture of him with John Clarke at the Melbourne production of The Daylight Atheist.

Tom doesn’t mind chastising fellow cartoonists as well as admiring them. Of Nevile Lodge, for example, he writes “I was never a big fan of his drawing style, or stolid view of the world.” But Lodge’s world in New Zealand then was more stolid than the one Tom drew later, and nor was his milieu politics. Churning out cartoons to order must be a slog and a headache, with an expected miss-rate. Not everything can be top-drawer, as it were. Tom has brilliantly captured many politicians, but less so John Key and (so far) Jacinda Ardern. Having said that, no-one has drawn so many of them better than him, although he himself thinks Murray Webb approaches genius.

This memoir is effusive in its praise of many acquaintances. Tom likes people, and they him. It is unavoidably a name-dropping Who’s Who of New Zealand liberal society across four decades. At the same time, his approach is also dichotomic. A small country inevitably has many secrets diplomatically kept, but he regards as fair game much of the information he has been privy to. There will be the odd person flinching slightly at some of what is recounted. The eras he describes best did still have a degree of stolidity to them, and it takes daring to examine their private parts and workings to the extent he does. There is steel in his pen as well as lead in his pencil. And there are many revelations: I didn’t know he had unwittingly supplied Muldoon with the immortal line about New Zealanders moving to Australia raising the IQs of both countries. (On that subject, I’m still confused as to whether Tom’s dad borrowed “daylight atheist” from Brendan Behan.) Beyond the tributes to many of our creative citizens, it is also good to have acknowledged in a different light the clever contributions to our national discourse of Allan Grant, Jon Gadsby, Barry Soper and many others. The shrewd and adroit Richard Griffin (once mistaken for New Zealand’s prime minister) gets many mentions, and one is a good story about his finesse in smoothly arranging the paraphernalia Sir Edmund Hillary would require to receive the Order of the Garter (page 274 if you’re skimming in the bookshop).

This is a first-class memoir of a highly memorable life, fearlessly chronicled, propelled by high talent, but also by the pain of youthful awkwardness and assorted familial miseries. Its highlights (who wouldn’t be envious of having a seat in the royal box to watch Dire Straits play the Albert Hall?!) are glamorous, but between the reliably witty lines of prose is an early-ordained undertow of melancholy. “We pass this way but once and there are very few happy endings”, he observes, and not just of political lives. The sort of power he was near the centre of is transitory, and to a large extent illusory, but Tom lets us join those dots. He was fascinated enough to choose associate membership of our most colourful club, and will be remembered longer than many of the lives of the members he reported on and drew with such skill. He is not drawn out yet, judging by all recent evidence. My favourite quote in the book? “I have always maintained there is nothing wrong with double standards, as long as they are high.”

Jim Mora is a broadcaster and writer.

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