Drawn Out: an interview with Tom Scott

Cartoonist Tom Scott is one of New Zealand’s most notorious and beloved satirists, and his new book, "Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir", sheds some light on a long career making fun of those in power. Working Life editor Rhydian Thomas sat down with Scott to talk cartoons, comedy and politics.

Tom Scott profile(Photo by Cameron Burnell)

“This is what happens when two Wellingtonians try to organise a meeting in Auckland,” says Scott as we exchange our fourth phone call of the morning on a fraught quest to find a bar to meet on the Viaduct waterfront near where he’s currently staying.

After some negotiation, we find the nearest one and spend the next hour and a half nursing a single pint each of warm, $5 Export Gold while Scott answers my many questions, continuously digressing and meandering off-topic onto issues that are much more interesting than what I’ve asked about.

It’s hard to say much that hasn’t already been written about Scott. Since the 1970s, his columns and cartoons have been appearing with reliable frequency in The Listener, The Dominion Post (and its predecessor, The Evening Post). In his work, he’s a provocateur – he was famously banned from several press conferences and tours by former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon – and in person, he’s light-hearted and jovial, seeming happy enough to peruse the annals of his life after spending the year collecting it all for Drawn Out, his new memoir that covers his early life and career as well as his relationships with friends and collaborators like John Clarke, Murray Ball and Sir Edmund Hillary.

I was staggered at the number of [Muldoon's] Cabinet colleagues who’d sneak up to me in the corridor and congratulate me. It was cathartic even for them.”

Tom Scott cartoonScott is currently getting to grips with drawing the new Prime Minister’s face – the eighteenth PM of his lifetime – but says Muldoon was still his favourite subject, no question. “As a party trick, I can draw Muldoon blindfolded, left-handed.” Taking the notebook from me, he first draws Jacinda Ardern’s face and then closes his eyes, switches hands and draws the familiar face of Muldoon in the margin. “He was so powerful and so dominant,” says Scott. “No other politician has exerted his dominance.” Did that make it easier to take a shot at him? “It meant that if I did a cartoon mocking him, people noticed. I was staggered at the number of his Cabinet colleagues who’d sneak up to me in the corridor and congratulate me. It was cathartic even for them.”

Still, for Scott, the cartoon is not a sacred thing – it has no overall responsibility to hold power to account or offer some particular aesthetic value, though it should be always funny. “Your main job is to fill a little rectangle,” he says. “Without it, there’d be a white space on the editorial pages.” He says a cartoon is a kind of exclamation mark, and you shouldn’t set out thinking it’s going to last – it’s a disposable medium. Though when I ask what his favourite of his cartoons is, he seems humbled that a sketch of his of John Lennon – a basic pencil portrait drawn with visible love and admiration – has survived the test of time, and still regularly appears on bootlegged posters and t-shirts around the world.

On politics, Scott has the distance of a bystander but the knowledge of an insider to Wellington’s ‘beltway’ after years in the Press Gallery. I ask about unionism, and his view on the relevance of unions in today’s age. “It has to be a good thing. The assumption that people always behave properly when left to their own devices is simply not true.” On the PSA, Scott admits that his caricature of a public servant remains “people in walk-shorts… wearing high socks, pens tucked into the pocket… it probably vanished long ago. But you have to resort to the vocabulary people understand in cartoons.” He has a vague suspicion that he’s drawn for this very publication, but can’t remember (a look at the archives reveals that yes, he has appeared in several issues during the 80s and 90s).

Scott is clearly still driven in some way by political concerns: “The gap between rich and poor has grown faster in New Zealand in the last twenty years than any other OECD country, and there’s certainly been an erosion of workers’ rights. And turning Government departments into State Owned Enterprises is a stepping stone to selling them… it’s a huge racket,” he says.

He began an accidental career in cartooning by drawing anti-Vietnam war comics in 1965, eventually moving into protest against Apartheid during his university years. “When I was growing up, I definitely wanted to change peoples’ opinions,” he says. “I was an evangelist… I’m evangelical about environmental issues now.” Today he worries about bees and winged insects, rising sea levels, water quality and population displacement. “It’s an even bigger issue. You think about your grandchildren and wonder what kind of world they’ll be growing up in.”

I ask about the impact of the lives and deaths of two of his close friends, Murray Ball and John Clarke, both of whom died earlier this year. “I could have called my book ‘Dead bastards I used to know’,” he jokes. “Murray escaped Feilding – a bit like a prisoner of war going over the wall – and you wonder what happened to them. Suddenly we get a postcard from England, and he’s been published in Punch magazine. If Murray Ball from Feilding could get published in Punch magazine, then we all could! And John (Clarke) was just an extremely funny man who I was thrilled to become friends with… the legend preceded him.”

Scott is enjoying his time in Auckland at the moment and drawing day-to-day cartoons while continuing work on six or seven other projects in film and writing. “I miss Wellington, but I love the pastel light up here,” he says. I ask if he’s learned anything about himself in writing this memoir, but he’s evasive. “Cartoonists are the worst kind of people. You don’t pick your subject matter; it’s happening all around you. We’re the only ones rubbing our hands together in glee every time there’s a tragedy, a disaster, a heartbreak… we’re one step removed from ambulance-chasers.” With our pints finished, the future is waiting for us outside the barroom. “The bad news is I intend to live a lot longer,” he says. “Sorry about that, folks.”