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Animated conversation between Geoff Pryor and Michael McKernan

National Museum of Australia, 14 December 2008

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Good afternoon, I’m Michael McKernan and this is Geoff Pryor. I don’t review the books of friends. I think it’s a very sensible principle to operate on because you will never tell the truth. ‘They happen to be friends. How could the book be bad?’ And I don’t have conversations with my friends publicly, except today.

Geoff and I have been friends since we met in delightful circumstances on the way to Gallipoli for the return of those Australian veterans of the Gallipoli campaign who were returned by the Australian government in 1990. My good friend Bill Gammage, who is in the audience, said to me, ‘I know somebody else going on that trip.’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘Geoffrey Pryor’. I said ‘Oh’ and I knew that Geoffrey was the cartoonist for the Canberra Times because I had been living in Canberra for quite some time already. Bill Gammage said, ‘He’s quite a nice bloke.’ So I thought that’s a head start.

I was travelling with the artist Clifton Pugh. We got onto the plane, found our seatings and sat down, and the fellow in front of us was Geoffrey Pryor. He turned around and introduced himself. It took the organisers longer to get the plane loaded with the old gentlemen, because the oldest of them turned 102 on Anzac Day so they weren’t spring chickens. It took somewhat longer than they had anticipated getting them on the plane, so the plane sat on the ground for quite some time.

Another cartoonist in the union of cartoonists spotted Mr Pryor sitting there and came along very surreptitiously to him and leant over and whispered something to us. I didn’t know he was a cartoonist. To my way of thinking he was a Qantas steward.

GEOFF PRYOR: Which he was.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Which he was - he was a part-time cartoonist, Mark Lynch. He whispered something to Geoffrey, and Geoffrey turned around and said, ‘And for my two friends too.’ Then I realised that cartoonists were the sort of people I liked, because Mark Lynch was suggesting that a drink could be had before the plane took off because it was such a long time in getting off. That is the first and only time I have ever been on a 747 and drinking before we even had wheels up.

So I decided that Mark Lynch was obviously a good bloke and Bill Gammage had said that Geoffrey Pryor was a good bloke and he turned out to be a good bloke. We travelled the Gallipoli Peninsula together in great war, I think. We have travelled together in a journey around conversations for quite some time. So when I was asked would I converse with Geoffrey Pryor, I said, ‘What’s new?’ Here’s Geoffrey Pryor, and I have made my confession. Geoffrey, good afternoon.

GEOFF PRYOR: Good afternoon, Michael.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Geoffrey retired after 30 years at the Canberra Times in February of this year; is that correct?

GEOFF PRYOR: That’s right.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: And here we are celebrating those 30 years and some of the work that Geoff has done is on display further down the hallway. I was looking at it as we walked along here. It’s delightful to see people standing in front of your work - some of which we are seeing behind us - and chuckling. I thought to myself: it must be a very rich life that gives someone the opportunity of doing something that makes people feel better about the world on a daily basis. Is that how you saw it?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, I did. I always drew them for the readers rather than for the subjects, the politicians. I always felt it was the benefit of the readers. I had gone through lots of agony and struggles within to unknot complicated political issues to be able to render them in drawings. I hoped that the reader would perhaps appreciate the process and maybe come to similar conclusions from looking at the drawings.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: For the bulk of your working life you were doing seven cartoons a week?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Which is unlike any other Australian cartoonist in a major metropolitan paper - most of them would do five or six.

GEOFF PRYOR: That’s right. Newspapers like any other form of media are desperate for content and muggins volunteered for it, so that’s how it happened. The Sunday one evolved into a large panel which took up half of a whole broadsheet page and which was a summary of the week’s events. That became tortuous over time because not much could be happening during the week but that space still had to be filled, and indeed that was the same with any working day.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Just describe your working day: how did we get a drawing next day to look at, chuckle over and be enriched by?

GEOFF PRYOR: I could say a lot of prayer, but that wasn’t the case. I would start the day normally at about six in the morning with the first news bulletins on ABC. Our house has radios in just about every room. As I progress through the house making coffee, going to the bathroom or whatever, another radio would be switched on so I could have this continuous unbroken stream of radio news. It always took me three or four bulletins to be fully conscious of them. It was a slow process. It was just picking up on what had happened the previous evening and what was developing for the day.

That would be followed over breakfast and after breakfast by a couple of newspapers which I get delivered at home, and then listening to hourly bulletins. I am a complete news junkie. I got to the stage where some inner clock would make me reach out and turn on the radio during the day and I would get the ABC radio news theme right on the hour. I just knew. It just happened.

Then The World Today at lunchtime and then into work in the afternoon at about two or three, talking to people, having a long chat with Jack Waterford my editor and then senior editor about issues and events happening in the world, trying to pin a few things down. I reckon by about five or six in the afternoon I would be starting to try to put an idea together in my head. I knew that was about the time. There would be little point in starting before then because often if I had an idea too early in the day the news could change throughout the day, and I would be left with a drawing which I would have to chuck.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Did you ever have to do that, to just pull one out?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, I did. At first when the news changed I had to throw it away if I had drawn it. I grew smarter in time and sometimes I realised if I just changed it from a positive to a negative I could still use the original idea but just tweak it slightly.

But the rule of the day - working in the media you discover that the news is fixed by about six in the evening if the politicians are in control, because that means they have time for their press conferences, for the electronic journalists to make their packages up for their evening bulletins, for the ABC a little bit later, and indeed for the print media.

If the news was breaking after that at six or seven or eight in the evening, then it was a pretty clear indication that events were out of the control of the politicians. It might mean a leadership spill or whatever. So you would be in for a late night but a fun night because these were nights of high drama. They were fun. This is what working for a newspaper was all about: late breaking news. If somebody got assassinated, the Pope died or anything of note happened, it was one occasion where people didn’t mind being woken up in the middle of the night to come back in and put out a special edition. This is the essence of working for a newspaper.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: You didn’t work out of Parliament House?

GEOFF PRYOR: I gave it a lot of thought at one stage. I was going to lift everything from my office at work and go over there - I felt that there was an advantage of being there - but that would have been the Old Parliament House and it was hopelessly tight for space. I didn’t see much advantage later on in the new House. In fact, it was easier to stay back at Fyshwick, although I would occasionally wander into the House and see the ‘animals in the zoo’, so to speak, see them in the flesh, which is very useful because you get to see body shapes. If you are sitting above looking down, you get to see who is becoming tonsorially disadvantaged over time. I remember Paul Keating looking down and Paul would be doing a lot of this [gestures]. I think I took a little bit of delight, which I was perfectly entitled to, in indicating this in my drawings with little arrows pointing to his balls.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Yes, you did that. That was a cruel part - GEOFF PRYOR: I felt why not.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: When you were drawing Keating, Hawke or Howard, in that case you weren’t drawing from life, you were drawing from memory or from photographs you have of them or something like that, because you are not at Parliament House.

GEOFF PRYOR: I always started off with photos to build up a caricature, a likeness. To me, with my style, the likeness was the key thing. I couldn’t see the point of doing a convoluted drawing trying to make a point if nobody could recognise the people in it, so they had to look like the characters. Sometimes some were not quite as close to the mark as others, but there was always a genuine attempt to get that likeness.

I would start off with a photo and then hopefully after the first outing with the photos - we have an extensive pictorial library just next door to where I worked, and of course now there is Google image so there is no shortage of resources - I would throw the photo away and work from the memories of those first drawings. There would be a process of working from the memory of that and the memory of that. It was a good thing to get away from the photos because caricatures were always evolving things.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: They all grew, didn’t they? I mean, Howard grew uglier and uglier.

GEOFF PRYOR: They all grew uglier.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: The bottom lip got bigger and bigger.

GEOFF PRYOR: That’s right. And that became the challenge in a way, because it was such a dominant and recognisable feature that it had to dwarf other parts of the face in the physical drawing of it, so gradually the chin vanished altogether. This happened with most politicians, particularly leaders, because they age in front of your eyes. It’s a bit like the boiling frog -

MICHAEL McKERNAN: So were you constantly updating them?

GEOFF PRYOR: Not constantly, but I would be alert for little changes. I noticed with somebody like Hawke that he developed a little bit of a dowager’s hump over time. As I say, he scrawned up, scrawned down even, and became smaller and wiry. He sort of lost a little bit of his athletic springiness, but I think it’s the life they lead. Their appointment books are filled years in advance. I think they never get enough sleep and are always under stress or pressure of some sort - or they should be. I don’t know, I think Ronald Reagan had people who he transferred stress to.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: I remember looking at photographs of airmen who flew over Europe in the [Australian War] Memorial collection and looking at their drawn and tight and taut faces and how old they looked. And then looking at those same men six months after they had finished flying in war and thinking how much younger they looked. The same thing it seemed to me happened with Malcolm Fraser. Malcolm Fraser by the end of his prime ministership looked terribly old, didn’t he?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, he did.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: And he was your first Prime Minister?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Let’s go back to the start, Geoff. You were born in Canberra?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, born, raised and educated in Canberra.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: So from an early age, say about five or six, you said to yourself, ‘I am going to be the cartoonist on the Canberra Times. That is my life’s ambition. That is where all my education is leading me and my whole direction of life is that.’ It was a brave decision, wasn’t it?

GEOFF PRYOR: It’s a brave story too. I had always drawn. That was the part that was always with me. It was in my genes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: What does that mean? Were you drawing rural scenes or?

GEOFF PRYOR: I was drawing people, the human form.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Your Mum and Dad, your brothers and sisters?

GEOFF PRYOR: Fictitious people. I could fill a whole page with mouths or with ears or with eyes, and with people doing things. I was particularly taken by sportspeople, people in action. It was just something that had seized me from the very beginning. So I was never frightened of drawing a figure in a cartoon. They were like plastic models. I felt that I could make them perform whatever physical action that the idea, the metaphor, required of them.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: You just picked up a pencil or a pen and you knew you could draw.

GEOFF PRYOR: Well, that’s the way it felt. It was a sort of natural connection between mind and hand. I struggled and got frustrated when it didn’t work out.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Were you taught? Did you have art lessons?

GEOFF PRYOR: No. But I did have a grandfather who was a cartoonist.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Talk a bit about your grandfather.

GEOFF PRYOR: Oswald Pryor lived in Adelaide. He had been born and raised in Moonta, which is in the copper triangle on the Yorke Peninsula with the big copper loads, the copper mines in that area, Wallaroo and so forth. He had a drawing talent. He became a cartoonist in his own right and became quite well known to particularly in the Cornish community in Moonta of which there was quite a few. In fact, in his later life and after he became better remembered in Cornwall than he did in Australia. But when he was living in Adelaide after about 1920, he was actually drawing for the old red cover Bulletin. He was the South Australian agent for the Bulletin. He swapped cartoons with his confrères at the time - David Low, Lindsay Souter and these old artists from the Bulletin days - as we cartoonists do today. I have a collection of my contemporaries at home. On the rare occasions that I visited Adelaide I would look at these cartoons on his wall, particularly a low one, and I would just look at it and think, ‘I wonder if I will ever be able to draw like that’, it was so brilliant in my mind. So I think that fixed something deep inside that pushed me along.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Nature or nurture?

GEOFF PRYOR: A bit of both.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Do you think the ability to draw is inherited?

GEOFF PRYOR: People who teach other people to use the other side of their brains will say that anybody can draw, and I think that they can if they follow these programs. They learn a new way of looking at things - not allow the brain to interfere but just to try to express what they observe. Yes, they can. But it’s a bit like playing a musical instrument. Some people say that they will never learn, that they have got a tin ear and no musical ability. If they battle away they will play Chopsticks on a piano or something.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: It’s said some people can’t sing.

GEOFF PRYOR: I gather so, yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: You began at the Canberra Times in 1978 so there’s a bit of a gap. You went to the ANU [Australian National University] and then you were overseas for a while.

GEOFF PRYOR: I did my first public drawings at the ANU as a failing undergraduate in the 1960s. I was a law student, which is about the worst possible thing I could have been. I used to pay my way to faculty balls by doing caricatures of the faculty staff. These were done on butchers' paper and hung up around the walls with all the decorations. These were pinched or sold off during the evening. But my payment was to attend and have all the booze I could handle, I guess.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: What a very nice life. So you could see this was going to be an enriching activity, this cartooning caper.

GEOFF PRYOR: And around about that time also I freelanced at the Canberra Times as a press artist, which didn’t involve much freehand drawing but it involved doing things like putting the names of racehorses in the finishing line photos and drawing maps. I remember the pictorial editor at the time had a penchant for doctoring photos which I did because I was told to but these days I would have serious doubts about it. They were things like, ‘Well Geoff, I think we need to get rid of this person in the photo because they don’t add anything to it.’ So using tone paints which were a water-based paint in shades of grey I would paint the bricks of the house behind over this person. ‘Gee, I could swear I was standing next to my wife. She’s there but where the hell am I?’ That’s a process that raises ethical questions.

But then when I dropped out of uni and was a little bit in disarray about where my future lay, that is when I decided to go overseas.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Let’s skip the time in Canada. So you came back to Australia. How did you go from coming back to Australia to becoming the Canberra Times cartoonist?

GEOFF PRYOR: The time in Canada is important because my brother would write to me.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: We won’t skip the time in Canada then.

GEOFF PRYOR: Only to say this. He wrote to me on one occasion to say that Larry Pickering had left the Canberra Times.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Did Pickering go to The Australian?

GEOFF PRYOR: The National Times. He stayed. The Canberra Times was Fairfax so he moved within the Fairfax stable to the National Times and after to The Australian.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: So your brother wrote to you and said there is an opening.

GEOFF PRYOR: Well he said that this Pickering bloke - he’d been sending me his cartoons - ‘He’s really good and popular but he’s leaving.’ I had expressed an interest in making a career out of it then. It was then I formed the ambition to come back to Canberra and become the cartoonist on the Canberra Times, which is a pretty daring sort of thing to do because if I bombed it was going to be pretty public in the place where I was born and raised.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: When you got that slot and there’s that space in the paper every day that has to be filled, you really didn’t have a huge body of work behind you that had been published?

GEOFF PRYOR: No. I had freelanced as an illustrator for a couple of years while I was doing a BA at the ANU, and that work grew and grew the more they started to rely on it and it really started to impinge on my studies. I was a mature age student at that stage. But when I graduated finally in 1978 I said to Ian Mathews who was the editor then, ‘I need a job and you need a cartoonist. How about it?’ Thankfully he said yes. I think there was something about my style that he liked. There was something a bit English about it. There was a lot of drawing, a bit like [Ronald] Giles or some of the cartoonists there.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Do you think it is easier to be a cartoonist in Canberra to an audience that is perhaps more politically alert than it would be in places where politics aren’t part of the way we live?

GEOFF PRYOR: That’s a very interesting point, because it was precisely that which gave me so much pain and agony when I was starting, always trying to pitch my comments at a level which I thought needed to be sophisticated enough for the Canberra reader. Canberrans are the most highly educated people in the country, the most knowledgeable and the most newspaper reading. On a drive through any of the inner suburbs you could see several tree trunks lying on people’s driveways on a Saturday morning in the form of rolled-up newspapers. So, yes, getting hold of the policy issues that I was trying to comment on and getting the right handle on it, understanding them, it was important to me that I wasn’t being too crude or pitching it at too low a level.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: We’ve got good friends in Sydney and from time to time when [Alan] Moir was on leave, you were also in the Sydney Morning Herald.

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: This is before they became good friends of yours. They used to say, ‘Geoffrey Pryor’s cartoons are interesting but I don’t always get them.’ Because they’re intelligent people and you know who I am talking about, it seemed to me there was a difference in perception. In Canberra you could do things - we’re all in the know a bit or is that taking it too far?

GEOFF PRYOR: Can you give me their names? One of the things about being born and growing up in Canberra and being educated here is that I had friends who had progressed through the bureaucracy, some of them in fairly hothouse policy development areas. I had one in Defence and I could ring him up at different times when I felt that I needed more information. I remember a certain person I would ring up if there was an issue involving the War Memorial.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: There never were. It was a quiet and restful backwater.

GEOFF PRYOR: I had this advantage of proximity of expertise which I wouldn’t have had in Sydney or Melbourne. It is something I value very much.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: It is very difficult to wander down a street or be in a restaurant with Geoff because somebody will know him on about a five-minute basis and come over and talk to him. We were having lunch in a restaurant in Manuka out on the footpath the other day and a bloke came over and I thought to myself oh yes, here we go again it will be ‘Hi Geoff, how are you and we’ll have 15 minutes on being at school together and all that sort of stuff’, and Geoff didn’t know this bloke from a bar of soap. But what he wanted to talk to Geoff about was that hat and where he bought it because he said, ‘It’s a jolly fine hat.’ It’s the only time I have been out with Geoff when it wasn’t a friend who had interrupted the conversation.

We will just do a few issues, Geoff, and then we might open it up to people to raise questions with you and join in the conversation. The first one that has always struck me and I think it is even more prominent now than it has been thanks to the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, and that’s the question of plagiarism. People talk about plagiarism much more now, don’t they, than they used to? But it seems to me that given there is only a very few cartoonists on metropolitan papers, one of the things you would have to be very wary of was looking at other people’s work too much because a gag they did might be a gag you wanted to use or could shape your thinking about an issue. How much were you alert to the dangers of plagiarism?

GEOFF PRYOR: I was alert to that. I rigorously checked the other newspapers. We didn’t file them all on our stack but enough of them. I remember on one occasion, I think it was a Friday and I was desperate to get out. I was tired after a long week, and as a last gasp going over to the stack to see what a cartoonist from another paper had done - I had seen all the others - I found that he had already used the idea that I was going to use in our paper the next day, so I had to rip up my idea.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: And start again?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, start again.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Did it ever happen quite unintentionally that two of you had done the same thing?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes. I remember that David Rowe and I did almost identical cartoons for I think it was Clinton’s second inauguration when he’s taking the oath and the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court is leaning towards him and saying to him sotto voce, ‘Your fly is undone.’ We both had the same cartoon. The problem was that David had had his on the Tuesday and I had mine on the Wednesday, and I just hadn’t seen the Financial Review, so this was an accident. What I did was to ring him up and apologise and explain that it was a mistake. Of course, David didn’t care at all; he’s that sort of bloke. Mostly people don’t, because I don’t believe there is deliberate plagiarism.

I think what happens is that there is only a certain number of metaphors floating around to describe a situation and people just happen to hit on the same metaphor. I have had phone calls over the years and this voice on the other end would say ‘snap’, and it would be Alan Moir who had chosen exactly the same metaphor and theme for his cartoon that day.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Are you all good friends? Is it a sort of club?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes. Cartoonists - we’re a bit like warriors, we share the same stretch of trench. We go through the same anxieties, the same pressures of deadline. When we get together we exchange war stories. There is very little bitchiness that goes on, perhaps about enough that warrants people in a creative profession. But at get togethers like the Black and White Artists’ Society annual award functions, I think they are remarkable for the friendliness amongst everybody. The interesting thing is that because of styles, different levels of understanding, different approaches, everybody comes in laterally from their own level, their own angle. Nobody is better than anybody else; we’re just different.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Very different in styles sometimes.

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, and type of comment. Some subjects are obligatory and a good example is budget day. There are lockups all over the country and cartoonists go in along with the journalists and have to dream up a comment. It’s a very anxious time because you have this document and lots and lots of fact. The first question is: do I attempt to globalise the comment and try to encapsulate the whole of the budget document and all of its thrust; or do I pick on one part here - a tariff change or whatever the issue might have been - and focus on that? The next day you could go around the nation’s press and just see what all the cartoonists had done and the way that they had approached it.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Would they all be in the lockup? Do they come to Canberra for that?

GEOFF PRYOR: No, they have their own lockups in their capitals. But I could always rely on Peter Nicholson. He would always come. It’s a good chance to get away from their office for a bit of a junket. There is a good nosh-up at the end of the day.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Is there?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: So you’re only really in it for the food?

GEOFF PRYOR: Oh yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: And drink?

GEOFF PRYOR: Absolutely.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: The second issue is the question of good taste. You are, and so many people in the audience would know you, a very kind and very generous man. You’re a good father and a wonderful husband. All these things go without saying. But you can be the meanest bastard on the face of the earth. When say somebody like Paul Keating, who relentlessly you drew as the Sun King and who got more extravagant as you thought he got more arrogant, how do you then meet him in Abeles record store in Manuka and say ‘Oh, goodday Paul, how are you going’?

GEOFF PRYOR: Tentatively. The smarter ones or the wiser ones know that it goes with the territory; it’s the job. As for taste, I love bad taste of the Monty Python sort. If it’s intelligent bad taste, I can’t get enough of it. I was quite happy to censor myself for prurience and was always conscious that it was a family newspaper. There is no point in trying to get past the editor on those sorts of issues, although I did try on one or two occasions if I thought the idea was good enough.

For instance, Peter Nicholson did the one that everybody still talks about - Gough and Margaret in China when the earthquake happened, ‘Darling, did the earth move for you?’ That’s one of the Australian classics. I wouldn’t hesitate with a cartoon like that to try to sneak that one past, it’s such a damn good idea. But with taste generally, I always found it awkward in watching out for gratuitously insulting people, although I must admit I was a little bit slack at times on other people’s religious beliefs. I remember getting into trouble for drawing a cartoon after India exploded their atomic bomb of Ganesh raising an arm to the world with the elephant’s head and with the trunk straight up too. I got criticised for mocking the Hindu religion. That was something that hadn’t occurred to me. To me, to my callow mind, I had always thought the figure of Ganesh, a human with an elephant’s head, was slightly absurd, but they don’t think so.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Right. One of the things that every cartoonist will have to deal with is the death of a celebrity or a political leader. Death is something that you are always going to comment on - GEOFF PRYOR: Death and disaster.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Your method with death often was to have the pearly gates and St Peter, scroll out, sins and omissions to be registered, good things done. There will be families in grief when somebody has died. It would that would be an issue of taste, wouldn’t it? There would be some things that you would have to pull back on. We don’t need to go to Billy Snedden but you have an idea of what I am thinking about.

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, although I call those ones the pearly gaters where somebody is a celebrity or well up in the public eye. I think those comments could be made without too much worry because they are people who have put themselves as performers or politicians or whatever in the public eye. They have done it all their lives and have benefited from it in one way or another, so their death shouldn’t go unremarked in the same way perhaps.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: But sometimes that is not quite the case, is it? Take a literary figure - did you do a pearly gater when Manning Clark died, for example?

GEOFF PRYOR: I probably did. But I remember one of the last I did was of [Marcel] Marceau, the mime. He is standing at the entrance and St Peter is going throughout register, ‘Marcel Marceau, well why didn’t you say so?’ To me, that’s not.

There was one I didn’t get to draw because I was away at the time, but when Kerry Packer died I was going to do the funeral scene with an enormous coffin maybe five storeys high and somebody in the congregation saying, ‘He’s taking it with him.’ I never got to draw it but I would have drawn that and I wouldn’t have let the taste worry me.

Where the taste is difficult is with something that is of immense tragedy such as September 11 and the trade towers. Cartoonists have different ways of dealing with those. There are those who do the mawkish ones of New York: endless cartoons of the Statue of Liberty with the tear rolling down the cheek and so forth, which I couldn’t come to. I can’t remember what I did but I think it had a slightly political edge.

But one of the hardest most difficult ones in those circumstances was the Tasmanian Port Arthur massacre where the tally just kept - I turned it into a gun issue and just had a silhouette of a military assault rifle. I can’t remember the context but I kept adding to them as the body count kept rising through the night. It was meant to be a telling comment and it was meant to be serious, but funnily enough the problem with doing these sorts of cartoons is that there are readers out there who have a different understanding of the role of the cartoonist. They think it is to make a gag or a funny joke out of the day’s proceedings. And for a cartoonist to even begin to address an issue like that, they think is disgraceful and bad taste just on those grounds alone.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: On that alone?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, on that alone.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: I suppose religion, sex - they are all likely to be questions of taste, aren’t they? One of my favourite cartoons of yours was in the Sunday morning paper during the bushfires and I think it arose from your own experience because I know that you and Jan went off to see what you could do at evacuation centres.

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, at Narrabundah.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: You had a drawing of Canberra people streaming into like a hall at Narrabundah or something like that carrying mattresses, food and helping out. I can’t remember what the tag line was.

GEOFF PRYOR: I think the tag line was the soul of Canberra - no, Canberra the soul-less city or something like that.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: You must have done that like that. Nobody had time that night for anything much more than concern for their own family and concern for the city. That must have been a terribly difficult one to do, and yet you got it so right.

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, trying to find the right line, the right point at which to come in. I had been down on the Saturday night at Narrabundah College. We took a couple of bits of bedding down. They were desperate for mattresses and we had a bit lying around at home: We took it down and I was just amazed and astounded at the people just streaming in carrying mattresses, blankets and bottled water - everything they could manage. This was such a counter impression to what people were saying about the city and what Paddy McGuinness -

MICHAEL McKERNAN: - famously said very shortly afterwards, yes. In your role on the Canberra Times, how much did you think you should be involved in local issues as against national politics?

GEOFF PRYOR: This was always a problem for me. I tried to maintain a mix of international, national and local. Funnily enough, international really meant American. They were about the only international politics, apart from wars in which we were involved but that involved the Americans too. American politics were the only international politics which impinged on our own. One rarely commented on goings on in Britain, whereas there was a time when that would have been the major focus.

Nationally, well that was the main game, of course. Locally, I always tended to overlook it; I always found it difficult to make the effort to lift the lid. That was my fault: I had always regarded the Assembly as a bit of sheltered workshop, which was unfair because it is not at all. There is a huge budget at play there, and it is important. But it’s very difficult to come to grips with it. David Pope seems to have no problem. I saw he did a very nice drawing during the week of a young opposition member’s maiden speech, which I wouldn’t have bothered with. But he did a good job.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: It was a very powerful cartoon, wasn’t it? He was extraordinarily critical.

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Which gets on to the next issue - thank you, we are rolling along through these issues very nicely.

GEOFF PRYOR: We segue in nicely here.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Do you reckon your readers - what do we call them, your viewers, your?

GEOFF PRYOR: Readers, yes, certainly not audience. They keep talking about the media’s audience.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Do you think they would know or think they knew your political opinions?

GEOFF PRYOR: Pretty much, I think. I tried to kid myself that I was being neutral. I was trying to leave the reader guessing. I think on some issues I succeeded perhaps. But there is not much chance because a cartoonist is in the position of being a paid knocker, a professional knocker. I was paid to be against the government. That was my job. I used to worry about balance, and the editor said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it will balance out over time over years,’ and it did. But when you have a government of one persuasion in power for 11 years people are going to take the view that you are pretty left wing because you seem to want to hammer it every day.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: They are not necessarily your opinions then.

GEOFF PRYOR: Largely I think, yes. I settled down into my position in the political spectrum and stopped worrying about it.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: But how do cartoonists get away with it? It is inconceivable that you could have been on the ABC because then the question of balance would come in very much more heavily.

GEOFF PRYOR: Well Phillip Adams -

MICHAEL McKERNAN: The rest of the ABC - it doesn’t matter. We’re not here to talk about the ABC.

GEOFF PRYOR: No, I know, point taken.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Did people ring you up? It is said if a journalist wrote a critical piece about Keating, he would ring up and blast the bloke for 45 minutes or whatever - I think Alan Ramsey was writing about that last weekend. Did people ring you up and say, ‘I don’t look anything like that’ or ‘I wouldn’t ever say that or do that’ or did they all just go along with the gag?

GEOFF PRYOR: I think they go along with it. I don’t think politicians pay much attention to the content of cartoons. That is my own opinion. A cartoon is never going to change any political minds.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: But it can, can’t it? Look at Norman Lindsay’s cartoons in the First World War - he shaped the way Australians thought of the Hun.

GEOFF PRYOR: Well, I think they shaped the readers.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: No, he shaped the politicians, that’s my own feeling.

GEOFF PRYOR: I didn’t get very much feedback from the political leaders at all. I got a request once or twice from Keating. I did a series of him and Hawke as the Blues Brothers. It just seemed to be a natural fit and he wanted the original, the first one. I used to get requests from Ian Sinclair for originals, and he was a bit of an old tart cartoon collector. I didn’t mind: the worse I tried to make them, the keener he was to get the original.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Maybe so that it wouldn’t go into the National Museum or the National Library and be on display forever.

GEOFF PRYOR: But you see politicians are in an invidious position here because they can’t afford to complain, certainly not of being offended. If they ring you up and say, ‘I didn’t like that, I thought that was most unfair and I didn’t like the way you drew me.’ The obvious riposte is, ‘I’m terribly sorry I offended you. I will make sure I don’t do one of you again.’ ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean it.’

MICHAEL McKERNAN: In the annual [Behind the Lines] show here of the cartoons for the year, the first section in that show is ‘sorry he’s left us’, which is cartoonists regretting the demise of Howard because he was such a drawable person. They say that all cartoonists, particularly in Victoria but possibly around Australia, went into six months’ grief when Henry Bolte retired because he was the obvious person to caricature. Who was the person you least liked drawing and who was the person you most liked drawing?

GEOFF PRYOR: The least liked were the youngest politicians. I can’t think of any individual, but the ones who were so young that they hadn’t been around long enough to develop character in their presence. Somebody like Michael Lee comes to mind, somebody who Jack Waterford described as ‘having risen without a trace’. It wasn’t original but it was very apt. I always had trouble coming to grips with a face like that.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Why? Because there aren’t the lines or the angularity?

GEOFF PRYOR: That’s right. There is not the angularity of personality either. It’s also the persona. When you are drawing people you have to deal with issues which are difficult and which are sort of abstract concepts. For example, talking about a person’s stature, that means his or her presence to others, how people see them, their level of standing within their political community. Stature is an abstract concept. How do you do it? Quite simply, if you don’t think they have much stature you draw them small. In the same way, even in cartoons like Tom and Jerry and others, when somebody is represented as being hugely brainy like the rocket scientist, the mad scientist, he has a huge head on a small body; or the idiot giant who has a tiny head on the huge body. If somebody has small spirit, small stature, and that’s the way you think of them for one reason or another, you draw them small compared to the populations of others within the cartoon. It just so happens that that’s the way I had always thought of John Howard.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: That was the way I was thinking of too.

GEOFF PRYOR: And by coincidence it’s the way every cartoonist in the country saw him. They detected something about the man that he had a smallness of spirit.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Because he wasn’t tiny -

GEOFF PRYOR: I remember once talking to Janette Howard at a function years ago when John Howard was on the opposition front bench back in the Hewson days, and Janette Howard said, ‘You cartoonists, why do you always draw my husband so short? You know that he is taller than Bob Hawke,’ which he was. I remember thinking - lips don’t unpurse. How can I explain this to Janette? Where do I start?

MICHAEL McKERNAN: That was a very good explanation. It’s a pity Mrs Howard wasn’t here, because you gave us a very good understanding. The person you liked drawing the most, is that possible?

GEOFF PRYOR: I always liked drawing Hawke. There was a time when everybody was walking around the Canberra Times news room when Max Gillies was at the height of his fame. The reason I liked Hawke was that he had a whole plethora of features any one of which you could have hung a caricature on. He had the eyebrows that were arched. He had the great bouffant of silver hair, the squeezed-up lower features which gave him the down-curved mouth - you could have used any one of those. In fact, you could have just drawn the eyebrows, nose and a mouth and even left the hair off and people would have known that you were drawing Hawke. And Howard in that same way his template, his model, became simplified and even more simplified. In the end he sort of became a round ball with a fringe of hair, eyebrows and a lip that stuck out. That was basically it.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Attractive features. So 30 years, 365 cartoons a year -well no, you used to take holidays, I suppose.

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, but I used to double up on occasions and do pockets.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: There must be thousands and thousands of cartoons that you have done. Which is your favourite?

GEOFF PRYOR: I somehow knew this was going to be asked. My favourite cartoon was the one I drew on 28 February 2008, my last day.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Do you miss it?

GEOFF PRYOR: I don’t miss the daily grind, not at all. When I see the government now doing its bit, the thought of following Wayne Swan around and trying to pin him down just appals me.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: It should be said that earlier in the year Geoff and I flew to New York and then with a friend sailed back from New York to Sydney on a container ship, and every morning after breakfast Geoff would come out with his sketchbook ready to do the day’s drawing.

GEOFF PRYOR: I haven’t forgotten that.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: You obviously still love drawing?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes, I do. That was the best part of the whole deal. My day for 30 years could be divided into two parts, BI and PI: BI was before idea, which was tortuous. It could happen in the shower in the morning which meant that I was on holiday for the rest of the day, or it could take all day almost up to the time when I had to start worrying about deadline pressures. But once I had developed the idea and it was always an image in my mind, I knew what the metaphor was going to be, then the lead helmet would lift and I’d be into PI, which was post idea mode. That was the technical problem of drawing it and solving it on the sheet of drawing board, and that was fun. That was the best part of the day. That presented no fears. It was the fear of finding the right idea that was the hard part.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: So that pressure is not there any more?

GEOFF PRYOR: No.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: So I don’t need to ask you why you retired.

GEOFF PRYOR: I thought 30 years was quite long enough.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: I think 30 years is a very good innings. Are there any questions from people who wish to join into the conversation?

QUESTION: Just following on from that last little bit: did you ever have a day where there was no idea and I wonder if there was a cartoon about the ‘nothing happened today possibility’?

GEOFF PRYOR: There were days when nothing happened. There used to be times before we moved into an age of election campaigns that never end - thank you, Mr John Howard - when the politicians would all leave in the winter recess and would migrate like geese to the Northern Hemisphere, which is a funny thing to do because the Northern Hemisphere politicians would migrate in other directions so one can only suppose what they were going to see. But those were days when there was very little happening but the space still had to be filled.

I could never go into the editor’s office and say, ‘Sorry but nothing is happening today, I will have to leave a blank.’ There would always have to be a drawing done, and this was imposed from within and without. It was a matter of personal pride to always find that idea as well as the newspaper editor requiring it. I can remember some days - those dog days when nothing was happening, going back a few decades now - and then something would always happen. It could happen in the form of a voice saying, ‘Well don’t you worry about that,’ because the little bloke across the border would always come up with something. He was a cartoonist mate.

QUESTION: The comment has already been made in relation to the cartoon and don’t always get them. What I would like to ask is in relation to the comment that you make on the cartoon. The cartoon in itself is powerful but you add words to the cartoon. Are they for the purpose of impact or are they for the benefit of those who otherwise wouldn’t get them?

GEOFF PRYOR: They may be a little part of the second. I noticed early in the piece I started to overcaption the drawings and I had to think about the words that I was going to put in them. The best cartoons would be the ones that required no caption, but there were some that needed a little bit of explaining through dialogue. I tried to teach myself over the years to keep it snappy and to try to choose words which I can imagine the subject using themselves.

One of the tricks of that was I remember Larry Pickering suggesting to me early in the piece when I was talking to him on the phone that you always put the caption in a bubble within the drawing and where that bubble went was part of the composition. I had to work that out when I was drawing it where I wanted the caption bubbles to go.’ The reason for that was that, if the captions were written underneath, as has sometimes been the case, the editor might think he can second guess the cartoonist and provide a funnier one and replace it; but if it’s in the drawing he couldn’t, it’s there.

The other aspect is that there is a way for people who aren’t confident of the issues that they are describing or their choice of issue - it is more traditional and you don’t see it very often these days - to have a little rag out of the news story just in the corner of the cartoon which describes what the context of the cartoon is about. I always believed that, if you had to do that for the reader, then it was involving an issue which wasn’t worth commenting on. The issue should stand up on its own feet.

QUESTION: I wondered if in your retirement you are thinking of doing a book of uncensored cartoons - indulging yourself? The other question is: do you ever do any other painting - portraiture, drawing or anything else?

GEOFF PRYOR: I try. I do a little bit of painting - not enough, but it is something that interests me. I have to unlearn quite a few things. One of the problems in that respect is that, when you work as a cartoonist on a newspaper, you have a start to finish time of about two hours, which is the turnaround from the time you get the idea until the time you finished. You have to work quickly and you have to have a complete piece of work within that time. You can’t afford to mess it up. You often don’t have the time to turn around and start again because you have made a mistake. That is why whiteout is a cartoonist’s best friend. The conservationists hate it but the cartoonists love it.

When I am painting I have to get used to the idea that I have time, that I don’t have a deadline, that I don’t have to rush and that I can make a mess. I was at the Rolf Harris talk at the Portrait Gallery last Saturday night and he made a very interesting point when he said, ‘It’s important if somebody has artistic talent to start off when they are very young because the word “failure” has no meaning. It’s when you pick it up in middle age, that’s when you start to worry about cocking up and making messes’ - making a mess of it.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Oh yes, I see what you mean.

GEOFF PRYOR: And you have a fear of failure. This is something that has to be overcome that it doesn’t matter. This is something that I am working on myself that it doesn’t matter and that I can just fiddle away. I have done a little bit of extension drawing or life drawing and extension classes at the art school from time to time, and I always found them unsatisfactory, not least because other people there had expectations about what I would be able to do, which I didn’t want to know about. I just wanted to do my thing.

QUESTION: If you will indulge me for half a second, I used to enjoy hugely the howls of rage that accompanied the Tandberg top hats. Did you ever have a similar experience?

GEOFF PRYOR: With Sir John?

QUESTION: Yes.

GEOFF PRYOR: No, once a cartoonist picks on a prop like that, it’s his and very difficult to adopt it -

QUESTION: But you could have another one, something that held the rage for days?

GEOFF PRYOR: Not for Kerr himself, no. I adopted the Sun King look for Keating because that seemed appropriate and the periwig, which grew more and more outrageous. But there’s a problem with these sorts of props, and I think Bill Leak had it with Kevin Rudd to some extent. You become tired of it and you suspect that the readers may be becoming tired of it. So you have to think of a way of getting them back into mufti, back into street -

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Did you drop the Sun King with Keating?

GEOFF PRYOR: Yes.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: It began to annoy me, I must say, because he clearly was one of Australia’s greatest prime ministers ever and it just seemed to be that you were a bit hard on him.

GEOFF PRYOR: I was getting sick of it and I just needed to get away - I then had to choose the right occasion to get him back into a normal suit.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: And what was it, do you remember?

GEOFF PRYOR: I don’t, not off hand, but it was one that allowed it. But at the same time whenever he became outrageous again I could always keep him in his suit but put the wig on top of it.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: Yes, there we go.

QUESTION: I am curious about the balance between comic and, for want of another word, ‘righteousness’ when you have one or two ideas. One is ‘Christ that’s funny’ and the other one is ‘that will fix them’. You have had some sense of decency or justice offended and you can get your own back or set it right. Which wins?

GEOFF PRYOR: That’s a good question. I set out consciously for the reader to enjoy the drawing and I worked hard at setting up a scenario with people doing things which would ridicule them. I always thought that I was blessed with this space where I was free to do whatever satirical response to the day’s events that I liked - I had licence - and I always thought that ridicule was the main weapon in my armoury. I don’t remember ever having a sense of ‘we’ll get them’, except in certain circumstances. I remember at the time of the Tampa election, particularly the children overboard, where that feeling got so strong that I got stressed. I was growing angry in myself, and that was something that I didn’t need to cope with. I saw that one through because the election happened and then I was able to settle down to a new political circumstance, but that made me quite angry. Yes, that balance is something that I have never really thought about in that way. It’s a very good question.

QUESTION: I was just going to ask you: you said that sometimes you used to have an idea while you were in the shower but, given that you had to come up with something every day, how much time did you actually have to spend keeping up with the news and current affairs to get these ideas in the first place?

GEOFF PRYOR: Current affairs - they talk about the tide of events in people’s lives, and current affairs are like a marine tide. You have to keep up with it all the time. It was difficult to be absent from it, be on holidays and have to get the wheel turning and get up to knowledge again when I got back to work.

I can remember some days where there was so much happening. There were events happening in all directions: it was like shooting rabbits in a paddock in the old days where you would be aiming at a rabbit and another one over there, they would be running everywhere, and in the end you would finish up getting nothing. There would be so many events, which one will I choose, which one will I choose? This would become a worrying process. You would be cursed with an overload and then you would say, ‘Okay I had better rationalise this, I will choose what I think is the strongest issue and comment on that.’

Then the next day I’ll use choose issue B and then the day after that I will choose issue C, and before you know where you are you have the whole week planned. So you draw issue A as you originally intended and then, that night when you go home, something funny happens, the tide goes out and all those other issues have gone. During the night they have lost all relevance, they have lost all the zing and the strength that they had the previous day and you’re left scratching your head again. It’s an amazing thing. So when I say it is this sort of tide of events, it could be a full flood or you could be stranded on the mud flats looking around.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: That’s the title of your biography, Geoff, ‘stranded on the mud flats’.

GEOFF PRYOR: As you can see, I speak a lot in metaphors, which is what cartooning was about. It was always thinking of metaphors, mental images. In fact, commenting on politics using visual metaphors is one way of describing the process.

MICHAEL McKERNAN: As I said at the start, it must be really satisfying to look back on a 30-year career knowing that you have given people a lot of pleasure and a lot of laughs over a long period of time. I am delighted to have had the opportunity of a conversation with you this afternoon in these entirely natural surroundings. Would you join with me in thanking Geoff Pryor.

GEOFF PRYOR: Thank you very much.

Date published: 11 March 2009