Brockie Book Launch
“Avoiding boredom is one of creative man’s more important purposes.”
The quote is from the brilliant Saul Steinberg, an early influence on Bob’s drawing.
I would venture to say that most of Bob’s life has been one prolonged flight from boredom.
I realised the other day I’ve known Bob for 48 years. (Or to put it another way)
I was 12 years old when Bob entered my world. Bob had hooked up with my sister Pat, and of all Pat’s boyfriends Bob was the most unlikely but easily the most impressive.
An appealing kind of un-orthodoxy clung to him. He liked to wear a dark P-jacket, and white jeans. And he limped like a Long John Silver, a legacy of his polio. (It seemed less a disability than an enhancement).
Certainly no one like Dr Brockie had ever crossed my path before.
There seemed to be three or four people crammed inside the one skin.
There were so many aspects to Bob that he hardly needed to look beyond himself for good, stimulating company.
He seemed to know everything about the natural world, could identify every bird and plant and insect, collected butterflies, spoke Italian, could bang out arias on the piano, was funny, could draw anything, and produced with extraordinary ease cartoons that skewered the vanities of his subjects.
Actually I need to correct what I just said about Bob’s musical abilities. I should have said he APPEARED to know how to play the piano. That is to say he would go about it with tremendous confidence and enthusiasm.
I was surprised to read in the memoir that Bob has composed over 100 separate pieces of music. He can transcribe what he hears into musical notation but cannot read back what he has written, and so depends on others who can to tell him what it sounds like.
(In other words, he is spectacularly deaf to himself).
‘Neo-baroque’, according to the eminent composer, David Farquar.
On a more domestic note, Bob introduced me to garlic and showed me how to make a Sicilian omelette which I made every morning before school – I made it, as Bob and Pat, being Bohemians, were usually still in bed. Getting the eggs out of the fridge was a special and unique horror. Because in the fridge would be several dead hedgehogs that awaited Bob’s examination.
Pinned up on the walls of that kitchen were Bob’s sketches of the Sicilian villages he had lived and visited in the late 1950s. Inevitably, Sicily was the first place I set out for as a 21 year old.
Bob’s example was encouraging in other more surprising ways. The eminent contributor to the DomPost science column told me he had failed school certificate – not once, or twice, but three times!
I felt tremendously encouraged by his perennial failure. In fact, anything at all suddenly seemed possible.
It’s often said that a book has many authors.
And perhaps this is true of Bob’s life in pictures.
As a four year old Bob was taught by a Miss Youngman how to draw (at about the same age my children were taught by Bob how to draw).
A rococo effect characterises many of Bob’s sketches. Bob’s mother, Vera, might take some credit for turning her boy’s eye to the filigreed loops and rococo sugar touches on the tiered cakes she so admired.
There was music in the young Brockie’s household. Thanks to the radiogram. Schubert. Caruso. (Bob once told me the first time he turned on a radio in Italy he thought world war 3 had broken out, such was the exuberance of the radio broadcast. Apparently it was the weather forecast)
The life of Bob’s father, Walter, is also extraordinary in so many ways; he survived the madness of Gallipoli, was taken prisoner by the Turks, he was a self-taught pianist and an amateur botanist with a great interest in sub-alpine plants which he shared with Bob and his sisters.
But, it was someone else – a scientist – who told Bob at a suitably young and impressionable age to ‘look, and take down everything’.
Bob took that advice to heart. And ever since, a notebook and pencil has never been far from his back pocket.
Bob writes that his ‘Methodist mother’ never read a book in her life. Vera and Walter dismissed fiction as ‘distasteful’ and ‘frivolous’.
Perhaps the leaf hasn’t fallen as far from the tree as he would like to believe.
Bob seems to have carried out an early examination of his ‘soul’, as he describes it, and run a mile – and has never been back since, he writes, for fear of what he may find.
The ‘examined life’ in this book is very much on the surface – cafes in Italy, the square in Venice, Greyhound Stations across America, street scenes in Sydney, Cochin, Bombay, armed police riding bicycles in Jakarta, and so on; the comings and goings of starlings from the mainland at dusk, the number of road kill documented between here and Auckland, numbers of hedgehogs found and monitored on the Hutt Course, the number of pigeons in Trafalgar Square for the year 1959.
Bob’s modus operandi, wherever he is, is always to focus on the moment. Eye, hand, paper.
For that reason, if you happen to be a past wife or lover of Bob’s you will almost certainly be recorded with some affection. The (girlfriends, lovers, wives) are all here (a few remain in the shadows) but the official count is here, and I’m happy to say I’ve met and liked them all.
The transition from one wife/lover/girlfriend to the other is also covered in the book, but with a stylish degree of evasion.
Bob falls back on phrases such as ‘...subsequent events are best left unrecorded...’ Or, ‘For reasons that needn’t detain us...’ and the narrative marches on.
Bob’s children – Katie, John, Landy, Gabriella, and Dam are all lovingly drawn. I am less so. For some reason, in his drawing of me, Bob has confused me for a pomegranate with a greasy lip.
The other day I saw a photo of the late Rob Muldoon, and I did a double take. He looked so implausible because, I realised, I was more used to seeing him, as Bob used to draw him, in the pumped-up attire of Benito Mussolini.
Likewise Norman Kirk, with his pursed lips and soft feminine face.
Bob’s great ability is to represent his subjects by the very thing they would wish remained hidden.
Readers of NBR will be surprised to learn that their resident cartoonist for the past 40 years, politically, does not belong to any one tribe. And that he claims not to know much about the political process.
Bob writes that he does political cartoons to let off steam and to exercise a voice against the ridiculousness of the world. Fair enough.
But, in his book I think I found the source of Bob’s political indignation in a wonderful drawing of ‘mad cow disease’ which he breaks down into six categories: ‘Paranoia, narcissism, manic behaviour, delusions of grandeur, exhibitionism, pyschosis – out of touch with reality.’
If any you out there happens to be an aspiring politician and if you can tick any one of those boxes, then look out, before your career is over, you will almost certainly attract the merciless attention of Bob Brockie.
I began with a quote from Steinberg and I will end with another.
‘People who see a drawing in the New Yorker will think it is funny because it is a cartoon. If they see it in a museum they will think of it as artistic. If they find it in a cookie they will think it is a predictor of the future.’
I think Bob’s pictures can hang off any one of those hooks.
With this book Bob delivers evidence of someone who has looked hard, and honestly, and with affection and fascination for the world as he’s found it.
It is wonderfully entertaining and I will end by simply saying ‘Congratulations Bob, and well done.’ And please keep on, keeping on.