Edinburgh Book Festival: Martin Rowson

Second of the reports I penned from the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August for the Forbidden Planet blog:

One of the UK’s finest satirical cartoonists, Martin Rowson, paid a welcome return visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday, and was absolutely on top form. Comics and cartoons were discussed, politicians were skewered (deservedly), journalism, government and the role of cartoonists were all covered, along with personal tales, Martin’s work in graphic novels (including his new take on Gulliver’s Travels, one of the great satirical novels of all time), and all accompanied by a lot of humour and more swears than even Jamie Smart can fit into a whole chapter of Corporate Skull.

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(Martin Rowson in discussion at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr, click for larger versions)

A busy day at the world’s biggest book festival, and the audience braves the humid heat to pack into one of the tent theatres in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square to hear Martin Rowson, frequent cartoonist for the Guardian among numerous other publications and creator of several graphic novels, discuss his craft. Interestingly, when discussing his work for the newspapers Martin said that he thought of himself more as a columnist, executing a sort of visual journalism, the (often very detailed) cartoons being the graphic equivalent of some of the regular text columns and editorials in the paper. His complete loathing for the current coalition government in power at the moment in the UK came to the forth, partly through some of his art on display on a screen above him (as he talked us through how he visualised certain politicians, from Cameron’s Little Lord Fauntleroy image to struggling with Nick Clegg before hitting on turning him into Pinocchio, which also allowed him to use his wooden boy as numerous other wooden images later on, part of a wheel, a pile of sawdust), partly through a pretty no-holds barred attack on the government, which he described as the worst in his lifetime (and that’s going up against some competition!). The attacks were laced with a lot of humour, but there was no mistaking the anger there too at a lot of inept fiddling while the rest of us suffer while Rome burns.

(“The World as it is or Bones & Bonuses”, by and (c) Martin Rowson)

Anger funnelled through his satirical cartoons was also noticeable in some of his work, as he admitted himself, especially one example, a cartoon ‘split screen’ image, one half a ragged survivor of the Haitian earthquake staggering through ruins clutching a child, the other half a fat cat banker staggering between canyons of enormous tower blocks clutching his bonus (see above). He said that it was driven by fury at the fact that the hideous suffering and vast death toll of the earthquake had been pushed a day later further down the running list on the news to make way for a story about banker’s moaning their bonuses were being cut, with him going on to discuss the disparity between just Wall Street bonuses alone and how much aid Western countries give. Not hard to see why anyone (other than senior bankers) would be driven to anger over that. And as Martin commented, for several centuries now, since the heyday of the great satirical print makers, it’s the role of the editorial cartoonists to hold up senior public figures and politicians to examination and ridicule to remind them they are not untouchable and above everyone else, and about the importance of such cartooning in a democratic world.

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(Martin Rowson with his new Gulliver’s Travels graphic novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pics from my Flickr, click for larger versions)

He also recounted a story about a cartooning exhibition of politicians where the guest was George Osborne, now Chancellor but back then in opposition years someone most of them had never heard of. He agreed to take part only if he could give a speech after the Tory politician, who remarked that there were no cartoons of him present. That’s because most of us had never heard of you or knew what you looked like, Rowson explains in his speech, before going on to serve him fair warning that if his party came into power and he into government he and his colleagues would be merciless in examining his every utterance and exaggerating every physical oddity, from his weak chin onwards, in depicting him, leaving the would be minister very upset and spluttering that he would never have come if he’d known what sort of people were there. Clearly, he added, no-one had ever talked to him like that, although he did apologise to his host of the evening if he had perhaps gone too far. No, his host replied, the boy needs toughening up if he’s to make it in politics… Asked by an audience member if he thought there was a role for cartoons praising positive work by politicians he said for the most part no. Although he would be delighted to see a world where his skills were not needed because everyone did their best for one another, openly, honestly, he didn’t see that happening and meantime doing too many positive cartoons as opposed to critical was too close to the work produced in totalitarian regimes; it was the job of the cartoonist and satirist to ever be on the offensive to make sure those in positions of authority are always aware of public scrutiny.

(“The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver” by Hogarth)

On the topic of his new graphic novel, a sort of sequel/modern interpretation of the classic Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, it was quite clear the huge esteem Rowson holds his predecessors in the fine and biting art of British satire, from the clever prose analogies of Swift to the astonishing prints of Gilray and Hogarth (he also mentioned something I’d never come across, a Hogarth work responding to Swift’s novel, “The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver”, which as he noted Swift could have probably sued him for, but actually he appreciated the work of his fellow satirist, leaving us to wonder what a partnership there might have been if the two had collaborated on a major project). That Rowson values his ancestral satirical spirits and endeavours not only to continue their fine tradition, but to honour it by doing the best work he can is quite clear, and quite commendable.

(a panel from Martin Rowson’s new interpretation of Gulliver’s Travels, (c) the artist, published by Atlantic Books)

With his Gulliver he has a Lilliput administered by a very Tony Blair-like leader and his descendant of the original Gulliver notices after a while among them that they produce nothing – no factories, no farms. In fact the only thing they produce, in large quantities, is human waste – they have a whole dome in which games of crappulence are played out, before a rather familiar looking media oligarch takes that crap to nearby Blefescu, where it is turned into material which is then sold back to the Lilliputians, a neat commentary on disposable culture and much of the media, rich meat for Rowson’s acid wit and famously detailed artwork. One is left with the impression that those mighty predecessors of his would heartily approve, laugh then take him for a fine meal and a pint of claret. An excellent event at the Book Fest and if you find an opportunity to hear Rowson speak at an even near you, I recommend you take it.


(thanks to Frances and the Book Fest press team for letting me attend the event)