Off with their heads! An interview with Martin Rowson

Red Pepper speaks to Martin Rowson about his 30-plus years as a scourge of the political establishment

December 15, 2011
8 min read

‘I thought it was finally time to come out of the closet and admit that I’m a poet,’ Rowson declares, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. His new book The Limerickiad clearly sets out to deflate grandiose literary pretensions, as is evident from the blurb: ‘a series of bad jokes, cheap puns, strained scansion, excruciatingly contrived rhymes and pure filth’. ‘It’s very important to take the piss,’ he explains. ‘It’s one of our most important protections against tyranny.’

The title evokes the mock-epic, echoing Alexander Pope’s poem The Dunciad, one more instance of Rowson’s obvious fascination with the 18th century (having previously illustrated Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). ‘I have great regard for the 1700s,’ he admits, ‘although I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have lived in London back then – before the advent of proper public sanitation and the flush toilet.’

The cartoonist’s trade – which Rowson sees as akin to daily visual journalism – is described as a highly democratic, levelling sort of activity in which the great and the good are brought abruptly down to earth.

‘I find it totally outrageous and disgusting how these people act. All this hierarchy, these hypocrites and parasites, pretending they bear some great wisdom and are somehow better fitted to rule than the rest of us. They deserve anything that I can possibly throw at them.’

If this begins to sound like he’s on a moral crusade, he abruptly lightens the tone. ‘You can work some very funny jokes out of disgust and fury – that’s a power we have over them. Don’t underestimate the power of being able to laugh at the fuckers.’

What to draw and when

That said, Rowson is clear that freedom of speech does not absolve the cartoonist of the responsibility for judging what to draw and when. While no forms of authority are to be declared ‘off-limits’, the power to ridicule must be exercised judiciously. He is fond of the describing the task of the satirist as ‘afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted’.

So Rowson has no time for the ‘freedom of speech’ justification in the context of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication of a series of images mocking the Prophet Muhammad. ‘You have to question the motives behind this commission, and to bear in mind the context of years of anti-immigrant propaganda in Denmark. There was no real point behind publishing this stuff other than to feed this victimisation of a minority. Equally, though, it was only weeks later that some Danish Muslim clerics seized on these images and used them to solidify their own power base, and this stuff went global as all manner of religious fanatics whipped themselves up.’

This kind of outraged sense of victimhood can be a powerful weapon to silence debate. ‘The Israel lobby is particularly masterful in using this to silence criticism of their brutally oppressive colonialism. I’ve fallen foul of it a number of times – really unpleasant stuff, even death threats. I drew one cartoon for the Guardian which had the boot of an Israeli soldier stamping on a dove of peace after it had left Noah’s ark. Then I had a stream of abuse from a Zionist group which accused me of anti-semitism.

‘[One man] said the animals in the picture were specifically referenced in the biblical text – it’s a calculated insult to the Jews. I’d already anticipated this line of attack so had deliberately thrown in a few more for good measure. So I said, perhaps you would be so kind as to point me to the biblical references to the beavers, the orang-utan, the walrus and the okapi – a species first identified at the turn of the last century. At which point he accused me of being in denial about my anti-semitism!

‘You can’t win – it’s the ultimate trump card. No matter how many innocent people the Israeli state kills, any criticism is automatically proof of anti-semitism. No wonder idiots like Ahmadinejad want to deny the holocaust. They are jealous. They’d love to silence their critics like that.’ 

Editorial control

How much freedom from editorial control does the cartoonist have? ‘We [Martin and his colleague Steve Bell] are lucky on the Guardian. We get a free hand, basically. Steve is more hardline than I am, he won’t consult the editors, just delivers his stuff. I tend to outline my intentions in case there is an obvious clash with the column below or something. Generally, we operate on the basis of a kind of internal self‑censoring, bearing in mind what our readers will be able to stomach.

‘But I have resigned in the past where I felt that an editorial line was being imposed. I remember during the Iraq war I worked for Scotland on Sunday, whose editor was in favour of the war while I was very much against. Every Friday we’d have the battle of Stalingrad – not with the editor, but between me and his deputy, who would relay the orders. I’d say “Kindly tell the editor I am not illustrating his editorial!” They’d never tell a columnist what to write. I ended up saying, “If the editor has such good ideas can I recommend that he learns how to draw.”’

Asked about relations with his fellow cartoonists, Rowson says: ‘I’ve been in this game a long time – I got my first break for the New Statesman when I was 23. And for the first four or five years I never met a single other cartoonist. And when I finally I did I found that they had a particular pride in being extremely unfriendly. There was a code where you were expected to be a misanthropic bigamist drunk.

‘But they’re quite a good bunch these days. There’s an unwritten rule where when one of us lands on a particular trope – like Steve did when he first drew John Major with his underpants, or started drawing [George W] Bush as a monkey, which was just so right and so funny – the rest of us would say “that’s Steve’s thing” and “leave it”.

‘And we’ll discuss problems. Like Ken Clarke. There’s so much of him it’s really hard to know where to start and finish. I mean, there are a whole host of cabinet ministers who you’d like the take the piss out of but can’t. No-one would recognise Grant Shapps. You’d have to put him in a t-shirt with his name blazoned across the front, which kind of misses the point.’

Puppets and pampered kids

He gets fired up again on the subject of the coalition government: ‘I’m developing this narrative where the Lib Dems are basically puppets – like Danny Alexander as Beaker [from the Muppets] – while the Tories are just pampered kids.

‘David Cameron came easily after a few false starts. When he first stood for the leadership I just had all the candidates being measured up for coffins! He was the one in a suit looking impatiently at his watch. But I kept seeing how pink and shiny his face was and I thought he’s like Little Lord Fauntleroy. So he’s got smaller and smaller. And Osborne is like a public school bully with a permanent cocky sneer.’

‘It’s incredible. They’ve no real principles, no coherent policies to speak of, no thought-out plan. They just think it’s natural that they’re in charge because it’s what they were born into. It’s like an 11-year-old boy just petulantly hitting a machine with a mallet and hoping that’s enough to fix it.

‘Look at Osborne. He’s morally, culturally, socially ill-equipped for the job, utterly vacuous. Maybe we should be pleased he’s there because it shows how useless these aristocratic twats really are. We should have a Committee of Public Safety like in the French Revolution and chop their heads off!’ And on that insurrectionary note, Rowson laughs uproariously and disappears back to his drawing board.

Martin Rowson’s latest publication The Limerickiad, an illustrated history of world literature in limerick form, is out now


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