Hay 2012: Martin Rowson

Gulliver’s Travels

Martin Rowson cuts an energetic figure on stage in traditional crumpled newsroom attire; a man from the old school where relationships between the press and those in the public eye were based on scrutiny first and chummy lunches somewhere after. If this is a naïve view of how Fleet Street used to operate it is only because of passionate crusaders like Rowson and their arms-length sword swipes at the establishment.

Here the Guardian cartoonist opens by warning the audience that there will be bad language and strong imagery – a warning that goes unheeded by the mother who walks her little girl out five minutes later after Rowson states his admiration for chimpanzees lies mainly in their ability to just ‘say hello and then fuck.’ He says this twice for effect. The mother, who must have thought Martin Rowson, cartoonist, had drawn the trees in the background of In the Night Garden or something, can’t get her four year old out quickly enough.

Rowson’s invective does not only continue, but it soars. He begins his lecture in satire by presenting on the screen behind him what is clearly a sketch that instils great pride in the artist. Tony Blair, replete with the aggressively equine set of teeth Rowson famously gave his manic caricature, stands at the doorway of a toilet – a toilet that is a metamorphosis of ceramics and Alistair Campbell, his mouth now overflowing with excrement. “The sewer is finally overflowing,” Blair is calling back over his shoulder. Rowson points out with barely contained glee at Charles Clarke floating on the floor in the form of a bearded turd.

Rowson often diverts from his lecture with brilliantly acerbic mini-rants on the governments of his time. He shows a fascinating photograph of him and Steve Bell scribbling away at the feet of Tony Blair as the then Prime Minister gives one of his more unconvincing performances as the Messiah to the Labour Party Conference in the aftermath of the attack of the World Trade Centre. “This will give you a good impression of the strange relationship between cartoonists and politicians,” he says; and it does. It is perhaps more striking than any of his drawings on display.

But Rowson is not here to lambast the current lot so openly (and this is a tough audience who are not necessarily on his side politically – the Hay Festival is now the Sky-sponsored Daily Telegraph Hay Festival; not the Guardian Hay Festival of its prime). He may be vicious and entertaining in his anger (as much as I loathe belittling the valid points he makes by labelling him ‘entertaining’) he is here to talk about his new book: an updated telling of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels that has been ten years in the making. The images are dark and witty and you get the impression that Swift would have approved. Rowson is unapologetic for his preoccupation with shit; indeed, he makes a good argument to suggest it is not his preoccupation, but the preoccupation of us all.

But for all of the excitement Rowson exudes when talking about his version of Swift’s satirical masterpiece, Rowson’s own excellence really shines when he returns to showing his work on today’s current crop of political targets. His depiction of Nick Clegg as Pinocchio brings applause from the audience (most of the audience, I should say). As Rowson swings his arms and goes red in the face, explaining how he could forgive this government their mistakes if it wasn’t for the their arrogance and incompetence, a wonderful image of David Cameron as Little Lord Fauntleroy in a warm embrace with Pinocchio-Clegg glistens on the screen behind him like the national flag of a satirical utopia. “You could forgive them if they’d done the work,” he says. “Thirteen years out of power and they just didn’t plan anything because they feel they have right to rule because of the privilege of their birth. And the Liberals had ninety fucking years to prepare and they didn’t do the work either.” The sharpest applause of the afternoon comes in response to that.

“But the worst thing is that I’m really quite fond of them,” Rowson goes on. He looks dewy-eyed up to the warmth of the Fauntleroy/Pinocchio embrace. “Aren’t they just fucking adorable.” And there Rowson manages to encapsulate the life of the satirist as well as any satirist has ever done.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis