Gary Raymond takes to Zoom to talk to renowned satirist and cartoonist Martin Rowson, who, along with friend composer and musician Jon Tregenna, has created three volumes of the biting, satirical lockdown album Plague Songs. The final instalment has now been released.
Gary Raymond: Thanks for taking the time to chat today: I’ve been enjoying the instalments of Plague Songs that Jon Tregenna has been circulating during the pandemic months. Is this third volume the final one?
Martin Rowson: Yeah, this is the final one. They’re all from a sequence of poems I wrote between May and November last year, which I would write every day. Originally, it was proposed as a way of getting my friend Luke Wright out of his lockdown torpor. I said we should each write a poem every day, just, you know, for shits and giggles. And he, of course, being a professional poet, gave up after about three. But for me it became a kind of good daily discipline; I would actually sit down every day after breakfast and take an idea for a walk, sometimes things would come to me while I was shaving, or in a dream, or whatever. And I would just take that idea and see what happened.
Gary Raymond: The written word is very important to your visual work, isn’t it? Because text is part of what you do in the visual. But is writing – writing poetry, writing lyrics – something you’ve done for a long time?
Martin Rowson: Yes, weirdly, I had a nice little slot on the books page at the Independent on Sunday for twenty-three years. You don’t get that for murder these days. I was their last freelance contributor to get sacked (because they hadn’t noticed I was still there). It started off as a strip cartoon in 1990. Then that turned into a series of stupid gags of boiling down great works of literature into one image. In 2000, I started writing a kind of cautionary sub-Hilaire Belloc verse about the literary world. And then, in 2007, I started on The Limerickiad, which was retelling the whole of world literature in Limerick form. I got halfway through Ibsen and they sacked me.
Gary Raymond: Some people just don’t like Ibsen.
(A phone rings in the background and Martin excuses himself to answer it. He returns.)
Gary Raymond: It’s nice to hear a landline; you don’t hear them very often nowadays.
Martin Rowson: It’s normally people who are trying to defraud me out of money to pay for a call protection service, which doesn’t exist. It’s like a sort of Zen riddle. The only people who phone me up are people trying to sell me a service which they’re not going to provide to protect me from calls like the one we’re engaged with when I’m talking to them about the fact that I owe them money for a call protection service. It’ll do your head in if you think about it too much.
Gary Raymond: That feels like the sort of headfuck that would sit very well in one of your cartoons. It feels very much like something from your world.
Martin Rowson: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I get enough of this stuff at work. So, let’s return to the question. The poems started off specifically reacting to the day’s events. But after a while, I was just taking ideas that I’d had germinating. Some of them are terribly simple and very short. One of my favourites, actually, which isn’t on the album, because it’s too short, is a series of haikus about the cabinet. Let’s see if I can get this right:
Matt Hancock can smell
his soul corroding in him
every waking second
Gary Raymond: I suppose that brings us straight to the question of how the Plague Songs albums came to be and what the process was.
Martin Rowson: What was nice, was the kind of serendipitous nature of this whole project. I started writing these things and after a week, out of the blue, Jon (Tregenna), who I’ve known for a long time, just emailed me saying, “I’m thinking of writing a lockdown musical, would you like to write the lyrics?” And I email back saying, “Well, I’m already doing that. I’ll send you what I’ve been writing.” He became one of the people I would regularly send them to and he would pick up the ones he liked. It became a kind of random collaboration. He would send them out to people he knew to perform the vocals, and they would bring their own interpretation to it. So, it’s a kind of remote tripartite collaboration where everybody brings something fresh, which is really exciting. I mean, I had an idea in my head of what some of them sounded like, and Jon came up with something completely different; in those situations, I was suddenly able to recognise that there was an element to a song which I hadn’t previously thought about.
Gary Raymond: I was wondering: how many conversations went on about how your lyrics were going to be treated?
Martin Rowson: There were very few occasions when I said, “Jon, you’ve got this wrong.” I can think of about three or four where he’d send me the first cut, and the music hadn’t caught the mood I was after. He was very responsive to that kind of thing.
Gary Raymond: You’re very much part of the ongoing story of British satire. You don’t just do some funny cartoons occasionally. I wonder now, after decades of doing this, do you ever recognise a tiresome cycle to the awfulness of the British ruling class? Do you ever think, “Am I in danger of repeating myself?”?
Martin Rowson: No, actually, because every time somebody new comes along, you have to have a bit of a struggle to find out how you’re going to do them. And then you get them. And it’s a weird kind of transubstantiation when you’ve captured somebody’s likeness, and when you fail to capture it. I had a dark night of the soul when Theresa May became Prime Minister, because I’d drawn her a few times as Home Secretary, but she wasn’t a main character then; now she was the main character. And I was drawing her for the Daily Mirror. And it wasn’t her. I remember sitting at this desk on a Sunday afternoon thinking, “Oh, my God, I cannot draw the British Prime Minister effectively; my career is over.” Then I just dropped her eyes fractionally down her face, and it was her. Suddenly the magic had happened. I had my hand up her soul, as it were. So, you know, when Trump’s just gone, and people say, “Oh, you’re gonna miss Trump?” Actually, no, I’m not gonna miss Trump. I want Trump to be in an orange suit. I want him to be in prison, you know, because I’m not just a satirist, I’m a human being. The Stockholm Syndrome thing can take you so far that you fall in love with the victims, and actually these people deserve to be imprisoned.
But I always say something new comes along, and it’s fresh meat. And nobody could have foreseen that this government would be as belaboured by such monumental and faithful clusterfucks as it has been, because of its own innate contradictions, that it’s essentially a vanity project for Boris Johnson, who is a narcissist. I mean, he’s a psycho. All he wants is our adulation. He’s totally unfit to hold any public office because he’s not interested in people, except as a kind of source of energy for him to suck out and feed his own vanity. He has comprehensively failed. Doing stupid drawings isn’t enough: you actually have to pile some more stuff on to adequately chronicle the depths of deadly absurdity this particular government, in the circumstances, has reduced our nation to.
Gary Raymond: With the images, it seems to me that you try to find a way into a character. I remember you saying in an interview years ago that you had real problems doing George Osborne until you realised that he was a fat man who was just currently thin.
Martin Rowson: I’m gonna have to tell you, I got an almost indecent pleasure out of drawing George Osborne. Steve Bell told me after the ’97 election, “I’ve lost my reason for living.” That’s because he used to love doing the dots on John Major’s airtex underpants, you know, he was used to drawing a geometric pattern. And he just got into a kind of Zen-fugue state as he did these dots. It’s very seductive. You actually love drawing this person in this particular way. And the thing about Osborne is that he clearly has no bones in his head. I mean, it’s just that there’s something about him, his mouth is always moving around to the side of his face. It’s just bizarre. This is the thing that the caricaturist is cursed with, you know, like Michelangelo seeing David in the block of marble: we can see these sort of bizarre cartoon characters inside living people, but the cartoon characters are more real than they are. That’s the point.
Gary Raymond: Your style, your sense of humour on the page, is very visceral, aggressive, a kind of satire which obviously comes from a certain British tradition. But there’s something there where you find characters that you have a kind of aesthetic affection for, because it brings you pleasure to create them every time, but that’s matched with this visceral hatred for the actual person you’re representing.
Martin Rowson: It’s not even a hate. I mean, I’ve met Osborne several times and apart from the fact that he’s an idiot, and pompous and all the other things that are wrong with George Osborne, you know, I wish him well. But I wish the public figure of George Osborne ill. It’s like the opposite of that thing in the army: salute the uniform and not the man.
The fact that they are holding public office is of itself a reason to satirise because that’s the point of satire: to attack people in a position of power. There are a lot of people on the left who found it completely unacceptable for me to attack Jeremy Corbyn. When Corbyn became leader, I started drawing him wearing one of these communist style hats, which of course he wears, with a red star on it. People got really, really upset. You know, how can you attack Jeremy? Somebody said I was personally responsible for the existence of food banks in this country because of the way I draw Jeremy Corbyn with a hat on.
People throughout history and around the world are struggling against the authority of people who are no better than them, and in many ways are often worse than them. And so satirising them is a safety valve. And you know, part of the history of British visual and textual satire is that it acts as a safety valve.
May I digress for a wonderful story?
Gary Raymond: By all means.
Martin Rowson: It was told to me by Kenneth Baker, the former Education Secretary. I know him quite well because he’s a trustee of the Cartoon Museum. And he knows his cartoons. Apparently in the 1780s the French ambassador at the Court of St. James sent a dispatch to Versailles saying that Britain was on the verge of a revolution. It’ll be just like it was 140 years ago, they’ll chop the king’s head off, there’ll be blood in the streets, it’ll be complete mayhem. Because all you have to do is walk down any main thoroughfare in central London and there are all these little kiosks selling satirical prints of the royal family in the most disgusting scenarios imaginable; images of the Prince Regent being absolutely disgusting. They’re going to have another revolution, mark my words; and he was completely wrong. I mean, absolutely completely wrong. And in France, they didn’t have a history of satire. They had samizdat sex libels about Marie Antoinette. There was no irony, there was no humour, there was no relief of laughter. Just a growing hatred at the nature of the oppression, and it finally exploded and there was blood literally flowing through the gutters of Paris in the next ten years.
Gary Raymond: Has the ramping up of vitriol brought about by social media and the effect it’s had on public discourse had any kind of effect on the way that you create your work?
Martin Rowson: It’s quantitative rather than qualitative. By which I mean, back in the day, I would get people who would actually have to go out and invest in some green ink and be bothered to walk down the road to the postbox to send me a forty-page letter ending up with a death threat. Now you just tweet it from the phone in your hand. And so the volume has increased. But it’s the same nutcases who are quite rightly enraged into a murderous frenzy by what I do, because that’s the point. My point is to attack and offend the power structures.
Gary Raymond: So do you see yourself as a satirist who has various skills by which you can deliver that satire and being an artist is one of them?
Martin Rowson: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I started out wanting to be a cartoonist, and then I was actually getting away with it and getting published in a national newspaper in my twenties. So, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I had a satirical imperative, probably because of the way my adoptive father brought me up. He said to me at a very early age, “Never obey orders, including this one.” And I didn’t work out what that meant for decades. But it was so brilliant. He instilled in me from a very early age, not a cynicism, but a scepticism about authority and about power. He was a doctor, he was a scientist, he was a virologist, actually, interestingly, and his contempt for his profession was breathtaking, because of their lazy complacency, and their self-interest and their idleness and their self-satisfaction. That infected me. I’ve always been able to draw, but rather than wanting to do watercolour landscapes of the Suffolk fens, I wanted to do nasty drawings of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath.
Gary Raymond: Have you used a different conceptual process for writing the lyrics of Plague Songs than you have for creating cartoons?
Martin Rowson: I mean, obviously, they are two very different processes, but they are very similar as well. So, with The New Museum of Shit, I, for some reason or other, just had this idea, because this government pays such a lot of apparent respect for a very selective view of history. If you take that for a walk in your head, what kind of history do they respect?
Gary Raymond: You never get tired of viciously lambasting the ruling class of this country.
Martin Rowson: One of the things we’ve been observing, I think, is the final death throes of the British State. Because it’s falling to pieces, it doesn’t bloody work anymore, it really genuinely doesn’t work, because it allows cranks and hobbyists to become Prime Minister. It’s falling to pieces in every way imaginable. The electoral system doesn’t work and doesn’t represent things properly. And remember, this is the state which was established in the first place by William the Conqueror. And it’s been going for nearly 1000 years: it’s about time we had a new one. People assume that a country is synonymous with the state, which is varnished on top of it, that’s not the case. The French have had five different states since 1789. Isn’t it time we had a new one?
The three volumes of Plague Songs by Martin Rowson and Jon Tregenna are now available to stream on Spotify.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.