Cartoonist Tom Scott on the art of a good skewering

by Joanna Wane / 24 January, 2018

Tom Scott at his home in Wellington.

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Cartoonist and writer Tom Scott’s new memoir is soaked in all the pathos and black humour of his Irish roots. He talks to Joanna Wane about politics, Beatlemania and what he has in common with Hitler.

The tenor of Tom Scott’s life as a comic tragedy is set from the moment the curtain rises on a grim winter’s day in post-war London. As his mother lies comatose with septicaemia after giving birth to Tom and his twin sister, Sue, a hospital dentist goes to work with pliers and pulls out all her teeth.

He was probably doing “a simple Irish colleen a favour” by giving her dentures, writes Scott in his new memoir Drawn Out, but Joan, then barely in her 20s, was devastated. Yet despite the sheer awfulness of it all, you’ll find yourself choking with laughter at the absurd Kafkaesque nature of the scene. “She wept with grief at the loss while feeding Sue and me. Three of us in a narrow bed, all gnashing our gums.” 

A dropout from vet school, Scott was fired from his first job as a cartoonist, for the Manawatu Evening Standard, after barely a week. He was fired from his weekly politics column at the Listener several times, too. A dyslexic who flunked English (his spelling is still “dreadful”), he was famously barred from the Press Gallery by his nemesis Rob Muldoon, one of 11 prime ministers he’s mercilessly lampooned in a career that began with the rise and premature demise of Norm Kirk in the early 1970s. When a visibly drunk Muldoon rashly went early to the polls, in 1984, Scott dubbed it “the schnapps election”.

“I have a gift to irritate people in authority, which my father had in spades and I inherited some of that,” he tells North & South. “But I’ve never trod on anybody to get somewhere. I’ve never exploited or taken advantage of someone. I’d be mortified if anyone thought I had.”

Scott as the intrepid correspondent, hamming it up for Listener photographer Jane Ussher in 1995.

Still, targets of his sharp satire have often been mortified by how they’re depicted in his cartoons. On a trip to Nepal with Ed Hillary (researching what would eventually become the TV drama series Hillary), Scott was mystified when his good mate Mark Sainsbury, who was doing a piece for the Holmes TV show, kept shunting him off camera. He later discovered that Paul Holmes – whose ego was notoriously fragile – had told Sainsbury he didn’t want “that c*** Scott” in any of the shots.

“Paul wouldn’t speak to me for years because of the cartoons I did of him,” says Scott. “But when he got his honorary knighthood, he invited me to the investiture on his lawn... We went into the house and all the cartoons he’d hated were framed and up around the walls.”

Even Muldoon, “the terror from Tamaki” who sued Scott for defamation and banned him from a press trip to China, made peace with him at the end. In fact, the most shocking revelation in the book is that one of Muldoon’s most famous quotes – that Kiwis moving to Australia raisied the IQ of both countries – was lifted straight from a Listener column Scott had written the week before. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I stole it first!’” laughs Scott, who modified the original gag from an old US vaudeville comedian, Will Rogers.

Another Jane Ussher portrait of Scott for the Listener, in 1990.

Years later, when Muldoon retired from Parliament, Sir Bob Jones asked Scott to MC a surprise dinner for him, which was held at the Wellington Club only a few months before he died. “He was terrified when he saw me,” says Scott. “But Muldoon wasn’t a monster, no one was put behind barbed wire. He was a verbal bully, but he never did anything remotely fascist or authoritarian, really. He was thrilled to bits at the end of the evening, nearly in tears all the way through.

“I remember [a senior National Party figure], a craven man, lent over as I was walking past and said, ‘You bloody sold out, sucking up to Muldoon.’ And I said, ‘Listen, when he was powerful, you were kissing his arse and I was criticising him in print. He’s an old man close to death, I’m not kicking him tonight.’ I think I got it round the right way.”

For all his inherent oratorical skills, David Lange also borrowed shamelessly from Scott’s arsenal. In 1996, Scott was at Parliament for Lange’s valedictory speech when he happened upon the member for Mangere at the urinal having a last-minute pee. “He said, ‘Now, Tom... I hope you don’t mind... I’ll be using a lot of your lines this afternoon,’” recounts Scott, slipping into Lange’s distinctive, pause-laden drawl. “Winston Peters couldn’t be here today... He’s been unavoidably detained by a full-length mirror…”

Scott (right) at home in Feilding in the mid-1950s, with younger brother Michael and baby sister Sally.

Scott’s wit was a rare gift from his father, who – in contrast to his son’s more humanitarian humour – used words viciously to demean and diminish the boy he called “Egghead” and would later literally excise from his life. On his deathbed, Tom Scott senior refused to take his son’s calls, and among the possessions he left behind was an album of family photos that had been dealt to with a scalpel, removing his eldest son from every single one.

Scott learnt early that self-mockery made him a less-satisfying target for the inevitable school bullies (teachers, sadly, among them) who took offence at his singular nature, his unruly mop of flaming red hair and his family’s impecunious fortunes. As a teenage schoolboy in Feilding, he sold sackfuls of wool plucked from dead, bloated sheep on neighbouring farms to buy himself some decent clothes.

The miseries of his childhood make for uncomfortable yet hilarious reading. Born with an “oversized skull”, as a youngster he lost his balance and toppled into an empty concrete swimming pool, suffering a head knock that permanently buggered his eyesight. “Negative buoyancy” saw him sink to the bottom during a school swimming race, requiring rescue by a couple of teachers. An encounter with a lawnmower left one of his legs in callipers for six months. He reckons his shyness with girls – “verging on pathology” – was one of the few things he had in common with Ed Hillary.

Luminaries from a golden age of political cartoonists, in 1980. From left: Neville Lodge, Bill Wrathall, Bob Brockie, Peter Bromhead, Sid Scales, Eric Heath and Tom Scott – a man apart, as the sole representative of a younger generation.

Now a grandfather of three (with one more “incubating”), he’s written a string of plays, documentaries, feature films and drama series, and remains the editorial cartoonist for his local Wellington newspaper, The Dominion Post. Future projects include a feature film set in the Manawatu, a play set in a coffee bar, and a TV crime series he’d like to do for Netflix, with Oscar Kightley playing a Samoan cop on the trail of an All Black who’s goes missing in Japan. “I’ll have to live to 105 to finish everything I want to do.”

Like his father, Scott hates being ordered around, and has rarely held down a conventional job. When his long-time partner, Averil Mawhinney, got him to do a personality test back in the early 90s, it concluded he was “absolutely unemployable”.

“No jobs matched my personality profile,” he writes in Drawn Out. “I was good for nothing. The algorithm concluded I should work on my own or, if I worked with others, I had to be in complete control. I was Hitler. Essentially, I marched to the beat of a different drum and I was probably out of step with that as well.”

Tom Scott in 1974. His more conservative colleagues in the press gallery were “horrified” when he turned up with shoulder-length red hair, flared trousers and platform shoes.

North & South: Your memoir walks a fine line between laughter and tears. Is that a particularly Irish way of looking at the world?

Tom Scott: There’s a line that sums up the Irish in Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, where the hero is cycling on his bike: the sun is on his back, he can see the ocean, he can hear the surf, the birds are singing. He thinks, this could be the happiest moment of my life – and [Milligan writes] “the very thought depresses him”. When I read that, I laughed out loud and thought, “Gosh, that’s my mother and father.”

There are plenty of times in my life I’ve been angry, hurt, disappointed, frustrated... I’ve had almost chronic self-pity. But I have never been depressed. I’ve never, ever woken up without wanting to live. I’m like Tigger. I suffer from both self-pity and fatuous optimism. It’s an extremely irritating quality, apparently.

N&S: Your father still casts such a long shadow. In the play you wrote based on his life, The Daylight Atheist, the character of Danny is forgiven for his sins at the end. Have you made your own peace with him?

TS: One of my sisters thinks she had the worst of it. But I have to say I was staggered when I saw the photographs in the album with my head cut out. I’ve got a postcard of a horse and a foal where he’s drawn the mother horse having a shit. One of the shits is a perfect circle with my face in it, and he’s written 12 reasons why I’m a complete and utter shit. It was too savage to include in the book.

My father was a very clever and a very frustrated man. I’ve been researching a World War II project, and the more I read about those men who went to war – men like him – the more I understand the impact it had on all of them. How could it not?

N&S: Was he physically abusive too?

TS: He shoved and pushed. The only thing he did violently was he once smashed a tennis racquet over [younger brother] Michael, who was his favourite, in a rage. He used to cuff me around the head and punched his fist through a door. But the verbal stuff was pretty much constant.

N&S: There’s real calculated cruelty in the moment where he opens your School Certificate exam results and loudly announces that you’ve failed, when you had actually passed. What effect did that have on you?

TS: I look at all those little wee kids today sleeping in the back of cars and they’re far worse off than what I went through. They’ve been horribly short-changed. But at that moment, I feared my horizons had shrunk down to a kernel and I’d be on the chain in the freezing works for the rest of my life. Maybe I would have got out, but I was prepared to accept a life of quiet desperation. It made me realise how things can go slightly wrong and a person’s circumstances can completely change.

The policeman, Bow Pike [who caught a young Scott stealing fruit off his trees and locked him in an outside toilet]... It’s a matter of record that he was later arrested and went to prison for sodomising small boys. It could have been me. What if I hadn’t got out of that shed and he’d come back? Now, that would have been a different book.


1980, Scott covered Prime Minister Rob Muldoon’s attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Delhi, but was barred from the following press trip to China.

N&S: Your dad was from a Protestant family in Northern Ireland and your mum was Catholic. Where does that leave you?

TS: Before Mum died, she said, “I want no fuckin’ priests at my funeral.” She’d always lived in guilt and fear of the priests, but finally shrugged it off at the end.

I’ve been devastated with the loss of John Clarke and Murray Ball in the same year. I write in the book that you can lose two of your best friends by morning tea. One of my life ambitions was to have a beer with Spike Milligan. Well, that’s not going to happen. But when I had open-heart surgery [in 2014], they told me all about the risks and I had no fear of dying. I just thought it would be a shame not to see my grandchildren grow up. I don’t think there’s a heaven, I don’t think there’s a hell. But there may be a tiny place in other people’s cerebral cortex.

N&S: You feel cartooning is at risk of becoming a “dinosaur industry”. Where does political satire sit in the landscape today?

TS: It’s not a golden age for cartooning anywhere in the world. During Watergate and the Vietnam War, there were stunning cartoons done. Giles was a war cartoonist. Ronald Searle was in a prisoner-of-war camp. They saw human beings at their very best and very worst. Today, young people aren’t into cartooning; they’re stand-up comedians or
making YouTube videos.

I was doing anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam War cartoons at high school, when most of my contemporaries weren’t even aware there was a war going on, and then comic strips for [Massey University capping magazine] Masskerade. I was evangelical, but I also wanted to be funny. And I was still a virgin for my first two years at university, so I had sexual tension thrown in there as well.

N&S: How much do you owe to Muldoon?

TS: When George Martin died, everyone said he made the Beatles. Fuck off! They would have been found by somebody. It might have taken another year or two, but they still would have been extraordinary. I would have had a career with or without Muldoon. But I wouldn’t have been thrown out of a press conference.

N&S: Are today’s politicians a less interesting bunch?

TS: I was spoilt. Lange! Muldoon! It was one of the great eras – like being a composer in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, or a writer in the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe. In the 60s, there was an explosion of music with the likes of Dylan and Beatlemania, and with the best will in the world and the best technology, you’ll never have the same cultural impact again. It was a time like that in politics then. But everybody wants to think their generation is special. I wonder if there are people still clinging desperately to the Bay City Rollers.

Winston Peters forms the first MMP coalition with National leader Jim Bolger in 1996.

N&S: You describe a cartoonist’s job as “to mock and find fault from the sidelines”. Do you still enjoy the art of a good skewering?

TS: Trump has been a godsend to me. I could do a Trump cartoon a week, because he’s so vile. It’s such a dangerous time in the world. The only good thing is that, unlike Hitler, Trump doesn’t believe a word he says.

Once or twice a week, you come across an issue you’re just dying to say something about. That’s still a great joy. A few ecology issues, global warming, the gap between rich and poor. But you can’t just do a cartoon saying, “This is wrong.” You have to think of a metaphor or find a way of saying it that doesn’t bore the pants off people but hopefully makes them laugh and also makes them think. And you fail so often. I burn a lot of my original cartoons. So many of them are dreadful. You have to learn how to shoot the children.

Writing weekly columns [for the Listener] was agony. Daily cartoons are less so. But when I’m writing plays, it’s easy. The lines just come into my head. I can sit at my desk for four hours without getting up for a drink or to go to the toilet. I resent nightfall because I have to go to sleep and I can’t wait to get to my desk in the morning. If that’s what gives the greatest pleasure, shouldn’t I be doing it all the time?

N&S: When Hollywood comes knocking to option the film rights, who’ll play the lead role?

TS: I think Brad Pitt… Gaylene Preston wants me to write a play about my childhood, but no. I’ve done my father, I’ve got a play about my mother, Joan, coming up in January at Circa [in Wellington], and I’ve done my memoir. I’ve ransacked the halls of my memory and burgled my own brain. There’s broken furniture everywhere. That’s me done.      

This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.


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