Cartoonist Michael Leunig is a man whose ideas tend to be louder than his presence. As we meet in his Northcote studio, you might mistake his thoughtfulness for meekness. But perhaps he is accustomed to being misunderstood.
In the past four decades, his poetic cartoons have been deemed strange, mystifying and occasionally controversial. Even he admits he doesn’t always understand them. “I envy musicians because nobody ever asks what a tune means,” he tells me.
Today, I’m giving him a chance to explain himself. Courtesy of The School of Life Melbourne, I’ve come with a Conversation Toolkit, a collection of curly questions designed to plunge us into meaningful communion. Normally the journalist chooses the questions, today he’s picking them from a box.
What makes you most stressed?
Humanity, I suppose. There’s much I find very distressing about our current direction, but that’s a cartoonist’s lot. You have a sense of what is ominous, as well as what is beautiful. I like to have made a piece of work that is somehow helpful. A lot of my work over the years has ended up in strange places. Funerals, weddings, in the hands of people in therapy, as well as soldiers in Afghanistan.
Would you prefer to be a singleton or a smug married person?
Smug married is a fraudulent position, I think. They’re hiding something. The whole thing leaks. If a singleton means you have to be on Tinder, I don’t want to be that. To be a loner, drifting about is not the worst thing in the world. I like having connections to as many people as possible, all sorts of people. The strangers on the street. I’d like to be occasionally single, occasionally married. To have a reprieve occasionally from whatever sort of situation you’re in. A varied life.
In what respects are you the same person you were as a child?
Obviously, I’ve changed and evolved and regressed, but the degree to which I am the same interests me because childhood was a time of great wonder and emotion and imagination and spirituality – the child’s spiritual life is very strong. The recovery of those elements is vital to the artist. To connect to the little boy I was, full of wide-eyed wonder and fear and love, is a lifetime’s work.
But growing up is good. I think our popular culture is inclined to be wary of maturity. You hear people brag and say, “oh, I’m just a big kid”. To see 35-year-olds getting along with skateboards makes me uneasy.
Describe a simple pleasure.
A simple pleasure is when I want to go to the city and I walk to the train station at the end of the street and I just miss the train. Because there’s now a seat on the station and I’ve got nothing to do. It’s fantastic. When I started to understand that this was a simple, available pleasure, it meant every time I miss the train I can breathe a sigh of relief; suddenly I’ve been granted 15 minutes.
Would you prefer to be a psychoanalyst or a doctor?
A psychoanalyst, because you’re looking into someone’s soul. As a doctor, you’re looking into someone’s bottom.
Michael Leunig will appear in conversation with Myke on November 20 and 21 for The School of Life Melbourne, which also supplied the 100 Questions: Conversations Toolkit.
DUCKS FOR DARK TIMES \
Michael Leunig’s new book is out now through Penguin.