Martin Rowson holds the Frontline: talk review

I can’t be sure, but I think I heard cartoonist Martin Rowson refer to the late Labour MP Tom Driberg, in one of his anecdotes last night, as a ‘fellationist’. He might have said ‘fallacionist’ but as it’s Rowson doing the telling, I’m assuming it was the former.

It takes a special kind of genius to be equally sharp with the verbals and with visual dexterity. Following in the satirical tradition of William Hogarth, James Gillray and David Low, virtuoso caricaturist Martin Rowson ranks alongside Steve Bell as one of the most savage political commentators of our era, slicing into psychic zones where mere journalists mostly fear to tread.

The in-the-flesh Rowson is also an excellent entertainer. In a masterclass on how to take on the establishment, he enthralled the audience at the Frontline Club on Tuesday with an illustrated talk about his career, hosted by Laurie Taylor. From the alarming photo portrait of Alastair Campbell which greeted you on entrance, through the pantheon of cartoon greats, to his own instruments of assassination, he took us through his development as a scourge of society’s most powerful.

He outlined the sorts of horrors that spur him on to wage war with his pens, such as our government trying to force international trading partners to take our BSE-infected brains when we’d given the world Mad Cow Disease. He reckons ‘laughing at them stops us beheading them’ (and splashing their cranial matter over other poor unsuspecting folk), which some of us might count as an argument against such safety valves. Still, he is an embodiment of all those great George Orwell values we love, so I wouldn’t make Martin kneel on broken glass just yet.

Due to an oversight in 1695 when the government failed to renew the censorship laws after the glorious revolution (1688), there was an explosion in vicious satire, the Great Leap Forward being Hogarth’s Gin Lane, Madonna and Child seen through angry cartoonist’s eyes. As the Enlightenment took hold, writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift joined the artists in their attack on elites and created a unique field in which Britain and Ireland led. Americans can’t do their leaders wearing their underpants over their trousers, or show modern politics in the increasingly grotesque pictorial history of Blair’s teeth, relying instead on gentle and genteel generics. It took a Brit (Gillray) to show William Pitt, who had created paper money to finance war with Bonaparte, shitting money, and it took Rowson centuries later to pastiche this as Gordon Brown failing to shit money into the public sector.

I also liked Charles Clarke as a tampon and Peter Oborne as a turd floating uselessly in sewage. But not as much as the mad canine Tony Blairs, which remain a personal favourite.

‘I’m not attacking the elite to make them behave differently, but to make us feel better,’ he tells us. And yet …

You get the sense that Rowson envies David Low’s status on Hitler’s death list, so effective were his war cartoons in ridiculing the Nazis. The worst he had to deal with is the timidity of various editors. His most crushing defeat was being kicked off the Times by editor George Brock to make space for Julie Burchill. Rowson’s final cartoon and last hurrah for News International was the crowded portrait of political stars in the bar who, if you look very carefully, spell out, “Fuck Brock”.

Today, politicians clamour to be drawn, as a mark that they’ve truly arrived. Dennis McShane even pestered him, demanding, ‘You must put me in more cartoons’. Oh, Martin, you’re only encouraging them.

His response over the years has been to turn up the grotesquery to eleven, even though it seems to fall on blind eyes when celebrity is at stake. Does he ever switch off his uglification filter? He says he is sometimes brought down by relentless misanthropy and would like to paint kittens. Nevertheless, his killer skills are only used for good, undermining the powerful. He described one occasion when he drew a Downs Syndrome child and ended up flattering her. This is no bully throwing his weight around or sucking up to the political class. He means it.

I emerged from the Frontline revivified, inspired and determined to make even more mischief.

Now settle down and watch the Frontline video above.

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

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