Q: What’s the connection between jazz great Thelonious Monk and a dachshund called Charlie Barker? A: A cartoonist named Michael Heath. But we’ll get to that later.
Heath arrives for our interview at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney’s trendy Paddington accompanied by his companion of over three years, Hilary, an Aussie girl who he met when she was working in The French House, described as a compact Soho bar with photos, where the literary crowd prefer wine to beer and observe the no-tech rule. Heath hates it when young people glue their faces to their mobiles, a hatred that extends to the ‘stupid movies’ that appear in cinemas these days. (He’s a big fan of the 1940s Powell-Pressburger filmmaking team of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Stairway to Heaven, etc. fame, not to mention the Australiana classic, They’re A Weird Mob.)
When Heath met Hilary, he had just been through the ‘terrible bust up’ of his second marriage, having lost his four kids and everything else. ‘She’s effervescent… and she’s not worried about what I say or do.’ He’s talking about her shortly after Hilary had left us at a coffee table in the cinema foyer, and relaxed in the pub across the road. ‘We are lovers and mates and friends,’ Heath adds. ‘She’s kind and sympathetic… It can’t last much longer,’ he adds flatly, ‘I’m 83’.
Heath has the look of a bohemian writer (albeit a healthy one), dressed casually in black with matching hat and sunglasses. You’d take him for a lefty with bells on. You’d be wrong – despite a Stalinist father. ‘Everyone on the Left thinks Trump is a dick; I don’t.’ Besides, he’s more complex than any label could possibly suggest.
As the current cartoon editor of The Spectator and resident cartoonist at the Mail on Sunday, he looks back on a career that includes not only voluminous, award winning cartooning but illustrious illustrations, as his bio (written by Hilary) puts it: …working with authors including Kingsley Amis (about drinking), Robert Morley (about thinking) and Keith Waterhouse (also about drinking). Keith Waterhouse’s play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was inspired by the strip “the Regulars” which ran in Private Eye. It was set in the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, where Heath was himself a regular alongside the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and the ubiquitous Jeffrey Bernard himself, a columnist who often failed to meet his deadline and was frequently and euphemistically declared “unwell”. Heath meticulously recreated the nicotine and booze soaked interior of The Coach and Horses for the stage set. The play starred Peter O’Toole as Jeffrey Bernard, locked in the pub overnight.’
We begin on a dark note: ‘Cartooning is becoming redundant. If you’re a cartoonist now, you’re a bad guy,’ he says without self pity. ‘It’s difficult to make people laugh,’ which is his primary aim in life. ‘It’s difficult especially as the kids don’t read. Gags they regard as archaic and they don’t like it.’ He illustrates this with an anecdote about a talk at a university in England about two years ago, ‘and the whole gender thing was blowing up, right? The average age was between 23 and 50, and I was showing them new and old cartoons of mine.’ He pauses. ‘There’s not a murmur.’
Heath stopped. ‘I don’t seem to be doing well here, what’s the problem, I asked them. Well, one chap stood up and said, “we found your drawings confrontational”; I chuckled, what do you mean by that. He said “you showed men shouting at women and vice versa, blah blah”… I thought about this and I said to them, thank you for pointing this out, but I’m not well… I recently had an operation, I’m now a lesbian and I live with another woman in an old unused fire station in Kent. And they said “Wow! That’s great, that’s really interesting…”. We ended up shaking hands and I left; so it worked out all right,’ he says chortling.
His bleak mood is splattered with good humour, his remarks spiked with observed truths. ‘It’s a lost generation now, but no one dares say that, no one dares say anything about race, or immigration or women being nightmares… you’ve got this whole landscape out there, but how are you going to do it. Everything’s slipping… the certainty is gone.’
He feels this acutely in his Bloomsbury home, ‘which used to be a literary heaven full of artists, now it’s full of Bangladeshis and burqas. Burqas do not joke. You do not joke with a burqad woman – and they don’t like us. They think we’re maggots.’
He rails against the loss of the cultural touchstones like the Ealing comedies, the knees up Mother Brown sensibility, the cockneys… and he knows he has to do things differently, especially as he insists on avoiding replicating what other cartoonists are doing. ‘My neurosis is to make it amusing.’
If you go through his new book of cartoons, Battle For Britain, you’ll see what he means. The cartoons rely equally on the text as on the image. Except one: a group of identically dressed Muslim women in their black burqas, the one at the front taking a selfie. Most of the cartoons repurpose iconic 50s characters in contemporary settings with mobile phones – with the text as the punch line. We talk on and on, until it’s time for Hilary to come back and take Heath for lunch with Michael Wilkinson – his Australian publisher, the only house to release Battle for Britain. That’s Britain today for you. (Wilkinson Publishing are selling the book worldwide – go to www.wilkinsonpublishing.com.au) Anyway, he’s missing Charlie Barker, his dog of 15 years, affectionately mis-named after one of his jazz heroes. As for Thelonious Monk, his influence has guided Heath’s work ever since his first illustration in 1954. He was training as an animator ‘of other people’s work’ until he got fed up with it and found a job ‘with a one-legged poof and his boyfriend’ who threw Heath an EP (you know, vinyl record) to draw the artist. ‘It was Theolonius Monk… and his music went POP in my head. I thought, if I could just draw like that!’
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