7 personal questions for cartoonist Tom Scott

by Clare de Lore / 17 November, 2017
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Tom Scott in his Wellington home.

Cartoonist, political columnist, playwright and film-maker Tom Scott marks his 70th birthday with the release of Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir.

There wasn’t much to laugh about when Tom Scott was growing up in Feilding. Family life with his mother, Joan, and four siblings, including twin sister Sue, was dominated by his angry, bullying father, Tom Scott Sr. For no apparent reason, the Irishman singled out his clever, bespectacled namesake for harsh abuse and ridicule.

After escaping small-town rural New Zealand and his father, Tom Scott Jr eventually forged a new life in Wellington and a career as a political writer and cartoonist. For 10 years in the 70s and 80s, he was the Listener’s political columnist in the Press Gallery. He famously took on then-Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, observed and lampooned many others, and earned himself fame as well as prestigious journalism awards.

His career has spanned the 1981 Springbok Tour, the Muldoon era, Rogernomics and the anti-nuclear movement. In recent years, Scott has broadened his career into writing for stage, television and film, but he continues to contribute to the political discourse through his cartoons in the Dominion Post.

Scott relives some of his childhood miseries recounted in Drawn Out (Allen & Unwin, $45) with characteristic humour and self-deprecation, including a story in which he mistakes the bright-green film of a cesspool for grass and learns he can’t walk on water. As well as romping through his favourite escapades at home and abroad as a journalist and his personal ups and downs, the book features notable cartoons.

Tom Scott presenting cartoons to Nelson Mandela in 1995.

Tom Scott presenting cartoons to Nelson Mandela in 1995.

Its launch in Wellington earlier this month was attended by friends and colleagues from the worlds of journalism, politics and theatre, including Greg McGee, Mark Sainsbury, Sir Bob Jones, Ray and Caroline Henwood and Gary McCormick. Absent and missed by Scott were comedy legends who make up a poignant posthumous roll call of friendship, some dead well before their three score years and 10: Murray Ball, John Clarke, Paul Holmes, Jon Gadsby and Alan “AK” Grant, who was also a popular contributor to the Listener in the 80s. Scott is proud to have called Sir Ed Hillary a friend and had adventures with him in Nepal and elsewhere.

After the book launch, Scott celebrated his 70th birthday with a round of media interviews. I caught up with him at the Auckland apartment he and partner Averil Mawhinney are renting for a few months while working away from home.

Tom Scott and his twin sister, Sue, on a family outing in 1950. Photo/Scott Family  Collection

You’ve made it through seven decades, so I have seven questions for you. First, who would you choose, living or dead, as a dinner companion?

I’d have Oscar Wilde. In any compilations of humour, Wilde tops the count, followed by Woody Allen. But Allen is suspect, and I’m not sure he’s funny in person. Wilde not only was funny, but also helped himself to other people’s jokes. Remember that famous story when one of his friends said something witty and Wilde said, “I wish I’d said that”? His friend replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Peter Cook was terribly funny. Even his last interviews on The Clive James Show, when he was a shambling wreck, were stunning. One of the funniest people at a dinner party – you wake up the next day and think you’ve been in a fight because your ribs are sore from laughing – is Ginette McDonald. Kerre McIvor and Michelle Obama make the shortlist, and Stephen Hawking, although it takes a while for the machine to give his witticisms.

Which living politician or politicians do you admire?

[German Chancellor] Angela Merkel for her immigration policy when people were being washed ashore while trying to flee the Middle East, although she’s had to backpedal a bit with the rise of the right. During our election campaign, I thought James Shaw picked the Green Party up off the canvas. He did a remarkable job. So far, I really like [new Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern, but we’ll have to wait and see. Of the people I thought I wouldn’t admire but did – Doug Graham; he was an outstanding Minister of Treaty Negotiations. And the last joker, what’s his name, Chris Finlayson, did a great job.

Scott in the Listener office recently for a drink with the editor. Photo/Clare de Lore

[Former Prime Minister] Geoff Palmer was in the audience at some speech I gave about five years ago and I said, “One of the politicians I really admire is standing there down the front. I have mocked and humiliated him over many years, but it doesn’t mean I don’t admire him.” He has done fantastic work for New Zealand on constitutional matters – a decent man.

Another politician who became a close friend is Don McKinnon. When I was researching [two-part television mini-series] Fallout and the currency crisis, I needed information. Don had been present [at the events leading to the calling of the snap election in 1984] and had immediately handwritten a detailed record of who said what and had it typed up.

He told me he wouldn’t give me those notes, but that he would leave them on his desk and take a two-hour walk, leaving me to read them furiously and take notes if I wanted. It would be my one and only opportunity. He was confident no one would be able to challenge his record, and when I talked to others with that mother lode of truth, they would swallow, and you know that once people realise you know everything, they stop denying it.

Attending the world premiere of Separation City, the film he wrote, in 2009. Photo/Getty Images

Did you vote while writing about politics?

I did, and I do. Without going into detail, I vote for the planet. Look at my cartoons. [Former Environment Minister] Nick Smith isn’t an evil person, but when he said, “We are going to have to accept that some rivers will only ever be wadeable”, I thought that if that had been a courtroom trial and I was jury foreman, I would have insisted we deliver our verdict without even going into the jury room. Guilty as charged. No recent government, left or right, is exempt. It started a long time ago – back when my father was spreading superphosphate and 2,4,5-T – we’ve been putting nitrates into the soil and pesticides into the air. Seventy-five per cent of the winged insects in Europe have disappeared. We’re heading towards a Silent Spring.

Given research that shows the high environmental cost of producing meat and dairy, are you swayed towards a plant-based diet?

I have Jewish friends who insist bacon is a vegetable. I read an article and thought I could never eat another meat patty, but I battled my way through a steak. But as more research is done into animal intelligence, it’s shocking to realise how smart and sensible animals are. And you see pictures of rhinos with their horns hacked off. How disgusting are people to do that? You wonder if you’re a member of the same species.

After becoming an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006. Photo/Getty Images

What do you want to be remembered for?

I have a legacy in the sense that cartoons live on. I know some of mine will endure – and this will sound pretentious – like some of David Low’s [a New Zealand-born political cartoonist and caricaturist who lived and worked in the UK]. Some I have done on race relations and climate change. My best, maybe 10%, will endure. Then there will be the parks, boulevards, opera houses and statues bearing my name. I will let the country decide those.

What are you most scared of?

I’m not very comfortable in water. When you go out yachting with people, sometimes they’ll say, “Let’s just moor here and all of us swim out to that island.” It’s a nightmare. I have to pretend I’m swimming badly as a joke. I send up spumes of spray and people think I’m being a hoot. I’m not. And I’m worried about the planet. It’s a bit like a Spitfire over the English Channel. We’re turning round and round leaving a smoking trail and the water is rushing towards us and we’re pulling on the joystick. What terrifies me is when we don’t pull out of the dive and we leave nothing but a shitstorm for our children and grandchildren.

Looking back at your life, would you do it all over again or differently?

Most people say they would do it the same. The thought of childbirth and the pain rules me out of coming back as a woman. Seriously, though, there were times when I was terribly miserable growing up, but all those experiences shaped me, gave me insights and appetites and drive. I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t gone through all that. There is a saying from an old American blues song, “If it weren’t for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no music”, and I love that line. I am grateful for the rocks.

Scott’s play Joan, about his mother, runs at Wellington’s Circa Theatre from Jan 20-Feb 17. Scott will be the star of the “Tom Scott Sunday Roast” in the Writers & Readers section of the New Zealand Festival, Wellington, on March 11. 

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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