You would no doubt recognise Michael Leunig’s very distinctive cartoons as many teachers refer to them for Language Analysis. His work presents his view on issues and concerns about life and ‘‘society’s mood or madness’’. Leunig’s cartoons can be dark and ironic. Many people disagree with his views and he has been accused of being insensitive, un-Christian, pro-Islamist and un-Australian. Leunig calls himself a ‘‘troublesome, disturbing cartoonist’’.
Leunig doesn’t scream a point of view. His work is often contemplative and reflective. It brings to mind words such as ‘‘ennui’’ and ‘‘malaise’’ — a sense of being tired of humanity’s tendency towards emotional and spiritual idleness. On certain issues he can be outspoken, controversial and confrontational. However, Leunig’s greatest achievement is that he encourages his audience to react.
For him, having no response is the worst crime, what Leunig calls ‘‘a loss of spirit’’. He is a commentator on a ‘‘desperate humanity that doesn’t know what to do any more and has resigned itself to banality, mass-mindedness and self-harm …’’ (The Bushfire Telegraph).
Many think he is negative and bleak and in some ways he is, but by presenting the uncomfortable, the unthinkable, the unlikeable he is actually revealing his passion for the often forgotten things in life. Go to page 21 of The Lot: in words and read about ‘‘yorro, yorro’’, then you will start to get a sense of what’s important to Leunig.
This collection is also about his reality — how the world appears to him and how he wishes it would appear more often. He writes about his own childhood, Australia, nature, fear, war, art, God, men’s underpants, death, a chicken’s birthday, beauty and love. It is extremely personal.
You may be frustrated that he doesn’t have a neon sign around his ‘‘contention’’ for easy and quick access. And that is the point; with his writing you will have to work and often work hard, but with the work comes great reward.
Each reflection within the collection provokes deliberation on all aspects of our existence. The writing is tempered and conversational. It is intensely personal and introspective. And it is for this reason that the collection is ideally suited to the Whose Reality context; not only because his writings are about perceptions but because his style of writing is so engaging and endearing.
It is a style to be noted by fellow expository writers — Leunig takes a moment in time and then weaves outward, linking his moment to the bigger picture, all the while maintaining his focus and central argument. It reveals the beauty of great expository writing; that is, to articulate a ‘‘moral to the story’’ within a framework of reflection and contemplation.
Working with the text
In Xenophobia and Memorabilia Leunig uses Anzac Day as the starting point for a reflection on childhood, goodness, war and a desire to understand ‘‘this spiritual inflation and emotional conscription’’.
The essay’s title already advocates the idea of perception — Xenophobia and Memorabilia — and with these we can contemplate the role and power of both forces on our view of the world. What is the basis of xenophobia if not about a perception based on fear? And isn’t memorabilia the ‘‘souvenirs’’ of our past, the objets d’art in the recesses of our mind that link us to earlier events and colour the way we see them?
Leunig meets a Turkish man — already an interesting starting point as Turkey and Australia were enemies during World War I — and this leads him to a discussion about personal truth and commitment.
This simple encounter takes him back to his childhood where the vigour of youth was indoctrinated with chants about power and pomposity. The consequence of not being a true and good patriot was a whack from his teacher ‘‘who prowled with strap ready to belt us if we showed the least sign of traitorous irreverence’’.
Already Leunig encourages the reader to reflect on the irony of such a situation. His memories are coloured by fear, intimidation and ‘‘meaningless words’’. Even as a child he remembers the ‘‘celebrations’’ linked to war and victory.
A simple phrase such as ‘‘celebrated a famous terrorist bomber Guy Fawkes’’ reveals the hypocrisy of society, then and now. To use ‘‘celebrated’’ and ‘‘terrorist bomber’’ in the same sentence is challenging, for the reader is forced to stop and consider the implications of such imagery through his use of language. The words together are paradoxical — to rejoice in destruction — but isn’t that exactly what history, tradition and patriotism do with war? The documents of war and sacrifice have been coloured because the black and white view of the truth is undesirable.
The ignorance of youth is lamentingly remembered with the knowledge of adulthood, and where it seems, society has not learnt anything. He remembers the child who blew things up, including ‘‘innocent creatures’’ and derived a great source of pleasure from it. As the man, he is able to reflect on the then and now and ask who are the ‘‘innocent creatures’’ society blows to ‘‘smithereens’’ in the name of ‘‘remembrance’’ and success.
From there Leunig is reminded of the writer Kurt Vonnegut. In his desire to understand ‘‘what humans are on about’’, Leunig remembers a short passage from Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: ‘‘In a dim, dreary bar on night, the lonely writer listens as the locals denounce writers and artists and praise the local role model, the father and trainer of the young female swimming champ. Kilgore Trout ponders, then turns to the group and asks, ‘What sort of a man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?’ The writer is set upon and beaten black and blue. This tale often helps me to understand Australia.’’
This observation within an observation says a great deal about Australia’s obsession with making ‘‘champions’’ — at the expense of childhood — and it is one we may not agree with. However, his perception engenders an assessment of our own perceptions. We are all part of the same humanity but what is it that colours our vision of our world? What is it that has us see a parent’s ambition for his child as either a testimony to commitment and success or a consequence of self-doubt and abuse?
This link to Vonnegut is made because of the common thread of war and destruction. Vonnegut’s writing has resonated with Leunig and it is in his memory and part of his philosophy, just as we all have images, words and trinkets that become part of our ‘‘reality show bag’’.
At the end Leunig returns to his starting point, Anzac Day, and mourns the loss of youth and beautiful souls lost in a ‘‘disgraceful misuse of humanity by the wielders of political and economic power’’. The simple encounter with a Turkish man over coffee has gone full circle and the reader is back to where the dialogue began.
The Lot: in words is powerful because it is about one man’s view of the world and his place within it. The writing of the essays is a deliberate choice in shaping, inclusion and omission. What Leunig writes about and how he writes about it is a construction of perception in itself. Then to have us share in his reality show bag of memories and thoughts is made even more powerful because by allowing us into his memories and perceptions we can reflect upon our own. And that can only be a good thing.
Karen Ford lectures in the Melbourne graduate school of education, University of Melbourne.