1949 - | NSW | Cartoonist
Patrick Cook was one of the first cartoonists to migrate savage satire from newsprint to multiple art forms including television, radio, puppetry, prose and drama. If a picture could sometimes tell a thousand words, Cook’s cut-through mind composed libraries in a single frame. Many younger cartoonists followed his style. He has worked for Nation Review, The National Times, Cleo, Matilda and The Bulletin. In the 80s he was as well known for his satirical column as he was for his enormously popular cartoons and artworks. Cook was sued for defamation by the architect Harry Siedler. He won the case.
Patrick Cook was first sighted in 1971 in Nation Review armed with a dip pen and the angelic face of a troublemaker. The blame is widely shared. He was a child of the empire, born British to a naval family - the middle name is St John – educated in a Sydney private school and living in a country that he has never ceased to find exotic. He wore at first the light disguise of an imp. But as time went by – not long – he let loose the rage that drives the great political cartoonists. Everything Cook does – writing, performing, drawing – is driven by rage and pity for all he finds shabby in our world, our politics and us.
He never doubted the good fortune of being Patrick. “Patrick is a splendid choice,” he wrote in one of his funniest books, The Ultimate Book of Names. “From the Latin ‘noble’, the Greek ‘wonderful’, Ancient Persian ‘fabulous’….” His mind often wanders in the past. History matters a great deal to him. Even at its silliest, Cook’s work takes a long view. He doesn’t savage governments because they’re not as good as the last, or Labor for not being able to match the Coalition. His scorn ranges over centuries. Caesar, Christ, Simon Bolivar and Hitler are familiar figures in Cook’s work. Ditto heroes of the Royal Navy. One of his first drawings published had a sailor unbuckling his pants as a dying Nelson declared: “A kiss will be quite sufficient Hardy.”
Cook set the tone for The National Times as head prefect of a remarkable band of black and white artists: Jenny Coopes, Michael Fitzjames, Neil Moore, David Bromley, Tony Edward, Matthew Martin and Ward O’Neill. It was the last great artists’ paper in this country and however bleak the stories we wrote – and in the Fraser years bleak was the default setting of the paper – Cook had fun. Politicians grew the faces he gave them: a scimitar nose for Whitlam, a child’s lip for Howard and on Malcolm Fraser a jaw like a pig’s bum.
Cook did similar damage to the nation’s picture of itself. His Australia is a place of bush flies, barbed wire to the horizon, fat heads under big hats, deluded optimists, sheep – the most human of animals in Cook’s world - barristers in wigs, tea ladies and their trollies, women in overalls and wise koalas. In my brief time in the editor’s chair in the early 1980s, I begged Cook to cull the koalas. He redoubled his efforts instead. It was koalas all the way.
He was the funniest man around – in The Financial Review in the week and The National Times at the weekend where he began his celebrated column Not the News. By this time he had discovered the theatre (and vice versa) performing and writing dazzling scripts for his friends to perform. A puppet show starring Captain Lazar and his Earthbound Circus (one of his favourite creations) was a cult sensation at the Adelaide Festival of 1980.
Then Harry Seidler was silly enough to sue Cook over an elegant cartoon of a bare landscape dotted with man-high concrete boxes where sandwiches were fed through a slit in the front and shit collected from a slot at the back. The caption read: Harry Seidler Retirement Park. The jury backed Cook. When the great man died every obituary in the world recorded his 1982 humiliation and to this day every Google search of his work turns up the cartoon. As a result of Cook’s victory in Harry Seidler & Associates v. John Fairfax & Sons Ltd, Australian newspapers were funnier and braver for a generation.
When sharp money closed down The National Times, Cook crossed the street to The Bulletin where his writing and drawing were celebrated for the next twenty years. Once again, he set the tone. He made The Bulletin look like him. Each week he illustrated Laurie Oakes’ column and on his retirement Oakes unhesitatingly nominated Cook as the best cartoonist in the country. When sharp money shut The Bulletin in 2008, Cook crossed the street once more and worked for a few years at The Spectator. The empire child was almost home again.
As newspapers and magazines collapsed beneath him, television became Cook’s other career. For decades now he has been making actors sound funny. The Gillies Report in the 1980s became a national institution. That triumph was followed by Good News Week, The Dingo Principal – which earned Australia diplomatic rebukes from Russia, Japan and Iran – The Party Machine, and seven seasons of The Big Gig where he met and married the wise and very funny Jean Kittson. They have two grown daughters.
He continues to draw and write. Any suggestion he may have retired is met with fierce rebuke. His ink and brushes are busy. And the joke at the core of Patrick Cook’s calling is good for many miles yet. In the shadow of history he sees us all, even himself, as children. We’re innocent, bewildered, fractious children who can’t help ourselves. Nothing in his work over nearly fifty years suggests he has any hope of us growing up soon. This is going to go on and on and on. Thank heavens for that.
David Marr is a journalist who worked most of the time for Fairfax and the ABC. These days he writes Quarterly Essays and contributes to The Guardian.
Patrick Cook in 1984. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Courtesy of Patrick Cook.
The cartoon that Harry Seidler sued over. Courtesy of Patrick Cook.
The Gillies Report, Patrick Cook, John Clarke, Don Watson and Phillip Scott, McPhee Gribble/Penguin Books, 1985
The Book of the Year, Patrick Cook, George Allen & Unwin, 1981
Fraser Country, Patrick Cook, Fontana Books, 1980