Michael Leunig’s commentary on political, cultural and emotional life spans more than forty years and has often explored the idea of an innocent and sacred personal world. His newspaper work appears regularly in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
The fragile ecosystem of human nature and its relationship to the wider natural world is a related and recurrent theme. He describes his approach as regressive, humorous, messy, mystical, primal and vaudevillian – producing work which is open to many interpretations and has been widely adapted in education, music, theatre, psychotherapy and spiritual life.
Ahead of his appearance at Byron Writers Festival he took some time to have a chat with The Echo.
Most newspaper cartoonists react to the ‘news of the day’ but you seem to operate outside this dynamic. Could you tell us why?
The news of the day matters but it is often too narrow, gossipy and ephemeral. News commentators can sound like overwrought football commentators. I find the news boring and dry compared to the broader existential questions. I think my culture is in need of its lyrical intelligence more than the ongoing desperation of its factual analytical grasping. Perhaps I neglect my duty when I neglect the news. Perhaps I am more like a poet, a gardener or a songwriter than a journalist. I like the lyrical mysteries as much as I like the facts.
Were you influenced by cartoonist Bruce Petty?
I was hugely influenced and inspired by Bruce Petty. I regarded myself as his greatest and most eager fan. Eventually I met him and he bought me lunch – spaghetti marinara and a glass of wine. He was lovely. The next day he went to Vietnam as an observer in the midst of the terrible war there. My final words to him as we parted on a Sydney street were plaintive and innocent – and faintly ridiculous: ‘Be careful.’
How did you come to work with local singer/songwriter Gyan?
Gyan sent me a recording of her settings for my lyrics. I thought she had a glorious voice and the melodies she composed were strong and beautiful. She was a gifted musician and I felt honoured by her attention to my work. Of all the artists, I think I admire and envy musicians the most. Glad envy. They touch us very deeply and very surely. Nobody needs to ask them ‘What is the meaning of that tune?’ People usually just get it. It either touches them or it doesn’t touch them. No complications. Nice situation.
What is the source of your special relationship with ducks?
I lived with a few ducks as a child. They are easy to like. Rounded beaks that dabble rather than peck. They have lovely funny personalities. They are all-rounders; they swim, they walk and they fly. I have never met a person who feels bad about ducks – and have never met a duck who feels bad about itself.
Is Mister Curly a Fool?
Yes, Mr Curly is a fool. A sweet cheerful fool rather than a bitter destructive one. Open and sincere. Good humoured but not a smart alec. A fool’s constructive intelligence. Honest as possible. Many failings and flaws of personality; which make him a forgiving soul – but he is generally eager about life – although a bit wary about the cult of cleverness. I like him.
What attracts you to the melancholy?
Melancholy is natural. It is organically grown and is profound and rich. It has a beautiful shape. It produces insight, wisdom and joy.
• Michael Leunig will discuss his life’s work The Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham on Friday August 5, 6pm at Byron Theatre. Tickets $30. Leunig will be in conversation with David Leser (Sunday) and take part inThe World of Animals (Friday) with Ceridwen Dovey and Briohny Doyle. Tix: byronwritersfestival.com