A memoir in words, cartoons and sketches

Last week, we launched the latest publication from the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, Bob Brockie’s Brockie: A Memoir in Words, Cartoons and Sketches.

Bob Brockie and others at the launch. Bob is holding a copy of his book.L-R: Author Lloyd Jones, Bob Brockie, Ian F. Grant, Chair of the Guardians of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, and Melinda Johnston, Research Librarian Cartoons, at the book launch. Photo by Mark Beatty.

A memoir with a difference

Through much of Bob Brockie’s long and colourful life – 80+ years to date – he has kept a notebook and sketch pad beside him. In this memoir, Dr. Robert Brockie remembers, with some help from his diaries, all the highlights: the people, places, pioneering scientific work and five decades of political cartooning.

Cover of the book Brockie, showing some of his cartoons and illustrations.

The book has a strong emphasis on the sketches, portraits, caricatures and cartoons that Brockie is renowned for, but his varied and impressive scientific career is not forgotten.

Brockie’s life has encompassed editing and illustrating at School Publications, design concepts for Te Papa, DSIR’s ground-breaking Orongoronga Valley forest study, possum and hedgehog research, 40 years as National Business Review cartoonist, the writing of books and over 700 popular newspaper science columns.

A cartoonist’s life

To whet your appetite, here are a few short extracts from the book.

Cartooning molecules

I am sometimes asked about my political sensibilities or the motivations behind my cartoons but I must admit to a very superficial grasp on politics and can’t say why I’m driven to draw political cartoons. Money has a lot to do with it, but I am also endlessly entertained by ridiculousness. Cartooning also allows me to let off a bit of steam so I don’t feel so impotent in the face of a preposterous world. More to the point, there’s a Thursday morning deadline and I must sketch something to entertain the troops, so switch to a derisive cartooning mode. Tom Scott thinks I move around all the scientific molecules in my brain to let the cartoon molecules function. Three hours later a cartoon emerges as though some idiot-savant has taken over my brain.


There is very little a political cartoonist can do to prepare for tomorrow’s creation. One must, of course, keep a close eye on the news and keep one’s pencil sharpened but it’s really an act-of-the-moment seat-of-the-pants exercise. The only preparation I make is to maintain scrapbooks of sketches which might someday come in handy.

Manhattan time

In 1982, I won the QANTAS Media Cartoonist of the Year Award, the prize being a free flight to the U.S. Arriving in San Francisco, Pat, Adam, Rebecca and I booked a coach tour of the western states. Most of the passengers on that trip were retired Australians except for a young dairy farmer and his family from Whangarei. The farmer immediately allied himself with us. “We’ll show these Ozzies,” he shouted. “Think they can play rugby and cricket! They don’t know the half of it...” We cringed and tried to avoid the man but, as the trip progressed, we warmed to him and especially to his wife and children who got on well with our kids. We became good friends and by the end of the trip were sorry to bid them farewell. A year or two later the poor fellow wrote to say that a milk tanker had run over and killed his wife.

Another tripper on that bus was a wizened old Australian jockey and his new bride, 40 years his junior. After three days on the road it became clear that they were not well suited to each other as they rowed publicly in hotel dining rooms and on the bus. The new groom spent the last week of his honeymoon sleeping alone in hotel corridors.

Lying on my back in a swimming pool in Scottsdale, Phoenix, I was puzzled to see the air full of sprite-like little creatures darting about. Insects, I thought, but they turned out to be hummingbirds, the first I had ever seen.

I flew on to New York where Jerry and Julie Dukor kindly lent me their flat on 9th Avenue, Greenwich Village.

I went to a cartoonists’ bar on 42nd Street, decorated with Chas Adams and Schultz’s Peanut sketches to meet Paul Rigby the Australian who drew for the New York Post. Encouraged by my QANTAS win and by Rigby’s urgings, I sketched some caricatures of President Reagan as Louis the Sun King (he was visiting Paris at the time) and visited the offices of the Wall Street Journal to offer my services as a cartoonist. Editor Charles Preston thought I was “very talented” but regretted the paper never employed cartoonists. Another get-rich-quick scheme derailed.

I had kept in touch with my mountain-lion-expert, now Doctor Currier, who had moved from her modest house at Fort Collins to an up-market address in New York. I gave her a call and was invited to a party at her place at 5.30 that very evening. Catching a cab I was dropped outside a tall skyscraper in Upper Manhattan. At first a commissionaire, dressed like a Hapsburg general, turned me away but a phone call or two later and I was admitted into the building. The lift opened directly into a very big, very crowded, chandelier-lit room. All male guests wore tuxedos and were attended by black men wearing white gloves. I wore a parka and was introduced as a kind of Crocodile Dundee from the South Seas. Chatting to others I learned that Mr Currier was heir to a chain of Canadian banks which explained the lavish setting. Things went swimmingly for me until 7.30 when, as I was comfortably downing a Rommanée les Suchots 1976 with a chef in the kitchen, I discovered that all the guests had disappeared and that I too was expected to leave. The last to leave, I was politely shepherded to the lift door and farewelled. In Upper Manhattan, it seems, one is expected to leave a cocktail party on the dot when the invitation reads ‘from 5 to 7.30’.

About Bob Brockie

Cover of the book Brockie, showing some of his cartoons and illustrations.Bob Brockie sketching caricatures of Ronald Reagan in Greenwich Village, New York, 1982. Photo by Roy Murphy.

Bob, born in Christchurch in 1932, drew whimsical illustrations and cartoons for Salient, Victoria University’s student newspaper, and for successive capping magazines, while he studied towards a zoology degree in the 1950s. The degree completed, he left for Europe where his interest in caricature developed as he recorded the colour and novelty of Italian street scenes. Back in New Zealand, he has been editorial cartoonist for National Business Review continuously since 1975 and was twice QANTAS Cartoonist of the Year.

In his other life, Dr. Robert Brockie is a highly respected scientist. He was a leading New Zealand authority on hedgehogs and possums and between 1976 and 1982 he led the DSIR team involved in a 25-year study of the Orongorongo Valley in the Rimutaka State Forest Park — the birds, animals, trees and plants from canopy to forest floor.

His eclectic list of other publications range from the biology of Hawke’s Bay farmland possums to cartoon collections and includes a guide to the plants and animals of New Zealand cities and towns. The popularisation of science has been a particular feature of Brockie’s work. Today, Brockie is still contributing, for the second decade, a popular weekly science column to Wellington’s Dominion Post.

Bob Brockie received the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Merit Award for Communications in 1999. In 2004 he was elected Companion of the Royal Society. In 2013 he became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to science and cartooning.

Bob Brockie at the launch.Bob Brockie at the launch. Photo by Mark Beatty.

Listen to Bob Brockie speaking with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand

Bob Brockie’s cartoons and publications are held in the New Zealand Cartoon Archive collection at the Turnbull. See some of Brockie's cartoons online.

"Look, and take down everything"

Writer Lloyd Jones spoke at the launch, and has kindly allowed us to reproduce his remarks.

‘Avoiding boredom is one of creative man’s more important purposes.’

The quote is from the brilliant Saul Steinberg, an early influence on Bob’s drawing.

I would venture to say that most of Bob’s life has been one prolonged flight from boredom.

* * *

I realised the other day I’ve known Bob for 48 years. (Or to put it another way) I was 12 years old when Bob entered my world. Bob had hooked up with my sister Pat, and of all Pat’s boyfriends Bob was the most unlikely but easily the most impressive.

An appealing kind of un-orthodoxy clung to him. He liked to wear a dark P-jacket, and white jeans. And he limped like a Long John Silver, a legacy of his polio. (It seemed less a disability than an enhancement).

Certainly no one like Dr Brockie had ever crossed my path before.

There seemed to be three or four people crammed inside the one skin.

Lloyd Jones speaking at Brockie's launch event.Lloyd Jones speaking at the launch. Photo by Mark Beatty.

There were so many aspects to Bob that he hardly needed to look beyond himself for good, stimulating company.

* * *

He seemed to know everything about the natural world, could identify every bird and plant and insect, collected butterflies, spoke Italian, could bang out arias on the piano, was funny, could draw anything, and produced with extraordinary ease cartoons that skewered the vanities of his subjects.

Actually I need to correct what I just said about Bob’s musical abilities. I should have said he APPEARED to know how to play the piano. That is to say he would go about it with tremendous confidence and enthusiasm.

I was surprised to read in the memoir that Bob has composed over 100 separate pieces of music.

He can transcribe what he hears into musical notation but cannot read back what he has written, and so depends on others who can to tell him what it sounds like.

(In other words, he is spectacularly deaf to himself).

‘Neo-baroque’, according to the eminent composer, David Farquar.

* * *

On a more domestic note, Bob introduced me to garlic and showed me how to make a Sicilian omelette which I made every morning before school – I made it, as Bob and Pat, being Bohemians, were usually still in bed. Getting the eggs out of the fridge was a special and unique horror. Because in the fridge would be several dead hedgehogs that awaited Bob’s examination.

Pinned up on the walls of that kitchen were Bob’s sketches of the Sicilian villages he had lived and visited in the late 1950s. Inevitably, Sicily was the first place I set out for as a 21 year old.

Bob’s example was encouraging in other more surprising ways. The eminent contributor to the DomPost science column told me he had failed school certificate – not once, or twice, but three times!

I felt tremendously encouraged by his perennial failure. In fact, anything at all suddenly seemed possible.

* * *

It’s often said that a book has many authors.

And perhaps this is true of Bob’s life in pictures.

As a four year old Bob was taught by a Miss Youngman how to draw (at about the same age my children were taught by Bob how to draw).

A rococo effect characterises many of Bob’s sketches. Bob’s mother, Vera, might take some credit for turning her boy’s eye to the filigreed loops and rococo sugar touches on the tiered cakes she so admired.

There was music in the young Brockie’s household. Thanks to the radiogram. Schubert. Caruso. (Bob once told me the first time he turned on a radio in Italy he thought world war 3 had broken out, such was the exuberance of the radio broadcast. Apparently it was the weather forecast)

The life of Bob’s father, Walter, is also extraordinary in so many ways; he survived the madness of Gallipoli, was taken prisoner by the Turks, he was a self-taught pianist and an amateur botanist with a great interest in sub-alpine plants which he shared with Bob and his sisters.

But, it was someone else – a scientist – who told Bob at a suitably young and impressionable age to ‘look, and take down everything’.

Bob took that advice to heart. And ever since, a notebook and pencil has never been far from his back pocket.

* * *

Bob writes that his ‘Methodist mother’ never read a book in her life. Vera and Walter dismissed fiction as ‘distasteful’ and ‘frivolous’.

Perhaps the leaf hasn’t fallen as far from the tree as he would like to believe.

Bob seems to have carried out an early examination of his ‘soul’, as he describes it, and run a mile – and has never been back since, he writes, for fear of what he may find.

The ‘examined life’ in this book is very much on the surface – cafes in Italy, the square in Venice, Greyhound Stations across America, street scenes in Sydney, Cochin, Bombay, armed police riding bicycles in Jakarta, and so on; the comings and goings of starlings from the mainland at dusk, the number of road kill documented between here and Auckland, numbers of hedgehogs found and monitored on the Hutt Course, the number of pigeons in Trafalgar Square for the year 1959.

Bob’s modus operandi, wherever he is, is always to focus on the moment. Eye, hand, paper.

For that reason, if you happen to be a past wife or lover of Bob’s you will almost certainly be recorded with some affection. The (girlfriends, lovers, wives) are all here (a few remain in the shadows) but the official count is here, and I’m happy to say I’ve met and liked them all.

The transition from one wife/lover/girlfriend to the other is also covered in the book, but with a stylish degree of evasion.

Bob falls back on phrases such as ‘...subsequent events are best left unrecorded...’ Or, ‘For reasons that needn’t detain us...’ and the narrative marches on.

* * *

Bob’s children – Katie, John, Landy, Gabriella, and Adam are all lovingly drawn. I am less so.

For some reason, in his drawing of me, Bob has confused me for a pomegranate with a greasy lip.

The other day I saw a photo of the late Rob Muldoon, and I did a double take. He looked so implausible because, I realised, I was more used to seeing him, as Bob used to draw him, in the pumped-up attire of Benito Mussolini.

Likewise Norman Kirk, with his pursed lips and soft feminine face.

Bob’s great ability is to represent his subjects by the very thing they would wish remained hidden.

Readers of NBR will be surprised to learn that their resident cartoonist for the past 40 years, politically, does not belong to any one tribe. And that he claims not to know much about the political process.

Bob writes that he does political cartoons to let off steam and to exercise a voice against the ridiculousness of the world. Fair enough.

But, in his book I think I found the source of Bob’s political indignation in a wonderful drawing of ‘mad cow disease’ which he breaks down into six categories: ‘Paranoia, narcissism, manic behaviour, delusions of grandeur, exhibitionism, psychosis – out of touch with reality.’

If any you out there happens to be an aspiring politician and if you can tick any one of those boxes, then look out, before your career is over, you will almost certainly attract the merciless attention of Bob Brockie.

I began with a quote from Steinberg and I will end with another.

‘People who see a drawing in the New Yorker will think it is funny because it is a cartoon. If they see it in a museum they will think of it as artistic. If they find it in a cookie they will think it is a predictor of the future.’

I think Bob’s pictures can hang off any one of those hooks.

With this book Bob delivers evidence of someone who has looked hard, and honestly, and with affection and fascination for the world as he’s found it.

It is wonderfully entertaining and I will end by simply saying ‘Congratulations Bob, and well done.’ And please keep on, keeping on.

Ian is not an employee of the National Library, and as such his ideas and opinions are his own.

By Ian F. Grant

Ian F. Grant is chairperson of the Guardians of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive and has written widely on cartoon history.

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