The Student
In conversation with Peter Brookes, illustrator for The Times
by Manvir Dobb, 19/01/20

“And this is Peter’s office.” For a phrase said with such ease in passing it was easy to believe that I didn’t just walk past the creative hub of the winner of Cartoonist of the Year at the British press Awards five times, not to mention a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 21st Cartoon Art Trust Awards; and has designed cartoons for a number of leading publications including Radio Times, The Spectator, and The Times for which he is currently working. So yes, that was Peter, Peter Brookes’ office.

Brookes’ office is no hidden cove. Within the open space of The Times’ newsroom’s layout, the exterior of his office is shrouded by glass walls: revealing enough for any wide-eyed budding artist to steal a glance whilst innocently “just going to get a cup of tea”. Parallel to the sleek glass wall is a another covered with cartoons.  The bright and bold colours juxtaposed to the muted tones of the rest of the office scream for the eye’s attention as much as the people they are portraying.

Walking in, he could not get more British than immediately apologising for the “mess” in his office, saying “when you go up against it and you’ve only just got the idea…” it’s a race against time, like any other job in a newspaper. Thinking the room was actually rather clean, besides  a few paints sprawled about betraying that an idea was in the making, I feared what he would think of some of the student flats at this university.

“I first joined the RAF as a pilot, but I wasn’t very good so they got rid of me.” Naturally the first words that you expect an artist to say when asked how they got into their profession.

“The thing I always wanted to do was go to art college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do from then, but I knew that’s what I always wanted to do.” The calming tone with which he then went on to talk about his family’s reservations for his decision to take the all-too-well-known dangerous artistic route was telling of someone who was reflecting on a point of uncertainty in their life having lived to tell the tale from the other side. Coming from an institution of people with hopes, fears, and aspirations of the world which while it is an oyster sometimes seems too tough to open, this was wonderfully settling.

When asked about the process of creating a satirical cartoon, I was informed that it would be easier if I were just walked through his entire day. “I wake up at 6:30am to the Today Programme which starts at 6 o’ clock, but that’s a little bit too early. I’m in the office by a quarter to ten, and at a quarter to eleven we have our morning conference. I get a good steer of what the paper will be doing then. Come 2 o’clock, I’ve more or less got my idea, and between 2 o’clock and 8 o’clock I do it. Hardly ever finish at 4. If you finish early, you always think there’s more you could’ve done, or there was a better idea you could’ve come up with.” It sounds like perfect clockwork. Much unlike the popularly romanticised idea of an artist working till the late hours of the night, or a newsroom with reporters running about like headless chickens looking for “the next big scoop”, balance is required for endurance. This goes for any large-scale news corporation that is trying to keep up with the world.

For a man who, when asked about the process of his work, decides to go on to talk about his whole day, it’s obvious that his dedication to his profession is all-consuming. “I don’t work on Mondays anymore. I used to work five days a week, but I found that it does wear you out. You crawl home on Friday night, recover on Saturday, and on Sunday you’re working out what to do for Monday.”

While admitting to ever-dreaded artistic ruts, Brookes’ reasons that when working as a political commentator, it’s often the daily thoughts and ramblings of the news-bringers, news-creators, and news-readers that endure you have good ideas to bounce off of. “The trick is to let it come, and not force the idea.” Focusing on current affairs, there are enough people in the world now to give you something to be inspired by. “Today it is Meghan and Harry.” Megxit: a topic which seems to be dividing this country as much as Brexit itself. “Bad, bad indeed. I know a lot of people are thinking, “well good, it’s a stuffy old institution anyway.” But the way it was done was worse than the action itself.”

The cartoon in its early stages of sketching is opened up on the table next to him. “You know Cinderella?” and no more explanation is needed. A twofold picture presents a beautiful carriage guiding the happy couple to their happily ever after, as the Queen, portrayed as the fairy godmother, gives them her blessings with the very swish of her wand: the royal wave in a parallel universe. Just below is the very same scene but at the dooming strike of midnight where all the couple is left with is a pumpkin for a mode of transport. Is it Halloween already?

As much as some media corporations strive for unbiased reporting, the role of a political cartoonist very much requires the alternative. Opinion is completely paramount. However, that does not mean you draw the first thought that comes into your head. An understanding of public opinion and fairness must be balanced with your own personal engagement and humour.

Yet the lines here are evidently blurred, and backlash is a consistent occupational hazard. In the corner of his room was the very cartoon that caused controversy with the ultimate Holy Grail in 2009. An accurate depiction of Pope Benedict XVI sporting a condom on his head with a pin through the very tip of it. “He was going on a tour of Africa and he gave a speech before he went saying that condoms weren’t going to help the fight against AIDS, which I thought was a ludicrous thing to be broadcast to the world so it made me do that really.”

“One of my recent favourites has been this one,” he says, pointing to a parody of Bucks Fizz with Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees Mogg, and Michael Gove representing a haunting version of the much-loved Eurovision band, Fucks Bizz.
“And this one of Putin with the head of the airplane MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine. He’s well known for hunting so the idea of Putin with all his trophies…” puts a humorous but disturbing spin on the president’s hobby. This particular cartoon brought flashbacks of a history lecture, when at one point the lecturer turned to a slide of Putin bare chested riding a bear in defiance of the laws of nature. Both the disturbing but powerful realism of the photograph and the jesting cartoon, while coming from different sources serve to show how Putin’s recreational affairs are intrinsically tied to his conduct and mentality towards his presidency.

Reflecting on what political cartooning has come to mean to him over time: “It is a difficult thing. You’ve got to come down on one side of the argument. If you try to juggle everything, you’ll never get through the day. It is a great way of finding out about yourself, what you believe, and what you think is right and wrong with the world.” An observation that should be applied to professions outside of just the artistic world.

There is no denying that many people who specifically ask to interview another person under the guise of it being for the humble cause of the free press are removing themselves from the main reason being that they just want to have a chat with someone who they look up to greatly. I would be lying if I did not say so myself.

Image: Peter Brookes