Gentle giant of cartoons to carry on
Andy Davey talks to the editorial cartoonist Martyn Turner who has been drawing for The Irish Times for more than 40 years
Martyn Turner has just become eligible for his free bus pass. It doesn’t look as though he’ll be taking up the offer though. He asked his editor whether he wanted him to shuffle off to his beloved golf course and the answer came back “Not while I’m editor”.
Buoyed by this enthusiastic endorsement, he is going to stay put. Still, it’s surely time to take stock, as he has been doing this job for more than 40 years.
The Irish Times ran an article commemorating this anniversary a while back. Looking for comments to support the piece, they asked around and a deluge of testimonials arrived from all sources – politicians, former editors, fellow cartoonists from around the world, even hotel managers – and that’s before you get to the readers.
Everyone seems to have nice words to say about Turner. This may not be unrelated to the fact that he stands at 6ft 7ins and weighs in at 20 stone. But he’s also a Very Nice Chap.
If you look, you can see this in his cartoons. The caricatures are not like the graphic distortions of a Sebastian Kruger or a Gerald Scarfe. They are more like theatrical masks, giving just enough information to identify the character and make the point. He says they’re “not strictly caricatures, they’re a person representing that particular character. It’s not a personal attack”.
The artwork – though highly accomplished – doesn’t dominate the idea. The words are the thing. Maybe this befits a literary culture like Ireland’s. Tellingly, Turner says he thinks in words, “which is why my average cartoon has about 200 words in it”.
Turner’s longevity in the post is all the more surprising since he is English. Born and bred in urban Essex and East London (born in Wanstead, raised in Hackney and Chingford, to be precise). The son of East Enders, he won a scholarship to a private school, which he hated. That and his parents’ divorce turned him inwards and he says he sought refuge in outsider status, both socially and geographically.
He fled to first to Belfast to university and then south to become immersed in the venal horse-trading of Irish politics, which remains a mystery to most outsiders.
How does he do it, drawing four to five topical cartoons a week for 40-odd years? His wife of 46 years, Jean, claims that it’s because “he’s remained a child”. It’s not just Jean who says so – a guest psychiatrist on the Pat Kenny Show on Irish radio cast him as a “perpetual child who sees that none of the emperors have any clothes”.
He has a crack at politicians of all stripes. He has political conviction, but not one that fits into party politics. “I’m just an ageing hippy who thinks everyone should love each other and get on with it and be nice.”
He lives in semi-rural Kildare, although spends increasing amounts of time in France. His daily working practice is pretty idyllic. When in Ireland, he rises early, takes a dip at the local pool, returns to review the papers and listen to the news. Around lunchtime he distils an idea out of the noise.
Like many a creative soul, he advocates letting the subconscious do the work. “The harder you think about something, the less likely you are to come up with something that isn’t what everyone else is thinking.”
He draws the cartoon in the afternoon and sends it over to the paper. The routine in the early days reinforces the image of delightful prelapsarian innocence and oddness we are encouraged to believe rural Ireland runs on. He used to put his cartoon on the afternoon bus into Dublin, handing it over to the driver who delivered it to a sub-editor waiting at the bus stop outside the Irish Times office. Nowadays it’s done by email, of course.
There’s no reason for him to stop now. Everyone seems to think his cartoons are an essential part of the paper, and of Irish politics. What’s more, he says he’s absurdly happy – “a round peg in a round hole” – and there is surely no better way to be.
You can see some of Turner’s recent cartoons here. He would also like us to know that his 19th “collection of cartoons and written bits” will be available in October.