Bill Leak, the great Australian cartoonist and painter and a dear, loyal friend of spiked, died this morning. He was 61. That his death, unexpected, comes just two days after the mirthful Sydney launch of his brilliant new book Trigger Warning: Deplorable Cartoons by Bill Leak makes what would have always been a tragic passing even more so. Bill was justifiably proud and excited about his new book, which is a collection of his best consensus-slaying cartoons. It should stand as a tribute to him now.
Bill was the daily editorial cartoonist for the Australian. He was a rare breed in these politically coy, morally strait-jacketed times: a satirist unafraid of offending; a cartoonist willing to look lazy, illiberal groupthink in the face and call it out. Whether he was ridiculing PC strictures or mocking green pieties or lambasting hypocritical politicians, his driver was always a big-hearted humanism. He believed deeply in freedom and in the iconic Oz ideal of the ‘fair go’ – the egalitarian conviction that any bloke or lady should have the opportunity to get on and do good – and he instinctively bristled at any ideology that sought to stifle those values.
His pen was often a knife in the heart of 21st-century stupidity and authoritarianism. There was the cartoon of a spotty, spoilt kid telling his parents he’s off to Syria to join ISIS’s war on Western freedoms. ‘No need for that, son, they’re giving them away’, says dad. There was his cartoon of dirt-poor Indians wondering if they’re meant to eat the solar panels sent to them by Western greens. Ridiculously, but predictably, he was called racist for that one even though his target was obviously haughty, self-righteous greens who think the Third World needs eco-lecturing rather than food and growth. There was the genius, moving cartoon of a bald, freshly dead Christopher Hitchens, fag in mouth, shocked to find that there is a Hell and to find himself in it shovelling coal. Small comfort: Mother Teresa is there too. ‘Oh well, at least I was right about you’, Hitchens says.
Leak never set out to offend, but in a time when many love nothing more than to take offence, than to find stuff that rattles their identity or self-esteem and cry ‘Crush it!’, he inevitably became an offender. ‘It’s getting a lot easier to offend people because they actively seek out offence’, he once said. ‘The self-righteous these days like nothing more than taking affront.’ Bill, like others who cling to properly liberal ideals and who believe in the fundamental robustness and goodness of people, often found himself the target of Twitterstorms, and worse, in our ever-more tetchy, illiberal, fragile era. He hated PC, viewing it as the Yin to the Yang of larrikinism: the old, probably convict-derived Australian attitude of questioning authority and being a pain in the arse of all breeds of moralism. PC is ‘a means of imposing totalitarianism by stealth, perfectly suited to the cowardly’, he said.