Cathy Wilcox on cartoons, chance & change

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

CW             Cathy Wilcox


CW             Dreaming is where your imagination… It’s the gym for your imagination. It goes to be refreshed and so forth. And not having that was just dire for being able to create.

AL               Welcome to The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning, and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   Born in Sydney in 1963, Cathy Wilcox became a cartoonist in 1984 and hasn’t stopped since. She’s worked almost exclusively for the Nine Fairfax newspapers and won a slew of awards, including Walkley Awards, the Stanley Award, and the Cartoonist of the Year on three separate occasions. She’s a children’s book illustrator and one of Australia’s most astute observers of political life. Cathy Wilcox, welcome to The Good Life podcast.

CW             Thanks, Andrew. Good to be here.

AL               When did you draw your first cartoon?

CW             Well, I scratched something on the bedhead at rest time when I was around about two, with a bobby pin. I’d chewed the plastic bit off the bobby pin, the thing that was meant to stop the bobby pin from scratching, and I found that I could make quite an adequate mark in the beautiful, polished timber bedhead.

                   And after that, when my mother found that after rest time, she indicated by the way she behaved that that was not an okay place to do my drawing. So I think that probably put the idea in their heads to provide me with paper to do my drawing. You could have called it a cartoon. It might just have been even like a cave painting, just an attempt, an essay.

                   But beyond that, my first cartoons were at art college. No, first comic strip was in about Year Four at school, where we had to do some kind of a comic strip. So I did a little superhero story that I came across a few years ago when someone was asking me for evidence of early work.

                   Basically, it’s hard to say when I drew my first cartoon, Andrew, because I’ve always been drawing in one way and another. I’m not quite sure where to define the cartoon as such, because I certainly drew things like that at school and I drew caricatures when I was at school and I learned that girls didn’t like having unflattering caricatures drawn of them, and that was an important lesson.

                   My first published cartoon perhaps might be a notable moment. When I was at art college, I was doing Visual Communications at Sydney College of the Arts and my part-time job was selling hats and overcoats in the men’s department at David Jones in Sydney city.

                   And one of my customers one day was a woman who bought a hat and handed over her credit card. And I looked at the signature on the credit card and I recognised this signature. And I said, are you Jenny Coopes, the cartoonist? And she was absolutely gobsmacked to be recognised because she was the most unassuming and unpublic of people. But I was a keen follower of the newspaper cartoons and political cartoons and knew her work very well. So she was really chuffed to be recognised on the one hand.

                   And I used to spend a lot of my time… Because these departments in a store were fairly slow business, you can imagine that there’s only so many hats and overcoats people can buy, it’s not a place that really much gets a rush on, so I had quite a lot of downtime when I was there, tidying up racks and so forth and finding pins in the parquetry and also occasionally thinking up my art college projects.

                   So I could use the department store desk as a handy place to have a notebook and draw pictures of interesting-looking customers or something as they passed by, or put down ideas for whatever project I was needing to be handing in the following day and hadn’t started yet.

                   And so anyway, I had a notebook with lots of drawings on it and I was able to quickly slap that underneath Jenny Coopes’ nose and say, oh, look, this is what I do. And she said, oh, well, why don’t you come into the offices of the Sun Herald, which is where she worked in the old Broadway monolith building there. And she said, come in and show some of your work and I’ll introduce you to the art director there and maybe there might be some work that you could do.

AL               It’s amazing serendipity.

CW             So, yes, that’s… And I think that’s really my life, actually. I have always had just… I don’t like to use the word… I think serendipity is a much better word, or good fortune, but there have been many good turns where, okay, it was nice how that worked.

                   So I went in. I met her. I met the art director. And then really a short time after that, and it was before I’d finished at art college, I think, yes, either before I’d finished or only just after I’d finished, there was some day or two days that she couldn’t work for some reason and they needed to call someone in at short notice, and they called me. And so this complete unknown who had a range of styles but no definite cartoon style as such was asked to fill a whole lot of spaces.

                   And some of them were… There were about seven little cartoons I had to draw for a column that was about food and drink and cafés and all the rest of it. It was called Short Black. And I had two hours in which to produce seven cartoons for those columns, so they absolutely couldn’t be precious. I had to just churn them out quickly. And then I think sometime later, there was a larger illustration to fill in.

                   And really, these two opportunities, I did them, I got to hand them in, they thanked me, and off I went. And I think I probably got paid a little bit of money for these things and I got to see my work in print. It was black and white at the time. There wasn’t colour available for all cartoons and illustrations.

                   But I got to have the experience which I think was the unspoken idea that I had, which was I would like to be in that place. I would like to be in that newspaper. I would like to work in there somewhere. I would like to be filling spaces in that place somehow.

                   I didn’t know exactly that it was cartoons that I wanted to be doing. I knew that it was drawings, possibly captioned, definitely with concepts. And I just did have a real affinity for the fleetingness of the daily newspaper, the fast, fleeting subject matter and the novelty and the liveliness of it and all of that.

                   And what it said also, I guess it was very much… It felt like my culture. I’d grown up with that newspaper. I’d grown up in that place. This was a newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, that very much felt like a home place for me. So anyway, that was really lucky. It didn’t immediately lead to more work, but in any case, I had plans after finishing art college that I wanted to go far, far away.

AL               But let me just hold you on that and ask you…

CW             Yes.

AL               Because I also grew up in Sydney and read the Herald religiously during the 1980s. And I remember the cartoonists that I enjoyed the most were Matthew Martin on Stay in Touch, and Tandberg. And I remember getting a bunch of Tandberg cartoons and putting them on a folder I had at school.

                   And my favourite was why the hairy-nosed wombat is disappearing. And it’s a Tandberg cartoon of a hairy-nosed wombat seeing this big hair out of his nose and going up to the mirror and shaving it off. And so what were the main cartoon influences on you? Who were the people that had the most impact as you developed your style?

CW             I think, first of all, probably, well, I had mentioned Jenny Coopes. Patrick Cook as well was very much of a presence in the papers that came home to our place. And we bought collections if he did collections of work. And he was very darkly funny. And in the years after art college where I probably took these favourite cartoonists of mine overseas with me or showed them to other people, I had Patrick Cook and I had books also by Leunig.

                   And I remember a French friend observing that these seemed to be two very different ways of seeing the world. And the one was the harsh, cynical, brutal humour in Patrick Cook, and Leunig was at the time much gentler, and the word now which we’ve almost got sick of, but whimsical.

                   And so these two ends of a spectrum. And it did lead me at times to think where was I going to fall in that range of being. Obviously, there’s a much greater and more colourful spectrum of possibilities, but I did see that duality for a while as being, well, am I going to be the soft one or am I going to be the hard, brutal ones?

AL               And yet, when many people think about Leunig now, they would think about his critiques of mums who leave their kids in day care or his playing footsie with the anti-vaxxers and would think about a harder edge, I guess, rather than just the soft duck lover, as he began.

CW             It almost sounded like a slip of the tongue there when… Yes, which only goes to show that we don’t just stay the same. We don’t stay the same person and life forms us and life makes us, and so we end up reflecting that in our work. But they influenced me.

                   Matthew Martin definitely as well, when I first came… No, before I moved away. So he was doing the Stay in Touch cartoons when I was still at art college. And so the things that I loved about Matthew too was he played around with the medium of cartooning.

                   Now, this was all gag cartooning at the time really that was catching my eyes. I wasn’t… Patrick Cook was doing political, so was Jenny Coopes, but Matthew Martin was doing these beautiful things which, I don’t know, your listeners may well recall or may not, but they were all cartoons about nothing and anything. They were whatever silly little overflow stories went in this column that was edited at the time by David Dale. And…

AL               But very prominent because he had the back page of the paper, right?

CW             Yes. And it had…

AL               So a lot of people would turn straight to him, and I think I always read the Herald starting at Stay in Touch.

CW             That’s right. And it had a bit of a cult following too. And so apart from the fact that Matthew Martin had a beautiful pen line, it was a little bit the descendant of a Patrick Cook pen line. I always aspired to being able to do linework like both of those. So Matthew’s was more precise but he was a master of wordplay, but cleverer than just a silly… Than a dad joke pun.

                   And also, he mucked around with the frames and having things in and out of frames, and playing with the timing. Because cartoons, if they’re about jokes, then jokes are about timing. And so you change the frame to put a pause between the set-up and the punchline and so forth. And he could muck around with that and turn it around to his great joy. So I suppose you could say there was a post-modern aspect to it, but it was still very funny, very wordy, very clever, and so I very much admired Matthew’s work.

AL               So for someone who’s looking to become a cartoonist, where did you pick up most of your skills? Are there things that your parents created in that atmosphere? You’re the youngest of three, aren’t you?

CW             That’s right.

AL               Were there things about your childhood or were there things that you learned from particular professors at Sydney College of the Arts that shaped you? Where does Cathy Wilcox emerge?

CW             I think it’s a very… I couldn’t say that it’s a template that anybody else could necessarily apply to themselves, and I think that’s probably the case with many cartoonists. We all arrive by different routes. Because I’m a words person as well and I’m a language person, and I loved French as much as I loved art as much as I loved English and drawing and humour and comedy and all of that sort of thing, and observational humour, just trying to understand why people are the way they are and all that sort of thing, and the quirkiness of humans.

                   So I guess all of those things came together such that without ever going, oh, I wish I could be a cartoonist, it was, well, I want to work with drawing because I love that probably the best, but I also don’t want to… I can’t imagine that I would be just doing paintings or something.

                   I didn’t feel like I had an endless well of ideas just coming from myself that I needed to put on canvas or whatever. I liked working with the material of the day. And so I guess, from the looseness of the art college course, which, let’s face it, for a Bachelor of Arts, it was kind of loose…

AL               What do you mean by loose, Cathy?

CW             Well, it was still in the earlyish stages of the Sydney College of the Arts Visual Communications degree setup and we were as much guinea pigs as anything. And so it could talk a big game but it was hit and miss as far as whether you got… It was mainly useful because there were some very interesting people who came and taught us. But there were also some dire characters in there as well.

                   And by the third year, as well, they gave us a spread of… We didn’t all learn how to do drawings. There was not a serious illustration course that gave us techniques. But there would be projects that would let us loose on things and we got to do some life drawing and things like that. And I loved taking every opportunity to do all of that sort of stuff, which I’d also had a great art teacher in the last couple of years of school who totally got me and lifted up the veil of, I don’t know, disappointment of all earlier years of art at school.

                   Because art at school before that always seemed to be like trying to paint things, pictures of things you weren’t interested in, with a too-thick paintbrush, with a paint that didn’t dry very nicely, on paper that went curled at the edges, and stuff like that, this horrible school art stuff, and painting dingy things that never looked how you wanted them to look.

                   And then finally I got this lovely teacher who was also a puppeteer. She made puppets and did puppet shows and things like that. So she was interested in faces, as I was, and she was also interested in drawing and line work and everything that was human. And she got us to be able to do… She got us permission to do life drawing at school and stuff.

                   So it was just me and a handful of other girls who were given this rather more sophisticated art training than they had thought to have in the school before because this woman just went, well, this is clearly what these kids need. See, I told you I could be digressionary in my conversations.

AL               No, it’s great. So then in your early 20s, you go off to…

CW             So early 20s, so after art college…

AL               Off to Paris.

CW             I go off to Paris with the very simplistic motivation, apart from whatever was going on in my romantic life at the time, also the thought that I wanted to get far away from Sydney and what school I’d gone to and what suburb I grew up in and all those sorts of little markers that seemed to…

AL               The North Shore, right?

CW             The North Shore, that’s right. All those things that seemed to be, I don’t know, such a dooming box of how you were defined and the sorts of things people would ask or judge you on. And I was very sensitive to that and I didn’t want to be defined by other people in that way. So I was really keen.

                   And while others of my generation perhaps were heading off to London to have that sort of classic year or years abroad, I also didn’t want to go somewhere even where they spoke the same language because you could still end up meeting someone you knew, who grew up in the same suburb or went to the same school in London.

                   So anyway, I thought Paris, there’s the place. I love speaking French. I’m sure that I would be able to get to be good at French if I went there. And drawing. They have wonderful cartoonists in France. So that was the right place for the holy pilgrimage for a…

AL               Did you do cartooning there? I imagine, given your love of language, it would be pretty hard to be cartooning in French.

CW             Well, yes, I had to spend a lot of my first energy, well, in just setting myself up, finding a place to live, working out how to do all the visa business and how I could legally qualify to live there on a student visa. So I needed a student enrolment and stuff to make that happen.

                   And so I found myself studying third-year literature at university there because I had somehow stuffed up whatever pre-enrolment that was meant to be getting me into something that was rather more at my level. And so I was learning psycholinguistics and reading Stendhal and doing comparative feminist literature courses and stuff with French people.

AL               Yes, it’s pretty full-on.

CW             So even though in my time there, it was just an excuse to be there legally and I wasn’t attending full time and I already had, for what it’s worth, my Bachelor of Arts from Sydney College of the Arts, which has only ever served me to, A, get a French university enrolment, and B, get me I think a discount at the Sydney University pool, no one has ever asked for my degree when wanting to know about my work, but there I was in this course.

                   And even though my French at that stage, in that first year of Paris, was not good enough to write qualified essays, I nevertheless learned so much French. My French improved so much by being in that setting of hearing it well-spoken, of being required to read books.

                   I think it was one week when I got a bad cold or something and I was bedbound for a week that I kept trying to read this novel that we had to read for university. And I had been at the stage of needing to use the dictionary all the time just to read a bit, and then what does that word mean, and nah-nah-nah. And somehow, I don’t know, a penny dropped or something like that and I just crossed a little barrier, at which point I could now read it without needing to keep on referring to the dictionary.

                   So it got me reading, it got me speaking, and then I ended up doing one presentation. It was in comparative literature, on feminist literature, with this fabulous teacher who was so French, she had the black fishnet stockings and the neat little shoes but the serious glasses and all the rest of it. And the class was full of women except for one man, one guy in this class, and he was the one who I think got top marks in the essay or something.

                   But we had to do one little spoken presentation one day. And I got up and did my spoken presentation and she told me that I had done most adequately, considering. So I felt like, okay, well, I think I’ve done my thing here.

                   But meanwhile, I was also needing to get work and I had been looking for work pretty much since I’d got there. I had stumbled around, literally knocking on doors where there was something that said publications of illustration. And I went into this door and I said, oh, you do publications of illustration. I am an illustrator. What can I do here? This is all in my stilted French, by the way.

                   And they said, well, we actually publish old illustrations, like there’s these old tomes of engravings and things like that. However, and they’re probably laughing under their breath at this foolish ingénue who stumbled through the door, however, there is a big book sale on just in a couple of weeks. You go to such and such a station and you’ll find it there.

                   Well, this I discovered, the Salon du livre of Paris, which is this enormous… It’s one of the big book fairs they have. I think Bologna is another big one. But it’s international. All of the publishers go. They put out their wares and they have their book signings and all the rest of it.

                   So I went. And that was only about in the, I don’t know, third or fourth week that I was in Paris that I was walking through this place and going up to the counter where Sempé, the French cartoonist, Sempé, of whom I had many books and knew the work well, there he was, signing books. And so I got to meet him and I got to meet Claire Bretécher.

                   And I also got to go from publisher to publisher, saying, well, I am here, I am from Australia, I am looking for work in illustration and in book illustration. And so they would say, well, here’s the person you ring or they’d give me the card. And it set me up for a couple of months’ worth of phone calls and dragging my very oversized portfolio of work around from door to door.

                   And it was a rather comedic scene because I totally came into it with the Australian spirit of, well, you just walk in there and you say, hi, here I am, I’m ready to work for you. And the French way was much more, well, you leave your portfolio with the art director and then somebody will call you and they will… It was on their terms, not on my terms.

                   But I just couldn’t see any way of doing it without actually wanting to be there to turn the pages and show the work and explain the stuff. And it did leave some of these editors quite perplexed because they would just say, well, I can’t really tell what you do because there are so many different styles here. But…

AL               Did you get work?

CW             Well, eventually, one of these editors said, look, we have children’s books and this and that, but we do also have an English language publisher. And they do magazines in French, no, in English, for French kids learning English, and we’ll send you over there. So they sent me to that lot.

                   And that was an office full of English-speaking people, English and Scottish and American and Canadian and Irish and all the rest of it. And suddenly, they looked at my drawings and they got my jokes and they liked my style and they understood me. And so I suppose that was only after about, I don’t know, two or three months that I’d been there. And they immediately gave me some work to do. So I started to… I think my first job was a magazine cover for one of their magazines.

                   And they kept me in just about enough work for what ended up being nearly three years in Paris. I also ended up getting some work with another English language magazine too. But it was just enough to get by, to pay the metro ticket, to pay the pool subscription, to pay my rent and food, and do little weekend trips on trains and stuff. And so, yes, I managed to survive on my art in Paris.

AL               And when did your style settle in? You’ve got what I think of as a very spare style of drawing. When did you settle on the style that you’ve got now?

CW             That’s probably when I first came back from Paris. I had done the few cartoons and things, but I started to go knocking again at the doors of the Herald as well as other magazines and book publishers and people. But the Herald in those days had editors of sections who had discretion with money and they could pay cartoonists. They could pay contributors.

                   So you go to a different… To, say, The Guide and talk to the editor of The Guide. And they’d say, oh, yes, we’ve got a couple of spots you could fill. Yes, here you are. Here’s the text. Go away and get that in by Wednesday or whatever. And basically, the fact that I had a single column, about a four square centimetre hole to fill, meant that there was not room for a great deal of visual expansion. So I suppose I returned to my roots and the drawing that I liked, which was that pen and ink style of Cook and Matthew Martin and whatever, and I just kept it to black and white like that.

                   And also, I think in one of those early cartoons, I found a little pun or a little clever wordplay that worked. And it was, bad cocaine, doctor? Yes, I think he must have snuffed it. Because there’s a guy with a $10 bill rolled up in his nose and he’s dead. And I just found the joy of the wordplay that works with a really simple drawing. And that was all you needed to fill this tiny space.

                   And you could get… It’s a bit like if you boil down fruit syrup and eventually you get jam and it's intense and it’s flavoursome. The smaller, sometimes, the punchier they could be because you could just… And also, I think I’m of my time in that I always believed that the less extraneous material, the better. I always liked the idea of communication being, okay, say what you have to say and get out of here, rather than stick around and put all wallpaper and decorations and stuff like that.

AL               Cartooning is poetry.

CW             Yes, that’s right. It’s a lot of what you live off.

AL               So my sense is that a majority of journalists in Australia are women, but clearly, a majority of cartoonists are men. Why is your discipline so male-dominated?

CW             Why indeed? And it’s a question that has been asked for… It was a novelty back when I started, and that was 30-plus years ago, and it still seems to be a bit of a novelty. There are more women coming through. So the thing about cartooning is, though, you need a vehicle. You need a place for the stuff to be published. And there are fewer and fewer newspapers, for example, that publish artwork.

                   You’ve got a much better chance, if you like drawing and you’re an illustrator, you’ve got a much better chance of getting work in books. So illustrating books is a perfectly viable place for an illustrator to work. It doesn’t depend on the same daily thing. Also, it doesn’t necessarily depend on the humour, I guess, which cartooning does to a great degree. But it’s slow turnover. Cartoonists get in and they hold their spot and they stay and they stay until they die of some… Get hit by a bus, have a heart attack, die of whatever.

AL               So cartoonists are male-dominated for the same reason that the most senior opinion writers tend to be men.

CW             Yes, because they… And I have some things to say about it. For example, my son, who is 20, knows… We have this agreement, which is when I start being so wrapped up in my own stuff that I’m no longer seeing the world in a reasonable way, when I become too self-absorbed and I’m missing the zeitgeist sort of thing in my work, basically when I start going crazy, tap me on the shoulder and say, step away from the drawing board, mother.

                   He’s only too happy to play that role. He’s always been a really good sounding board. He’s very politically astute, a follower of what’s going on and stuff, and he’s a great person to run stuff by. And you say, what do you think of that? And he’ll go, hmm, I don’t know, or else he’ll go, yes, no, I think you’ve hit it there. I don’t always ask him, and he’s moved out of the house now so I can’t ask him as much.

                   But it’s just the thing of I think we’re going through a stage of reckoning right now with the white male. I too am of a privileged group and I cannot and I wouldn’t be so, I don’t know, churlish as to try and claim some kind of victimhood in being female for all of the privilege that I have.

                   But I think while people complain about wokeness and identity politics and stuff, I think there is a place for recognising that having the same voices, hearing the same voices commenting all the time and being the ones that are putting out the opinion and so forth, that it’s really not fine, not okay, because there’s only so much space out there.

                   So my line at the moment is, put down the microphone, old man, and walk away. You’ve had your say and it’s time to give someone else a go. That’s how I feel. And I feel, when we’re looking for diversity in cartooning, I don’t even feel that it’s just a matter of looking for diversity as in getting more women in. I think it’s about diversity of getting younger people and people of different cultural backgrounds and so on. So I think there’s much more to diversity than just the old gender binary.

                   Also, not everybody enjoys… There’s a certain character of doing daily cartoons. I have colleagues who have been doing it for a while, who maybe are happy doing the little pocket cartoons, the little ones that fit in with the letters or something, who, when they’ve had a turn to do the editorial cartoon, they go, oh no, I can’t do that. It kills me. It makes me too anxious. I fall apart. I did it for a while and I couldn’t do it anymore. Other people have walked right away from cartooning because they can’t stand that pressure, that anxiety, that deadline stuff.

                   And meanwhile, somehow I thrive on it. Somehow I like it. So I don’t know whether that is a thing which maybe that’s a more… I don’t know if that’s a more male thing, to enjoy that. I tell you what might be a male thing is the show-offyness of a cartoonist. Because when you’re a cartoonist, you’re going, look at me. You’re going, look at this thing that I did. Here, give me a reaction. I want a reaction now. You’re being that kid who takes the picture up to show to the adult because they want the approval for it.

                   So I’m perfectly prepared to admit that cartooning is an art form that is crying out for attention. It’s attention-seekers and people of short attention span, who need the subject matter to change all the time. And maybe that’s more of a man thing than a woman thing. I don’t know.

                   But, hey, women make it in comedy, or many more women make it in comedy because comedy doesn’t have just a set of people here of the same people we use all the time. Comedy is a matter of you go up on the stage, you say your thing, and if it works, then we’ll ask you back or someone will ask you back.

AL               So I don’t think of you, your cartoons, as coming from a particular ideological stance, except that you do seem to have a very strong bias in favour of little people against big people. You seem very aware of punching up, not punching down. Is that how you think about the world?

CW             Yes, it is actually. I know it might… These days, it would probably be described as woke and politically correct, but I do… I’ve always been conscious of, I don’t know, when things aren’t fair. And as a child, I just couldn’t understand racism. But how could that person be…? You treat them worse because they’re of a different colour or background? And just in that childish way, it would seem senseless.

                   And also through my time overseas as well, and possibly art college before that, but more overseas, I also made some really significant friendships from people who were from very different walks of life.

                   And a lot of my struggling to get away from my neighbourhood and my school and that given identity of childhood and teenagerhood, a lot of my struggle to get away was, in a way, wanting to go out and test these givens that my parents and my upbringing had given me, of these people are all like that and if you go there, that’s too dangerous, you shouldn’t go there. And to me, it was a little bit like the wall, like a Truman show sort of thing. Don’t venture beyond that wall because there be monsters or whatever.

                   And I put myself in some dangerous positions sometimes because I was an ingénue. I still am. Just try and sell me something. I’m a pushover. But also, I met a great many people and I just found that a hell of a lot of the things that I had been taught about people from other places or people less well off or whatever, just so many things were just not true, and you find humanity everywhere.

                   And I can see, more and more, how much a system gets reinforced. I, in the past, would have very loudly stated that I didn’t think that you needed any kind of affirmative action, say, I never got my work through needing anyone to let me in for being a woman because just I felt that my work spoke for itself and that was it, and it didn’t matter whether I was a woman or a man doing this work. And therefore, you don’t need affirmative action.

                   But now I’m a little bit older and I’ve ventured out into the world and I can see that it’s all very nice, it’s nice for me to feel proud that I got that all on my own terms, but you can’t take away from the fact that also, I had a good education and the confidence bestowed of knowing that I never really had to go without.

                   Even in faraway Paris, eking out my illustration work to be able to pay the rent and the train ticket and stuff like that, I was never really going to be down and out because I could always come back. My parents had money. I could always come back and I would always have someone to catch me.

                   And yet I had friends, and I still do, have a wonderful friend who is still in France, my dearest friend in the world, Claude, and she didn’t have any of that. And she and other friends of mine don’t have the safety net or the soft landing possible, and yet they somehow pull themselves through. Now my friend Claude finally, at the age of 60, got permanent work.

                   She had been getting by on temp work and this and that, and a person of great education and great culture, but not with any of the family money behind her and also not with the family reassurance. She was an unwanted kid because she came late by accident or whatever, and she was reminded of that all her life. So yes, sure, I’m a bit interested in punching up rather than punching down because I just don’t think that the poor are deserving, sort of thing.

AL               One of the other things that have presumably shaped how you think about the world is the fact that you gave birth to two boys and now have a son and a daughter. Tell us about that.

CW             Right. Well, yes, that’s right. And you don’t certainly plan for that and I don’t think… So my daughter, who I refer to as my daughter now because that’s who she is and how we’re comfortable to refer to her, but up until the final year of school, she went to a boys’ school. She was my son, as far as we all knew. And she just announced to me one afternoon, early into the final year of school, that she was in the wrong body and that this was causing her some suffering and that she felt that she needed to be a girl, that she was a girl and that she needed help.

AL               How did you feel in that moment, as a mum? Did you fight it?

CW             It takes your breath away. It takes your breath away because a lot of things around that get sucked into the moment. You suddenly have all these other things that have just happened around this moment that point to this moment. And we had had this weird thing happen where only a week or so ago, before that, I’d been to a film, a French film festival thing.

                   And there was a movie called My New Girlfriend, and it was all about a guy whose wife dies and he has a tiny baby to look after. And then he starts putting on his wife’s clothes because the baby is not happy feeding from him but the baby responds to the smell of his wife’s clothes.

                   But then he puts on the clothes some more and it turns out, as the story unfolds, that in fact, he has always had this feminine side to him. And he then proceeds to find himself and then transitions to be a woman in the film. And it’s also part of the relationship with him and another woman in there, and so forth. So that’s all by the by.

                   But anyway, coming home from that film and talking at the dinner table, I happened to say to my daughter, oh, or to my son at that stage, you haven’t been fishing around in my wardrobe anytime lately, have you? And my son said, I can neither confirm nor deny, in a joking way. It was all in humour and this conversation just ran its course. But there was that line.

                   But then, when this confession came out only such a short time later, she said, it’s uncanny how you can put your finger on a thing, mum, because when you asked that question about whether I’d been fishing around in your wardrobe, it was two hours after the first time I had ever fished around in your wardrobe.

                   And another thing that had been happening at this similar time was that I had made friends with a person at the gym, where I’ve been doing Pilates forever, and this person at the gym, over the years that I’d been there, and a person of similar age to me, had transitioned from male to female. And I had known them, less so when they were a man, but for some reason, we got talking. And before you knew it, I was having conversations with this woman.

                   And I was, and in my mind, beginning to make the leap where you go, oh, okay, I see how this is not about how I feel about this person. This is not about whether I perceive them as being sufficiently convincing as a woman or whatever, or if I feel that their voice is this or that or that you can still see that they’re manly in this way or whatever. It’s not actually about me. It’s how this person feels.

                   And so that again was really quite a short time before this moment with my daughter. And so there were just these indicators that, okay, I will totally admit that I didn’t suddenly run in and say, yes, darling, off we go to the shops to buy you frocks. I did have to say, whoa, slow down. Because also, she’s the kind of brainy person who said, well, I’ve done the research and all we need to do is this, blah-blah-blah-blah. She suddenly spilled out this list of processes. And I had to go, wait, we have to investigate this.

                   Luckily, she could see that she needed help. She needed psychological help to be able to work it out and try and understand this. And I could see that the best thing that I could be was supportive, and that even if I had my own feelings of… There’s a kind of bereavement or a deep shock and a sense of wanting to go back over everything that’s happened in the past and ask yourself if it’s something you’ve done or ask yourself if this could be true or not or… You do wake up a few times thinking you want to turn back time and put things back to how they were.

                   But I understood that those were my problem, they weren’t the problem of my daughter, that that was my stuff to deal with. And I understood that also because I had been through a kind of a, I guess, breakdown quite some years earlier, 20, no, 15 years earlier or so after my younger child was born. I had a sort of, I suppose, a postnatal depression or a sort of a breakdown, where I lost myself and had to put myself back together.

                   So I very much understood the process of identity crisis, and seeing my daughter in those terms and going, well, she’s lost the sense of who she is. She’s trying to work out who she is. Teenagers very often go through identity crises. That’s why teenagedom is so very fraught and so often so very dark, because they are trying to work out who they are and often being told, no, you’re not. You’re not that thing. We’re telling you that you’re this thing.

                   And I understood enough from my own process, and the psychological analysis that I went through, to know that there was absolutely no point in telling my child that they weren’t feeling what they said they were feeling. And I knew that it wasn’t… If they are experiencing this sense of identity, what they need more than anything is help getting back to what feels like solid ground, where they feel like they know who they are. So that was what informed our approach.

                   And we felt like, okay, well, we’ll do what it takes. We’ll take the time that we need to take because we didn’t want to hurry it. And we had to beg her forgiveness for not rushing things, because we said we would be irresponsible if we didn’t properly investigate this.

                   But in any case, the protocol of transition for… She was under 18 at that stage, just under 18 at that stage. The protocol is fairly thorough such that you don’t just go and race into this thing. And I thought it was much better that she had our support and love than that she just felt miserable and lost. And all is well and my lovely daughter is a happy person, ensconced in a relationship, and yes.

AL               How did her grandparents respond?

CW             So the grandparents, that was interesting. I was terrified at how they were going to take it. My parents are conservative. You might have gathered from earlier in the conversation that I grew up on the North Shore, I had conservative parents, and so forth.

                   And my dad had spent a lot of my life giving me an idea of what he thought a man’s man ought to be. So he had very strict ideas about masculinity and he was always a bit disappointed that my boys were not manly boys. They didn’t want to play football. They were a bit soft and artistic and brainiac and whatever. They weren’t his kind of kids already. So I already had that sense.

                   But I was working out how I was going to break it to them at some point. And it was my mum who just happened to step on the… She walked in and asked me how I was going or how my child was going with the HSC and everything. And that’s when I kind of fell apart and said, well, the HSC, that’s not the half of it, and bawled my eyes out and told her what was going on.

                   And my mum did the very best thing that she could possibly have done at the time, which was just to say, well, you love your child, whoever they are. And it was just this wonderful just moment of just love and embracing forgiveness or acceptance, and saying, yes, we’ll work this out.

                   So then, at various junctures, my dad would just… He’d be told about it but he would find it hard. He would go, I just don’t get it, I just don’t get it, why can’t they blah-blah-blah. And there were a couple of times of… A fateful night of going out to dinner, when the HSC was over, going out to dinner. And I had warned my parents that my daughter would be coming as a daughter. It would be the first time that she had dressed in the presence of my parents as a girl, not a boy.

                   And I sat there with my daughter on one side and my dad on the other side of me at the end of the table, trying to animate a conversation between them and feeling this awful awkwardness, on the one hand, my daughter hating me because I had forced her into this awkward position, and on the other hand, my dad just looking everywhere but at my daughter because he just found it too difficult to manage. And when she got up and went to the toilet, he said to me, I just can’t, I can’t do it, as in being able to call her by her name.

                   And so a little bit later, a couple of weeks later, I talked to my mum and I said, oh, I’m so sorry to put dad through this. I know that it’s just so far off his radar. How on earth can he be expected to accept this? And she just said, don’t you worry about him. That’s not your problem. He will cope.

                   And I loved again that she stepped in again with this lovely way of, as my parent, taking a burden off my shoulders and going, it’s not… You don’t have to worry about that. Here, your basic principle is you love your child, and on the other hand also, you don’t have to worry about sorting everybody else out. That was pretty damn fine stuff.

                   And so it took some months on from that, but we had a family lunch, and that was when… And I had also my brother and sister and their families there and stuff, and Sophie was there as Sophie. And at that table, that was when my dad reached across and said, can you pass me the butter, Soph?

                   And it was felt. It was really felt between many of us at the table that that was a moment, that here’s this old bloke with his set view of the world, and he is very set in his ways, he’s like a big, old ship, but I also learned that that big, old ship just sometimes needs a bit of time to turn around. And he’s been… I think when I told him my son was bi, it was like, oh yes, what else? He was like, yes, whatever.

AL               It’s such a beautiful story, and just a reminder too that change takes time.

CW             Change takes time. And I had to say that also to my daughter. Because when people are going through that identity crisis, they can be very quick to hop on the activist bandwagon and say, this is not good enough and these people need to change and this needs to change and they need to cast a trans person in that role, and nah-nah. And they want the change all to be coming immediately, and also, they want people to be punished sometimes for not being correct about that.

                   And early on in the piece, I said to Sophie, you have to remember to cut people slack. Everybody takes time to change. Of course there are people who won’t, and you can’t do much about that, and pity them. But count on it that many people of goodwill are capable of change.

                   Especially, and this is a thing we really observed through this time and other things in our family, sometimes with conservative people, what’s true in principle is not necessarily true in fact. And they might hold these strict ideas about, well, you wouldn’t allow that, and no, you couldn’t do that. But as soon as they come in contact with it sometimes in their own real lives and they’re confronted with the fact that, well, this person who last week I knew them as Oscar and this week I know them as Sophie and, by and by, they’re actually just the same person…

                   All right, it might not be as simple as that, but it takes sometimes having… I talk of it in terms of the difference between knowing something in your head and knowing something in your heart. And when you know something in your heart, it’s had a chance to sink down, it’s had a chance to touch you, and it’s had a chance to inform you in a way that it’s not about how clever the argument is. It’s about that you can feel what’s true.

AL               To me, it was one of the geniuses of the same-sex marriage campaign, that that campaign could’ve been run as a very angry, righteous campaign, saying, if you don’t let me marry the person I want to marry, then you’re a bigot, but instead, it was run through the frame of a politics of love.

                   And just you saw the incredibly rapid change in Australian social attitudes. You could feel attitudes changing in a way in which I’ve never seen on any other issue because it was a kind of big tent, loving approach to change rather than an I’m going to hit you with a big moral stick if you don’t agree with me, kind of approach.

CW             Yes.

AL               Cathy, I wanted to wrap up by asking you a couple of questions I ask all my interviewees. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

CW             Watch out for people with charm.

AL               Ah. Were there particular charmers who caused you problems?

CW             Yes. That’s a whole other story. I’ve definitely been susceptible to charm in my life and I think it’s one of the things that continues to fascinate me.

AL               Don’t you miss out on some great stuff in life if you put up the guard against charming-ness?

CW             Oh, that’s a reasonable point, and I wouldn’t say deny charm. I’d just say be aware of it. Look, there’s something about when you go to France, for example, and I’ve had this conversation with other women, that there’s a flirtation in interactions when you go to France that is completely absent here. Now, that catches you out when you’re a young 21-year-old ingénue, because you do not see it coming. You haven’t been trained to that in Australia, where everything is…

                   Okay, the world is different now than it was, whatever, 35 years ago, but even still, there’s a certain electricity and curiosity. And charm can come into play there because you’re curious to know something about the other person and you’re curious to know if you can find that in that person or if they can find it in you. And so there can be an interesting dynamic and back and forth.

                   And I can see that to deny that electricity is sad. But also, you come away from a few weeks in France and you go, oh, god, I’m so tired, because… Not… No. Just because playing that dynamic is exhausting. And feeling like you can just be left to yourself here is also a much more comfortable way to be in some ways.

                   But anyway, no, I just think charm is really… I think it’s fascinating because I think it’s at work so much of the time, and especially in politics. I think the charm, the X factor, the thing that makes people popular in spite of their lying, in spite of their deeds, in spite of the trail of destruction they leave behind them, they can stand up and sound convincing and people fall for it again and again and again.

                   And I don’t exclude myself from being in that way susceptible, but I notice it and I go, oh, isn’t it interesting? I can see how that charm works. And yes, so we all want to fall in love all the time, is my conclusion.

AL               What’s something you used to believe, but no longer do?

CW             I used to believe in God, and I don’t anymore. I used to…

AL               When did that change?

CW             At the same time as I had my postnatal identity crisis. God was one of three things that went, and I felt they were… This is really like you’re wanting a whole other conversation. But it was like, okay, I feel like I had three pillars. And one was my mum, and one was my best friend who lived in Sydney, and one was this belief in God, that God would see me through. And it was very much that daddy God in a way, that being. I’m okay, I’m being looked after.

                   My mum got very sick. She got pneumonia and pleurisy and she was in hospital. And suddenly, she was off the job of being able to be supportive to me with a new, tiny baby. My best friend moved town, so she was no longer there to be able to call on while I had this tiny baby. So I didn’t like that these supporting things and then God was not there.

                   And I’d done a bit of reading and whatever. And I think I had read Bishop Shelby Spong. And he deconstructed the deity and he reconstructed it in another way, to be what I think he called a God of all being. It was much more of a beingness and a connectedness and all that sort of thing. But all it did was kill God for me.

AL               Spong did exactly the same thing for me.

CW             Amazing.

AL               And, yes, once you’re at this stage, then it’s not that far away from atheism, was my view when I was reading his stuff.

CW             Yes, right. And so I was really surprised at what a hard thing it was to lose because… But it was just one of those things of where, as with an identity crisis, things that you always thought to be true aren’t or you can no longer find them to be so, and so it does cause you to question all sorts of things.

                   And it just so happened that this whole thing happened not that long after 9/11, and so the dreams, apart from my terrible insomnia that lasted for quite a while, but the dreams I did have were being on top of the building that was crumbling and falling underneath. So, yes. Can I tell you about how good dreams are though?

AL               Please.

CW             Well, insomnia was a big part of that identity crisis back then, when my son was about one. And I learned how, apart from needing sleep to function so that you wouldn’t have a car crash and kill your baby, and that you could still function, having sleep meant that you could dream.

                   And dreaming is where your imagination… It’s the gym for your imagination. It goes to be refreshed and so forth. And not having that was just dire for being able to create. It was a really awful thing for when I live, when I inhabit. Being creative is my daily exercise…

AL               Yes.

CW             Of mind. And having to feel like it’s absent was just terrible. So yes, dreams are…

AL               When are you most happy?

CW             I’m pretty happy most of the time really.

AL               But I would imagine it’s when you’ve just nailed a great cartoon.

CW             Oh, yes. Yes, because it can be dire before that. If you call me and it’s before a deadline and I haven’t got it, that is a bad time to call me. Yes, when you just nail it and you go, yes, little fist pump, and send that off, that is a happy moment. But do you know actually, I noticed that I was really happy around about last Christmas when I had a friend and my kids and my husband, and I think my daughter had her friend there too, at a holiday house.

                   And it was just being around them, just being around them, and I noticed that they were all perfectly happy among themselves. They were colouring in or doing puzzles or chatting or being funny or whatever. And I was really conscious that, at that moment, I was not responsible for anybody else’s happiness in that room and they were all okay. And that was a pretty happy moment, Andrew.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to stay physically and mentally healthy? You mentioned swimming a couple of times. Is that part of your routine?

CW             Yes. Yes, swimming is mostly part of my routine. Walking is a big part of my routine. I walk the dog every day. And the dog is a big part of my routine as well. She’s a fluffy little Schnoodle, and she’s way louder than I should have ever let her become. But I knew that when I invited a dog into my life that that would be inviting some chaos into my life. And I think it’s important to have some unpredictability and some chaos that sometimes ends up doing the deciding for you. So, yes.

                   So, no, having a dog, getting me out into the world, I really didn’t suffer over lockdown because I would go out the door every morning with this dog. And with a dog, you meet everybody and I know everybody in the street and I know every other dog owner in the neighbourhood and I’m never alone, in a way. I’m very happy in my solitude but I also never feel lonely now.

AL               Finally, Cathy, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

CW             I’ve always… I think that honesty is really important. As my mum was declining with dementia… She died earlier this year. And so I could no longer have big chats with her, but as her memory went, I could still have more philosophical conversations with her than I could have factual conversations, earthly conversations with her. And I reminded her, I said, honesty was pretty important to you, wasn’t it, mum? And she said, oh, yes, absolutely.

                   Because I certainly got that, I think, from her, that it would not have crossed my mind to tell her that I ate my lunch when I didn’t, or something like that. It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind not to eat the lunch that she made for me. But I had a really strong sense that it was really important to tell the truth.

                   And that is… Okay, I tell the little white lies of I’m a bit busy at the moment, I can’t talk on the phone, all those sorts of things. But for things that matter, I think honesty is really important. And I’ve made a real point of that with my kids such that I’ve been shocked if they’ve ever come home telling about some other friend who did something that was shady or something like that. I’d go, I don’t want you just dismissing that as it didn’t matter. That’s dishonest and that’s not on.

                   And I think it’s really the only port, the only thing to hang on to in a time when we’re being softened up to accept looser and looser ethical behaviour among our powerful and our leaders, that… Thanks, Donald Trump, but also thanks a lot of people in politics and business who have just gone, oh, look, everybody does it, oh, look, you’ve just got to play this game, this is how you’ve got to play it.

                   I am still the seven-year-old who says, but that’s just not right. So I think that is probably my… I think if you stop feeling that that’s wrong, I think that then there’s no limit to… Your little boat has just become untied and you’re just going to float out to sea. How will you ever know what’s right if you give up on that?

AL               Cathy Wilcox, cartoonist extraordinaire, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.

CW             Thanks, Andrew. And I probably owe you because this has been like a psychology

AL               I’ve loved it.

CW             Thank you.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you like this episode, I reckon you might enjoy past conversations with Markus Zusak, Tim Minchin, and Julia Gillard. If you enjoyed this episode, we’d love it if you’d share the wisdom of The Good Life podcast with more people in your life. Mention it to them, put something in your social media pages, rate the podcast. It really helps others find the show. Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.