by A. Charles Smith
The bland tale might drone on that he has led a very full life. ‘You must be kidding,’ Larry Pickering, cartoonist, raconteur and radical blogger would resoundingly advocate.
This bloke’s life has been lived to the proverbial max, and then some, as he would, modestly, enjoy it being put. And what’s more, he shows no sign of giving it away any time soon.
He talks about ten year sojourns that divide one stage of his existence from the next. So that in seventy two years on this earth, leaving aside the first twelve at home, he plunged into six subsequent increments, each fascinatingly different from the other but with two primary constants; hard work and family.
Proudly, and why not, he boasts eleven children ranging in age from the fifties down to his second little brood of two, aged four and three. Are the maths right? Well, actually, yes, because he was married at seventeen years of age and, after the passing of his first wife, married again.
All of his adult children live not far from him in the Gold Coast area and they make a habit of getting together frequently at his home, he proudly relates.
Most people usually grow up. Some take a good deal longer than others and are often in transition. Yet many others never do. It would be a mistake to simply categorise Pickering at any period of his life as locked securely into a particular stage, for his joie de vivre is derived from inhabiting all three, predominantly at the same time. That is what makes him such an interesting character.
Even today, his famous cartoons remain legendary more so for those baby boomers who either loved or loathed them. But all would agree; they could not be ignored.
Now his blog, Pickering Post, established some three years ago, bursts with satire, insightful comment and the signature touch of irreverence. As one with the cartoons, you may not agree with all that he says, but you have a good time finding out where he is going and the stuff of which he is made.
Irreverence coupled with originality was his foremost trademarks in the halcyon days illustrating with newspapers. But it is true that he really made his mark at The Australian where he joined in November 1975, during the dying days of what Alan Reid called, “The Whitlam Venture.”
The annual, much-vaunted Pickering Calendar followed, one that Prime Ministers and celebrities eschewed but always peeped at, Larry would say wickedly, in case their au natural depictions failed to flatter.
Who could forget some of the memorable musings proving a pen is mightier than the sword, a fortiori a cartoon. A picture might capture a thousand words, but a cartoon gives rise to many thousands of thoughts.
Sadly, not all humorous or satirical to some, such as those penning like sketches, have recently found. Pickering himself has gone to town on Mohamed latterly, and to think that in this country such freedom of expression is also under threat.
Rise of radical Islam and limitations on free speech, subtle and overt, certainly motivated Larry to produce an incisive reprise in the style that made him a household name.
The worldwide reaction to the cowardly, murderous attacks on the Parisian cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo at least made the bearded beasts sit up and take notice. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in solidarity. Free people would not take it anymore.
But insidiously, a debate opened up as to why the killers did it, and whether offence could reasonably be given in the name of freedom of expression.
Pickering Post is all about quashing any notion of suppressing free speech under the guise of not wishing to cause offence. He would say such a debate is the nonsensical discussion the left seems inclined to initiate.
It tends to suggest that all should sit down, understand each other’s point of view, smoke a peace pipe and sing ‘Kumbaya’. Pickering is not having a bar of it, for therein lies the near bottom of the slippery slope.
Thus is Larry Pickering a stirrer, an agitator, a revolutionary or what?
“Oscar Wilde encapsulates what I am about when he wrote, ‘Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.”
So where did it all begin for this straight-talking larrikin of a man? His first job at eight was selling newspapers in the Melbourne suburb where he lived with his parents. His most famous customer was the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies who lived at 2 Haverbrack Street Malvern.
He recalls many Saturday morning conversations with the great man, sometimes enduring as long as half an hour.
“He mostly talked about cricket. Menzies was also very proud of his Bentley car. I sat in it once but he would not let me go for a drive.” ‘But you were only eight or so?’ I protested.’ “I had driven before,” he replied with a mischievous laugh.
But things were not happy for the boy at home and Larry was unable to cope with the Christadelphian faith, practised by his parents. The estrangement with his mother, unfortunately, remains to this day. His father and he eventually reconciled and this rapprochement subsisted until his death some few years ago.
Larry found work in the Victorian Railways as a labourer inducing his engagement by overstating his age. “I ended up in the shunting yards at Footscray and Port Melbourne, having secured for myself a little one bedroomed flat.”
It was backbreaking work and he did not take long to learn that the harder he worked, the more money he made. “They are the values I have taken with me throughout my life. No work, no pay. More hours, more reward.”
He describes himself as holding conservative views yet is happy to include the tag, ‘radical’ in there too, in the sense that he would like to think of himself as progressively conservative.
Meaning that he is not saying, ‘no’ to homosexual marriage, but, “Hey, have some respect for those who value its integrity and the institution; like the old couple down the road in their eighties holding hands; why the rush?”
A back injury saw the need to do less arduous work and he drifted into drawing, largely teaching himself. He worked at the Canberra Times, the Fairfax press outlets and The Age. “It was a good paper in those days he says of what Gerald Henderson now labels, ‘Pravda on the Yarra.’. Left leaning, but always honest and told it straight. Along the way, he won four Walkley Awards, a Churchill Fellowship and travelled widely.
After he parted from newspapers, he managed to operate tomato farms in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, even employing his father, but when a hailstorm wiped out a four million dollar crop ready to be picked, his farming days were over.
In between, he managed to buy a horse for seven thousand dollars, proudly boasting at the time that it would win the Melbourne Cup.
“Rising Fear nearly did in the 1986 race. We thought we had won from the stands but were pipped on the post in a photo finish.”
His re-entry into public political debate has come after a furlough lasting nearly twenty-five years. For Pickering, the hibernation did not see him gravitate to some Nimbin-style commune. You might take the boy out of the political fray, but you could never take politics out of the boy.
Boyish is one of the first things that strike you when casting a look back at Pickering in his heyday, albeit that he was well into his thirties then. But for the doffing of his cap revealing a head largely devoid of the locks of his youth, Pickering retains that feature of freshness gifted to few, despite sedate entry into septuagenarian territory. His eyes sparkle, the smile beguiles the tone direct and determined, yet unfailingly friendly.
Pickering is scathing of the public broadcaster, the ABC and today’s Fairfax newspapers in its biased reporting and non-reporting of important stories. The low point was reached during the Gillard government about which he is especially dismissive.
Subscribing to the old adage, publish and be damned, he saw the reputations of senior people trashed. Stories about Gillard and the ‘slush fund’ she helped to set up were spiked, with Gillard herself bringing about, directly or indirectly, the destruction of the careers of journalists, Glenn Milne and Michael Smith.
“John Hartigan, the head of News in Australia, whom I knew well, resigned over the issue involving Gillard, who was threatening press regulation.”
There is a quiet resilience in his voice as he describes the term of the Gillard government that he predicts in time will be seen as a, ‘blight on Australian history.’
Allied with the attitude of that indigent government, Pickering says that reporting of the news had become in many cases misleading, inaccurate and unfair.
“When the Gillard government, emboldened by the Leveson Inquiry in Britain, sought to regulate the news, that was it for me. I came out of retirement, concerned that this trend was undermining the public’s right to know, unsanitised by the depredations of bias and political correctness.”
The trend has persisted with an even greater vengeance in recent times as war seems to have been declared against the current federal government and on Tony Abbott in particular.
“Fairfax and the ABC have shown little pretence at its contempt for the punters and even the middle ground.” He accepts that In the case of a private company it has a right to take that line just as News Corporation takes a slightly different line, albeit not so strident one way or the other.
He finds no excuses for the ABC. “The public broadcaster is in a unique category being subject to a charter. These days it is more followed in the breach.”
Pickering bemoans the standard of journalism in these entities, calling the many therein as, “redundant hacks, financially supported by trade unions and the ALP in order to drag public opinion to the far left using the internet.”
His blog opinions have produced phenomenal results, enough hits, in the many hundreds of thousands, to catch the eye of anxious advertisers, but the lure of that medium has not persuaded him to alter his approach, despite his only support being a government pension.
He estimates that the Post has a weekly reach approaching the one million mark and shows no signs of any lessening in interest.
“Advertising would compromise the site as many demand concessions to editorial content and I am not prepared to bow to such demands.”
In the almost three years since its inception, supported by Facebook and email lists and the large readership, the site has had a remarkable influence and success in exposing vital information that he says has been deliberately overlooked in the mainstream media.
The consequence has been relentless and withering attacks on the site. With a wry grin, Pickering is undeterred by the trolls leading the way inspiring him to meet them head on albeit that valuable time and energy has been exerted in this down-time process.
He sees the left media as trying to dominate all the flow of information. One senses that he has a point, arguing cogently that had the Gillard story been aired in a timely manner, as the national broadcaster should have done, it would be difficult to conceive the Prime Ministership having ever been within her reach.
For his own part, Pickering is not in a similar business to that of the compromised ABC. “I have tried to allow all opposing and alternative views.”
He is pragmatic enough to accept that if his blog is to survive, he needs to be able to employ a moderator and a researcher and be able to contract with AAP and Reuters news sources. “Pickering Post has no affiliation with any political party or group,” he adds.
There is no doubting his determination that this is the way things will stay and, returning to the topic of advertising, he reminds that therein remains his problem.
“I know for a fact that the Oz has had its problems with Woolworths and Coles. Just what has been done to repair or redress those issues we will never know. Quite simply, I do not wish to be beholden to that sort of leverage.” You mean, they have buckled in some way I asked. “The problem is, we don’t know. It is not going to happen with me.”
He is a contrarian in many things, not just political, unless you regard late term abortions as a political issue rather than, as he says, a, ‘lack of respect for a small defenceless human.”
But he reminded me of the simple things that guide him such as the all-embracing nature of State control. “I like fishing. So you catch a fish and if the State says it’s too small, you have to throw it back. But the large ones are productive, whereas the smaller ones are fair game for the bigger ones. Make sense of that if you can.”
I have to admit I struggle with it, being a fisherman myself and having sons the same way inclined. Eventually, I am driven to concede that he seems to have a point.
Global warming fixation is another of his bugbears. So we see the orthodoxy on global warming is like, he asserts, a fanatical religion that calls sceptics, ‘deniers’, akin to the likes of Tobin and all that lot who said the gas chambers in Germany were merely shower blocks.
On gender, “Why are men all being branded as bastards, but women are never being called, bitches.” Blunt it might be, but hard to disagree with this analysis in the real world.
Controversy has often followed him. Some of it he would rather not have courted, pun not intended, given the criticism of him in a commercial case by the Queensland Supreme Court.
Despite the abuse heaped upon him by the deposed Prime Minister, he doggedly pursued the Julia Gillard controversy and with some justification given the adverse findings made about the former Prime Minister’s credibility in the Royal Commission by a former distinguished High Court judge.
Pickering is happy to be called an agitator in this context. Oddly enough, it is the nature of the man to challenge everything, something the sixties and seventies radicals sought to do. Not so the young of today, he says, happy to conform to Statist orthodoxy, the very antithesis of the radical and never daring to go outside of it.
Israel is evil and Hamas misunderstood, is yet another pet left concern. Of any person disagreeing with a referendum on aboriginal recognition, they are racists. Challenging the orthodoxy as practised by the politically correct, risks you being branded as red-necked. “This is an abomination in a free society,” he confidently asserts.
He is not particularly hopeful for the future given the current political structures, yet recent experience of attending a ‘wake up Australia’ rally, a first for him, show some signs that all is not lost.
“There’s a large pool of voices out there that never protest or make a fuss who are taking the country’s future seriously.”
And after eleven children, a life anyone would be proud to emulate, albeit with his own caveat that he had, ‘by no means been perfect’, he is far from abandoning his own quest for change.
Larry Pickering is provocative and challenging, but surely he has an argument that deserves airing?