Murray Ball: A cartoonist’s life

Mason Ball, HarperCollins, $45

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“Murray Ball used black to get to sleep at night. He imagined turning his back on his class of raucous nine-year-olds and descending into the void of the blackboard. The thought helped him relax a fraction. Black, beloved black, was the colour of switching off.”

This is how Wellington teacher and journalist Mason Ball opens his first book, a biography about his famous dad. Ink in the blood, as they say: the man can write.

And his source material is stacked. When Murray died with Alzheimer’s in 2017, he left not just his Footrot Flats work, but numerous unrelated cartoons and pieces of art, as well as interview material, columns, and an unpublished memoir.

Of course, much of this book is also written from memory. So we get illuminating, intimate scenes like Murray presiding over backyard cricket. His dinner-table affect (“Captain von Trapp”). A chapter is usefully devoted to his morning routine. Up at 4am, exercises, draw for a couple of hours, jog round the paddocks, milk the cow, long sit on the loo with The Guardian, back to the desk, always with National Radio in tow.

 

Murray worked from home, which meant the kids got to see a lot of him. Sometimes, as a child, Mason would watch over his dad’s shoulder for a moment. “It was intriguing to watch the drawing happening. It was as if some unheard music was leading the cartoonist dance, a rapid certainty about the choice of line, a drift of hand revealing figures, hills, facial expressions…”

What emerges as the son writes, now, is a portrait of a complex, dignified man of deep principle; Murray, it seems from the outside, was the person the family orbited, someone with the vision and work ethic and luck to create his own type of fun, his own good life.

He painted sprigs of mānuka on the family luggage. Drew alphabet charts to help the kids learn to read. Made an easel out of fence battens. Hooked up an excellent swing in a giant pūriri. He eschewed Swanni and stubbies in favour of tracksuits, or a tunic fashioned from an old brown towel. He “fitted his jandals with leather laces which criss-crossed up his shins”; after watching Fame, he started wearing leg-warmers under his gummies, despite the mocking of his kids.

Murray’s default position, writes Mason, was disagreement. (In one scene, Mason, a teenager, tries to find common ground with his dad in chit-chat about music. He’s quickly shut down.) Murray fought a lifelong campaign against capitalism, and over the years obsessively planted up the family’s small Gisborne farm with thousands of trees—to counter erosion and the “travesty” of European denuding, ostensibly, but it also reads as some kind of physical shoring-up against the ambient ills he saw in the world.

Even as a child Murray prized solitude—at school, he built a tree house as a one-man bolt hole, just outside the gate. As an adult he did all his best thinking flat on his back under an apricot tree, retreating into the flax if visitors turned up. Thus emerged Wal and Dog and Horse and Cooch, and the Footrot empire that cleared the mortgage and made millions at the box office (it was the highest-grossing New Zealand movie of the 1980s, and gave us Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Slice of Heaven’). Footrot, as the creator’s son tenderly explains, “started in the head of a zealot, when he relaxed a fraction and set down his weapons”.