The day prior to this interview, an image by fellow political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe was run in The Sunday Times, which portrayed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a brick wall over the bloodied remnants of Palestinian civilians. Such was the outrage at the perceived anti-Semitism, Rupert Murdoch took the unprecedented step of publically lambasting the sketch, distancing his publication from what he considered a “grotesque, offensive cartoon”.
“People get very emotional about anything to do with the Middle East,” says Peter Bromhead. “When you become an old dog like me, you tend not to go into areas that will draw an emotional tirade. It’s like pouring petrol on a fire.”
He says that the furore that followed the publication of images of the prophet Muhammad in Denmark half a decade ago illustrates the point perfectly.
“Younger cartoonists especially often want to test things, make a controversial name for themselves,” he continues. “But an opinion through a drawing is just that – an opinion. It’s tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.”
Bromhead’s weekly column for the Herald humorously chronicles the life of a cantankerous old codger, his “caregiver” and his dealings with an ever-changing, ever-modernising world. Bromhead believes that the digital age has lessened the impact of the media’s might through the “continual bombardment of visual images through our TVs, phones and computer screens.” He laments that his cartoons no longer have the same impact as they did at the start of his career, nearly half a century ago, though praises the instant connectivity that the internet affords. I ask if his work has been evenly balanced, politically, over those five decades.
“For years I never voted,” he says. “I believe that as a political cartoonist I had to remain neutral, but if you were to pin me down I guess I’d be termed a right-wing liberal for I’m also a businessman and I believe in the work ethic.”
His award-winning international interior design company expanded to a new centre in Parnell last year with the opening ceremony conducted by John Key. So presumably the illustrator has never caused the Prime Minister any offence with his musings?
“Politicians tend to never be offended by cartoons,” he says. “In fact, they’re often flattered by the attention! John Key’s a regular kind of bloke, he lives just round the corner and we share the occasional coffee so I asked him to come along. He was happy to oblige. My line of work helped too, I suppose.”
2011 saw Bromhead bestowed the title of New Zealand’s – and possibly Australasia’s – oldest dad and that, coupled with the fact that his wife, Carolyn, is forty years his junior, briefly shifted Bromhead’s social role from commentator to ‘commented-upon’. Some coverage was, perhaps unsurprisingly, negative, and while he’s by no means the first man to find himself in such circumstances, bringing two young children into the world when pushing 80 is not an ideal situation. Peter is “philosophical” about it and says that the opinion of others is not important – though his later reference to the “snide” remarks implies otherwise. He’s clearly a proud dad and any comment upon his fathering capabilities must be wounding even for a tough old boot who grew up in the Blitz-battered south of England. During that time Bromhead lost his own father and says that he got through it and younger men, too, leave their kids every day of course.
“I’ve been in a relationship with my wife for nearly twenty years. It’s a very happy time of my life and I feel blessed to have had this opportunity.”
It was the subject of 2012 ONE News documentary which Bromhead says was “put together in a very underhand manner”.
“They were only interested in the puerile side of it, namely our sex lives,” he says. “What was bizarre to me was that my wife and I were interviewed separately. They questioned Carolyn then re-shot new questions to fit the answers without using her in the re-editing process.”
So viewers were essentially watching fake questions posed to your wife who in actual fact wasn’t even there?
“Correct. I’ve been in the wonderful world of journalism for forty-odd years and I realise that it’s a double edged sword, but even I was taken aback. It was very unethical.”
One of fame’s many downsides?
“I don’t feel any special need to seek publicity. It’s easy to be famous in a very small pond. If you want to measure your fame then go overseas and see who knows you in America or Britain. Of course, I just disappear.”
In recent years Bromhead has been making regular trips to the USA’s Stanford University to research ways in which to improve design standards and education here in New Zealand and he’s also working on concepts for a new Kiwi industrial design school. He’s recently published another children’s book in America too and is in the process of editing his latest offering, The Disinformation Agent, about a World War Two double-agent, which, if all goes to plan, will be released through his Edinburgh publishers later this year.
“I turn 80 soon and am starting to wonder how many projects I can handle at one time,” says Bromhead. “But I don’t feel old. I’m still burning bright inside and working because I enjoy it. I’m a very lucky man.”
His age and experience of course attracts the attention of young and upcoming reporters in search of advice and he says that he is more than happy to pass on that wisdom.
What do you tell them?
“Learn to love your delete key!”
And on that note, I leave him to get back to his editing.