Tandberg a clever and liberating mischief-maker

“I always try to draw cartoons that Mrs Moonee Ponds can understand,” said Ron Tandberg to me one night way back in the 1980s. I think he was trying to give me some advice. We were at that moment working side by side in the cartoon room at The Age, grappling with deadlines and issues of the day, yet on different courses and with different approaches and concerns. I knew well that the mythical Mrs Moonee Ponds might not entirely understand many of my cartoons but hoped that she might sometimes appreciate a bit of friendly funny mystery. Ron and I were different creatures with different offerings, and we were mostly accepting about that.

We never influenced each other’s work too much but we got along very well; chatting, laughing and confiding rather constantly through a few lively decades.

Ron knew about Mrs Moonee Ponds, and so did I. We both grew up in that neck of the woods; sharing a common working class sensibility and humour – and both of us were endowed with a limited rough-hewn education. This made us a bit different in the newspaper environment where most of our colleagues seemed to come from “the other side of the river”. We were happy outsiders, I suppose – which was certainly no disadvantage for a political cartoonist. Our ordinary social origins were boldly underlined by the fact that my mother and father worked in the same Footscray abattoirs as Ron’s father and they all knew each other long before Ron and I were born.

Then Ron and I worked for the same newspaper, where culturally, we were both on the same page, and thus were intuitively familiar and at ease with each other. As far as I could tell, there was no professional rivalry or envy between us – even though Ron certainly enjoyed the competitive atmosphere of newspapers and all the festive award-winning stuff that goes with it.

In spite of natural personality differences, we were simply workmates; both speaking the same cultural dialect, and both loving our work and its purpose.

Ron once told me that he likened his role to that of a heckler: the irreverent, nimble voice from the crowd who was able to cast an enlightening or corrupting spell of hilarity upon an audience, bringing the whole show into well-deserved ridicule. Ron was indeed a clever and liberating mischief-maker, and many times I watched him bristling with glee as he created a succinct little gem on the drawing pad in front of him – an exquisitely astute and simple drawing; fresh and wriggling from his mind, from his social conscience, from his sense of fun and fight, his sense of justice and his sheer disgust for the arrogant authority of political power.

He was very forceful and willful in this fight, not just against the perceived corruption of political establishment, but against editors who might take issue with him about a particular cartoon that he had worked hard on and believed in. I remember him returning to his desk one night with a wicked grin on his face after a tussle with a newly appointed editor. “You have to break in a new editor in their first two weeks,” said Ron, beaming with self-satisfaction and aglow with victory.

He was an eager natural doodler and a remarkable draughtsman. He revelled in the sensuality of the organic hand-made image.

His lively little “every person” was a delight to behold and indeed was a modern hieroglyph for the human spirit. There was much of Ron in that simple depiction of the ordinary decent human: alert, direct, brave, funny and forever perky. I have some of his most vivacious and naughty drawings stashed away in a file somewhere; quick rude sketches of me in compromising funny situations, drawn immediately after I had told him some petty personal tale about private misadventures.

At the heart of any good cartoonist’s work there is an essential mischief and a delight in socially inappropriate expression – a risky flirtation with moral danger, bad taste and cheerful obscenity – and this impulse is often the vital fertilising agent in the conception of what can end up as a wonderful joke. Ron loved making these private and improper schoolboy drawings and passing them between our desks at night as the serious deadline closed in. He was very good at it, and these wild wicked little pictures were very funny and wonderfully cathartic at moments when relief was sorely needed.

“Come on, you have to enjoy it,” he sometimes said as he saw me struggling and cursing in despair to meet a deadline – and he was right. How can the reader enjoy it if you didn’t enjoy creating it? Enjoyment transferred is the miracle of art – and when you find yourself chuckling as you draw, you know you’re on the right track. Occasionally I had to repeat Ron’s wise words back to him as I watched him in the throes of a failing or forlorn creation on a bad news night. Ron had his share of bad nights too, when there was no chuckling to himself and there was nothing but hard slog.

There is nowhere you can really learn to be a cartoonist; you have to just want to be one and teach yourself – or learn from each other as you go. Same thing about death; friends more or less teach each other how to die by example.

There has been much written about Ron’s sharp wit, his quick humour, his powers of observation and his ability to distil an idea.

All true, and fascinating to watch, this keenness and vigour of his process as he crouched over a drawing pad, beside which there was often a plate on the desk bearing a knife and fork with the remains of his dinner, all surrounded by a scattering of felt-tipped pens and a photocopy of a news list with promising bits underlined.

Yet as sharp, switched-on and bright as he was, Ron was also a sentimental old pussycat too, with an extraordinary ability to slip easily into a lovely misty moment of daydream and yearning – the twinkling eyes would lose sharp focus and off he’d go into a smiling account of some daggy romantic pleasure remembered or needed.

To give emphasis or colour he might lapse humorously into an appropriate song from a repertoire which covered a huge spectrum of old popular standards – no doubt imbibed from bakelite valve radios in Coburg or Pascoe Vale at another time in Tandberg history. He maintained a lovely old-fashioned dimension in his ways. His clothing and haircut always seemed comfortable, sensible and practical: respectable casual you might say. He seemed to be entirely fashion-free in every possible aspect and this afforded him a great objectivity and originality in his cartooning outlook. To my mind he seemed happily his own person: playful, warm hearted and soulful – yet assertively secular and nobody’s fool.

He had little fondness for his Catholic Christian Brothers education, and the clergy were some of his prime cartooning targets. Ron seemed stubborn and unforgiving about the priesthood – yet could still draw priests in a very amused and amusing way. Above all he was a humorist, and the loss of his good humour from our daily bread and our civic life is indeed a lamentable thing – especially at this time when public humour appears to be sliding into such a constricted, mean and miserable state. Ron’s lifetime contribution reminds me that a good joke can be a stepping stone to wisdom, a window into sanity and a healing poem.

Oh I forget so much of it for the moment; the jokes, the dramas and the details, the terrific scandals and tragedies, the rich discoveries and the sequence of wonderful peculiar things with Ron; the way we worked and shared together in that adventurous time of large booming newspapers that cared and dared and thrived.

It is all pretty much a jumble of blurred memories right now. Reflections about Ron’s final suffering and shocking death are the things that possess me for the moment; the sorrowful stuff, the primal mystery that even Mrs Moonee Ponds does not understand. Gratitude and grief take gentle hold amidst the bewilderment. Just as birth is a miracle, so too there is the astounding miracle of death – particularly with the death of an old friend and a remarkable soul. That’s the sort of statement that would have Ron reaching for his pen with a twinkling wicked smile on his face.