On being Ken Livingstone’s Cartoonist Laureate for London, published on the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisations website / by Rich Hobbs

On being Ken Livingstone’s Cartoonist Laureate for London, published on the

Professional Cartoonists’ Organisations website, May 2008

I suppose that Ken Livingstone’s defeat by Boris Johnson means that I’m no

longer the Official Cartoonist Laureate to the Mayor of London, although I’m

not quite sure. Somewhere in the bowels of City Hall, the Great Glass testicle

by the Thames, there is a contract, drawn up between the Mayor’s office and

me,although I can’t now remember what most of the term are, and if any of

Ken’s successors retain the option to keep my services.

This is pretty academic anyway, because Livingstone hasn’t actually paid me

for the last five years, so is therefore, ipso facto, in breach of contract. Let me


In the 1990s, when Ken Livingstone was languishing in the political

wilderness, I was wearing one of my many other hats by serving on the

Council of the Zoological Society of London, and we happened to have a

casual vacancy on Council after one of my colleagues resigned for reasons

now both forgotten and, as far as we’re concerned here, irrelevant. ZSL, which

runs London Zoo and Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, was founded in 1826 by

Sir Stamford Raffles, and so has various mechanisms in place to meet

contingencies like these, including remaining Council Members nominating

candidates of their own choosing. As with any organisation, cliques emerge,

and a member of the clique I was in was the then director of Chester Zoo, who

hated another Council member who, by the time of the meeting when we had

to fill the vacancy, been the only person so far to nominate a candidate.

However, I’d long since learned that the secret of politics is preparation, and

so I’d been beavering away behind the scenes to snooker this candidate. To

this end, through a contact on Tribune, I’d already phoned Ken and, on the

basis that he’d unsuccessfully applied, aged 19, for a job at the Zoo, asked him

if he wanted to become a member of the ZSL Council. He agreed, and after

the hated Council member put forward his man, I then sprung my trap, and

suggested Ken. In a classic pincer movement, my man from Chester sang

Ken’s praises, and after we’d adjourned to elect him to the fellowship of ZSL

(a prerequisite of Council membership), Ken was duly appointed by


I’ve told you all that merely to demonstrate that low politics operates

throughout society, and Ken Livingstone, no mean street fighter himself, was

thus the beneficiary of a classic blocking tactic. Happily, he also turned out to

be an extremely good committee member, and was ultimately rewarded by

being appointed as a vice-president of the Zoological Society, at a time when

no one in New Labour was even speaking to him.

Thus laden in honours, a year or so later it fell to him to act out one of the

most bizarre performances of his political life, when Margaret Thatcher was

invited to a grand banquet marking the opening of the Zoo’s new Millennium

Invertebrate House. I wangled a ticket to this prestigious event by promising

to draw both Thatcher and Ken on the same piece of paper, and getting them

both to sign it. This I duly did, along with another cartoon of Thatcher which I

also drew from the life and got her to sign. (For the record, this caricature

made Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves look like something by Francis

Bacon; even so, Thatcher wrote "I don’t recognise me" under her signature,

after she’s said to me "Couldn’t you have been kinder?" It was only on bus

home that I thought up the snappy riposte, "Couldn’t YOU have?")

Anyway, as a vice president, it was Ken’s role to reply to Thatcher’s speech. I

was sitting at his table, and had watched with some alarm as he’s necked

several bottles of white wine over dinner. Nonetheless, when his time came he

stood up and made one of the most brilliant and passionate impromptu

speeches about conservation I’ve ever heard. Then, with tears of pure alcohol

welling up in his eyes, he turned to Thatcher at the other end of the room,

raised his glass and nasally intoned, "Baroness, I salute you." It was only after

he’s sat down and poured himself another, well-earned drink that I leaned over

to him and suggested, if he got elected as mayor, he should appoint me as his

cartoonist laureate, so I could follow him everywhere and, like a slave in

ancient Rome standing behind a conquering hero on his triumph, whisper in

his ear "Stop Looking so fucking smug!" Weirdly enough, he agreed.

It was, I now freely admit, a joke. It was also a joke to remind Ken of his

promise every time we met, and it remained a joke, after he was elected mayor

in 2000, to browbeat one of his policy wonks at a party about his boss’s failure

to keep his promises. However, jokes are dangerous things, and a few days

after the encounter with the wonk I got a call from Ken himself, saying we

were going ahead, and that I was duly appointed as the Cartoonist Laureate for


The terms of the contract were pretty straightforward. I would provide

drawings of the Mayor or events involving him, the GLA and the

administration of London, in return for one pint of London Pride ale per year.

This, I stipulated, had to be bought by the Mayor with his own money over the

bar of a public house during licencing hours. And that was more or less it.

At the time of my appointment in 2001, I got a great deal of press attention,

mostly because neither the mayor nor the GLA had actually got round to

doing anything else by that stage. I did a lot of interviews, usually

congratulating Ken on his bravery in inviting a cartoonist into his tent, but

insisting that although I may previously have been on the outside pissing in, I

intended to continue pissing like fury once inside. So this end I regularly

attended Mayor’s question time, in the temporary GLA HQ in Victoria, and

drew lots and lots of nasty pictures of Ken, the members of the GLA, his

transport supremo and anyone else in view. I also got invited to attend the

opening of the new City Hall by the Queen, and produced what I think was my

finest cartoon in the job, of "Red, White and Blue Ken" rolling his tongue out

as a red carpet for the Queen to process down, with the Duke of Edinburgh

behind her telling her to avoid any low walls (this was after an altercation

involving Ken, his partner, an Evening Standard hack and a low wall at a party

which the hack fell over, suffering some considerable amount of injury).

I think I fulfilled my side of the contract reasonable well for a couple of years,

and was bought two pints by Ken in the summer of 2003, both in arrears. I

also started working for his answer to the Evening Standard, "The Londoner",

although this was less fun. True, they paid me real money as opposed to beer,

but I also had to contend with a politburo of bureaucrats and lawyers, whose

sole job, it seemed to me, was to vet my work in order to remove every last

trace of humour from anything I did. I was also told that the mayor wished not

to be included in any of my Londoner cartoons, as he felt this was playing into

the hands of his critics and their accusations of egomania and self-promotion.

Irony in all its manifestations thus being slowly strangled on all fronts, I

stopped going to Mayor’s Question Time early in 2004, around the time of my

parents’ deaths, and never really went again. In the short term, I had other

things on my mind, but in the long term I was aware that I wasn’t being paid

according to my contract. Now and again, to be sure, I’d remind Ken of his

outstanding debt to me, and he assured me that he’d sort something out, but by

then maybe he, too, had other things on his mind, and although he scrawled in

his Christmas card to me in 2007 that he owed me five pints by now, I never

saw a drop.

This didn’t stop me voting for him, just drawing him. And I still churned out

stuff for The Londoner up until February 2008, which you can see on the GLA

website. One of Boris Johnson’s few palpable election promises was to scrap

the paper, but even that wouldn’t make me vote for him.

I’ll ‘fess up and say that I admire Ken Livingstone probably more than any

other politician I can think of. His bravery in thwarting New Labour was a

beautiful and inspiring thing, and both the Congestion Charge and the

pedestrianisation of the North of Trafalgar Square were enormously brave too,

in the latter case because nobody had been able to make a decision to do this

for SIXTY years. But I hope that that admiration didn’t constrain me from

taking the piss when so inclined, even if, as things turned out, the beer that

might have provided the piss dried up rather sooner than I’d hoped.

And as every workman is worthy of his hire, if Boris comes up with the

goods, I’m more than happy to drink his beer and piss on him too. I await the