David Larsen discovers the intriguing backstory behind cartoonist Michael Leunig’s whimsical birds.

You must know the ways of the duck." Easy to say.

"You must study the duck."

In New Zealand, in Australia, even further afield, so many of us have done this.

"You must play with the duck. You must talk with the duck."


Okay! I give in! I need to know why Michael Leunig's cartoons contain so many ducks.

Mysterious ducks. Transcendent ducks. Oddly placid ducks. "The Great Important Conversation," says a sign on a crowded building in one cartoon. "Sorry. No Ducks."

Leunig laughs when I ask the duck question. He laughs often in conversation, but this is a longer laugh than usual. It's possible I am not the first person to raise this with him. The ducks, he tells me, came from a minefield in Vietnam.

"There was a bad news day, back in 1969. A number of Australian soldiers had got caught in a minefield, and one had stood on a mine and blown himself apart. His friend raced to get him and he stood on another mine and - chain reaction. Terrible day."

Leunig was a young Melbourne cartoonist in his first job on a mainstream paper, after years in the underground press. He was a conscientious objector, or he would have been - "I'd been conscripted, and they made it very hard to be an objector in those days, but actually before I even got to that point I washed out when the medical turned up the fact that I'm deaf in one ear" - but he had friends serving in Vietnam.

"I was feeling disturbed and upset. It was a Saturday morning and I had a deadline looming. I was confounded. I couldn't ignore this incident but I didn't feel entitled to comment on it. You know. A guy sitting at a desk, commenting on that."

Then the Saturday editor appeared. "I heard him singing an Irish drinking song as he got out of the lift. He was carrying his shoes and socks in his hands, and he'd lost his glasses. He'd been to an all-night party. So I thought, okay, today's the day I can get away with anything. So I did a drawing. I said something about ... I can't remember it exactly, but something like, 'The sense of futility you feel when things are so dark, and all you want to do is climb on a big duck and ride into the sunset with a teapot on your head, and far from the world you would be free.' Totally absurd thing."

He took it to the editor right on deadline. The editor looked at it and scratched his head.

"He was wearing someone else's glasses. And he said 'I don't understand this' and I said 'no, I don't really either'. And then he said, 'but I like it. Put it through, put it through.' So that's how it started, basically. After that I felt entitled to act whimsically."

From this point on, Leunig the political cartoonist became Leunig the unclassifiable cartoonist: the philosopher-mystic radical dreamer, whose following over time became cult-level in enthusiasm, but mainstream in numbers.

"I felt politics was done to death - very important, of course, and there's some brilliant commentators around, and some terrific political cartoonists. Also some belligerent propagandists; cartooning isn't necessarily a source of wisdom. It can be a bit cruel and a bit stupid. Sometimes a witticism has no truth behind it. I was interested in this more lyrical, more mysterious thing, about the psyche, the human condition. I was putting things into papers that hadn't really existed there before. I used to think, 'gee, if we can have a crossword puzzle, why can't we have a picture people can contemplate?'"

Why, though, specifically, did so many of those pictures involve ducks? "Well, I had a few ducks as a kid."

Leunig grew up as one of five children in the industrial outskirts of post-World War II Melbourne. "It was a time when there was a lot more freedom to be a kid in some ways, but also a lot more rules. So many things you couldn't do - and this, of course, only encourages you to find ways to do them."

One morning, he went to the local marketplace and bought a duck with his pocket money. "It was a baby. If you know anything about ducks, you know a baby duck will imprint itself on you. It misses its mother. So my duck followed me around a lot. It tried to follow me to school, my mother had to restrain it ... in the evening it would sense that I was home and come running towards me. It was loveable."

Hence the power of the duck in Leunig's imagination? That could be the whole explanation. But he has since learned that in Egyptian hieroglyphs, ducks can represent the soul.

"The duck also turns up in German folktales when you're stuck and you can't go forward. I didn't know this when I began drawing ducks - these are the things you discover in retrospect. So in Hansel and Gretel, they've escaped from the wicked witch and they're trying to get back home, and they come to a big river and they can't cross it. A duck turns up and carries them across. Apparently the pathfinder duck is a psychological archetype in certain cultures. And actually I did have this creature called a direction-finding duck in some of my cartoons - it was the friend of this little boy who travelled and wandered, and the duck would tell him where to go by pointing with its beak. These are the little miracles that happen in your mind."

Michael Leunig, "Australian Living Treasure", will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival at the Aotea Centre on May 18; see writersfestival.co.nz.