Ian Knox: an inspiration to draw on

"If you've got the issue right, victims don't generally criticise you" /

By Barry McCaffrey

For 25 years he has shown that the artist’s pen can be mightier than the sword, by challenging paramilitary and state violence, while remorselessly mocking the hypocrisy and corruption of the powerful.

While the impact of Ian Knox’s penmanship may petrify even the most hardened politician, the artist himself cuts an almost shy figure.

Born in south Belfast in 1943 he quickly immersed himself in a lifelong fascination with cartoons and later satire.

“I can never remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with drawing, particularly comics,” he said, in an interview with The Detail.

“The Beano was the one I wanted, but my mother had come home from New York and thought Disney was better, so I was the only one person who occasionally got Mickey Mouse comics.

“Everyone else wanted to read it. I wanted to read the DC Thompson comics which were far more anarchic and far more interesting I thought.

“In comics terms I was a Brit but everyone else were Americans.”

After studying architecture in Edinburgh for five years Knox started his professional career in London in 1968.

However he quickly became frustrated with the “soul destroying” monotony of life as a draftsman and eventually sought out salvation in the unlikely location of one of the capital’s more notorious hotspots.

“I went around Soho Square which I was told was the centre of the animation industry to a pub called the Dog & Duck, which is where I heard where animators hung out.

“I saw two guys that looked in my impression what animators might be and I approached them and they were.

“They told me the animation companies to try and eventually I talked my way in.”

For the next five years he worked as an animator in London and Canada but quickly realised once again that he had not yet found his artistic niche.

Throughout the late 1970s he worked for a combination of socialist magazines and children’s comics.

Knox attributes his interest in left wing politics to a Scottish history teacher, Archie Douglas.

“He didn’t actually bother much with the teaching. He just handed us out bound volumes of Punch from the 19th Century.

“It’s easier actually to get a 19th Century volume of Punch than it is to get a 20th Century volume. They are much rarer than the 1950s when Ronald Searle, Antonia Yeoman and all those fantastic artists were drawing.

“They had marvellous pen technique; there was vibrancy and malice.

“It wasn’t as wild as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson from the 18th Century, but it was still great stuff.”

In 1989 the Irish News’ then acting editor Terry McLaughlin agreed to allow Knox to work as a weekly cartoonist.

“I started doing cartoons for the Irish News on Saturdays and then eventually persuaded them to let me do it for the rest of the week.”

For the next 25 years Knox, adopting the pseudonym ‘Blotski’, used the power of his cartoonist’s pen to satirise the hypocrisy and double standards of countless public figures.

Ian Knox's take on finding a replacement for Nuala O'Loan as Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

Ian Knox's take on finding a replacement for Nuala O'Loan as Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

But how did he deal with the sensitivities of the latest atrocities and the pain of grieving families?

“It always hovering behind my shoulder. But it didn’t need to, because the kind of cartoon I did dealt with issues.

“If you’ve got the issue right, victims don’t generally criticise you. They want the truth. They did then and they still do. The truth is more important than anything else to them.

“If you’ve got it right, even if it’s horrible, the victims don’t object.

“I never shrank from any issue. The day I have to shrink from an issue I’ll pack it in.”

Through the Troubles ‘Blotski’ had one self-imposed rule which he refused to waiver or compromise on.

“The big guiding thing for me is anti-violence.

“Violence I think is the worst sin there is. I’m not religious, but nothing else comes near to violence.

“I mean fraud or anything is nothing like violence, there is no need for violence unless the only way to save your life is to use force.

“I was very suspicious of any violent action. I still am and that’s the one guiding thing for me – violence is wrong.”

He dismisses any suggestion that his role as a cartoonist was unique in that he was constantly under pressure to be topical and had to push the boundaries by challenging paramilitaries over the latest atrocity or politicians over the next political bun fight.

“Everybody in journalism was dealing with it (pressure). What I like is the realpolitik, to try and find out what is the motive of the person doing it and why are they being thoroughly dishonest and doing something atrocious for reasons which are quite false. My job is to show that up, really that’s it.”

Despite having publicly ridiculed virtually every well known Northern Ireland politician at one time or another, he says that very few of his subjects ever criticised his work.

“Hardly ever at all. I mean they may be seething quietly, but most people are far too polite to say anything, and never by victims, I’ve never been criticised by victims.

“Funnily enough all the political flack started flying after the Troubles and the atrocities stopped.

“Cartoons about financial things and such like have produced far more writs than any act of violence."

He added: “I’ve never been to court in my life. I look forward to it when it happens.”

Knox remains his own worst critic, insisting that his early cartoons “weren’t very funny”.

“They are much better now, even if the situation is grim.

“If you can be funny about the issue the point gets over much better.

“Now, whatever the issue is, I try to make it look slightly funny.

“I think New York Jewish humour is very good like that and Glaswegian humour, grim but funny.”

Has his work become harder and issues now more difficult to find since the ceasefires and the establishment of the Stormont Assembly?

“It’s much easier, far easier. I’ve got the whole world now. I don’t have to deal with something awful. It’s 1,000 times better.

“Bread and butter politics are basically real politics.

“It’s so depressing that people, like the dissidents, want to use violence.

“They think it’s okay to use violence but inside their heads, what are they at?"

He said they should be constantly challenged: “They should be hauled before a television camera. Of course they wouldn’t come, but they should be made to justify what they’re doing or to try and explain.”

But in today’s age of wireless broadband and instant demand for news, is the cartoon still relevant in 2014?

“I think it is. It’s been going for centuries. Satire should be analytical, it’s not fiction. It should be about the truth.”

When asked if he has ever been threatened for his work he is matter of fact in his reply: “Not really.”

He remains conscious that fellow artists in other parts of the world have not been so fortunate.

“In 1993 as the Soviet Regime was collapsing in Russia, the creators of Spitting Image, Peter Fluck and Roger Law, tried to take satire to Moscow. It was all ready to be set up but one of the directors was assassinated the night before it went out. That was a warning and it never happened.

“There are Palestinian cartoonists in Israel. People who do decide to make it truth (are at risk). I am very fortunate here. I did a series recently here about the fantastic life, about Lord Castlereagh and people who were prepared to put their necks above the parapet in those days didn’t last very long. I’m living in fortunate times comparatively.”

But is the pen mightier than sword?

“I’ve never tried the sword. Certainly it’s the sword of my choice. It certainly gets to a lot more people.”

With a wistful grin Knox admits that there is an inner devil constantly striving to challenge and subvert the accepted norm.

“I love shoving my views down other people’s throats, but it’s much better if you slip it in without people realising it.

“It’s safer for me as well.”