Footrot Flats made us laugh at ourselves - and talk about love, life, apartheid and more

Footrot Flats creator Murray Ball had a gift all Kiwis can appreciate.

Footrot Flats creator Murray Ball had a gift all Kiwis can appreciate.

OPINION: Humour is a generous gift and I value the saying "a merry heart does good like a medicine".

Looking at the Footrot Flats cartoon strips I recognise ourselves, our animals, our quirks and our mistakes and can laugh at them. 

Murray Ball had a tremendous talent for drawing, an ingenious imagination, and above all an astute eye and ear for portraying real rural people and events. Sadly Murray died recently and I give tribute to him and his amazing gift.

Footrot Flats stars Wal and Dog are Kiwi icons.

Footrot Flats stars Wal and Dog are Kiwi icons.

Over the years I have taken some healthy doses of Wal with hook nose, gruff manners; Gentle Cooch caring for animals; Crusty old Aunt Dolly besotted with her befuddled corgi, Prince Charles; Pew the orphaned magpie searching for a home, and a whole menagerie of clever, unforgettable, funny creatures including the most memorable mutt with no other known name than "Dog".

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The creator is no longer but his creations will live on in Footrot Flats for the pleasure of generations of readers to come.  The chuckles, smiles and enjoyment from perusing those well-known books have lifted spirits for many years. Our home accumulated the whole collection when I was growing up. Annually another Best of Footrot Flats was released just before Christmas making great presents and will be on many shelves around the country.

Characters from the Iconic Kiwi movie Footrot Flats made a surprise appearance at the Takaka Santa Parade in 2014.

Characters from the Iconic Kiwi movie Footrot Flats made a surprise appearance at the Takaka Santa Parade in 2014.

Our books are well worn and falling apart so pages are pasted on our toilet walls for enjoyment of occupants therein.  I loved the humour – I still do – and enjoy seeing our children laughing at the jokes and sharing their favourites. Some of these Footrot Flats folk  starred on a float in the Golden Bay Christmas parade a few years ago.

Cheeky Hobson looking luscious in a blond wig and high heels; Cooch mooched around in his distinctive hat; Dog was one of Jock's huntaways surprised to be amongst the action; my Mum was a friendly smiling version of Aunt Dolly; Rangi threw his rugby ball to spectators along the street and it all seemed such a good idea till I realised that, even disguised with a  black curly wig,  Cousin Cath dishing out lollies was still recognisable as me.   

From the regular popular strip in newspapers, Dog and his friends appeared on pages of books before graduating to the movie Footrot Flats, accompanied by Dave Dobbyn's soundtrack. Then they all hit the stage together in the Footrot Flats Show. I have vivid memories of the first time I saw this wonderful production. It was in Queenstown when I was guiding on the beautiful Routeburn Track for a season.

Another guide and I were lucky enough to be in town when the show was on. Both being off farms and Footrot Flats fans, we were keen to go along for a good laugh. There were all the familiar faces and recognisable characters performing on stage. It was fun to see the black singlets and gumboots, enjoy the dilemmas of Jess the bitch on heat, hear the neighbourly banter between Wal and Cooch and the down to earth jokes.

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The old ewes were particularly funny as they maa-rched round the pen in woolly splendour with strings of big wooden beads attached to their rear ends. These hit each other as the sheep moved making a distinctive "clacking". Cleverly crafted  to sound just like dry dags rattling on the backside of a sheep. Wal tipped each "ewe" up, dragged her out on to the board, snipped these offending "beads" off and chucked them in the wooden box. 

We laughed, remembering dagging ewes on our home farms and filling a wooden dag box just like that one. But, being in Queenstown and a theatre full of tourists, we were the only ones who understood the jokes. That tickled us to more hilarity as all the foreign faces peered at us curiously in the darkness.

Dog, Horse the feisty cat, Dolores the super sow and the cast of Flats farm are Kiwi characters created by a cartoonist who knew his subject. As kiwis we don't always appreciate someone making fun of us from the "outside" but if someone feels like one of us we can take the joke and laugh at ourselves.

I'm grateful for Footrot Flats, an easily swallowed pick-me-up especially in rural families. Murray Ball had that talent and  familiarity to be on our side, and from there he touched on some tricky subjects like the Springbok Tour protests, conservation issues, floods, droughts and relationship stuff.    

Humour like this is very effective at communicating politics, protests and opinions as well as daily life. How good it would be now to have another artist with the same skill to raise current topics, confront sensitive issues and present causes without offending and defending.

This ability to bring humour and relieve aches is a much needed gift.

  • Joyce Wyllie is a sheep farmer at Kaihoka in Golden Bay.

 - Stuff

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