Book Review of Saul Steinberg’s "The Labyrinth", published in Apollo Magazine by Rich Hobbs

The Romanian-American cartoonist Saul Steinberg was a distinctly mid-20th

century phenomenon of a type which is now so familiar we tend to forget how

bizarre it truly is. He was born in 1914 to second and third generation Russian

Jewish immigrants in a small town in Romania, a country only 47 years old at

the time of his birth. His father was a printer and bookbinder. Steinberg later

said he grew up in "the Turkish Delight manner": that is, in a cultural milieu

where Ottoman and western European ideas and styles intermingled and

cross-fertilised each other, though after the First World War the Romanian political

climate was increasingly informed by the rise of anti-Semitic nationalism.

Having initially entered Bucharest University to read philosophy, aged 19

Steinberg transferred to the Politicnico in Milan to study architecture, but 8

years later was forced into hiding when Fascist Italy, at the behest of its

wartime ally Germany, introduced vicious anti-Semitic racial laws.

He was later arrested and spent a month in a detention camp before being released and

fleeing to neutral Portugal, thence to the United States, where he was denied

entry at Ellis Island because he’d doctored his passport with a fake visa to

board ship in Lisbon. He then spent a year in the Dominican Republic waiting

for a genuine US visa. During this time his work started appearing regularly in

The New Yorker, who thereafter helped expedite his application.

Here it’s important to remember that Steinberg’s most famous image is the

1976 New Yorker cover "The View of 9th Avenue", a vision of the rest of

America and, indeed, the world as a small and insignificant outskirt of

Manhattan, just across the Hudson River. It’s often been described as both the

greatest magazine cover of all time and also as an unwittingly self-

damning example of elitist and self-absorbed Manhattan parochialism from a

man who was a fixture at The New Yorker for 60 years. It’s also been parodied

so often Steinberg was finally compelled to go to court to assert his copyright

over the image (a recourse also taken, over the years, by William Hogarth and

Ralph Steadman). Steinberg also grew to resent the image as he feared it

would eclipse everything else he’d done.

That may well be true by now, but it’s a shame if it is. Far more interesting is

how Steinberg, among many many others, fled ancient Christian, Tsarist,

nationalist, fascist European barbarism and ended up helping create a very

specifically (and instantly recognisable) New York brand of highly refined,

achingly cool Modernist civilisation. It’s "Mad Men", sleek cocktail shakers,

lofts, streamline, tiny paper napkins on a table in a darkened room, the people

sat round it barely visible but duly amazed by the weirdness of their own

imaginings. I think you know what I mean.

Steinberg was loudly lauded for his contribution to this aesthetic for decades,

mostly by the kind of European Modernist he’d found himself forced to flee.

Le Corbusier told him "you draw like a king"; he was also praised by Harold

Rosenberg, Saul Bellow, Ernst Gombrich, Italo Calvino, Eugene Ionesco and

Roland Barthes, thus attaining the kind of cultural superstardom few

cartoonists ever achieve. Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman come close, but

not as close as Steinberg in bridging the chasm of perception between what

"cartooning" is often assumed to be - cheaply reproduced silly scribbles

knocked out to make you laugh - and "art", which of course is something

much much nobler. Or so we’re told. (I have personal experience of the width

of this chasm in action. A few years ago Maggie Hambling & I walked round

the Tate’s Francis Bacon retrospective for Radio 4's "Front Row", and I

described an early Bacon painting of a baboon as so accurate in its capturing

of the baboonness of the baboon that it was, as I phrased it, "caricaturally

great". Hambling was furious that I should describe Bacon as a "mere

caricaturist" and demanded I retract this foul slur.)

Given this hierarchy of cultural valency, it’s significant that Steinberg

described himself as "a writer who draws". Having worked in newspapers for

the last 30 years, I’ve had it made very clear to me that the writing is always

more important than the drawings, even when I’ve answered back that one of

the oldest known drawings dates from least 40,000 years ago (it’s of a pig, on

a cave wall in Indonesia) but that writing is only 5,500, and is merely a by-

product of accountancy anyway.

Like most cartoonists, Steinberg worked in the No Man’s Land between text

and image. The standard cartoon connives at marrying the two in a chimera

made up of image and caption, the one often undermining the other. Truly

great cartoonists transmute into "art" in the extent to which they push the

conventions beyond breaking point; Searle and Steadman, for instance, did it

by consciously breaking lines and overdrawing, like George Grosz. Steinberg

did it by actually rendering text as drawing. In his 1960 collection "The

Labyrinth", just reissued by New York Review Books with a new introduction

by Nicholson Baker, time and again language becomes simply squiggles, or

words themselves are drawn almost architecturally as vast edifices dominating


Anthologised from both published and unpublished drawings and meticulous

ordered by Steinberg himself, the book commences with a horizontal line,

bisected initially by some geometry, and then providing a platform for one of

Steinberg’s trademark ragged crocodiles (on a trip to Kenya with Saul Bellow

Steinberg was nearly eaten by a crocodile). What we can then expect, turning

the page, is not knowing what on earth we can expect. As a writer who draws,

he might be about to wrangle this line into a letter and thereafter into writing;

or it might become a horizon, the surface of a reflecting lake, a washing line, a

collar, the edge of a room, a strand of a labyrinth exploding thereafter up and

down the page. But then you turn the page onto a procession of talking heads,

each producing vast, abstract yet Baroque talks bubbles.

Later on, there’s a double page spread riffing on newspaper comic strips,

reproducing the topography of a strip cartoon’s frames but filled with written

and pictorial gibberish. Then there are pages of window frames; later, some

breathtakingly sparse and almost agoraphobically enormous landscapes of Red

Square and other Soviet landmarks, and then there’s pages of society women

scribbled (it’s the only word that describes his technique) as rather prim,

winged harpies. Then cats. Then crocodiles. Then some random geometric

shapes and some more crocodiles.

Squiggle landscapes pre-echo "The View from 9th Avenue"; some drawings are exquisite; others are barely drawn at all. On one page he appears to

channelling Chagall; then Picasso; then, weirdly, the young Nicholas Bentley.

If Steinberg had reversed the process, and was a draughtsman who wrote and

this was text, I doubt much of it would make any sense at all. And it doesn’t

matter at all.

So, did that cavalcade of cultural bigwigs big up Steinberg because, with

typical elitist pretension, they were reading meaning where there was none?

Or, worse, in that specific mid- 20th century way, they archly teased meaning from the very fact of

meaninglessness? Again, it doesn’t matter, and after immersing myself in this

book, I think I finally know why. In short, Steinberg’s Art aspires towards the

Condition of the Doodle. Surrealism was built on the twin pillars of the

Subconscious and the Found Object and a consequent amazement at the

weirdness of the quotidian, a breathless wonder at what the hell the mundane

could ever mean. Snagging on him in his endless flight from the crashing

collapse into barbarism of European cosmopolitanism, Steinberg snuck

through Ellis Island teeming with the bacilli of the cultural responses to that

calamity, helping thereafter to define the unique Zeitgeist of post-war

Manhattan triumphalism. Like Ronald Searle, who reshaped the trauma he

suffered as a prisoner of the Japanese into the dark hilarity of the St Trinians

cartoons, Steinberg found redemption through cartoons of baffling and

indefinably disquieting whimsicality.

Which means this book defines its times, nearly 60 years ago, as precisely as a

tree ring. Though it’s its timelessness which makes it still worth looking at.

On Cartoons, published in the Times Literary Supplement by Rich Hobbs

In Beirut in March this year I witnessed one of the most truly joyous things

I’ve ever seen. Off Hamra, the main drag running deep into West Beirut, in a

bar run by a Communist Saudi hipster at around one in the morning, I watched

a bunch of young Arab comic creators dancing to another bunch of young

Arab comic creators singing The Clash’s "Rock The Casbah", in Arabic.

Earlier that evening, several of the singers and dancers had received prizes,

along with a handsome number of US dollars, at the third annual Mahmoud

Kahil Award for Comics, Illustration and Editorial Cartoons from across the

Arab World. I was there as I’d been on the jury judging the entrants last

September, when I’d had the chance to savour the enormous wealth of

cartooning talent from a region it’s easier and lazier, in the "West", to dismiss

as universally antithetical to the whole idea of cartoons.

One reason for the continuing valency of that cheap prejudice was personified,

tragically, by the recipient of the Mahmoud Kahil Lifetime Achievement

Award. Naji Al Ali was a Palestinian political cartoonist whose most famous

creation is Handala, a Palestinian refugee child, always drawn as seen from

behind and standing in mute witness to the unending unfolding horrors Al Ali

portrayed and satirised in his cartoons. Al Ali was assassinated in London, in

exile, in the summer of 1987. The fact that the identity of his murderers

remains unknown points not just to the foul intricacy of the hatreds cross-

hatching the Middle East, but also to the breadth of targets it seems he’d

offended so deeply that they felt they had no option except to kill him.

The global attention paid to the row about cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed

published in the Danish newspaper Jylands Posten 13 years ago, or the deadly

attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in

January 2015 might fool you into thinking that this kind of response is unique

to Muslims and their allegedly heightened sensitivities. But it’s not just a

Muslim thing. It’s a human one.

It’s woven into the matrices of human power, its pomposity, its atrocities and

its built-in fragility when you dare to laugh at it. Worse, as a refinement of the

maelstrom of mockery, taunts, insults and traded aggression lying at the dark

heart of all humour, and particularly satire, cartoons’ capacity for triggering

offence and over-reaction is compounded by the simple fact of their visibility.

In effect, cartoons have less in common with either journalism or illustration,

in whose shadowy intersection they now tend to lurk, than with sympathetic


All art - artifice - results from humans’ need to wrangle perceived and

received reality into a manageable state by recreating it in what we now call

safe mode. But there’s something clearly transgressive about the way you

appear being filtered through someone else’s consciousness into a new

visualisation, made much worse when the original is distorted through

caricature to make other people laugh at your expense. That’s the real point:

the intended response to a visible cartoon is invisible, triggering a mocking

chortle from its unseen viewers ("readers"? "consumers"? Interestingly, there

isn’s a precise English word for what you do with a cartoon) or, just as likely,

a howl of fury that the cartoon has enabled the mockery.

Cartoons are just a small subset of all visual representation, which has been

treated with suspicion for millennia, from the smashers of graven images via

Savonarola to the heavily armed men who burst into Charlie Hebdo’s offices

and started gunning down cartoonists, and many others, with assault weapons

while shouting "God is Great!"

I don’t doubt that those men were genuinely offended by Charlie Hebdo’s

persistent cartoons mocking their prophet. I also, for the record, believe that

nothing is ever as offensive as killing someone else, though I may be in a

minority on that one. But Muslims are certainly in a minority in the capacity

of some members of their faith for allowing themselves to get so furiously

offended. And while generally the adherents of many faiths seem especially

fragile and sensitive on behalf of the omnipotent beings they worship, it’s

invariably secular power which reacts with greater ferocity, just as most

terrorism is carried out by states and not against them.

The Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart is currently on trial for the third time in

Istanbul, this time caught up in the general dragnet as part of the repression

following 2016's failed coup against Recep Tayyim Erdogan. Musa’s first

prosecution, and conviction, in 2005 was down to him drawing Erdogan as a

cat. (His second trial was abandoned after a group of international cartoonists

all drew Erdogan in the worst ways they could imagine and posted the results

on social media.) In the last twelve months alone cartoonists from Equatorial

Guinea, Malaysia, India, Iran, Spain and seeking asylum in Australia have

been imprisoned, fined or persecuted by their respective states for the high

crime of mocking the power or, allegedly, giving someone, somewhere the

gift of offence.

None of this, of course, is new. The Gestapo infamously drew up a list of

British cartoonists due for immediate summary execution following a

successful Nazi invasion of Britain. It included David Low, Leslie Illingworth

and even William Heath-Robinson. This was despite a friend of David Low’s

having visited Germany fifteen years earlier and met Hitler, who expressed his

huge admiration for Low’s cartoons (he may have mistaken Low’s satires on

democratic politicians as satirising Democracy itself). So Low sent Hitler a

piece of original artwork, personally inscribed "from one artist to another."

That, of course, was before the Gestapo drew up its hit list, but after Low had

spent years depicting Hitler and the rest of the Nazi leadership as "bloody

fools", to quote a Tory MP during a wartime debate on the effectiveness of

Allied propaganda, arguing that Low’s cartoons making Hitler look stupid

were worth all the official stuff put together.

120 years earlier and brooding in exile, Napoleon Bonaparte said the great

Regency cartoonist James Gillray’s caricatures of him did him more harm

than a dozen generals. In Gillray’s "The Plumb Pudding in Danger", more or

less the type specimen of a political cartoon in its interplay of bathos,

caricature, allegory, image and text, Bonaparte’s portrayed as a hyperactive

shortarse, fighting over a steaming pudding with a po-faced, beanpolish Pitt.

As a belittling, humiliating allegory for the vanity and vacuity of global

geopolitics reduced to a food fight, the image has never been bettered. That’s

why British cartoonists keep on stealing it.

Gillray also exemplifies the confused complexities of cartoonists’ relationship

with their victims. In Gillray’s case, these were often also his biggest

customers. In spite of always drawing the Whig leader Charles James Fox as a

spherically obese unshaven traitor forever whoring himself to Revolutionary

France, Fox was a regular and frequent patron of Hannah Humphrey’s print

shop in St James’, which had exclusive rights to sell Gillray’s works (and

exclusive rights on Gillray too: he spent his declining years, blind, drunk and

mad, in the attic, before dying allegedly by defenestrating himself a fortnight

before the Battle of Waterloo). Future Prime Minister George Canning went

further, getting his friends and agents ceaselessly to badger Gillray into

putting Canning in a print, just to show he was worthy of notice. Gillray

naturally refused, until he published a print in 1795, subtitled "The Wise

Men’s Offering", showing Fox, among others, kissing the infant Princess

Charlotte’s royal bottom. Gillray was arrested for Criminal Blasphemy - a

serious rap when merely stocking Paine’s "The Rights of Man" could get you

transported to Australia - but Canning got him off, got himself in a cartoon,

got Gillray to illustrate "The Anti-Jacobin", and Gillray got a government

pension. Which rolls up in a neat bundle the minefield of dangers and

betrayals awaiting any satirist.

Those dangers remain constant, and have done for centuries. The form

remains the same too, and is almost as stylised as Japanese No theatre: it’s

bathetic allegorical painting, intended to damage but flying under the False

Flag of Good Humour, which is by and large how most cartoonists just about

get away most of the time with what is essentially assassination without the


Nor is the current climate of hair-trigger offence-taking anything new. Back in

1958, a familiar kind of warped self-righteousness compelled a GP from

Harrow to write to the London Evening Standard complaining about a cartoon

attacking the death penalty by Vicky (a Jewish refugee from the Nazis) and

regretting that Vicky and his family had escaped the Holocaust. But however

offensive its outcome, taking offence has always been used as an aggressive

weapon. Moreover, it’s wielded in many ways, though often as often as not on

behalf of someone, or something, else. One reader objected to a cartoon I

drew in June 2016 of "Lone Wolves", after the murder of Jo Cox, for its

negative depiction of wolves and other canid species. Another, clearly anxious

keep the pressure up, denounced another cartoon of mine, hung on the 100th

anniversary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele, as "the most offensive

cartoon of all time." Actually, it wasn’t even the most offensive cartoon that


Inevitably, social media - which seems more and more like humanity’s

external collective Id - acts as both an accelerant and amplifier in this Offence

culture. A few years ago, when the late Stephen Hawking was rushed into

Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge with pneumonia, Metro’s pocket

cartoonist Rick Brookes drew Hawking, slumped in his wheelchair, between a

doctor and nurse, one saying to the other, "Have we tried switching him off

and switching him back on again?" You could see the digital lynch mob,

transformed through the enzyme of offence into a swarm of vengeful furies,

start massing like a tropical storm to destroy poor Rick for his joke. Until, that

is, Hawking ruined everyone’s fun by buying the original artwork.

That’s just another example of the seething, twisting currents that flow round

what I do: ploys and counterploys, from getting the joke to disarm it, to not

getting the joke to destroy it, or just getting your own joke in first. Even self-

consciously and therefore supposedly unsatirisably ridiculous things like

Donald Trump or Boris Johnson to a large extent are just trying to ward off

the mockery by making you laugh with rather than at them. But an American

President who spends his early mornings whining on Twitter about how he’s

impersonated on Saturday Night Live is, believe me, not a man impervious to


The point, always, is that satire in general and cartoons in particular exist

because we need them to, to contextualise the greater hideous, often horrific

absurdities of reality into a manageable and therefore controllable format

which then might also make us laugh and thus feel better. Consequently, all

announcements of the death of Satire - after 9/11, after the death of Diana,

after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize - are always premature and

always will be. I happen to think that’s also true of newspapers, but even if the

main medium through which cartoons are currently consumed finally succeeds

in blowing out what’s left of its brains, since daily political cartoons only

began appearing in British newspapers in 1900, like any sensible parasite

we’ll simply jump off our dead host and find another one. Whether that will

be online, or selling individual prints like Gillray and the rest of them did for a

century and a half, or far in the future, magically inhabiting your dreams, we’ll

eventually find out.

Back in Beirut, I was talking to Sherif Arafa, the Egyptian winner of the

Editorial Cartoonist category at the Mahmoud Kahil awards. Among his

submitted work is one of the best cartoons I’ve seen for a long time, perfectly

fulfilling the purpose of the medium. It depicted two visions of the Middle

East as jigsaw puzzles, one urban with small, fiddly, complicated pieces, the

other the desert, made up of big, clunking chunks. A member of Isis is

furiously trying to fit one of the big pieces into small gaps left in the jigsaw of

the city. And it’s perfect. It reprises terrifying events as both risible and yet

instantly explicable. It also made me laugh, for a compost of reasons far far

too complex easily to delve into. Though a lot of it, I suspect, is about

wresting back control and therefore sense from the people and forces who, in

their different ways, eternally seek to enslave and immiserate us. That’s why

we have jokes. Anyway, I asked Sherif what the climate was like now for

cartoonists in Egypt, but he told me he’d left the country while Mubarak was

still in power and moved to the Emirates. "It’s great there," he told me. "I can

draw whatever I like about anyone." I asked him if that included cartoons

about the various absolute monarchs who rule the UAE. We exchanged


wagging satirical glances, and then we laughed and laughed and laughed.

Book Review of Elizabeth Einberg’s "William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings", published in Apollo Magazine by Rich Hobbs

Ten years ago I went to the private view of what I reckon must be the worst

major exhibition I’ve seen. This wasn’t the artist’s fault - he’d already been

dead nearly two and a half centuries by then - and nor was Tate Britain’s 2007

Hogarth show anything less than a comprehensive and scholarly exploration

of work by an artist I also happen to revere. The problem lay in one of those

traps museums and galleries are eternally prey to: a Reverence for The

Artefact at the expense of the Art Itself.

Because of a persistent need for authenticity, the Tate’s curators clearly felt

obliged to acquire contemporaneous copies of Hogarth’s prints. This makes

partial sense, because the prints make up the most accessible part of his output

for most people for most of the last 270 years or so. But they’re also,

obviously, reproductions. So whatever mysterious (yet clearly quantifiable)

potency an original "Artistic" artefact might usually generate doesn’t truly

apply with prints, because the "original" is a sheet of copper, never intended as

anything other than a medium of reproduction. Hogarth understood this

completely, which is why he made prints of his paintings in the first place, to

reach as wide an audience as possible so he could expand the potential market

for his work.

Galleries and museums are, by definition, all about the Sanctity of the

Artefact, but even so it really shouldn’t matter how a reproduction is thereafter

reproduced. The Tate could - and probably should - have projected Beer Street

across the Thames onto the front of the MI5 building or onto the moon,

covered whole walls with blown up reproductions of Industry and Idleness or

The Stages of Cruelty, or even had the gift shop located in a life-size

recreation of Gin Lane, upping the revenue yet further once the punters really

got stuck in to the souvenir hooch.

But because of their Reverence for The Artefact the Tate hung Gin Lane and

all of Hogarth’s other iconic prints on the gallery’s tall, looming walls in

something close to total darkness. This, of course, was to protect the fragility

of the paper they were printed on, which had itself been sacramentally

touched by Hogarth’s own hand. Though I seriously doubt this would have

made much difference in practice anyone new to Hogarth who hadn’t forked

out for the audio-guide. They, I suspect, would have walked through the murk

straight past some of Hogarth’s most important and defining work in all its ill-

lit littleness into the next, brightly lit gallery, where covering a whole wall

they’d have been confronted by "Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter".

And many visitors may easily have come away imagining that size and

position signify something, and that Hogarth’s work is exemplified by a

painting like "Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter". Which, for the

record, is one of the worst paintings by a major artist I can think of. And I’m

sticking to that opinion despite what I’ve now learned from Elizabeth

Einberg’s monumental study "William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the

Paintings", that the painting was produced and donated to The Foundling

Hospital as an act of charity by Hogarth. However Good or Great he was

being, the picture still stinks.

I am, I admit, biased. For cartoonists like me, Hogarth is the grandfather of

our profession: in elevating visual satire to the level of Art, he bequeathed us a

vision of the 18th century summed up in his own eponymous adjective. As

Robert Hughes wrote in "The Fatal Shore", describing the world from which

the first convict settlers of New South Wales were transported: "Modern

squalor is squalid but Georgian squalor is ‘Hogarthian’, an art form in itself."

Moreover, the new school of British Art Hogarth boasted he’d founded with

his "Modern Moral Tales", shot through as they were with narrative, polemic

and mockery, leads far more obviously to Gillray, Cruikshank and modern

political cartoons (the last redoubt, incidentally, of allegorical painting) than to

Constable or Reynolds. Given that so much of it was also printed, specifically

to reach as wide an audience as possible circulating his polemical point,

Hogarth might more truly belong in the realm of journalism than that of "Art".

Thus the dilemma between Art and Artefact I outlined above is compounded

by Hogarth encapsulating the conflict between Artist and Artisan. In a way,

most of his career was taken up squaring that particular circle, starting as

apprentice to a jobbing engraver and finishing up as Serjeant-Painter to the

King (having previously eloped with the daughter of the previous Serjeant-

Painter). To complicate matters even further, his various plaited careers -

engraver, printmaker, painter, society portraitist, piss-taker, ruthless

businessman, satirist - means different - and rival - constituencies can all

claim Hogarth as their own, and in different ways. So, while I choose to salute

Hogarth the visual journalist, rolling around in the gutter with the rest of us

laughing his head off at the follies of his times, for art historians like Einberg

Hogarth’s proper place is in the Petrie dish of intense scholarly study.

To give her her due, I doubt a better book on the subject will be needed. It’s

also a pleasure to read. Hogarth’s business model of producing paintings

which he’d then reproduce to sell on as prints occasionally tempts one into

neglecting the original. So I was pleased to get reacquainted with the simple

beauty of the paintings of "The Four Times of Day", on top of all their low

slapstick of emptying chamber pots and squashed cats. It’s in the details of

these paintings, like with the small clump of flowers in the foreground of

"Chairing The Members" from "The Humours of an Election", that Einberg

helps remind us what wonders, albeit idiosyncratically, Hogarth could work

with paint.

Einberg’s also good on the fate of paintings where all that’s left are the prints.

For example, the paintings of "A Harlot’s Progress", Hogarth’s debut Modern

Moral Tale and his first great commercial success, were destroyed in a fire at

William Beckford’s Palladian mansion at Fonthill in February 1755. Einberg

notes that Hogarth himself was "more taken with reports that [Fonthill’s]

magnificent clockwork organ, set off by the heat, played ‘pleasing airs’

throughout the conflagration", which perfectly captures Hogarth’s

"Hogarthianness", his brand of 18th century whimsy he shared with Swift and

Sterne - both of whom he illustrated. The paintings of "The Rake’s Progress"

were saved from the same fire.

I also discovered parts of Hogarth’s output that had previously eluded me, like

the blasphemous "Sir Francis Dashwood at his Devotions", privately

commissioned (presumably as a gag - yet more Enlightenment whimsy) by

one of Dashwood’s friends. Einberg dates the painting much earlier than

hitherto through some meticulous and rather dazzling scholarship.

Dashwood, for his part, was a member of the notorious Monks of

Medmenham who performed jokey black masses in the Hellfire Caves,

including during Dashwood’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Another

of the Medmenham Monks was the radical journalist John Wilkes, subject of

one of Hogarth’s most commercially successful prints and, through his agents,

Hogarth’s final nemesis when the whole world Hogarth had previously

satirised seemed to turn on him, more or less hounding him to his death. But

as there was no accompanying original painting, you won’t see that image in

Einberg’s book. Nor will you find "Gin Lane" or "Industry and Idleness" or

"The Stages of Cruelty". Nor, for the same reason, does she include "The

Pathos" his terrible, terrifying final image of entropy, collapse and failure.

This is hardly Einberg’s fault. She’s done what she set out to do, and done it

brilliantly. But the cartoonist in me can’t help feeling that this leaves Hogarth

only half done. For sure, you’ll get his Hogarthian spirit in spades in

"Marriage a la Mode" or "The Rake’s Progress" or "The Humours of an

Election". But you also get far more intensely dull portraits of men in wigs

than I ever dared imagine Hogarth had the time or avarice to paint. And once

more we’re back with the Tate problem: these paintings may be Hogarth but

they’re not truly "Hogarthian"; not, as it were, the whole hog.

That said, in presenting us with his entire oeuvre in paint Einberg helps pin

down Hogarth more precisely than she may have intended to. As well as being

both Artist and Artisan, he was also clearly quite often something of a hack,

just like me. It’s another badge I suspect Hogarth, counting the swag, would

have worn with quiet pride.

Art is a Serious Business, published in Artenol Magazine by Rich Hobbs

On my birthday this year our daughter, who’s a graduate from the Slade

School of Fine Art in London, took me as a treat to an event taking place in

the Serpentine Gallery’s café and performed by her friend and collaborator

Matt. And very good it was too: clever, thoughtful, provocative, strangely

beautiful, disturbing and, in places, very very funny. Though oddly - and here

we get to the point - during the funny bits so far as I could tell I was the only

person in the place laughing out loud.

There could be all sorts of reasons for this. Maybe everyone else had no sense

of humour. Maybe, more likely, I’d laughed in all the wrong places, both

gauchely and hideously inappropriately, like the audiences I always seem to

sit amidst every time I see a play in the West End, who seem to think the very

act of engaging expensively with the dramatic arts empowers and entitles

them to laugh at bloody everything. Either way, when I congratulated Matt

afterwards, we both commented on my lonely, isolated laughter, me with

puzzlement and Matt with a certain amount of resentful resignation, because

he’d wanted everyone to laugh. But, as we both reflected, Art is a Serious


What I do, as a political cartoonist, obviously isn’t. That’s why I call myself,

rather pretentiously unpretentiously, a visual journalist rather than being any

kind of "artist". I first started doing this about twenty years ago, deliberately to

demarcate myself and my craft from the smart boys and girls kicking up a

storm on Charles Saatchi’s tab, with the money he earned deep in the heart of

the Industry of Lies. I both draw and paint on an almost daily basis, and the

kind of visual satire I create is in practice as rigidly codified in form and

content as Japanese No Theatre: although I exaggerate the features of real

people and place them in ridiculous narratives of pure fantasy, the kind of

allegorical painting contained in a political (or editorial) cartoon is the last

bastion of Artistic Realism. For instance, there are no truly great Abstract

Expressionist political cartoonists because the victims - the politicians - could

say with unquestionable truth "That looks nothing like me." Likewise the

satirical intentions of, say, the Chapman Brothers, are different in both form

and purpose to that of newspaper cartoonists.

And, of course, my standoffishness is reciprocated in spades. A few years ago

Tate Britain held a Francis Bacon retrospective, and for reasons I still don’t

quite understand, BBC Radio 4's flagship Arts programme "Front Row"

thought it would be a good idea for me and the artist Maggie Hambling to

walk together round the show saying what we thought of it. Hambling wasn’t

in a good mood to begin with (she’s recently quit smoking), but our

broadcasting chemistry became positively toxic as we looked at an early

Bacon painting of a baboon I’d never previously seen. It’s an extraordinary

piece, created with a dazzling sparsity of paint, which wholly captured the

baboonness of a baboon in ways which I said, into the microphone, were

"caricaturally great". Hambling narrowed her eyes and hissed "How dare you!

How dare you call Francis Bacon a caricaturist! Take it back at once!"

From one angle her attitude is incomprehensible: looked at from far enough

away what Hambling, Bacon and I all do is identical. "Art", in essence, is the

human capacity for artifice, for filtering our surrounding reality through a

human consciousness to recreate it through reproduction - however mutated

by human imagination it ends up during the filtration process - in what we’d

now term "safe mode". In short, "Art" is about control; it’s shamanism,

voodoo, more to do with sympathetic magic than the Muses.

So "Art" is instantly far, far more complex than simply "making marks" (as

the media studies mob choose to mystify it) even though that’s what me,

Maggie Hambling and Francis Bacon do.

One obvious difference between us is that what I do I also sell on a regular

basis, to be reproduced both in print and digitally, so it’s then seen potentially

by millions and millions of people. If I’m lucky I’ll then also sell the original

drawing, for even more money. What Hambling and Bacon do, contrariwise,

is sold (to their own financial advantage) just the once, though for much

higher prices, possibly to someone who will be the only person who thereafter

will ever see what they’ve produced. Even if photographically reproduced, the

intention in their work - its soul, if you feel like dragging things like that into

the argument - lies in its marketable uniqueness. Instantly, ownership plus

rarity enhances status, and the status of the owner rubs off on the artist.

Even the (caricatural, thank you very much) starving artist has inbuilt status higher

than someone like me, because of the uniqueness of both their work and their

plight. I, on the other hand, have committed the unforgivable sins, for an

"artist", of being commercial and being reproduced commercially, and

therefore making a steady, regular living from my "Art". So it’s obvious that

any artist, starving in a garret or high on the hog in a loft in Greenwich

Village, will obviously be compelled to think that they’re better than me

because to consider any alternative would drive them mad with avaricious


But I do something worse, which is to make "Art" specifically to make people

laugh. Again, this is very complex, and woven deep into being human. Suffice

it to say, clever geneticists have traced the laughter gene in primates back six

million years, and while all other apes and monkeys laugh as a signal to other

apes and monkeys that they’re only playing (useful if you’re a chimp and you

jump on another chimp’s back, because it tells the other chimp not to kill you),

only humans use laughter, through mockery, as a tool of social control. In

short, I enable my readers (viewers? lookers?) to laugh at our leaders to keep

those bastards in their place. That’s why cartoonists tend to get locked up and

murdered by tyrants, in government or aspiring to it, far more frequently than

more Serious Artists. And when they come for the Serious Artists (long after

the cartoonists’ corpses are cold) it’s invariably because the Serious Artists

have stolen our shtik and are taking the piss out of the Power.

Which includes, of course, the people who buy Serious Art. Interestingly the

very first cartoon - that is, the first humorous or satirical illustration thus

called, and which then lent the name to all such images thereafter - was John

Leech’s "Cartoon No 1: Shadow and Substance", published in "Punch"

magazine in 1843, and which mocked the lavish murals for the new Palace of

Westminster, comparing them to the condition of London’s poor. Cartoonists

also constantly parasitise Serious Art through pastiche, and always have done.

Gillray and Rowlandson both repeatedly parodied Fuseli, and in the 1990s

British cartoonists joyously plundered work by the Young British Artists

being grandstanded by Charles Saatchi. After a while this turned into a real

money spinner, as we knew that Saatchi would buy the original of every single

cartoon about him and his collection of Serious Art (cartoons for which,

remember, we’d already been paid).

As a point of principle one cartoonist used to charge Saatchi the price of a quarter page ad on the leader page of the Evening Standard, and after a while it became more fun to refuse to sell the

stuff to him. Though sadly his agents never even asked for the cartoon I drew

for "Time Out" at the time of the Royal Academy "Sensations" Exhibition,

which depicted a slowly, translucently melting lifesize statue of Saatchi

himself in a case, labelled "Frozen Wank Charles Saatchi".

It’s part of our gig - and an aspect of the deeper, darker nature of the whole

business - that our victims often buy the artifact that defames them, partly to

show how big they are in being able to take the joke, partly through barely

disguised vanity, but mostly to defuse the bad magic. That’s why cartoons are

almost always hung in the victims’ toilets, and you don’t need a Freudian to

tell you why. However, even Charles Saatchi probably doesn’t have a shitter

big enough to accommodate all the cartoons he’d bought, so instead they were

hung, unframed, in one inchoate, unreadable clump on the walls of his gallery.

When I first saw the contemptuous way he was treating our contempt, I felt a

warm glow of satisfaction that we’d done our job successfully: his attempt to

punish us (and along the way paying us all a second time) for our lese majeste

was feeble yet telling. And that was because he considered it important

enough even to try.

Laughter, through mockery, has always been central to the ways we mediate

reality through artifice, but is clearly fatal to Serious Art, by definition. This

has nothing to do with the art itself, but is imbued into it in that terrible

transformation that happens between Conception and the Conclusion of the

Sale, when whatever joyous motivation initially inspired the artist becomes

wholly secondary to the new status of the Serious Art as Grave Goods for the

Living. Maybe that’s all Serious Art has ever been or ever could be: its cost

and the lavishness of its adornments make it impossible without the support of

state or private wealth and patronage, and therefore as a lackey of the Power it

will inevitably be the target for just as much mockery as its patrons. But if you

think about it, the Power - both religious and political - is so absurd, risible,

preposterously unjust, ridiculously pompous, it defies our every natural

instinct not to burst out laughing at these clowns, their crowns, their gods and

their extravagant tastes in interior decor. Which is precisely why the penalties

for blasphemy and treason have always been so savage: to terrorise us into not


True, Serious Art has yet to start killing people in order to cow them into not

laughing, though it’s probably only a matter of time before the Death Squads

set out across Shoreditch. In the meantime, they seem to think money can buy

off any sniggering that might be heard from the back, abetted by ambition,

fear and the peer group pressure that permeate the world of Serious Art.

Which gets us back to Matt’s performance in the Serpentine Gallery café. It

was introduced, as these things are, by a senior Serious Art apparatchik who’d

been sprinkled with so much glamourdust by the stinking rich sponsors that

she imagined it didn’t matter that she read out her words of welcome in a dull,

dead monotone so badly you began to have serious doubts about her literacy.

The stinking rich sponsors then smirked a lot, and also spoke as if human was

a language wholly alien to them. This is the kind of couldn’t-give-a-fuck-

about-the-audience attitude that money can buy, but which the angriest iconoclast can

never truly emulate until they, too, are too rich ever to be angry again. And

then came the show, and it was great. And clever. And funny, very very


And yet it was greeted with hushed, earnest reverence by a roomful of

iconoclast purring politely at their masters’ collection of icons. Like I say, Art

is a Serious Business.

Review of Hillary L. Chute’s "Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form", commissioned by London Review of Books, unpublished. by Rich Hobbs

"A Picture paints a thousand words" is about the hoariest of hoary old cliches

around. Then again, cliches only hang around long enough to become cliches

because they tend to be true. Both the truth and the potency of this particular

cliche lie at the heart of Hillary L. Chute’s "Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness,

Comics, [stet comma - it’s in her title] and Documentary Form", her

commendable attempt to argue that comics - cartoon strips; sequential

narratives; visual journalism; serial images; graphic novellas; bandes dessinee

or however else you choose to designate this stuff - are uniquely equipped to

provide witness to war and disaster. I commend her effort, because the

medium deserves both to be taken seriously and to be emancipated from its

jealous legion of fans in the Comic Confraternity. The trouble is that the

words "a picture paints a thousand words" kept repeating themselves again

and again in my mind as I struggled my way through the book.

Nonetheless, any argument for the primacy of pictures over written words is

compelling, because pictures pull serious rank by virtue of their seniority by

age. As one of the several ways humans make marks to mediate the reality

around us, recording and recreating it in what we’d now call "safe mode",

we’ve been drawing for at least 40,000 years. That’s roughly 34,500 years

longer than the earliest known writing. (Tellingly, the written marks we make

were initially a by-product of accountancy, systems of visual code mutated

from a tally stick.) It’s also, quite possibly, as little as 500 generations after

the emergence of spoken language.

Even so History - distinct from "pre-history" - is defined by the written record

of the last six millennia rather than by the much, much older drawn record,

and it’s obvious why. Writing, even when in the form of pictures attenuated

into pictograms, is a record of precise information, be it the requirements of a

Sumerian king’s kitchen or his relationship with his gods. But all you can

reasonably extract from the information provided by an Ice Age drawing or

carving of a walrus is that it’s a drawing or carving of a walrus, although you

can then speculate forever on why its creator drew or carved it, while also

being slightly in awe of that fact that she could do it in the first place.

This vagueness when gauging motivation and purpose, along with the

instantaneity with which we consume the visual (as opposed to the slowness

with which we read the textual) explains the suspicion with which visual

representation has been treated for millennia, by everyone from John Locke to

theological iconoclasts throughout History, which consequences from

Savonarola’s Florence to the offices of "Charlie Hebdo".

Then again, there’s different kinds of mediated visual witness. If drawing

outranks writing in seniority of age, it clearly outranks photography in spades.

And yet Delaroche’s famous declamation in 1839 on first seeing a

Daguerrotype, that "from today painting is dead!" has proved to be completely

wrong. The continuing valency of drawing lies in the way it mediates reality

through a human filter, and how it oh-so-humanly picks up impurities on the

way. It’s the way you tell a human from a replicant, that instinct that allows us

to distinguish the real from the pretend, although both eternally swirl around

us with equal intensity. Taking a disaster Chute almost entirely ignores, the

attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11th September 2001 put

these differences in clear relief.

9/11 was probably the most visual event in human history. The next day every

British newspaper had pages and pages of photographs of the planes hitting

the buildings, the buildings burning, people jumping (to their deaths) out of

the buildings, the buildings collapsing and the burnt and broken bits of three

thousand real human beings billowing out over Lower Manhattan. The TV

screens were filled with practically nothing else apart from these images of

bodily desecration for days and days, and were counterpointed by millions of

words of analysis and conjecture and prophesy, written and broadcast. And the

only journalists - the commentators, the reporters, the witnesses, the what-

you-wills - who got it in the neck in the immediate aftermath of 9/11were the

cartoonists. Many readers complained that a cartoon on this topic was wholly

inappropriate; cartoonists were told by their editors to cover another topic

(there wasn’t one); their work was spiked, their strips were moved to other

sections of the paper; in the US some even received a knock on the door in the

middle of the night from the Feds under the meaning of the Patriot Act. Even

before other visual taboos kicked in - like the one against reprinting or

rebroadcasting images of those people leaping to their deaths once they’d

been individually identified - it became clear where the difference between a

drawn and a photographed visual witness of this disaster lay. It seems we

could just about stomach images captured by machines, but not those caught

and then recreated via a human mind. This is on top of the deep weirdness of

this act of mass murder being planned specifically to be spectacularly visual

by men whose religious dicta deplore most forms of visual representation

(apart, that is, from endlessly reproduced snaps of Osama bin Laden looking


The taboo against drawing this particular disaster seemed limited specifically

to cartoonists, by which term I include comic book artists. Although it only

gets a passing mention from Chute in her otherwise thorough analysis of his

work, Art Spiegelman’s post 9/11 comic book "In the Shadow of No Towers"

perfectly proves the point. Commissioned and published in "Die Zeit" in 2003,

in Spiegelman’s home city and the scene of the attacks, neither the New York

Times nor The New Yorker (where Spiegelman’s wife is the art director) felt

they could go within a mile of such insensitive/irreverent/provocative material

(again, take your pick of the most appropriate term), even though the New

York Times selected the subsequent book of the comic strip as one of their

100 notable books of 2004. Even as late as 2008, the US publishers of my

cartoon book "Fuck: The Human Odyssey" insisted I remove the 9/11 page.

In her detailed exploration of comic book witnessing of both the nuclear

bombing of Hiroshima in Keiji Nakazawa’s "I Saw It" and the Holocaust in

Art Spiegelman’s "Maus" all these themes - drawing versus photography, how

we look at things and what things we’re allowed to look at - coalesce in

Chute’s chapter on Joe Sacco, the Maltese/American cartoonist, specifically in

one chapter in his 1993 comic book series "Palestine", which is titled "A

Thousand Words".

Straight away in that title the comic strip is playing to one the greatest

strengths of the comics medium, something which it shares with others

cartoons - that they are neither text nor illustration, but both; and that the use

of captions can both augment and undermine the images. This kind of picture

is woven through with allusion, irony, cliche and the full baggage of popular

culture, the realm it inhabits, witnesses, chronicles, criticises and, as often as

not, mocks.

Anyway, the chapter then tells, textually and visually, the ongoing story of

Sacco himself during his two month stay in Gaza and on the West Bank

towards the end of the first Intifada. Accompanied by a Japanese

photographer, they encounter a demonstration of Palestinian women and

children which is broken up by Israeli police, and which Sacco photographs

with the camera he carries to take reference shots for his subsequent drawings.

Later on, a Palestinian photographer for an international wire service suggests

Sacco come into his office to develop the film, which leads Sacco off into a

riff fantasising about his photo making the news, in the sense of both being

broadcast to a wide audience and thereafter shaping the news agenda itself by

what he’s revealed through his act of witness. However, in the end none of

Sacco’s photos are considered to be any good, mostly because of his

standpoint. As another photographer explains in the final frames of the strip:

"See, if you’d been standing where this guy is standing, you would have got


Sacco straight away presents us with a maelstrom of ironies undercutting

ironies, language cliches curling in on visual ones. Which "standpoint" is "no

good", his physical or political one? What kind of pictures are his eponymous

thousand words worth? As with the visual witness to 9/11, the same

unperceived but understood fault line between the drawn and the

photographed leaves Sacco, the "comics journalist", with his photographs

rejected as no good by other "visual journalists". Worse, it’s because he hasn’t

"got faces", a failure he recognises as significant enough to be worth retelling

through drawing, although this is a digression from his primary intention,

which is to report on the condition of Palestine.

The getting of faces is what turns the drawing of cartoons and comic strips

into something much deeper and darker than merely making a visual record,

and it’s where drawing leaves photography standing. I only worked this out

myself when I drew Tony Blair’s then Director of Communications Alastair

Campbell from the life in May 2002 for a series of caricature portraits I was

producing for the walls of "The Gay Hussar" Hungarian restaurant in Soho. It

became increasingly obvious that he truly hated what I was doing - at one

point he shouted across the crowded restaurant "You just won’t be able to stop

yourself from making me look like a really bad person!" - because I was,

quite simply, taking control away from him by filtering his appearance

through the agency of my own consciousness and recreating it in caricature;

shape shifting him, in other words. What I was doing lay more in the realm of

sympathetic magic than either pure recording of his image or, as a caricature,

dabbling in a bit of light-hearted fun. You know, something funny for the kids.

The poignancy of Sacco’s role in his narrative lies in him recognising that the

potency of the visual journalism depends on getting "the faces", which he’s

failed to do. But he’s failed through photography, which is only his secondary

medium for "capturing" images and which he uses only because it’s quick. As

a "comics journalist" on the ground, he doesn’t have time to sketch the

backgrounds or sketch the action.

But what kind of journalist is he? The guy who draws "The Wizard of Id",

syndicated in newspapers worldwide, is just as much of a journalist as the star

columnist or the war correspondent. Or the crossword puzzle compiler, for

that matter. In Chute’s view Sacco is quite specifically the news-gathering,

war correspondent kind. But as what Sacco eventually filed from what he’d

witnessed took him two years to draw, it’s hardly hold-the-front-page stuff.

It’s also a specific kind of journalism, centred round and filtered through him

in some sort of gauche gonzoism. Making himself and his hapless immersion

into the circumstances of the Intifada the pivotal part of the story is a fairly

standard - if not cliched - journalistic trope. But what should we make of his

visual representation? Which, it should go without saying - or drawing our

attention to it - he produced himself. Sacco has a fine line, and a crisp, realistic

style, rarely involving that much caricature. When he depicts himself,

however, he shapeshifts into a big-nosed, comic book (Maltese, goy) nebbish,

whose glasses are as opaquely white as Little Orphan Annie’s pupil-less eyes.

Is this self-denigration implying, as an outsider, he can’t see what’s in front of

him until he’s compiled the textual and visual witness statements he then

depicts in the comic? Or that his journalism, filtered through his own head, is

untrustworthy because he can’t see out? Or is he just seeing what’s inside his

head (like the rest of us - the trick being in getting it out onto the paper)? Or is

he just nodding back to his comic book roots and, in their turn, their own roots

in newspaper cartoon strips, which include Little Orphan Annie?

While we’re still unravelling that lot, let’s return to the visual witness bit, the

core of Chute’s thesis. It’s clear that the purpose of Sacco’s work is to bear

witness, and to make us pay attention to that witness because of the medium in

which he’s chosen to bear it. Sacco actually taught himself to draw in order to

tell stories he thought were not being told in other media, most obviously in

newspapers and on TV. But in fact he’s hardly ever a witness to the atrocities

and the disasters he records: what he does instead is give visual form to the

aural witness he hears from others. This is what Spiegelman also does in

"Maus", which isn’t a documentary of his witness, but a memoir of him

recording his father’s witness to the Holocaust.

But even at secondhand the power of the visual recreation of the horror,

through drawing, screams at the reader (the looker, the observer, the

consumer, the spectator - Chute, like me, draws a blank on the correct words

for the way we take in these images). There are pages of "Maus" I can’t bring

myself to look at, any more than I can look at some of Goya’s etchings in his

series "Disasters of War". That’s probably because, in both cases, either at one

or two removes, the proximity to the unviewable and the unspeakable is still

far too close. As Chute observes, one of Goya’s etchings is called "I saw it", a

title Nakazawa borrowed for his initial manga about witnessing the atomic

attack on Hiroshima (though interestingly this one of Goya’s etchings, amidst

the images of dismembered corpses I can’t look at, merely shows people,

including toddlers, running in horror from something they see but we don’t).

It’s also significant that Goya etched his witness instead of simply drawing it:

it was created to be reproduced and distributed to share the witness, even if the

prints weren’t published until 36 years after Goya’s death. Although it’s not a

line of thought Chute chooses to pursue, it’s worth considering in what degree

Goya’s "witness" of war differs from Picasso’s "witness" in his painting

"Guernica". Does, or doesn’t, the almost infinite number of photograpic

reproductions of Picasso’s painting make it identical to Goya’s etchings? They

were created solely for the purpose of reproduction, whereas Picasso painted

one unique artifact that could not, through its own integral agency, be

reproduced, but nevertheless he created it, in black and white, to echo a

newspaper photograph. Along these same lines, in her chapter on Nakazawa

Chute reflects at length on the significance of how the visual witnessing of the

atrocity at Hiroshima is borne by the rubble of the destroyed city itself, in the

"shadows" left by vaporised human beings in a process not unlike


It’s salutary, considering all this, to compare the power of Sacco’s

"journalistic" work covering Palestine and Bosnia with "The Great War", his

2013 accordion-fold book depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

In the "witness" work, many of the drawings are simply of Sacco talking to

rooms full of people or trudging through bleak, broken urban landscapes.

(When I interviewed Sacco on stage at the ICA in 2003 I referred to a

beautiful double page spread of a crossroads in a refugee camp and asked him

how he felt when he’d finished drawing it. "I danced round the room," he

replied, which makes perfect sense.) "The Great War", meanwhile, although

depicting far worse things, comes across more like some kind of Pity-of-War

Where’s Wally.

But this is where it gets truly weird. Despite neither of them having

themselves seen what they subsequently drew (in both senses) from other

people’s witness, being therefore the part of the process of creation they made

up in their heads, what both Spiegelman and Sacco draw is true. Remember,

moreover, that prior to being filtered through the artists’ heads, the events

have been filtered through the memories of their witnesses - in Nakazawa’s

case, his own memory, plus his family trauma, plus societal taboos against

discussing the nuclear bomb, plus the conventions of manga, and so on. And

yet despite these layers of filtration - or probably because of them - a deeper

truth emerges. As the great 20th Century political cartoonist David Low said

when he drew Albert Einstein from the life and Einstein complained that it

didn’t look like him, "it looks more like you than you do."

Some of which Chute gets, but a lot of which she doesn’t. Before dealing in

detail with "I Saw It", "Maus" and Sacco’s work, she recruits a great host of

character witnesses for her thesis about visual witness to war and disaster. I’ve

already mentioned Goya, to whom she adds Jacques Callot’s 1633 series of

prints "Miseries of War", which inspired Goya, and Otto Dix’s set of

etchings, "Der Krieg", which was inspired by him. Chute also brings in

Winsor McCay, the American newspaper cartoonist who created "Little Nemo

in Slumberland", presumably because he can testify for the operation of comic

strips as well as how to record disaster with his 1918 propaganda animation

"The Sinking of the Lusitania" (which he didn’t witness). Then there’s

Rodolphe Topffer, Harvey Kurtzman and "Mad" Magazine, Jules Feiffer, Will

Eisner, a nod to Robert Crumb and the occasional name check for Hogarth and

Gillray. "Krazy Kat" creator George Herriman gets a mention in relation to

way he influenced Spiegelman’s early work, and artist Philip Guston is roped

in to raise the tone.

But a glaring absence, in any study of the power of pictorial evidence of war,

is Ronald Searle. It’s not quite clear why she left him out. He, like Goya and

Dix, actually witnessed war and its horrors as a prisoner of war of the

Japanese, and then bore his witness visually. True, unlike them, and

countering my earlier argument about the need to bear visual witness in

reproducable form, he didn’t etch his record of Japanese war crimes as the

local circumstances mitigated against this. Instead, he managed to acquire

drawing materials while in Changai Gaol and working on the Burma Railway,

though had to hide his drawings beneath the mattresses of his fellow prisoners

who were dying of typhus or cholera, as these were the only places the guards

never searched. Had they found Searle’s work, he would have been

immediately killed. Searle’s later reportage should also qualify him, whether

it’s his work in refugee camps or his coverage of the Eichmann trial for "Life"

in 1961. Then again, perhaps his failure to produce sequential narratives

trumps everything else in Chute’s mind.

Or possibly she’s never heard of him. Her definition of the modern meaning of

the word "cartoon" hardly inspires faith in her capacity for reading widely

around the subject. I quote: [p51] "Cartoon comes from the Italian cartone,

meaning "cardboard"; it denotes a drawing for a picture historically intended

to be transferred to tapestries or frescoes. Later, cartoon came to indicate a

sketch that could be mass-produced, an image that could be transmitted

widely, as in the case of the contemporary cartoonists I discuss here, who

value the term’s mass-medium connotations." Even the briefest Google search

will tell you that the contemporary meaning of the word arose thanks to John

Leech’s "Cartoon No 1: Substance and Shadow", published in "Punch" in July

1843, showing a crowd of the London poor cowering from the rain in the

middle of an exhibit of the preparatory cartoons for the magnificent murals

intended for the new Palace of Westminster. The "marks" Leech had made

were no different in form or intent from what Gillray, Goya , Hogarth or

anyone since had made. But that’s the origin of the word, and has far less to

do with mass-producability, though that’s invariably a prerequisite, than with

the intention to be humorous or satirical.

That’s also where "Maus" came from. While Japanese Manga, including

Nakazawa’s work, is largely autochthonic, the word cartoon diffused out

through western culture to encompass both comic strips and comic books, and

then animation as well. Just like after 9/11, even though political cartoonists

were producing allegorical images where they swapped humour for pathos,

there remains a vestigial hum implying "funny"; even barely recognisable

mutations like superhero comics emit it, though often it’s then misheard to

denote "not serious" or "simply for kids"


The underground comics that spawned Spiegelman and Crumb were based in

just one joke: that you’d take the dull, controlled comics of 50s American,

gelded by the Comic Books Code after a moral panic about the harm such

trash was doing to the nation’s kids, and fill them with sex, drugs, violence

and filthy language. The first, three page version of "Maus" appeared in 1973

in a comic called "Funny Animals", the joke being that the Jews-as-mice and

Nazis-as-cats gag wasn’t funny at all, this being one of satire’s most potent

gambits. In short, the joke is that there’s no joke. Even then, "Maus"’s memoir

structure is based on the classic comedy dysfunction of Jewish

intergenerational family conflict, as Art rows with his dad as he tries to get

down his story, although here again the joke is that the joke isn’t funny. The

"cartoon" Art Spiegelman’s last word in the book, shouted at his father’s

house after finding out he’d thrown away all Art’s mother’s papers after her

suicide, is "Murderer!" In context, that’s about as black a joke as you can get.

Likewise, in Sacco’s work the visual vocabulary of his comic books,

particularly in his depiction of himself, is classic comedy - the loser out of his

depth, the schmuck making an ass of himself - although once he presents his

witnesses’ witness the joke becomes that there isn’t a joke anymore. Even the

disconnect between the form and its content is a kind of pratfall. The shock

delivered by the disconnect between the story of the Holocaust and the

medium of a zoomorphic cartoony comic book is what got "Maus" noticed in

the first place, and then acclaimed.

"Disaster Drawn", however, is a very very serious book. Chute doesn’t do

jokes. So far as I can tell, she doesn’t encourage irony either. Or maybe, when

she describes how Spiegelman set out to draw "Maus" in a much sparer,

bleaker style than its 1973 "Funny Animals" precursor, by using a Pelikan

fountain pen, she simply didn’t know that Pelikan provided the ink the Nazis

used to tattoo identity numbers onto the forearms of the inmates of

concentration camps. Though I bet Spiegelman does.

This might explain why she writes for pages about the vocabulary of

sequential visual narrative, about the role of the "gutter"; that is, the space

between the frames which separates the narrative whereby in one frame you

have things and people, and in the next frame you have things and people but

where time has passed. Who knew? She certainly expends thousands of words

describing what a child of five, reading "The Beano", understands

instinctively. (This is an important consideration: cartoonists of all stripes are

constantly told that our efforts in our "so-called" cartoons could be drawn by a

child of five; I usually respond that you shouldn’t under-estimate five-year-

olds.) Similarly, she interrogates cartoon strips like "Little Nemo" solely in the

way they structure unfolding narrative: the jokes, and the timing of the jokes

within the frames, seem of little or no consequence.

Maybe this is why Searle’s witness doesn’t count. After he was repatriated,

instead of producing a graphic novel about the atrocities he witnessed, he

recreated them, defused and controlled them by replaying them as St Trinian’s

cartoons, often directly quoting the earlier images of horror, of slave labour or

beheadings, for laughs. Searle’s first collection of gag cartoons was called

"Back to the Slaughterhouse".

None of which fits Chute’s central argument about comics’ power as media

for documentary witness. Then again, neither do the facts. "Maus" and Sacco

stand out because they’re different, and they’re different because sequential

visual narrative is not only the perfect medium for bearing witness to disaster,

but also to the adventures of Beetle Bailey, the Beckettian despair of Schulz’s

Charlie Brown in "Peanuts", the actions of characters in "June and

Schoolfriend", Billy Whizz, Johnny Fartpants, Swamp Thing, the

empowering over- compensatory revenge fantasies of poor, powerless immigrants in

"Superman", as fictionalised in Michael Chabon’s novel "The Amazing

Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (which Chute acknowledges), the characters

in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ genre-busting "Watchmen" and, for that

matter, Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby in my own 1996 comic book

adaptation of "Tristram Shandy". There, as elsewhere throughout the form,

words and images twists and dance round each other, along with irony, action,

horror and jokes.

Sadly, Chute has the zeal of a convert. As she told the Boston Globe in

December 2015, marking the beginning of her sabbatical at Harvard from her

chair in English at Chicago:

"I wasn’t particularly a fan of comics as a kid," said Hillary

Chute, a Cambridge native who later devoted her academic career to

their study. Instead, Chute read novel after novel, trying to understand

how narrative worked. Then she read "Maus".

"I became really obsessed with figuring out why the narrative

worked so well for that kind of story," Chute said. "I don’t think it’s a

coincidence that the most famous graphic narrative in the world, which

is ‘Maus,’ is about war and disaster. I’m still thinking about that

question, which is why I published this book."

Which explains a lot, and why she’s approached the subject from the wrong

end, looking at it upside down. Because I can’t help wondering who on earth

this book is meant for. An encomium from Chris Ware on the dust jacket and

several online interviews between Chute and Spiegelman suggest there are at

least some comics artists who are grateful for the attention of academia, and

are possibly even flattered by it: comics have demotic roots in the gutter press,

even when they’re masquerading as graphic novels the better to steal money

from mainstream publishers. There remains, however, a pretty massive chip

on the shoulder, which is what pricks the best work out of the medium’s most

brilliantly embittered practitioners.

Still, if they enjoy it, good for them. Personally I found the book

practically unreadable, and hence that mantra about a thousand words running

endlessly through my head. This is sad, as I revere the work she examines and

the artists who produced it. But perhaps this is standard procedure in Media

Studies, to take a globally popular form of communication, one particularly

attractive to uncommunicative teenagers of all ages, and analyse it into a

different kind of exclusivity through incomprehensibility. And maybe the best

way to do this is actually to steal the name of your subject from its previous

owners and twist it through language into total unapproachability. This, after

all, is the kind of bad magic cartoonists understand. Nevertheless, each time I

read Chute write the word "comics" and use it as a singular, I screamed. Out

loud. Every sentence thus burdened had the shit kicked out of any further

readability each time she did it. After a while the words on the page kept

blurring in front of my eyes, and all I could see in my mindseye was Professor

Chute marching off campus to her local comics shop, edging past the smelly

male adolescents thumbing through the latest adventures of Spiderman and

asking the long haired stoner behind the counter "Have you got any interesting

comicses in this week?"

A shame.

The Massacres in Paris - for BlackEye Magazine by Rich Hobbs

We should talk about the massacre in Paris, but which one? Do we mean the

St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572? That was instigated by the French

king Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, five days after Charles’

sister (and Catherine’s daughter) Margaret had married the Huguenot leader

Henry of Navarre. Grabbing the opportunity provided by so many Protestant

aristocrats attending the wedding in Paris, Charles and Catherine paid mobs of

Catholic thugs to kill every Protestant they could lay their hands on, the better

to ensure the victory of orthodoxy and true religion. The final death toll across

France may have been as high as 30,000. Apart from enriching English

commercial and cultural life for centuries to come with a sudden influx of

Huguenot refugees, these murders also inspired Christopher Marlowe’s play

"The Massacres at Paris".

Or do we mean the September Massacres of 1792? That was when the French

revolutionary government, facing the imminent threat of foreign invasion and

fearing the possibility of fifth columnists assisting the enemy, ordered the

summary execution without trial of the inmates of Paris’s gaols, carried out

systematically mobs of National Guardsmen, militants and local livestock

butchers. Of the roughly 1400 prisoners thus murdered (half the prison

population of Paris at the time), 233 were Catholic priests who had refused to

submit to the Revolutionary Government’s Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a

law of 1790 which subordinated the power of the Roman Catholic Church to

the civil, secular authorities. The rest were common criminals, presumably by

and large uninspired by either politics or religion. The massacre was largely

fomented by the radical journalist John-Paul Marat who later, like

Agamemnon and Jim Morrison, died in his bath. The largely freelance nature

of the massacre is believed to have driven the Jacobin faction, led by the

lawyer Maximilien Robespierre, to have formalised Terror under the control

of the state, in the interest of public order. During the ten months of

Robespierre’s government, about 40,000 people across France were

summarily executed.

Or do we mean the Bloody Week of May 1871, when the French Republican

government suppressed the Paris Commune, with a death toll of between

10,000 and 20,000, all murdered by government troops?

Or do we mean the Paris Massacre of 1961? That was when up to 200 people

protesting peacefully against France’s colonial war in Algeria were killed,

either herded into the River Seine by police to drown, or murdered in the

courtyard of the Paris Police Headquarters after having been arrested and

delivered there in police buses. The massacre was the brainchild of Maurice

Papon, previously a collaborationist civil servant under the Vichy

Government, later a prominent Gaullist politician, and at the time Parisian

Prefect of Police. Successive French Governments denied for decades that the

massacre had ever happened.

Of course there’s a fundamental difference between all those historic deaths

and the killings of 2015 - 17 people killed in January at the offices of Charlie

Hebdo and later in a Jewish delicatessen, 130 people murdered on Friday 13th

November in the Bataclan Concert Hall and elsewhere across Paris’s cafes and

restaurants. The question is, where does it lie?

After all, the similarities, even across the centuries, are overwhelming. Each

murder was wrought, almost exclusively though with the occasional Belgian

thrown in, by French citizens or subjects on other French citizens or subjects,

however they might ultimately define themselves according to their own

lights. Each murder, to a lesser or greater degree, was inspired by the twisted,

terrible tangle of political and religious imperatives which bedazzle too many

human minds. Each murder, indeed, was motivated by the kind of religious

considerations that also inspire people to ecstasies of bliss and selfless love.

Robespierre beheaded priests for political reasons, but also beheaded militant

and radical atheists because of his own devotion to the Supreme Being. The

soldiers of the Third Republic, fighting their way street by street through Paris

in 1871, lined the Communards up against the walls of Montmatre for

immediate execution because they were Socialists and Anarchists, for sure,

but also in part because the Commune had ordered the execution of the

Archbishop of Paris. And a fair few of the Communards who survived went

on, a quarter of a century later, to become virulent anti-Drefusards, furiously

insisting on the guilt of the framed Jewish Officer Alfred Dreyfus. Thus they

mined a seam of deep-seated French anti-Semitism which later fuelled the

fascism of the collaborationist Vichy Regime and its servants. Like Maurice

Papon, who later diverted his energies into similarly murderously assiduous

actions against French Muslims.

And given those motivations, it should come as no surprise that none of the

perpetrators of any of these murders would have imagined they were doing

anything wrong. On the contrary, each one certainly believed, wholeheartedly,

that they were doing good, and that the World was an immediately better place

due to the removal of every one of those enemies of the Church, the King, the

Revolution, France, the Republic, Good Order, Commerce, Virtue, the State,

Islam or, perhaps most important, the murderers’ finer feelings.

Because in each case, each corpse helped allay in some small part a previous

hurt and laid to rest an army of affronts. That’s how massacres happen, not

through the evil actions of individual sadistic psychopaths, but through mass

righteousness correcting the repulsive consequences of the crimes, mental and

actual, of the massacred.

So the murderers of the five cartoonists in the offices of Charlie Hebdo on 7th

January 2015 are practically indistinguishable from all the other Parisian lynch

mobs across hundreds of years. Offence having been taken, the sentence was

death. The only way they and their rival jihadis 10 months later differed from

all the other murderers was that they managed to kill far fewer people and

were not sponsored by the French state. They appealed instead to a higher


Note that. From St Bartholomew’s Day to the Bataclan, every murderer

murdered outraged on behalf of some higher authority or other. None of these

murders were individual crimes passionnel, but always - always - on someone

or something else’s behalf, invariably something allegedly infinitely more

powerful than the victims who had, through word or deed (or drawing), given

the initial offence. Apart from the perennial and eternally pointless

observation that God, History, Destiny, Kings and States should grow a pair

and stop being so thin skinned, it’s also worth observing how a murder is so

much easier and sweeter when it’s committed in behalf of victims, even if the

victims now become the perpetrators and vice versa (which is, of course, what

revolves in a revolution). Whether it’s the soft-hearted servants of aristos or

apostates at a prostitution party, the inherent guilt of the victim lies in their

secret identity as perpetrators by association, even if this has never for a single

moment entered the victims’ heads, even at the moment of death.

Which gets us where? To something innately violent in the nature of Paris? Or

of France? In fact, the innate violence - if you like, the violence inherent in the

system - has much more to do with France being a state than France being

French. Likewise, the Islamic aspect of Islamic State should alarm us less than

the fact they aspire to be a state, because being a state authorises the atrocities.

In other words, you can literally get away with murder if you’ve got a head of

state and a cushion of bureaucracy to soak up the blood.

Again, where does this get us? Sadly, back to the beginning. Back, moreover,

to basics, to the fatal riddle at the heart of all human affairs, between the mass

and the individual; the unresolvable blathering bullshit that sought liberty in

gutters of blood beneath the guillotine or equality in gulags full of the enemies

of the people or truth and justice in mawkish death cults like Islamic State. Or,

for that matter, in European Romanticism, which elevates the suffering of the

sovereign individual self all the way to the gates of Auschwitz, guarded by

Romantic heroes shovelling the massed ranks of their oppressors into the


Parts of which might explain how it could be, when we’re surrounded on

every side by screaming injustice, economic atrocities, never-ending war on

all fronts and the continuing hegemony of a ceaseless cavalcade of charmless

psychopathic cunts, British university students’ unions are creating "safe

places" where students will never be in danger of hearing anything that may

upset them, including Germaine Greer possibly saying something disobliging

about transsexuals.

This is partly thanks to the unforeseen consequence of social media trepanning

humanity to allow our collective id to squirt incontinently forever from our

skulls; partly it’s a laudably democratic extension of the notion of lese

majeste. Either way, offence is now taken at every turn even when it isn’t

given. Twitter and Facebook abound with people waiting to be offended on

someone else’s behalf so they can start posting the death threats from their

"safe places".

This madness is becoming universal. The powerless evoke it as a tactical

slingshot, the powerful evoke it as a strategic weapon of mass destruction.

Even though it should be obvious that the most offensive thing anybody can

ever do to anybody else is kill them, wholly decent people have told me, when

I’ve spoken to them about the Charlie Hebdo killings, that of course Charlie

Hebdo’s cartoons were appallingly racist and sexist, and seem entirely unable

to understand my point when I ask them over and over again when it was that

racism and sexism became capital crimes. Even when I’ve asked what

Frederic Boisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s janitor, had done to deserve being shot

down with assault weapons, it seems in these good people’s minds that words,

though cheap, are so deadly that human lives are rendered cheaper.

This tendency is manifest at its worst on what we still loosely call "The Left",

and I think I know why. This urge to trample of free expression, which along

the way scoops up a deranged kind of tacit approval for a ragtag army of

child-raping slave owning murderers like Islamic State, is motivated by

kindness. Although, as a satirist, I target my offence exclusively at the

powerful, other people take the offence, albeit unoffered to them on their

behalf because being rude about anyone - everyone - is unkind. [stet italics]

So if I draw a bunch of murderous thugs like the Saudi Royal Family or their

familiars in IS, this has the potential for being Islamophobic; cartoons about

Israel are automatically anti-Semitic; a cartoon of Obama, as likely as not, is

racist. And on it goes forever. In this truly bizarre two-way transubstantiation

dynamic, where individuals become universal and universes become personal,

I suspect it won’t be long before a Twitterstorm assails The History Channel

for their truly offensive repeated Nazi-ism.

Thus we kill, or acquit the killers, through kindness, through the kindest of

motivations. Which I think you’ll find alternate with good intentions in the

crazy paving on the way to Hell. Or am I being Hellist? Though to their credit

I think the Satanists are about the only religious group none of whose

adherents has ever threatened me, however loosely, with death. Meanwhile,

which Paris massacre should we talk about? I know, let’s wait, heads in hands,

for the next one.

On Reading Aloud, for The Guardian by Rich Hobbs

According to "Kids and Family Reading Report", the new survey from

children’s publisher Scholastic, 83% of children aged 6 to 17 said that they

"loved" or "liked" being read aloud to at bedtime. The report also reveals that

although only 37% of 6-8 year olds are read to, falling to 1 in 5 for children

aged 9-11, 31% of the children whose parents no longer read aloud to them

wanted them to carry on.

Speaking for myself, I stopped reading to our children about 15 years ago, by

which time our son and daughter were around 12 and 10 respectively. But for

the whole of their lives hitherto, originally alternating each night between bath

and reading duties, my wife and I trudged through the gamut of bedtime

stories, from the classics to some of the worst books I’ve ever come across.

To be honest, as new parents we started reading because we thought that that

was what we should do. From my own early childhood I can only remember

my own father reading the London Evening Standard’s "Billy the Bee" and

"Modesty Blaise" comic strips to me, so maybe I had a mission to

overcompensate. Either way, after we got beyond the bedtime song stage, we

entered in earnest on our regime of nightly reading, bizarrely enough after our

son, aged around 2, insisted each night on being shown the visitors’ guide to

Whipsnade Zoo where we’d recently spent a day that memorably featured him

being terrified into inconsolable screams by the grunt of an Indian rhino, post-


This was, perhaps, a strange gateway to literacy, but thereafter the demand

was as much from him as from our sense of parental duty. Sometimes, to be

sure, things got out of hand. There was a pop-up book about a white mouse

called Maisie he loved so much he pleaded, one night, that he be allowed to

have it with him in his cot. By the next morning, inevitably, the book was torn

to pieces, an early lesson in how we’re fated to kill the thing we love.

His sister, 20 months younger, was soon along for the ride too. Mostly at this

stage we still inhabited the realm of picture books. This was the way I

discovered the oeuvre of truly great artists and illustrators like Shirley Hughes

and Tony Ross, who’d emerged, unbeknownst to me, since my own

childhood. Thus the bedtime sessions became a joy for all of us. Though

naturally there were some complete stinkers in the ever growing mix. This

wasn’t a problem if we’d borrowed the book from the library - after a week,

with luck, you’d never have to see or open the bloody thing ever again - but

other books arrived as gifts, presumably to be treasured forever. Thus my

several failed attempts to throw away a thin volume about a mentally defective

pig called Pog, whose adventures consisted of him hiding behind his hands to

become invisible or standing in a hole. Each time the wails of dismay forced

me to repent and retrieve the book from the bin. Our daughter thought was

hilariously funny; although in retrospect I think she found my loathing for the

book even funnier: that’s how the bonds of family life and love, in all their

mesmeric contrariness, are created.

Over the coming years we got through the lot, with one or two omission. My

wife, having once worked for British Rail, wouldn’t tolerate Thomas the Tank

Engine because of its technological obscurantism and reinforcement of the

patriarchy. I simply can’t stand Enid Blyton, and neither of us rated Roald

Dahl, though we caved in and read him to our children because mostly we

were catholic in our collective taste: so we did Paddington, George

MacDonald, all of Narnia except for "The Last Battle" (for once I read ahead

and drew the line at C S Lewis’s "they’ve all been dead the whole time" cop-

out at the end). And we loved and reread forgotten classics from my wife’s

childhood library, like Enid Bagnold’s "Alice and Thomas and Jane".

If this all sounds rather precious, at the same time we had no compunction at

recruiting the telly as a friendly nanny, poisoning our children’s minds from

an early age with breath- takingly violent Bugs Bunny cartoons on top of hours

and hours of utter trash. But the books, crucially, were the ritual. After over a

decade, by which time our children were also hooked on computer games,

we reached the crescendo when I took a year to read them the whole of

"The Lord of the Rings".

I’d never previously read the thing myself, and couldn’t be bothered to read

ahead, so often had do some instantaneous editing to skip the lengthier verse

genealogies of, for instance, the Elf Kings of Elindor. I also, to amuse myself

more than our children, adopted different accents for each of the races of

Middle Earth: so the hobbits were Mummerset, the elves Welsh, the dwarves

Birmingham while the orcs spoke in thick Afrikaans through my own utterly

childish giggling. Even so, when Gandalf gets scoffed by the Balrath our son,

now 10, burst into tears.

After that, we moved on to T H White’s Arthurian books, but halfway through

the second volume it all sort of just petered out. By now they were reading

Harry Potter themselves, and also entering an age suited to solitary vice.

Remember, 300 years ago - the blink of an eye in the history of human literacy

- decent people were horrified by the emergence of The Novel, written to be

read, not aloud, but in your head alongside all that other uncontrollable,

unknowable, internal filth.

And I’ve no idea whether those ten years reading aloud did our children good

or ill, as neither of us were rigorous enough to use our son or daughter as an

unread-to control. But I do know that both of them, now in their mid-20s, fall

about laughing whenever they do a South African accent.

On James Gillray, for The Guardian by Rich Hobbs

Who would you prefer to have a drink with, Hogarth or Gillray? That may

sound like an insanely arcane question, but it’s one that I’ve discussed with

other cartoonists on several occasions.

Ours is a small profession, with an exaggerated reverence for its past masters,

mostly because we’re always stealing from them. And William Hogarth and

James Gillray are, without question, the greatest gods in our firmament. The

20th century cartoonist David Low, himself now firmly embedded in the

pantheon, was bang right when he described them, respectively, as the

grandfather and father of the political cartoon.

Things that we’d now call political cartoons - mocking allegorical pictorial

representations of public events - have been part of the political scene since

printing. But in the 1730s Hogarth took the form to new heights with his

"Modern Moral Tales" like "The Rake’s Progress" or "Marriage a la Mode".

And twenty years after Hogarth’s death, Gillray honed Hogarth’s universal

satirical vision (as a student at the Royal Academy schools the young Gillray

revered Hogarth’s work ) by focusing on what has remained the agenda of

political cartoonists ever since: responding to contemporary events in ways

that have far more in common with journalism than with what’s commonly

called "Art". And between them Hogarth and Gillray marked out either end of

the open sewer of satire that ran through the heart of the Enlightenment.

To a large extent we understand the 18th century through Hogarth and

Gillray’s eyes. From a world before photography, it’s Hogarth’s vision of

London that endures, with the savage slapstick of its greater and meaner

thoroughfares, its mincing rakes, syphilitic whores, gin-

sodden murderers, squashed cats and gallows. Likewise, at the tail end of the

century, if we have a visual awareness of Britain’s statesmen, it’s probably

Gillray’s versions of them, the freckly beanpole Pitt or the spherical Charles

James Fox, or Edmund Burke who was transformed by Gillray almost out of

recognition into a pointy, interfering nose and, thanks to his short-sightedness,

Irishness and rumoured Catholicism, spectacles and a biretta.

Parallel to that open sewer of satire in Georgian London were real open

sewers. A lot of the humour of 18th century satirists is coloured by the realities

of urban living, and the colour’s often brown. London was expanding

exponentially northwards and westwards, but it was still a city with no flush

toilets. No wonder, then, there’s a kind of faecal satirical trickledown, from

Swift’s scatology, via Hogarth, to Gillray and his contemporaries. In "The

French Invasion; - or - John Bull bombarding the Bum-Boats", published in

1793 under a pseudonym, Gillray anthropomorphised the map of England

into the body of George III, who’s shitting turds out of his arse (Portsmouth)

onto the French fleet. Likewise, "MIDAS, Transmuting all into PAPER",

published in 1797, shows Pitt vomitting bank notes and shitting money into

the Bank of England.

This earthiness - "Hogarthian" earthiness defines it perfectly - didn’t

necessarily age well. Swift’s dark last book of Gulliver’s Travels, which his

contemporaries "got" with no trouble at all, led the Victorians to dismiss him

as an insane misanthrope. Gillray has suffered a similar fate, but they had

stronger stomachs back then. They had to just to be able to walk down the

street, and not just because of the shit in the gutters, but also because of the

likelihood that round the next corner another child was being publicly

executed for stealing a bun. That said, it’s the rawness of their filthiness that

makes Gillray and Hogarth far more approachable than many of their


Which gets us to the heart of the beast, and why Gillray in particular still

matters. Personally, I believe Satire is a survival mechanism to stop us all

going mad at the horror and injustice of it all by laughing instead of weeping.

More simply put, Satire serves to remind those who’ve placed themselves

above us that they, like us, shit and they, too, will die. That’s why, if we can,

we laugh at both those things, as well as being disgusted and terrified by them.

But beneath the veil of humour, there’s always a deep, disturbing darkness.

And that’s why, for my money, Gillray’s greatest print was the one he

produced after the Battle of Copenhagen, and which appeared at first sight to

be a simple piece of jingoist triumphalism: Jack Tar, the naval avatar of John

Bull, sits astride the globe, biffing Bonaparte and giving him a bloody nose.

The caption, though, gives Gillray’s game away. It’s called "Fighting for the


That interplay between text and image, of irony and nuance ceaselessly

undercutting each other, is a textbook example of how a political cartoon

should work, which is why Gillray remains great. He also matters because he

can lay claim to having produced the greatest political cartoon ever in "The

Plum Pudding In Danger", which is almost the type specimen of the medium.

That’s why it’s been pastiched again and again by the rest of us.

In it, Pitt and Bonaparte carve up the World between them in a visual allegory

for geopolitical struggle that’s never been bettered. It is, of course, just

possible to imagine this being done straight: to conceive of a "serious" artist

depicting noble statesmen earnestly if allegorically carving up a plum pudding

and making the same point as Gillray but with considerably more gravitas. But

that hypothetical painting (I imagine it being about 40 foot wide and

occupying a whole room in a Palace) would have stunk. The power in "The

Plum Pudding..." lies entirely in its capacity to make us laugh, which arises

from the way Gillray portrays the two great statesmen: Pitt, lanky and crafty;

Bonaparte, short and manic. (In exile on Elba Napoleon said Gillray’s

depictions of him did him more damage than a dozen generals.) But then

there’s the Plum Pudding itself: there’s something deeply preposterous about

reducing the titanic struggle for global hegemony to a fight over a pudding.

After all food, like shit, is for some reason always funny. But then we might

start reflecting about the deeper, defining absurdity of two men, already

defined as looking ridiculous, being ridiculous enough to imagine that

between them they could eat the whole world and everyone in it. The bathos

thus melts inexorably into pathos. That’s what a great political cartoon can do.

So, to get back to that imaginary drink: Hogarth or Gillray? When we’ve

argued over this in the past, we’ve always ended up opting for Hogarth.

Gillray was, without question, a genius, but he was also a miserable sod, a

quality not uncommon among cartoonists. He died mad as a consequence of

his alcoholism, which got worse when his eyesight started failing. It’s possible

he killed himself, following an earlier attempt to throw himself out of the

window of the room he occupied above Hannah Humphrey’s Print Shop in St

James’, where the Economist Building now stands. His friends described him

as "hypy", neurotically obsessed with his own ill health, while he grew up in

the Moravian Church, which viewed our earthly existence as a hideous burden

to endure before we’re released into eternal life after death, a journey already

undertaken by many of Gillray’s siblings in infancy.

Add those factors to a career spent staring into the abyss of reality at its worse

before working his alchemy to transmute horror into laughter, and it’s no

wonder, like the cartoonists Vicky or Phil May (among many others), he either

topped himself or drank himself to death.

He’s been accused of worse things. A former comment editor on this

newspaper, when I was justifying the number of words I’d used in a cartoon

by citing the example of Gillray, dismissed my argument with the words

"Gillray was a Tory". He certainly took a pension from Pitt’s Government and

produced some embarrassingly propagandist stuff for Canning’s "Anti-

Jacobin", though in mitigation we should consider "Light Expelling

Darkness", showing an heroic Pitt as Apollo (April 1795) against "Presages of

the Millenium [stet]", where Pitt is depicted ridiculously as Death on a Pale

Horse, published two months later, not forgetting Gillray’s famous 1791 print

of Pitt as an "Excrescence; a Fungus; - alias - a Toadstool upon a Dunghill",

growing out of the British Crown.

But Gillray even gets damned for his even-handedness. Next weekend, the

Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is hosting a seminar titled "Gillray:

Caricaturist Without a Conscience?". The flier for the event accuses him of

being "an unreliable gun for hire" and having "no moral compass". It also

repeats the story about Gillray proposing a toast to the French Revolutionary

painter David at a public dinner, implying he then betrayed his revolutionary

fervour by his prints attacking the Jacobins (like the wonderfully overwrought

"Apotheosis of Hoche"). Well, maybe, though I’ve always thought what

Gillray was guilty of there was that most indigestible of things for an

historian: he was joking.

And I’m compelled as an act of professional solidarity to say give him a

break. Cartoonists aren’t romantic heroes. For the most part we’re just hacks

trying to make a living by providing our readers an opportunity for a bit of

giggle. Occasionally something horrific happens like the Charlie Hebdo

murders, alongside all the other cartoonists that governments around the world

imprison and murder. But whatever the response, we’re still cartoonists, not


Not that Gillray didn’t have similar if less deadly encounters with the objects

of his scorn. "The Presentation - or - The Wise Men’s Offering", depicting the

Whig Opposition led by Fox and Sheridan kissing the bottom of the Prince

Regent’s newly born daughter Princess Charlotte, got Gillray arraigned on a

charge of blasphemy. This, remember, was when booksellers risked being

transported to Australia if they stocked Thomas Paine’s "The Rights of Man".

In addition to these travails, Gillray had also been courted for months by the

ambitious young Tory MP George Canning to be included in one of Gillray’s

prints. This in itself demonstrates Gillray’s significance, confirming the

perpetual truth that the one thing politicians hate more than being in a cartoon

is not being important enough to be in one. As things turned out, Canning got

Gillray off, and got him his government pension into the bargain.

But it’s how Gillray repaid his saviour that, for cartoonists at least, means we

will revere him forever. In one of his finest, maddest prints, "Promis’d Horrors

of the French Invasion" a sans-culotte army of Jacbins march down Pall Mall

as the gutters run with blood, Fox flogs Pitt, and ministers and princes are

beheaded and defenestrated. Some have dismissed the print as alarmist Tory

propaganda, though to me it looks more like one of Hogarth’s joyously dark

carnivalesque scenes at Tyburn. Either way, just visible in the background,

hanging from a lamp-post and represented in the most demeaning fashion, is

Canning. Just perfect.

On the "Charlie Hebdo" killings, for British Journalism Review by Rich Hobbs

I’ve no idea how many people died violent, premature deaths during the

course of January this year. But I’m sure almost every single one of them went

unreported. And even if you narrow the death toll down solely to people killed

by the actions of so-called Islamists, you can safely assume the vast majority

of those deaths went unreported too, whether it was men and women killed in

defence of the Syrian city of Koubani or anybody else unfortunate enough to

live under the necrocratic tyranny of the self-styled Islamic State which

straddles the geopolitical ruins of Iraq and Syria.

If you narrow it down even further - to people killed by the actions of so-

called Islamists on a single day in January this year - we’ll never know the

names of most of those murdered people. Worse, there’s not even agreement

on the number of people who were killed by Boko Haram in Baga in northern

Nigeria on 7th January. Was it 2000, according one local government official,

or 150, as claimed by the central Nigerian government? Or none at all, as the

head of the regional government insisted afterwards? Remoteness, the fog of

war, the claims and counter claims of rival propagandists make the truth

almost impossible to grasp - almost as impossible to grasp as two of the three

alternative realities on offer from Baga. Whatever the precise number of

corpses, it’s standard for the horror, pity and disgust to be informed more

qualitative factors than quantitative ones. Right up to when you lose count of

the body count, that is. It was the failed seminarian and atheist mass-murderer

Josef Stalin who observed that one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is

just a statistic.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the murders at the offices of Charlie

Hebdo in Paris on 7th January echoed round the world, and continue to

reverberate: the size of the horror is graspable, and we know the names. They

also took place in the heart of a Western capital city teeming with millions of

people. Indeed, the murder of police officer Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim of

Algerian descent like his murderers Said and Cherif Kouachi, was caught live

on CCTV. Mustapha Ourrad, a copy taker at Charlie Hebdo, was also of

Algerian descent, and was also murdered by the Kouachi brothers, with what

surviving witnesses described as calm, execution-style deliberation. Also

murdered were Frédéric Boisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s building maintenance

man; Franck Brinsolaro, another police officer assigned as a bodyguard to the

magazine’s editor-in-chief; Elsa Cayat, a psychoanalyst who was also Jewish

and the only woman killed in the atrocity, though the Kouachis specifically

spared the lives of other women in the room; Bernard Maris, a Professor of

Economics and shareholder in Charlie Hebdo; and Michel Renaud, a 69 year

old French journalist due to guest edit a future edition of the magazine.

And yet what made the Charlie Hebdo killings apparently so exquisitely,

exceptionally horrific was the five other victims, who were all cartoonists.

This, it seemed, was a brutal and bloody assault on laughter. Which meant it

was also an assault on the very fact of being human itself.

Laughter, after all, is one of the things we’re best at (along with killing each

other, as it happens). That’s because laughter is a hardwired evolutionary

survival tool that stops us going mad with existentialist terror at the horrors

life throws at us. These include death, sex, shit, our friends, our leaders and

our enemies. And while anthropologists have claimed that it’s uniquely human

to use laughter as a means of social control through mockery, we’re never as

unique as we’d like to think. Our genetic cousins chimpanzees laugh to tell

other chimps they’re only playing, an important consideration when one

chimp jumps playfully on top of another chimp but doesn’t want immediately

to be killed. So laughter, while it can be cruel, aggressive, exclusionary,

taunting and bullying, is also playful. Although it’s often deadly serious, the

point is it’s never serious enough to be deadly. That’s because, according to

the countless nuanced rules which govern how humans interact with each

other and demonstrate one another’s current power status, you’re meant to get

the joke. Satire in particular fails or flourishes around this point.

But the ultimate counterploy of the mockee - whether it’s a despotic

government or a picked-upon kid in a playground - is always to grab back the power

advantage, refuse to get the joke and kill the mocker to shut them up. In other words,

just hunker back into the comfort of your chimp brain and pretend you didn’t hear the play

signal. And that, in a nutshell, is what happened in Charlie Hebdo’s offices on 7th

January 2015. Although, as you’d expect, it was far far more complicated than that.

Nonetheless, without stretching the point too far, there’s a hint of the inherent

violence in all humour if you consider that the murdered cartoonists - whose

names we know - were all famous not for their names, but for their noms de

plume: Charb was Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier;

Tignous’s real name was Bernard Verlhac; Philippe Honoré and Georges Wolinski

both signed themselves, like Giles or Low, with just their surnames,

while Jean Cabut shortened his already shortened name to Cabu.

This has long been the fashion among cartoonists, exceptionally among

journalists. And while it may be the only point of connection between, say,

Trog or JAK and Stalin and Trotsky, cartoonists’ noms de plume are a lot

closer to noms de guerre than we like to think. Satire, and particularly visual

satire, has always had more in common with political violence than stand-up

comedy. It’s dark, primal voodoo, sympathetic magic designed to do the

victim harm. And it gets even deeper with the magic associated with names

and namecalling, changed names and the sacredness of the unnameable: not

speaking the name of god was - is - as powerful a taboo among many religions

as portraying the Prophet Muhammad remains within a branch of Islam.

But even if you ignore all the cultural and anthropological baggage, at its heart

visual satire is still assassination without the blood. That’s my job as I

understand it, and it was also the job of my murdered colleagues. There’s a

defining grimness at the heart of it, although once again it’s important to

remember that bit about being without the blood. Because the purpose of our

craft, however dark, is to leaven it all with laughter. And it works because

your body releases all those lovely endorphins when you laugh which quite

simply make you feel better. That’s why cartoonists tend to be loved far more

than assassins.

Two of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in particular were deeply and widely

loved, and heavy with fame and honours as a consequence. Wolinski was

awarded a Légion d'honneur in 2005, while Cabu was famous - very famous -

among other things for regular featuring drawing cartoons on French

children’s TV. Imagine Rolf Harris being deliberately gunned down by

masked assassins - but a good Rolf Harris, in his pomp and before his

downfall - and you begin to creep towards what these murders actually mean

in France. Imagine, if it’s easier, Giles being murdered by terrorists. Go back a

couple of generations and try to imagine the same happening to Illingworth or

Low or Vicky. Or even Heath Robinson. (All of whom, incidentally, were on

the Gestapo Death List, due for summary execution had the Nazis invaded


These cartoonists weren’t just famous and loved, they were old too. Honoré

was 74, Cabu 76 and Wolinski 80. That should tell us something else about

Charlie Hebdo. These were men of the 68 generation, whose sensibilities were

informed as much by Surrealism and Situationism as by France’s much

vaunted Secularist tradition. That places them not so much within journalism

than as part of the European artistic Avant Garde, home to composers like

KarlHeinz Stochkhausen, who described the 9/11 attacks as "the biggest work

of art there has ever been".

Their spiritual ancestors would also include the Surrealist film director Luis

Bunuel, who was so convinced his debut film "Un Chien Andalou" would

trigger a riot he stood behind the screen at the premiere with his pockets filled

with rocks to throw at the audience if they turned nasty. His next film, "L’Age

d’Or", did succeed in provoking riots with its final reel depicting the dissolute

roues from de Sade’s "120 Days of Sodom" leaving the scene of their orgies

accompanied by Jesus Christ. The film was banned, but the purpose all along

had been to shock and provoke authority into reaction.

Forty years after Bunuel’s films, Situationism, a weird hybrid of Surrealism

and Trotskyism, in its turn sought to spark Revolution by creating a "situation"

through provocation. (Situationism only really took seed in Britain in

Malcolm McLaren’s Sex Pistols, Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and the

increasingly bizarre contrarianism of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s

Brendan O’Neill and Claire Fox at Spiked Online and the Institute of Ideas.)

Then add to all that how the magazine had been born, as an act of defiance to

the reaction of an instigating provocation. Charlie Hebdo’s immediate parent

was Hara-Kiri Hebdo, which was banned by the French Government in 1970

after it had mocked the death of Charles de Gaulle by comparing it to a recent

disco fire which had killed 149 people: "Tragic Ball in Colombey [...les-Deux-

Eglises, de Gaulle’s home]: 1 dead."

It was, of course, a funny, provocative and ironic gag to name the reborn

magazine after the dead de Gaulle. Irony is woven into the DNA of humour in

general and satire in particular. Think of Swift’s "A Modest Proposal". In the

babel of "whataboutery" that came in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo

massacre, while many people claimed the magazine’s covers had been

increasingly racist in tone, its defenders, on top of saying Charlie Hebdo

attacked absolutely everyone, insisted that those covers were ironic. But

ironies get lost, deliberately or otherwise, and always have done. Three

centuries ago, Daniel Defoe wrote "The Shortest Way with Dissenters" as an

ironic attack on growing Tory hostility to Dissenters, concluding his satirical,

sarcastic defence of the Church of England with the line "Now let us Crucify

the Thieves!" He was pilloried and imprisoned by magistrates who thought (or

claimed to think) he was being serious. Then again, there’s no evidence Julius

Streicher, editor of the cartoon heavy anti-Semitic hate sheet Der Sturmer,

ever for a single second contemplated the irony defence at his Nuremburg

trial, at the end of which he was hanged.

A professional translator friend of mine from Northern Ireland, where they

know about these kinds of thing, is far more familiar with Charlie Hebdo than

many, and emailed me the following observation, invoking Streicher:

"The Mohammed pics remind me of the Garvaghy Road - someone's told us

we can't do this so we have to. I could mail you some scans of an old Hara-

Kiri from about 1976 but we'd probably have the rozzers round. However...

[the] Charia Hebdo issue [CH’s defiant response to the bombing of their

offices in 2011] ... looks to me like South Thanet Ukip had some bright ideas

after a night in the Dog and Duck, and asked Julius Streicher if he could do

anything with them. That's just me."

So. Do you get it, or don’t you? Because the more you consider Charlie

Hebdo and its aftermath, the thicker and more tangled the ironies become.

Henri Roussel, the now 80-year- old founder of Hara-Kiri wrote an article in

Nouvel Observateur denouncing Charbonnier for making his defiance of the

jihadis who’d bombed his offices so provocative he deliberately invited the

murder of Roussel’s old friend Wolinski. The editors of Nouvel Observateur

subsequently felt compelled to justify publishing the article in the name of free expression.

Meanwhile, a 16 year old schoolboy in France was arrested for posting on Facebook a parody

of a Charlie Hebdo cover which had originally shown bullets flying through a

copy of the Quran into a turbanned figure with the headline "The Quran is

Shit"; the parody showed bullets passing through the original cover into the

body of a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist.

Then there’s the irony of a satirical magazine receiving a million euro subsidy

from the state it was created to attack (that’s free expression for you). Or the

further irony of some of the world’s grislier leaders "marching" in support of

Charlie Hebdo, including a representative of Saudi Arabia, two days after Raif

Badawi received the first 50 lashes of his 1000 lashes and 10 year prison

sentence for "insulting Islam". Also present were Binyamin Netanyahu, whose

Israeli government arrested and imprisoned Palestinian cartoonist Mohammed

Saba’aneh for five months in 2013 for "being in contact with a hostile

organisation", and Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority is

investigating the same cartoonist as I write this, for a sympathetic cartoon of

the Prophet Muhammad published in a Ramallah newspaper.

I very nearly drew something similar for The Guardian two days after the

murders. My cartoon was going to show Muhammad with one hand covering

his face in despair, the other stroking his cat Muezza, and wearing a "Not In

My Name" t-shirt. Given the sensitivities involved, I emailed Alan Rusbridger

with the idea a good 36 hours before I’d need to start work on it, and it was

only after very lengthy deliberations at the highest levels of the paper,

including long phone conversations between myself and Jonathan Freedland,

that it was finally decided to go with something else. That was another

cartoon, of me slumped on my drawing board and describing the first cartoon

but admitting my loved ones slightly baulked at the idea of me dying to afford

the readers a wry smile.

I entirely respect The Guardian’s decision, which was reached after a great

deal of careful and, I suspect, agonising thought. One reason for their decision

was that they’d already run an editorial explaining why they weren’t going to

publish previous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad; they also, like

Roussel, saw no profit (and right now I won’t ask you to excuse the pun) in

ramping up and widening the provocation. Having discussed the implications

of producing my first planned cartoon with my family, I also subsequently

discovered that, despite initially agreeing to me proceeding, our children, both

in their twenties, became physically ill with anxiety at what might befall me if

I had. (Although, to his credit, our son did email me to say that if I was going

to be assassinated, could I make sure it was him who did it. This, incidentally,

was a joke.)

The hundreds of online posters who then accused me and The Guardian of

unspeakable cowardice and appeasement in not drawing Muhammad seemed

oblivious to the further ironies of their denunciations being anonymous (you

know, like in those bastions of free expression, Nazi Germany and the Soviet

Union). Perhaps they don’t care. They certainly seem indifferent to my

welfare, as it became clear to me that one bunch of masked maniacs would be

happy to kill me for what I might draw, while another pack of idiots, digitally

masked this time, were berating me for what I hadn’t drawn and demanding I

be prepared to die to further their geo-political agenda. Though in baying for

reprisals against an entire faith group in revenge for killings by its individual

members, my detractors were unconsciously endorsing what we might term

the "Kristallnacht Protocol".

Anyway, the cartoon I actually regret not drawing wasn’t that one; it was the

one of all those world leaders who’d boldly claimed "Je Suis Charlie", a week

later holding up signs reading "Je Suis King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia".

Still, as we should expect nothing from our leaders beyond bitter ironies

sliding effortlessly into stinking hypocrisy, there’s no reason why this

shouldn’t apply to our prospective leaders either. These include the masters of

the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ murderers, who’s mission is to make everyone

on earth the same as them (something denounced rather eloquently by

Jonathan Swift in "Tale of a Tub"). A week after the killings I wrote in my

regular column in Tribune:

"To my eyes [these murders] look most like a mafia hit against soft targets

sending a simple message. Moreover, I suspect the message wasn’t even

addressed to "The West", but to al Qaeda’s greatest rivals, Islamic State.

These were showcase killings to demonstrate that bin Laden’s old mob were

still in the game, via a global promo video (courtesy of Western TV) aimed at

recruiting all those confused and angry young people locked in their bedrooms

cruising the internet and, appalled by the actions of the West, being tempted

into opting for IS’s brand of holy barbarism instead of AQ’s."

Interestingly, Tariq Ali came to the same conclusion in a piece for the London

Review of Books, likewise recognising in this whole affair that things are both

deeper and shallower, simpler and infinitely more complicated than they

appear. Just like a cartoon can trigger many different responses in different

circumstances targetting receptors both deep and hidden in our psyches or as

shallow as the sweat on our furious faces.

In that light, I’d go further and insist this atrocity wasn’t even about cartoons.

In truth, and eternally, it was about totalitarianism, whether secular or

religious (and I can’t tell the difference); it was about totalitariarism’s

instinctive intolerance of laughter mocking its innate absurdity; it was about

the lumbering, ludicrous thug in the kindergarten playground who comes over

and thumps you just for looking at them, and for whom absolutely anything

they choose will be offensive whenever they choose it to bed, and will

therefore justify them in doing the most offensive thing anyone ever can.

Which, should we be tempted to forget, is killing someone else, the eternal

prerogative of the tyrant. And every joke, as Orwell observed, is a tiny

revolution, a little act of defiance and resistance, and off it goes again.

I believe both the World and my profession will recover from this, as will

mockery, satire and the giving and receiving of offence, and probably very

quickly. The dead, however, will remain dead. Although it was their memory I

betrayed the week following the massacre. In its immediate aftermath, I found

myself besieged by the media, doing a great deal of TV and radio, usually

saying exactly what I’d said already. By the next Tuesday, I thought I’d found

refuge at a day long meeting of a Wildlife Conservation Charity of which I’m

a trustee. However, when I turned my phone back on afterwards, there were

texts from the Today Programme, Sky News, Newsnight, 5Live and LBC all

wanting me to fill their dead air with my response to the Charlie Hebdo

survivors’ issue. I deleted them all, and silently concluded that if they couldn’t

do without me they could always turn off their transmitters and give us the rest

of us a break.

But then the cartoonist within me kicked back in. I should, I now realise, have

gone on all those platforms, pointed to the magazine’s cover of Muhammad

holding his "Je Suis Charlie" sign (out of shot, inevitably) and said "This is

scandalous! I’ve never seen anything so offensive! These people call

themselves satirists and they produce this kind of mawkish shit? They

should’ve had Muhammad dancing on the graves laughing "Those lippy

Froggie Cunts had it fucking coming!"* Then, in faux surprise, I would have

said, "Oh! Sorry! Didn’t you want that much Free Expression?"

But it’s always had its limits, as any idiot could have told you from the

beginning. My job is to stretch them as far as they’ll go; they pushed them til

they broke.

*I’ve since been told Charlie Hebdo’s first response, within hours of the

massacre, was a mock up of the cover that got Hara-Kiri banned, headlined:

"Tragic Ball in Paris: 12 Dead"

On the Charlie Hebdo killings, for The Guardian, published by Rich Hobbs

The death threats come with the territory. Since the advent of the internet,

people around the world who are disgusted or enraged by my cartoons have

been able to threaten to kill me via email. Over the years these have included

Muslims, Zionists, Republican Americans, a few angry Chomskyians,

Catholics, Russians, some Serbs, and, I imagine, a large number of teenage

boys locked in their bedrooms "having a laugh". Hitherto I’ve tended, in my

turn, to laugh them off, joking that a death threat by email doesn’t count: it

needs a letter sent to my home address containing one of my loved ones’ ears

to be taken seriously.

However, after the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists Cabu, Wolinski,

Tignous and the paper’s editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier, who signed

himself "Charb", there’s a terrible temptation to stop laughing. Although that,

I believe, would be a fundamental error.

Laughter, it needs to be shouted, is one of the things humans do best, mostly

because it makes us feel better. I’ve been convinced for years that laughter is a

hardwired evolutionary survival mechanism that helps humans navigate our

way through life without going mad with existentialist terror. That’s why we

laugh at all those terrifying things like death, sex, other people and the

disgusting stuff that pours out of our bodies on a daily basis.

Moreover, we’re very very good at laughing at those who place themselves

above us, either as our leaders or intending to impose their beliefs in order to

make everyone else exactly like them. That’s the basis of the craft I shared

with my murdered colleagues in Paris. This universal capacity to use mockery

as a form of social control is one of the main things that makes us human.

Crucially, it’s also in defiance of the primary need of the powerful to be taken

seriously, often against all the external evidence of their innate absurdity.

In fact I suspect that throughout History that’s how political and religious

power gained their original heft, by terrorising everyone else into suppressing

their giggles at the endless cavalcade of priest-kings, emperors, thrones,

courts, burning bushes, virgin births, hidden imams, flying horses and all the

rest of it.

But even then, there appears to be something exquisitely intolerable to the

serious mind about mockery when it’s visual. Largely this is due to the way

the visual is consumed: rather than nibbling your way through text, however

incendiary, a cartoon floods the eyes, gets swallowed whole and often makes

the recipient choke. Worse, cartoons should be seen more as a kind of

sympathetic magic than anything else: we steal our subjects’ souls by

recreating them through caricature and then mock them in narratives of our

own devising. Worst of all, we then pretend that it’s all just a good natured

laugh: it is a laugh, but often a cruel and mocking one. It is, in short,

assassination without the blood.

"Without the blood" is the key phrase. In a weirdly indefinable but obvious

way, satirists can only really function when it’s hideously clear the objects of

their mockery are much more powerful and with a far deadlier armoury than

the satirists, as was demonstrated with such foul clarity in Paris this


But is that entirely true? Almost nine years ago, when the Danish cartoons

storm erupted, I argued publicly that I thought Jylands Posten had been wrong

to commission cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, as I suspected they were

just another salvo in the paper’s decades long campaign against immigrants,

many of whom were Muslim, most of them poor and powerless, some of them

cleaning the toilets in Jylands Posten’s offices. I was roundly condemned by

many for betraying free speech. Maybe I was, but claiming the greatest

freedom is to say whatever you want about anyone whomsoever you choose is

ultimately as ludicrous as demanding that freedom from being offended - from

being upset, in other words - trumps every other human right. On that

occasion the blood flowed in gallons, but mostly unnoticed or unreported as it

gushed exclusively from over 100 Muslims, shot dead by Muslim police or

soldiers on the streets of Muslim countries after they’d been fomented into

rioting by Muslim clerics eager to flex their political muscles.

This time it’s cartoonists’ blood that’s been shed. Yet however much they may

identify themselves as victims of mockery, those cartoonists’ murderers have

clearly also identified themselves as on the side of the power, electing to act as

agents avenging the hurt feelings of the most Powerful Being in The Universe.

Don’t forget that demanding either respect or silence from everyone else is

one of the most common abuses of power going.

But don’t fool yourselves this is about Islam. It was the Islamists’ secularist

enemy Bashar al-Assad who got his thugs to break the fingers of the Syrian cartoonist Ali

Farzat four years ago. It was probably a Mossad double-agent who murdered

the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali in London in 1987. The British cartoonists’

names filling the Gestapo Death List were just another manifestation, throughout History,

of how hateful laughter is to despots. Which is why, now more than ever, we mustn’t stop

laughing this latest bunch of murderous clowns to scorn.

On Smut, for The Guardian CiF website, published by Rich Hobbs

First there was "Bingate", when a baked alaska allegedly got sabotaged and

"Private Eye" claimed that the Queen herself commented on this black day in

Britain’s history. Now, to make matters even worse, "The Great British Bake

Off" is sinking into a morass of filth. Viewers have complained about the level

of cheap sexual innuendo, with constant references to "soggy bottoms" or,

worse still, Sue Perkins telling the contestants attempting to recreate Mary

Berry’s cherry cake "You have got two hours to pop Mary’s cherry [pause] in

the oven..." And even the sainted Mary herself seemed to have been lured

down into the gutter when she observed that some biscuits had had "a good


Berry’s fellow judge Paul Hollywood, however, has defended the filth. It’s

just "banter and our whole culture has always been based on it. Carry On films

did it for 30 years and then there were cheeky beach picture postcards. It’s in

our DNA to giggle at ourselves."

It’s possible both sides may be right. A relentless outpouring of puerile smut

being forced down the public’s throat can leave a nasty taste in anyone’s

mouth. But then again, as Hollywood says, we’ve had this stuff forever. As we

have the reaction against it.

The saucy postcard artist Donald McGill, praised in a famous essay by George

Orwell for classic cards like "A Stick of Rock, Cock?" (which, with due

humility, I pastiched when Northern Rock collapsed) was also prosecuted in

1954, aged 80, for breaking the Obscene Publications Act.

The same was true of the Carry On films, once described by the critic Chris

Peachment as Britain’s answer to Luis Bunuel, but which also fell foul of

authority. On the strength of Bernard Bresslaw, in the role of Afghan warlord

"Bundgit Din", shouting at Cardew Robinson playing a fakir, "Fakir! Off!"

"Carry on Up The Khyber" was banned in apartheid-

era South Africa. Both of them can trace a clear line of descent from, among

many other things, the nursery rhyme "I Had A Little Nut Tree", a smutty ditty

about Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. ("A silver nutmeg"?!?

Oo-er, missus!)

In all these instances, their purpose and potency lies in lowering the tone. And

as a cartoonist I can only applaud. It being every satirist’s job to undermine

the pretension of the powerful, and with high-minded seriousness one of the

most powerful pretensions around, easily the best way to subvert it is to drag

up some of the sweatier, stinkier aspects of being human. Like having a body

which shits and has sex. And if you want something which unites sex and shit,

nothing does it quite as well as food, and thus we return to The Great British

Bake Off.

Anyone familiar with Finbar Saunders in Viz will understand how the mere

mention of the word "melons" reduces Finbar to fits of guffawing "fnaar

fnaars!" By that token, it’s frankly amazing that no one on The Great British

Bake Off has asked the contestants to put something long and red into tarts.

I’m talking about rhubarb, obviously. But there lies the true beauty of cheap

sexual innuendo: it’s both subversive and deniable: the double meaning, the

code cementing the conspiracy of laughter between jester and jestee, means

any filth detected by anyone choosing not to get the joke exists solely in the

filthy minds of the complainant.

The blue comic Max Miller built an entire career out of this. After a joke like

"Walking along a cliff path. Path’s blocked by two beautiful naked women.

Didn’t know whether to come between them or toss meself off" he’d regale

his laughing audience with injured innocence: "You wicked lot. You’re the

sort of people that get me a bad name!" Two centuries earlier Laurence Sterne

wove a lot of "Tristram Shandy" around the same kind of thing, claiming that

anyone who saw in his obsession with noses anything more phallic only had

themselves to blame.

If, therefore, you think puerile smut is demeaning the fundamental gravitas of

"The Great British Bake Off", reflect that "Tristram Shandy" is now

considered Great Literature. But if that’s still not high-minded enough for you,

what about The Guardian? Forgetting the anomalous Fur Cup that often

features in my cartoons (say it with a strong French accent), 25 years ago the

great Posy Simmonds produced the following gag for the Guardian Woman’s

Page: What’s pink and hard first thing in the morning?

Well? The Financial Times Crossword! Honestly, the minds you people have.

Interview with Neil Gaiman, published in Index on Censorship by Rich Hobbs

The science fiction, horror and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and I have never met. But

when he spoke to me, via Skype from his home in Boston, Mass, one warm afternoon

early this autumn, we bonded instantly. As a writer of scripts for graphic novels like

his groundbreaking Sandman series for DC Comics, Gaiman shares my interest in

both the power of the visual and its role in cartoons and comics (I’ve written and

drawn comic book adaptations of Eliot’s The Waste Land, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy

and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as well as being a political cartoonist). But far more

important than that, as Englishmen of a certain age, we are inescapably joined at the

hip by Doctor Who, the BBC science fiction series that’s now been airing for over 50

years, during which time it’s woven itself into Britain’s cultural DNA.

Gaiman, to be sure, has got one over on me by having written actual scripts

for the show. Even so, he appreciated my blunt analysis of Doctor Who, where the

Doctor exemplifies a specifically British, post-war kind of Butskellite, technocratic

state interventionism as the Time Lords police the universe and protect it, with

eccentric charm, from monsters like the daleks. So it’s hardly surprising, I told him,

that after 30 years of Thatcherism, since the show was revived a decade ago the

Doctor is now the very last remaining Time Lord, the clear if unstated message being

that Thatcher killed off the rest of them.

But as he replied, in our brutal yet over-sensitive world, there’s something

else about Doctor Who. "When I was being interviewed in America about the movie

of Coraline [Gaiman’s 2003 children’s horror novel] they would say, "You’ve made

something scary for children." As if I’d done something terrible that nobody else had

done before. And all I could try and explain to them was the joy of watching Doctor

Who from behind the sofa, the joy of climbing into your dad or your mum’s lap and

being scared and being safe at the same time."

We had, eventually, to move on from Doctor Who and its comforting and

redemptive power to scare small children witless. Instead, I asked Gaiman if he’d

caught up with recent news stories about the response to Hilary Mantel’s short story

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and Thatcher’s former adman Tim Bell’s

demand that Mantel be investigated by the police under the terrorism laws.

"I thought it was wonderful. That column inches in newspapers were being

given to a short story. That’s just the author in me. As long as people are getting

upset, then a medium is not dead. As long as a poem could send the editor of Gay

News to prison in 1979 you knew that poetry is not dead. And as long as Tim Bell

can call for the arrest of Hillary Mantel for writing a short story you know that the

short story is not dead." But while I agreed that it was heartening that Bell had shown

himself to be so indestructibly stupid he’d actually called out loud for a writer to be

investigated by the police because of something they’ve made up in their head -

which hasn’t happened, which wasn’t real - I suggested to Gaiman there was an ever

present danger here, and quoted him the following line of his own: "A nice easy place

for freedom of speech to be eroded is comics because comics are a natural target

whenever an election comes up." We’re both of an age where we can remember the

authorities impounding the works of the American underground comic artist Robert

Crumb coming into Britain in the late 70s.

Gaiman corrected me. "The last Robert Crumb thing that I remember was

about 1987 or 1988 and it was particularly notable because on the one hand customs

were impounding Crumb while it was stuff being imported to tie in with a BBC 2

Arena special on Robert Crumb."

It was a nice irony, but as a practitioner myself, I’m conscious of deeper

ironies, particularly in genres like comics and cartoons. I told Gaiman that when there

are Arena specials about Robert Crumb is when I think the medium is dying. So I

asked him if he didn’t feel that he should being doing something to get books burnt

in the high streets of America and, for that matter, Britain too? He recognise the

dilemma at the heart of my question.

"On the one hand, I love that comics get power from being a gutter medium.

But on the other hand I spent twelve years on the board of the Comic Book Legal

Defence Fund, having to oversee legal cases where the whole point was proving that

comics were literature and art, and were worthy of a first amendment defence and not

just trash. A beautiful example would be Paul Mavrides [an American comics artist

whose produced, among many other things, artwork for The Fabulous Furry Freak

Brothers], where the state of California tried surreptitiously to reclassify comics from

art to sign painting. To make them, very literally the same as sign painting so they

can charge sales tax as is done on sign painting. It was their way of trying tax the

["Peanuts" creator] Charles Schulz’s of the world. And suddenly here’s the Comic

Book Legal Defence Fund having to get out there and muster our experts to say no

this is art, this is absolutely art. [In 1997 a California State Board of Equalization

ruling found in Malrides’ favour]. So you’ve always got those tensions, but I think

that comics, because of the capacity of offence that an image can give, will always

have one foot in the gutter. You know it may be walking wobbly because it’s got one

foot on the pavement, but it really will be walking wobbly because it has one foot in

the gutter."

This condition, in comics, is compounded by the nature of the visual: while

readers nibble through text, they swallow the images they see whole. No wonder

images can be choking hazards, provoking deep offence. Gaiman understands this

better than most, although his position is different from mine, in as much as he writes

stuff others draw to. I wondered how this worked, and how well, so asked him if he’d

ever been offended himself by something someone had produced to illustrate his


"One of my very first comics was for Knockabout’s Outrageous Tales from the Old

Testament [a 1987 portmanteau comic book published by Knockabout Books

illustrating biblical stories and produced in ironic response to the latest calls from

MPs and religious groups for comic books to be banned]. I was fascinated by the

Book of Judges, mostly because it was these monstrous immoral stories where God

keeps telling people to commit genocide and they’re never quite doing it the way He

told them. I did one story about a man whose wife whores around and he sends her

away but then has second thoughts. Gets her from her dad’s, and on the road to

Bethlehem they stop in a little village. A nice stranger takes the guy in and that night

a whole bunch of people come out in the street and say, "that bloke who came to stay

with you tonight, we want to have sex with him." And the host says, "Good people,

you are being evil, what an awful thing you are saying. You cannot rape this nice

man, but I’ll tell you what, he’s got a concubine and I have a virgin daughter who’s

known no man, you can have them." So he threw them out and according to the Bible

they used them and abused them till dawn and left them dead on the doorstep. The

guy puts his wife on the back of his donkey, takes her home, cuts her up into twelve

pieces, and sends one to each of the 12 tribes in Israel to let them know what a

terrible thing has happened. I had Steve Gibson who is a fantastic artist drawing this.

When he got to the rape page, I had said this is not a sexy rape: it’s awful and

monstrous. Steve drew a gang rape so monstrous and terrible that Knockabout and I

agreed it should not see print. We had Mark Matthews draw a replacement page. So

there is one Matthews page in there among the Gibsons. Even that wasn’t enough.

There was a Swedish publisher of Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament who was

arrested and threatened with prison for having published images breaking Swedish

laws against depictions of violence toward women. I think, honestly, it was only the

fact that it was biblical and I was saying, look, if you’re going to go after this what

about that incredibly disturbing image of a guy nailed to a piece of wood hanging

there in his death robes that we may want to start removing because it’s pretty

harrowing and it seems to be some kind of image of torture crime. I think that was the

only time I’ve looked at something and said yeah that’s too disturbing."

That was nearly 30 years ago, when the point of Gaiman’s work was defined

by a punkish mission to offend. These days he’s rich, very influential and very very

successful. So does he think he’s now part of the mainstream? Or had he, perhaps,

just sold out?

"You know 30 years ago, I was sushi, in a world n which if you wanted to

have sushi in any little town or any big city you had to go and find the one place that

sells it and it might be full, but that was the one place because it definitely wasn’t

mainstream. And now every little town seems to have sushi and any big city has a lot

of places that sell it."

But maybe thirty years of Post-Modernism (co-terminus with neo-liberalism,

but there you go) have just seen what we used to call the mainstream hit the

floodplain and engulf the whole of the culture?

"The key word for the last 20 years, for me, is confluence, and I love the fact

that you’ve said it’s become a floodplain because that is a confluence, it’s all of the

rivers, all of the mainstream and the outlying tributaries, have come’s that

point where you turn around and I discovered Zadie Smith was a Sandman fan and

Michael Chabon loves my stuff, and Doctor Who, and you can see it feeding back

into what they do."

Nonetheless, however apparently respectable both Gaiman and the genres he

works in may have become, the old threats remain. It’s not just banning Sandman

from libraries in the US; it’s banning practically everything.

"The Fault in our Stars has just been taken out of a Los Angeles school

system with a note saying it could not even be donated, if it was donated it had to be

given back or burned or whatever and you think, this is The Fault in our Stars, by

John Green! Probably the bestselling book of the last three years. Now a huge movie.

I think popularity and mainstream success does not mean that the people who want to

save you from the stuff that could contaminate your brain will not save you, they are

out there and they are determined to save you from anything, and popularity for them

genuinely means nothing."

And, of course, even if Gaiman’s not moved an inch while the culture’s

washed over him, the fault lines of taking offence never rest. He finished our

conversation with the following story.

"I was pondering the fact that in 1987 one of the Sandman graphic novels was getting

banned and attacked because it featured the first transsexual character in a

mainstream comic, who was transsexual and sympathetic and smart and charming

and fucked up like all of the characters in Sandman were and I was getting attacked

from conservative elements, from people who thought there should be no transsexuals

in comics. The American Family Association put me on their banned list because of

that and the Concerned Mothers of America actually boycotted DC Comics and as far

as I know, never lifted their boycott because of me writing my transsexual character.

And now I get attacked by young transsexuals, young trans activists, going, "look at

this character, you kill this character and bad things happen to this character which

proves you are transphobic and why could you do this? Gaiman’s transphobia makes

Sandman unreadable for me and this is offensive and this is awful." And I’m going,

you know a part of me just goes, I wish you could have been there in 1988 when I

was writing it and looked at the world that you’re in now, guys."

Address to the graduands at Goldsmith’s College, on receiving a honorary fellowship by Rich Hobbs

Chair of Council, Warden, hononary guests, members of faculty, fellow

graduands, Professor Downie - thank you for admitting me, albeit without

much effort on my part, to the Goldsmith’s fellowship. I salute you and,

moreover, congratulate you on your bravery and recklessness in bestowing

such an honour on a satirist.

Because, as a satirist, it is unfortunately my professional duty as well my

personal instinct not only to say things best left unsaid in polite society, but

also, always, to lower the tone.

Which means that, while I can’t stop myself, I’m hideously aware that I really

shouldn’t say that while all you graduates have my sincere respect and

congratulations on receiving your proper degrees, you also have my deepest


I shouldn’t, today of all days, remind you that, thanks to a government none of

us elected, you are now embarking on a life of debt-peonage.

I shouldn’t remember out loud how, four and a half years ago, the man who is

still - miraculously - the deputy Prime Minister, promised - nay more, pledged

- that he would abolish tuition fees to get people like you to vote for him - a lie

he presumably thought didn’t really matter.

And I shouldn’t remind us all that when he reneged on that pledge & agreed to

the tripling of tuition fees, he instantly proved to the children he’d lied to that

voting was a complete and utter waste of time.

And when those same children - some of you may have been among them -

got the point and so took to the streets instead, they ended up, in front of the

Mother of Parliaments, kettled, and subjected to cavalry charges, and in the

case of Alfie Meadowes damn nearly murdered by the Metropolitan Police.

And I really shouldn’t remember that only a few months later the Met were

revealed to be more or less a wholly owned subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s

News International newspaper group.

Nor should I say how the best police force money can buy systematically

brutalised and beat up children merely in order to save Nick Clegg’s face,

described so eloquently by my friend and fellow cartoonist Steve Bell as

looking like a balloon full of sick.

I know. I shouldn’t have said any of that, so I won’t.

Nor, for that matter, should I recall that this idea of exchanging higher

education for lifelong debt - in order, remember, to cut that flimsiest of paper

tigers, The Deficit - was initially commissioned by a Labour Government

from a man, Lord Browne, whose cost-cutting in pursuit of profits at bp led

directly to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the ecological catastrophe

wrought upon the Gulf of Mexico.

Nor should I say that the same Lord Browne is now chairman of Cuadrilla, the

fracking company that sounds like a Japanese movie monster but without the

charm. And I definitely shouldn’t reflect that, having wrecked the gulf of

Mexico and tertiary education, he’s now bent on quite literally blasting what’s

left of Britain to dust. Though the reason I shouldn’t say that is because, as so

often, it exposes my profession’s serious shortcomings, as satire once more

doesn’t come within spitting distance of what reality regularly serves up.

And I really really shouldn’t say that, thanks to the system introduced by

Vince Cable and David "Two Brains" Willetts, which has already collapsed

under the weight of its own contradictions, your best bets, to live happy lives

unencumbered by anxiety, is simply to ensure you never earn enough money

to pay the bastards back.

That instead, as you embark on the rest of your lives in a world still mostly

run by and for avaricious psychopaths, you stand as living testimony to the

vision of this Coalition Government by being the world’s best educated,

cleverest and, for that matter, beautiful... well, whatever you want to do. Just

make sure you do it on a tight budget until this country comes back to its

senses and remembers that education is something which enhances the whole

society and isn’t just another commodity to be marketed.

I shouldn’t say that because it’s mean. It sours the whole day.

Like it would be mean to speculate precisely where David Willetts keeps his

second brain.

Like it would be nasty to imagine the scene, in about nine months time, when

our current Prime Minister, the world’s first genuine gap year premier, has his

interview for the non- executive directorship at Goldman Sachs that is his birthright

and the head of inhuman resources peers at his CV and says... "Aaaah,, according to your resume you, um, ‘Lost Scotland’ and couldn’t win

majorities against Gordon Brown OR Ed Miliband? So how do you think

you’re qualified for this job? Or any job? In your own time..."

I shouldn’t have said any of that, and I apologise if I’ve lowered the tone. But

that, actually, is the real thing about satire.

It’s about jokes. It’s about releasing that inbuilt evolutionary survival

mechanism that helps us navigate our way through our lives without us all

going mad with existentialist terror. So instead we laugh and release all those

lovely endorphins that quite simply make us feel better. And that’s why we

laugh at death, and sex and failure and farting and our best friends falling off a


But it’s also why George Orwell said that every joke is a tiny revolution.

"They" - the shills and lackeys for the avaricious psychopaths - will tell you

the world is a serious place where everything has a price, usually wholly

divorced from its real value. They’re wrong. The world is a frivolous,

hilarious, joyous playground. "Reality" isn’t a hideous burden, it’s a laugh. All

you need to do is to remember to lower the tone.

So, standing here in my pomp, I implore you to laugh at my pomposity.

Because I should really be lurking in the wings, sneering and sniggering at the

twat in the hat droning on in his puss-in-boots get up after all that sub-

Masonic hoo-haa and fol-de-rol

I should be laughing myself stupid at the presumption and vanity of the same

twat in the hat grandstanding away courtesy of an academic qualification he’s

done absolutely no work at all to earn, unlike all of you.

And I should be laughing fit to bust at the so-called satirist snuggling up inside

another self-

congratulatory establishment of all those good, great, no-good and ingrate

recipients of honorary degrees & fellowships that many of them have done so

little to deserve.

After all, we are in New Cross - dirty, delightful, deliciously diverse New

Cross - where laughter is always the best option.

Which finally gets me to what I really wanted to say. One of the more

gruesome shills and lackeys of the avaricious psychopaths in charge wrote a

book after he was driven from office by his own party for his serial

misjudgements. Tony Blair called that book "A Journey", and though

personally I’m waiting for the sequel "A Journey to a Dungeon in The

Hague", it’s a good title.

We’re all on journeys, after all. Me, I’ve mooched around this part of London

for nearly 30 years, part of it in New Cross, but also in Brockley and

Ladywell, where I walked from to get here this lunchtime.

And this gets to the heart of it. For years unhappier people in allegedly smarter

parts of town have asked me why I live down here. I’m sure Goldsmiths gets

asked the same thing. And yet, and yet. Remember the journey - the point of

departure, the journey itself, the ultimate destination. And just think - Oxford

and Cambridge, those training grounds for the shills and lackeys of the

avaricious psychopaths - where do they lead? To power, wealth, the elite?

Possibly. But also, don’t forget, Oxford is on the way to Swindon, and

Cambridge is on the way to Norwich.

New Cross, meanwhile, is - and always will be - on the way to Paris.

Remember that, and please enjoy the rest of your trip.

Radio 3 Talk on Otto Dix’s series of etchings, "Der Krieg" by Rich Hobbs

Standing on the front at Bexhill-on-Sea looking out over the English Channel,

you can’t really imagine the flood-tides of European History and Culture

breaking and crashing on the groynes and pebble beaches before you. But turn

round and you’ll see the de la Warr Pavilion, possibly the first and certainly

one of the finest Modernist Buildings in Britain. Commissioned by the

socialist 9th Earl de la Warr in 1935 to be, I quote, "simple in design and

suitable for a holiday resort in the South of England", this sleek, white, steel-

and-concrete monument to sunlight and fresh sea-breezes re-opened in 2005

after extensive restoration, as a show case for contemporary or, to use the stale old

vernacular, "Modern" art.

Another of Bexhill’s claims to fame, which would have earned the town a

place in infamy had History run its course differently, is that it happened to be

one of the proposed landing beaches for Operation Sealion, the Nazis’ aborted

plan for a seaborne invasion of Southern England in 1940. And had Bexhill

become Hitler’s Omaha Beach, you can’t help wondering what might have

befallen the de la Warr Pavilion.

I reckon it would have been fine. Behind their championing of folklore and

kitsch, twinned to their demonisation of what they called "degenerate" art, the

Nazis were as much suckers for the flowing, uncluttered lines of Modernism

as anyone else, whether in Speer’s architecture, Hugo Boss’s designs for the

uniforms worn by the SS or all those beautiful fighter planes where the sweaty

Modernist dreams of fascists and fascist fellow-travellers like Marinetti and

Wyndham-Lewis became metal flesh.

But of one thing you can be sure. Under whatever kind of Kultur-Gauleiter

that might have ended up in charge of the Arts in Southern England in this

alternative History, the de la Warr Pavilion would not be marking the

hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War by exhibiting 19

plates from Otto Dix’s 1924 series of etchings, "Der Krieg".

Dix, along with Georg Grosz, was one of the leading Modernist artists in post-

Great War Germany; a star of Dada, the Expressionist and then the Neue

Sachlichkeit or "New Objectivity" schools of art which followed each other in

rapid succession as they sought to both interrogate and inculpate the fatal

contradications of the Weimar Republic. But his was a very different kind of

Modernism, exactly the kind that the Nazis defined as "degenerate". Dix’s

paintings "The Trench" & "War Cripples" were both displayed at the

notorious state- sponsored 1937 Munich exhibition of Degenerate Art - along

with work by Max Beckman, Grosz, Chagall, Max Ernst, Mondrian, Paul Klee

and many others - and afterwards burned.

And it wasn’t just the Nazis who responded badly to Dix’s output. Fourteen

years before it was thrown on a bonfire, "The Trench" was displayed in the

Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne behind a curtain to protect unsuspecting

passers-by from accidentally viewing its depiction of dismembered and

decomposing soldiers’ bodies. Then, in 1925 the mayor of Cologne Konrad

Adenauer, later the architect of the post-Second World War German Federal

Republic, cancelled the payment to purchase Dix’s painting, and forced the

director of the Wallraf-Richartz to resign for trying to buy it in the first place.

As for Dix, having survived the wrath of the Nazis by keeping his head down

and restricting himself to painting landscapes, after the Second World War he

settled down in Dresden in the German Democratic Republic, far away from

Adenauer, although by the time he died in 1969 he was being claimed by both

Germanies. But by then, of course, Modernism was old hat and therefore

much safer to handle.

Back in Bexhill, the de la Warr show does Dix proud. The big, bright, airy

enormity of the Pavilion’s exhibition space, dimmed to exclude sunlight

presumably to conserve the displayed artifacts, also serves to dwarf the 19

etchings, each not much larger than A4, but in precisely the right way. Seeing

them like this, in the gloom, the images in Der Krieg become even more

claustrophobic, just like being stuck in a trench, eating your lunch among your

comrades’ rotting corpses in Plate 13, "Mealtime in the Trenches" or crammed

absurdly tightly into the space available, like in Plate 12, "Stormtroops

advancing under a gas attack". Even the bodies of the living soldiers seem to

be collapsing in on themselves: these warriors are short, stumpy men with

foreshortened limbs and round, puggy faces. In fact, there’s more than just a

hint of the caricatural, even the cartoonish about Dix’s soldiers, while he also

continually deploys overdrawing. This is one of the defining tricks of

Modernism, that transgressive line that breaks all the rules by breaking across

other lines drawn or etched in pursuit of the purpose of all visual art hitherto,

which was to capture reality. This trick is also used brilliantly by the

cartoonists Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman, because breaking the rules of

realism, of reality, is the only real way of getting to the truth.

And the truth was what Dix was after, after a fashion. Self-consciously based

on Goya’s series of etchings "The Disasters of War", and often as difficult to

look at as many of Goya’s images of the atrocities wrought in the Peninsular

War over a century previously, "Der Krieg" is, on one level, simply a record

of Dix’s own experiences as a soldier, as a machine-gunner in the trenches.

This, after all, was what they meant by New Objectivism. As Dix himself

wrote in his diary in 1924, the year he etched "Der Krieg", "I am neither

political nor tendentious nor pacifistic nor moralising, nor anything else. Nor

do I paint in a symbolic Frenchified way - I am neither pro nor contra."

Whether you believe that or not, in itself those words marked a change in Dix,

a conversion to the supposed objectivity of Modernism by the young man who

ten years earlier had enthusiastically volunteered to fight in the Great War,

swept along in a wave of patriotism, and whose actions earned him an Iron

Cross in 1918.

One must assume that that earlier Otto Dix was more of a Romantic than any

kind of Modernist. The Great War was also the last great Romantic war,

waged between Kings and Emperors who inhabited faux-medieval courts

surrounded by courtiers wearing plumed helmets and archaic kinds of armour.

However we may view the war in retrospect, when it began it clearly appealed

enormously to whatever Romantic compulsion made millions of young men

across Europe volunteer for death or glory in defence of their homelands.

Indeed, Gavrilo Princip, whose murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked

off the whole thing and resulted not just in the hecatombs of the Western Front

but also the destruction of three great European Empires, is almost a cookie-

cutter example of European Romanticism: Goethe’s sorrowful young Werther

via the Romantic template of terrorism devised by the anarchist Mikhail

Bakunin, who was, co-incidentally, Wagner’s original model for Siegfried in

The Ring Cycle. This is Romanticism as wistful death cult, of blood, soil and

glory, dying young whether as Werther, Keats, a Shropshire lad or the friend

of J.M.Barrie’s who leapt from the deck of the sinking Lusitania, torpedoed by

a German U-Boat in 1915, quoting Peter Pan as he yelled out "To die will be

an awfully big adventure".

The reality, of course, is not Romantic. The patriotic Romanticism that fuelled

the beginnings of the Great War got the blood and the soil in spades, but little

glory. A medieval tournament between chivalric royal houses was waged

industrially, with industrial quantities of carnage, cheered on by arch-

Modernists like the Vortecist Wyndham-Lewis and the Futurist Marinetti as

the apotheosis of the Machine.

And Princip’s own death was equally unromantic. Too young to be executed

in 1914, he died in April 1918 in Terezin prison - later, under the Nazis, the

notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp - of skeletal tuberculosis,

reduced thanks to his rotting bones to weighing little more than 6 stone. Dix

would have produced a perfect portrait of the young man whose Romantic

yearnings kicked off the terrible, chaotic birth of the Modern and the

totalitarian necrocracies that thereafter blighted Europe for most of the 20th

Century. Though remember that despite claiming to base themselves in

objective scientific truth - though eugenics and dialectical materialism are

equally, murderously bogus - both the Nazis and the Marxist Soviets had their

roots in the German Romanticism of the 1820s.

Getting back to Dix’s etchings in "Der Krieg", there’s another alternative

history. In this one, it’s not the Nazis invading England via Bexhill-on-Sea,

but the Germans winning the Great War; the version of events where the

Spring Offensive of 1918, when Dix won his Iron Cross, worked.

But in those circumstances would he still have gone on to feel compelled, six

years later, to etch this terrifying record of the horrors of war?

There’s a pretty good chance he would, though the effects would be entirely

different. Despite Dix’s claims to Modernist Objectivity, "The Trench", "Der

Krieg" and his other work from the Weimar period produced the reaction they

did because their objectivity was, in itself, a subjective indictment of post-

Great War Germany. The point is rammed home if you compare two pictures

on identical subjects, one by Dix and the other by the society portraitist John

Singer Sargent.

Sargent’s famous painting "Gassed" was first exhibited in 1919, having been

commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee in July 1918, four

months before the Armistice. It was voted painting of the year by the Royal

Academy, and depicts a crocodile of blindfolded men, victims of a gas attack,

being led through a flat, almost twilit landscape seething with their wounded,

blinded comrades. In the same way as Dix owed a debt to Goya, "Gassed"

references Peter Breugel’s 1568 painting "The Parable of the Blind", though it

also has a great deal in common, both in composition and execution, with one

of those late Pre- Raphaelite, achingly Romantic Burne-Jones’ paintings of a line of languid,

torpid young women, half in love with easeful death. While it effectively

evokes the horror and pity of war, you can’t imagine this painting being

produced by the losing side. It’s also over twenty feet wide.

Dix’s third plate from Der Krieg, "Gas Victims - Templeux-la-Fosse", on the

other hand, is about a foot and a bit wide. The gas victims are, once more,

Dix’s typical, stumpy caricatures, but this time their faces are blackened by

lack of oxygen into unrecognisability as being even human. Two medical

orderlies stand nonchalantly beside the prone ranks of wounded men.

For the record, two of the more famous gas victims of the Great War were

Ford Madox Ford, one of the most prominent cheerleaders of literary

Modernism, and Adolf Hitler.

But while it’s just about possible to imagine Dix’s "Gas Victims" being

produced by the winners, it would have been as part of the remembrance, of

the pity as much as the horror of war. In Britain, thanks to Wilfred Owen,

Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and others, critical responses to how the war

had been waged had their vanguard in poetry. This poetry, moreover, rapidly

eclipsed the earlier, mawkish jingoism of Rupert Brook, who’d died on his

way to Gallipoli as a result of a mosquito biting his lip without him seeing a

shot fired in anger. Remembered horror became the poetic pity of

remembrance, and the British could be united in that remembrance because,

having won, they had the luxury of room enough to respond this way. The

Germans, having lost, hardly had enough room to remember, let along engage

in remembrance.

Sargent’s "Gassed" now hangs in the Imperial War Museum. In post-Great

War Germany, if you’d given a museum a name like that you could guarantee

the opening ceremony would end in a shoot out between the FreiKorps and the

Commies. When Weimar finally got round to building its National Monument

of Commemoration at the Tannenberg Memorial in East Prussia, unlike the

understatement of London’s Cenotaph it seemed to yearn for a defiant if

wholly inappropriate triumphalism: it was on the site of a German Victory; it

was enormous, based on a Teutonic Knights’ Castle; at the opening ceremony

in 1927 President Hindenburg, in full military uniform, made no apology and

expressed no regrets for the war; most significantly, no Jews or Socialist or

Communist deputies were invited.

There was no collective remembrance because there was no German

consensus on their defeat. The founding myth of the Nazis was that Germany

had been "stabbed in the back" by traitors at home rather than defeated in the

field. There was, therefore, nothing ignoble in the war at all, despite its

objective horrors and the pity therein. So even the act of remembering, like

Otto Dix did, was already in the worst possible taste; and thereafter

remembering inevitably became an indictment of Weimar’s innate decadence

in refusing to remember. And then the remembering rebounded on the artists

who, in exposing Weimar’s decadence, were thereafter denounced by the

Nazis, who hated Weimar too, as themselves degenerate.

Which is why Der Krieg still resonates so powerfully. It’s less about the Great

War itself than its aftermath, and you cannot and should not unpick the

stitches tying them together. After all, while Dix claimed merely to be

remembering The War and its unimaginable horrors, the Nazis’ whole point

was to re-enact them.

Radio 3 Talk on William Hogarth, broadcast by Rich Hobbs

In his history of the first Australian penal settlements, "The Fatal Shore", the

art critic Robert Hughes described the standard modern perception of

Georgian England thus:

"A passing reference to violence, dirt and gin; a nod in the direction of the

scaffold; a highwayman or two, a drunken judge, and some whores for local

colour; but the rest is all curricles and fanlights. Modern squalor is squalid but

Georgian squalor is ‘Hogarthian’, an art form in itself."

Note that adjective. By now it’s so well entrenched we instinctively know

what it means, though it’s probably not the meaning Hogarth himself would

have wanted. He had definite ambitions for his name to be associated with his

practice, and yet the paint strokes or engraved lines and slashes aren’t, of

themselves, "Hogarthian".

And however much he wanted - pretty successfully - to found an entirely new

school of British art, there’s nothing really "Hogarthian" in his proto-

impressionist study "The Shrimp Girl" or in his innovatively realistic portrait

of the philanthropic sea-captain Thomas Corum, or his portrait of David

Garrick or his murals in the Inns of Court or for Bart’s Hospital. These are all

by Hogarth, for sure; they might even be "Hogarthish"; but none of them quite

ring true as "Hogarthian", not the whole hog.

And yet "Gin Lane" and "The Stages of Cruelty" and the Harlot’s and Rake’s

Progresses and The Times of Day all are palpably "Hogarthian".

Again, this has nothing to do with technique or the medium in which Hogarth

produced these definingly "Hogarthian" images. The most modern man

imaginable in the early modern era, self-made, commercial, eschewing patrons

while infiltrating the heights of society, Hogarth was also a multi-platform

artist. Nearly all his satirical series were launched simultaneously as paintings

and engravings, and sometimes - to get his third bite of the cherry - he’d

engrave, print and sell combined entrance and lottery tickets, allowing the

punters ingress to his studio to view the painting and - just possibly - win an

engraving of the original. This is enterprising, but it isn’t Hogarthian.

Basically, "Hogarthian" is that weird yet common formulation, the self-

defining adjective. Something where the definition lies in what it defines. As

if he were wandering through a tatty Palladian hall of dirty mirrors, Hogarth

depicted Georgian London and it reflected its "Hogarthianness" back to him

until the depiction, reflected and re-reflected in the distorting mirrors of Satire

and Time, became the definition.

And to give him his due, Hogarth was the man for the job. His life spanned

Georgian London’s formative years as well as its expanding geography. Born

in 1697 near Newgate Prison, an even more "Hogarthian" local landmark was

the Fleet Ditch, that sluggish, stinking Thames tributary on whose banks stood

the Fleet Prison, wherein Hogarth’s father was imprisoned for debt for five

years during William’s childhood.

Moreover, the Fleet Ditch brimmed, in addition to the blood and guts washed

down from Smithfield and all its other faecal effluvia, with satirical

symbolism. This, after all, was London’s very own River Styx,

emblematically demarcating the old, charred medieval city replete with its

usurers and merchants from the lawyers and printers and property speculators

further West. And it was duly blessed by the Godfather of Satire Jonathan

Swift in his "A Description of a City Shower":

Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,

Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

That was written when Hogarth was twelve and just escaping the miasmas of

the Fleet by being apprenticed to an engraver up West in Leicester Fields.

There he stayed and prospered, never quite retiring to his country residence

out in Chiswick, these days just up the road from his eponymous roundabout.

One of Hogarth’s early satirical engravings was a rip-off of Swift’s

"Gulliver’s Travels", depicting Gulliver, non-canonically, punished for

pissing on the Emperor’s palace by being administered an enema by the

Lilliputians. If Swift knew about this shameless coat-tailing, he didn’t repine.

In 1736, lambasting the Irish Parliament in "A Character, Panegyric, And

Description of The Legion Club", Swift suddenly breaks the fourth wall to

make this direct appeal to Hogarth:

How I want thee, humorous Hogarth!

Thou, I hear, a pleasant rogue art.

Were but you and I acquainted,

Every monster should be painted:

You should try your graving tools

On this odious group of fools

Alas, Posterity denied us an Enlightenment collaboration pre-echoing Hunter

S Thompson and Ralph Steadman, though there was no shortage of Georgian

Fear and Loathing for Hogarth to engrave or Swift describe. Nor should we

be surprised that the Fleet Ditch appealed to Swift’s scatalogical muse, which

thereafter informed Hogarth’s apocryphal depiction of Gulliver’s colonic

irrigation: the purpose of satire, after all, is to take the piss, reinforcing the

universal truth that our masters and imagined betters, like us, shit and will die.

But there’s more to it than just that. Swift’s poem is a satirical portrait of the

urban. Hogarth’s subject became the new London of elegant Georgian

squares emerging in Soho and beyond, but as with Swift, showing it as it truly

was: the greatest city the world may have ever seen, but without flush toilets.

Naturally, Hogarth shows us the consequence: in The Times of Day and

throughout his oeuvre, there’s a constant leit motif of chamber pots being

emptied out of windows to add to the casual catastrophes of the street below.

We all get the satirical point, just as we do with his depictions of Frenchified

dandies stepping out of their churches, coffee houses, clubs or courtrooms into

gutters full of shit and squashed cats. And that’s just in the smart part of town.

Wait til you hit the surrounding slums.

Like in "Gin Lane", probably the definingly "Hogarthian" image of Georgian

London, where the depiction of urban squalor in the St Giles Rookeries was

intended to work like a tabloid headline. It was meant to function as a

terrifying polemic, part of a concerted campaign Hogarth had launched with

Henry Fielding to address the source of a general moral collapse in society.

After the seismic shock of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, London was seized

by fresh panic, with the wealthier classes in general flight to the country from

fear of the city’s poor. Otherwise they risked the genuine threat of being held

up by highwaymen in Piccadilly in broad daylight. All this was blamed on the

free availability of cheap Dutch gin, the chosen opiate of the underclass.

Moreover, they remembered Judith Dufour 15 years previously, who’d taken

her infant daughter out of the workhouse and then strangled the little girl to

sell the clothes she’d been issued with in order to buy gin.

Gin Lane was published simultaneously to Beer Street, a comparatively tepid

extolling of the honest English alternative to evil foreign gin, along with "The

Four Stages of Cruelty", which charted the inevitable path from tormenting

animals to murder and then dissection by the anatomists, the final, eternal

punishment wrought by the Enlightenment on executed London paupers. The

prints were all were produced on cheap paper for widest circulation and,

unlike earlier series, they had no companion paintings: these images existed

solely to be reproduced and circulated, as polemical texts.

In other hands this all might have worked well enough, but the message and

the depiction of the squalor and its horror isn’t what finally makes them, and

particularly Gin Lane, so wholly Hogarthian. It’s the jokes.

Hogarth’s polemic is clear, but it’s almost as if he can’t help himself from

lowering the high moral tone with a few gags. Actually, a lot of gags. Look at

the background of Gin Lane and it’s crammed with jokes: drunks and dogs

fighting over bones; gin being forced down the throats of cripples and babies,

a drunken carpenter pawning the tools of his trade, a drunken baker

accidentally impaling his own baby. Corpses are disinterred, a barber hangs

himself in a collapsing building, a blind man tries to throw a stool in a

barroom brawl. And central to it all is the horrific image of the woman

dropping her infant son to his certain death down a stairwell. And it’s a gag.

It’s a joke on the central iconography of Christianity, of the Madonna and

Child, though here the Madonna is so pissed - note that cloacal word again -

she’s dropping and killing the Christ child, the exclusive medium of possible

redemption, out of drunken neglect and, basically, not giving a shit.

And there, getting back to adjectives, lies the difference between a Hogarthian

and Dickensian slum: you weep at the latter (which was 80 years but only

yards from Gin Lane) because there’s hope of redemption, and the horror lies

in that hope being dashed. In Hogarth’s slums there’s no hope of redemption

at all, so you might as well laugh.

Indeed, sometimes Hogarth seems quite unable to resist the temptation to

lower the tone. In Plate 8 of the polemical and frankly preachy series

"Industry and Idleness", when the virtuous, industrious (and, to be honest,

insufferably smug) apprentice becomes a Sheriff of the City of London, he’s a

tiny figure in the background at the feast in the City, and our eyes are drawn

irresistibly, like Hogarth’s attention, to the swinish aldermen (and,

presumably, previously industrious apprentices themselves) gloriously and

grotesquely at trough at the image’s focal centre. Likewise, in Plate 11, when

the idle apprentice is on his way to be hanged, the scene is so vibrantly

carnivalesque we end up enchanted by what should be Tyburn’s instructive


Yet remember Swift’s supplication: "How I want thee, humorous Hogarth".

Not savage, or squalid or cynical, but funny. True, the jokes - like Swift’s gag,

told too deadpan, about the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver - are

dark - jet black, in fact, but that’s what jokes are for, to work that strange

transubstantiation transforming the mundane horrors of the everyday into

laughter, releasing all those lovely endorphins which help us navigate our way

through life without going mad with despair.

And, of course, from necessity they had stronger stomachs back then. Yet

while The Hogarthian is all those things - savage, squalid and cynical -

Hogarth only made it so because his humanity left him genuinely appalled by

the horrors of the Hogarthian Age. That’s how the man, this philanthropist and

patron of the Foundlings’ Hospital, in his own way as sentimental as Sterne,

informed the artist who always makes his characters topsy-turvily "progress"

towards perdition. It’s from the pity of it all.

Because in the end, down those Hogarthian streets walked a man called

Hogarth who was not himself Hogarthian, thus belying the word he

bequeathed us. Because, like most Georgians, his genius lies not in the

strongness of his stomach, but in the softness of his heart.

Let's Kill Uncle drew me into a deliciously horrible adult world, published in the Guardian by Rich Hobbs

I know it was in the year after my mother died when I was 10, though I can't remember whether it was my sister's Girls' Brigade troop fete or a church jumble sale we turned up to just by chance. Part of me, 44 years on, seems to remember being there with my friend Clive Brazier and his mum, though maybe I was there with my father, spending another typical weekend sniffing out a bargain. And though I couldn't now say whether it was in Pinner or Ruislip, in my mind's eye I can clearly see the secondhand book stall by the path leading to the church or community hall, the lawn around it dappled with sunlight, where I bought a tatty paperback edition of Rohan O'Grady's Let's Kill Uncle.

This jumble of vagueness and clarity over the details of my copy's provenance is strangely appropriate. The book itself is not well known, though over almost half a century I've reread it often enough to feel I know large parts of it by heart. In spite of its obscurity, three years after it was published in 1963 it was turned into a movie. I've never seen this film, and because most of the scenes in the book are photographically precise in my imagination, I never want to.

It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I finally twigged that Rohan O'Grady, regardless of my clear perception until then of him as a short, wiry, black-haired Irishman, is in fact a woman called June Skinner, now 92 and still living in her native British Columbia. I've never read any of her other four novels, and naturally assumed Let's Kill Uncle had long been out of print until I was asked to write this article. Then I found out Bloomsbury reissued it in 2010 with a glowing encomium from Donna Tartt on the back cover. So it was very recently that I discovered the book was first published with a frontispiece by one of my cartooning heroes, the great Edward Gorey, laureate of the macabre.

And who knows what first sparked my interest in this book. My original Mayflower edition, from September 1966, now Sellotaped together and its pages yellowed and smelling, mysteriously, of chocolate, says on the cover that Let's Kill Uncle is "the most readable blend of humour, horror, chills and child psychology since High Wind in Jamaica".

I now know that the film of High Wind in Jamaica featured the young Martin Amis, but back in 1970 neither he, the book nor the film meant a thing to me. Did I think it was something to do with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or even with JP Martin's Uncle series of books for children, about the heroic philanthropic elephant? If so, it's interesting that things that would have appealed to me as a child in fact lured me into a deliciously horrible adult world, both captivating me and capturing me at precisely the right moment.

Whatever it was, just at the time when I was achingly conscious that my mother's recent death had ushered me out of childhood and exiled me into something quite different, I became absorbed by June Skinner's gruesome little book about two children called Barnaby and Christie, around my age at the time, on holiday on an island off the coast of British Columbia, who conspire to murder Barnaby's uncle before he murders them.

Which is how this book changed my life. Some might say that it's hard to think of a book less suitable for a child of my age and circumstances, but without me even realising it, Let's Kill Uncle transported me into an enormously comforting realm of the imagination, that shadowland where we recreate and reorder reality to make it bearable.

So, I began to understand that horror can, and often should be, played for laughs; that death, in the right hands, is funny; that dark humour isn't "sick", but one of the best medicines there is. And as I kept rereading it at that formative age, the book was also ever so gently nudging me towards my ultimate career path.

And it's consistently more rewarding each time I reread it. A couple of weeks ago I suddenly recognised that Uncle Silvester – the eponymous object of the two children's murderous intentions – is clearly based on Sylvester the Cat from the Warner Brothers' cartoons, only darker and more, well, Goreyish (though the bit of business about the death – presented as murder – of Fletcher the Budgie is a big hint).

Likewise, I've only just clocked exactly the depth of the darkness of the shadows that the Holocaust casts over Sergeant Coulter the Mountie's reflections on innocence and wickedness. Then again, when I was 11 it would never have occurred to me that the book was written shortly after the Eichmann trial, and Hannah Arendt's famous observations about the banality of evil. And I've not even mentioned One-Ear, the self-pitying, soliloquising cougar who ultimately fulfils the role of deus ex machina in the book.

I could go on forever with a line-by-line exegesis of Let's Kill Uncle. I could even try to articulate why the ending – with its interplay of innocence, guile, triumph and cynicism – is so desperately moving and yet also ghoulishly funny. But then again I don't want to ruin the plot for you. And I do want you to read it, with an almost evangelical fervour.

It's not the greatest book ever written, nor will it detain you for long. But it should make you laugh, and make you think, and possibly even make you cry if you have a heart at all. I can conceive of no greater recommendation than that.

On Steve Jobs and Cartoons, for British Journalism Review by Rich Hobbs

It was recently reported that Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple responsible for

infesting the World with iPods, iPhones, iPads and vast screes of other iCrap,

had banned a cartoonist from one of his apps, because Jobs thought his

material was "objectionable". It was then reported that he’d changed his mind

and allowed "professional political satirists and humorists" back onto his

systems. What was interesting about this story had nothing to do with the

caprice of digitocrats, but in the reaction of the liberal chatterati to it. Many

People expressed surprise and concern that someone like Jobs should behave

like that at all, presumably because they’d bought him at his own worth as a

shiny new mixture of Guttenburg, Einstein and the Lord Buddha. I doubt,

however, if the cartoonist in question was surprised.

Cartoons as a medium, particularly political ones, occupy a curious, twilit, not

quite respectable place in the realm of journalism, often integral to the

topography of a newspaper but also more than slightly semi-detached from the

whole undertaking . Partly that’s because cartoons’ relationship to other

media, whether it’s newspapers or one of Jobs’ latest gizmos, is parasitical.

For nearly half a millennium, following the invention of printing, satirical

engravings and etchings existed quite happily on their own. Hogarth and

Gillray sold all their work as individual prints, retailed from shops and kiosks

that stretched from Charing Cross to St Paul’s, and Cruikshank was doing the

same long into the middle of the 19th century and after Punch had killed off

most of the rest of the trade. In fact, the first daily political cartoon only

appeared in this country as late as 1900, when Francis Carruthers-Gould

started working for the Westminster Gazette.

There is, in other words, a spirit of independence woven into cartoonists’

spiritual DNA. So, however much a good cartoon will enhance the journalism

surrounding it, both its purpose and its effect is always to lower the tone.

After all, one of the first and most enduring insults to be coined about popular

journalism - calling it "The Yellow Press" - came courtesy of a cartoon, "The

Yellow Kid", which both the Pulitzer and Hearst papers ran in their New York

circulation wars of the 1890s.

So however useful we cartoonists are as licensed idiots, we’re not quite safe

either, not least because, at the end of the day, as satirists it’s our job - and our

vocation - to mock the rich and powerful, a group which rather noticeably

includes the kind of people who own and edit newspapers and other media.

Sometimes, a proprietor or editor will even encourage dissent among the

paper’s most instinctive dissidents, though it will be as much of a comfort to

liberals as Jobs’ apparent illiberality that the foremost exponent of this tactic

was Lord Beaverbrook. It served him and his cartoonists, including David

Low and Vicky, to make a thing of them having a pop at him, and frequently

caricaturing him in as unflattering a way as possible in the pages of his own

papers, but this a rare example of something less like free speech and more

like self-indulgence.

For the most part, however, we keep schtum, cleanse our souls now and again

by sneaking in coded messages attacking our owners or editors (Giles used to

have tiny vignettes of Rupert Bear being tortured to death hidden in the

background of his cartoon). We hope they won’t notice, though sometimes

wish they will, and otherwise we just hunker down and swallow our pride, and

moan at interminable length in private to our colleagues about both proprietors

and editors.

Sometimes it pays off to go public in order to reclaim either dignity or your

soul. Apparently, after Murdoch took over The Sunday Times, he saw a Gerald

Scarfe cartoon of Reagan and was heard to mutter "Poor old Ronnie. We gotta

get rid of this pinko artist!", although the only authority we have for this story

is Scarfe himself, still working at The Sunday Times nearly three decades

later. Speaking personally, when I was working on Scotland on Sunday

during the Iraq War the editor and I - speaking exclusively through

intermediaries - waged a war of attrition of our own, him wanting me to

illustrate his (pro-War) editorial, while I insisted that I was a visual columnist

who should be allowed to express his own opinion. For the duration of the

hostilities, I usually won, but soon afterwards, having filed the cartoon on

Friday evening, I’d be phoned by the Art Director on Saturday morning to be

told that the editor had had "a better idea". I drew his idea for three weeks,

although without signing the result, and then resigned by email, telling him

that if he was always coming up with such brilliant ideas for cartoons, maybe

it was time he learned to draw.

That was bridling in the extreme, though I felt happier afterwards. Usually,

like most people, we bend with the wind (though I still have no regrets about

refusing David Montgomery’s offer of the job of editorial cartoonist on

Today). But sensible editors will allow their cartoonists as free a rein as

reasonable, within the bounds of public decency. That, after all, is why I

presume we’re hired in the first place.

Sometimes, though, you get wrong-footed from the most unexpected

direction. I’m very fortunate, at The Guardian, in having much more leeway

than I’ve been given on some other papers. That said, I clearly went too far

with a cartoon I drew at the time of the fall of Kabul, after the Graun’s pages

had been filled for weeks with wildly different analyses and opinions on the

direction of The War On Terror. In the cartoon, various turbaned members of

the Northern Alliance are seen shouting at each other things like "WHO ARE




I should, I suppose, have guessed that the comment editor (Seamus Milne, as

it happens) wasn’t going to buy it, but I was bemused by the reason he gave

for his unhappiness. It was, I was told, now editorial policy to make no

allusion to any disagreement between Guardian columnists. I asked him if he

thought the readers might not have noticed, then changed the captions. It’s

what we do if we want to get paid.

Laurence Sterne Memorial Lecture, delivered in York by Rich Hobbs

I’d like to start by thanking you for inviting me to deliver this year’s Laurence

Sterne Memorial Lecture, but I must also say that none of this is quite decent. I

shouldn’t really be here or only, perhaps, like Hogarth, as described by John

Wilkes’ literary hitman the Rev. Charles Churchill at Wilkes’ trial for

seditious libel following the publication of the infamous No. 45 of "The North


Lurking, most ruffian like, behind a screen

So placed all things to see, himself unseen

Virtue, with due contempt, saw Hogarth stand

The murd’rous pencil in his palsied hand.

Nonetheless, here I stand in the full glare of dusk, but as I say, it’s not quite

right, not quite decent, not quite, if you please, Shandean

To explain my unease, I have to go ab ovo. To be honest with you, it’s my

intention to go ab ovo repeatedly this evening in describing the circumstances

and purpose, reasons, whys, wherefores and what you will of my 1996 comic

book rendition of Tristram Shandy, so that with luck I’ll never finish, and

either we’ll all be here for ever, or I’ll die. However, before we embark on any

of that I should present you with my credentials. I am and have been a full-

time freelance cartoonist since I left Cambridge University in 1982 with a very

bad degree in English Literature. I mention this for reasons that we will come

to in time. But apart from my abject academic shortcomings, there’s also

blood red coloured rooms, basket weaving, the BBC World Service, the

human condition, dislocated jaws, T.S.Eliot, Raymond Chandler, the demon

drink, proctology, piss, the Prime Minister’s Spin Doctor 750 orang-utans, the

former books editor of The Independent. Where’s Wally, shamanism, Paradise

Lost, talking horses, a talking time toilet, critics, laughter,Don Quixote, ears

and probably whiskers to be dealt with, if we have time and you, your

worships, keep your patience. Anyway, one of the obvious reasons why I fared

so badly in the then far from rigorous purlieus of the Cambridge English

Faculty in the late 70s and early 80s was because I was always too busy

drawing stupid pictures for 2 bit student rags, my chief rival at the time being

TV’s Mr Andrew Marr, cartoonist for yet another 2 bit student rag. Needless

to say, I failed devote myself as fully as I ought in the English Tripos, which

then, and maybe to this day, in Part I at least was a roller-

coaster ride through 800 years of Eng Lit, with a topic a week which was

meant to be rendered down to a rich, concentration I suppose a bit like

condensed milk or marmite, in the form of an essay of not more than a side

and a half, read out loud by the student, but usually personally unread by the

supervisor (or my supervisors at any rate). No wonder, then, that I found doing

the stupid drawings was a more attractive option, and, thanks in no small part

to good luck, I’ve managed to make a living at it ever since.

It wasn’t until a year ago, however, that I finally fully understood what it was

that I’d actually been doing for the previous 20 years, and in order to

understand that revelation I need, by your leave, to digress slightly.

For the last three years I’ve been engaged on a rather ludicrous project at the

Gay Hussar Hungarian Restaurant in London’s swinging Soho. For those of

you unfamiliar with this restaurant, it is a small and rather ill-lit venue which,

throughout its 50 year history, has been the haunt of choice of journalists and

politicians. In its heyday in the 1960s The Gay Hussar would, most days, host

the entire cabinet, posing terrible seating problems for its founder and owner

Victor Sassie as he tried to keep one set of conspirators out of earshot of their

equally conspiratorial cabinet colleagues, quite apart from providing a useful

Soho bolthole for the late Tom Driberg, who once, up in the 3rd

floor private dining room, tried to persuade Mick Jagger to stand as a Labour Parliamentary

candidate, until he blew it by fondling Mick’s knee. Anyway, late one night I

proposed to the current manager that I should produce a series of caricature

portraits of his celebrity patrons, drawn from the life in the course of their

lunchtimes, in exchange for one free meal per head, thus fashioning a terrible

rod for my own back. Apart from getting increasingly fat, I had to draw

moving targets in a perpetual gloom, my line of sight frequently obscured by

waiters, fellow diners or a forkfull of heavy mittel-

European stodge or another glass of Magyar Merlot occluding my sitters’

faces. Nonetheless, to date I’ve produced over fifty of these drawings, which

now cover an entire wall of the place, and my subjects, or victims, have

included Lord Longford, Michaels Foot, Heseltine, Howard and Portillo, John

Mortimer, Glenda Jackson, David Blunkett, Robin Cook, Keith Waterhouse,

Charles Clarke and many others. Last May 21st , I got my biggest scalp when

Alastair Campbell agreed to sit for me (it should be pointed out here that the

sittings and the drawing was always done by prior, mutual arrangement, and

that this therefore was always consensual abuse). The restaurant was very

crowded that day, but the atmosphere was so chilly you could easily have kept

a side of beef in there for about three weeks, and I finally worked out what was

going on. Campbell hated what was happening to him because he’d was not in

control of the situation. Nor indeed was he able to control himself, to the point

that, at one stage he shouted across the room at me "You won’t be able to stop

yourself from drawing me as looking like a really bad person!" I answered,

"Alastair, I draw what I see," but I also then recognised the true nature of my

business. I was doing nothing more nor less than stealing Campbell’s soul, and

he knew it. For the record, when I took the picture over to him for him to sign

it in order to endorse it as a genuine likeness drawn during the span of his

lunchtime, he regained his soul, or at least regained control by saying, with

that effortless grace for which he has long been famous throughout Fleet Street

and is now equally and joyously celebrated in the Intelligence Community:

"This is a good likeness of Paxman. Now where the fuck’s my drawing?"

Nonetheless, it was a perfect illustration of what cartoonists and caricaturists

do. Put bluntly, it’s shamanism, and it’s very primitive. Call it sympathetic

magic or voodoo if you like, doing harm to someone at a distance with a sharp

object, in this case a pen, but it’s also a deeper, transforming, almost

transubstantiating magic and, I’d argue, it’s what all art does, to lesser or

greater degrees of benevolence or malignity.

We artists - forgive me - transform and thereby control the world around us by

synthesising it through our own consciousness. In the cartoonist’s case, we

literally steal someone’s identity - their soul, to be either spiritual or

melodramatic about it - by shapeshifting their appearance - what is their only

defining public identity - through caricature. And then we take these

transformed real people, in their new, caricatured imago, and make them do

stupid and ludicrous and humiliating things within the frame of the cartoon in

order to hold them up to public ridicule. And we do this to control them. Not,

obviously, in their political actions, but to even up the score a bit, to share with

our readers that empowering feeling that although our leaders have the power

we’ve delegated to them, we retain the power to laugh at them for being fools,

knaves, crooks or even just fat and ugly. Which makes us all feel better, and

the laughter makes us feel physiologically about the crimes our master

commit in our name because when we laugh all those endorphins pumping

through our systems, so when we laugh we inevitably feel more at ease and

more in control of our uncontrollable lives. But a cartoon is merely of the

artforms, the novel included in which the artists and his or her audience

conspire to transform reality, including the bad guys or the bad things - steal

their souls, if you like - to take back control on however small a scale. To this

end, in these dreadful times, this is what I did to George Bush and Tony Blair

last year after Bush visited the United Nations on September 12th

2002 and Blair recalled Parliament. This was a feeble effort to diffuse their bad magic, a

small and apparently futile gesture given what happened next, but every little

helps in evening up the score. However, to change gear for a moment,

although this particular cartoon won the Political Cartoon of the Year Award

last December, it was also the subject of many complaints, including from the

editor of The Guardian who’d published it in the first place, about the obscene

depiction of the Presidential and Prime Ministerial bottoms. Blowing up babies

in far away countries is, it seems, okay, but arseholes are out.

Which digression from my digression brings me falteringly back to Hogarth,

with whom I linked arms at the beginning, and onto another digression.

Gin Lane is, I’d argue, the most famous and also the defining visual image by

which we think we understand the 18th century. Even without a wider knowledge

of the rest of Hogarth’s work, we can see in this image the

earthiness, directness and rather delicious rakishness of those times, or so we

think. 250 years on, scratching through the hide-bound, prissily moral

palimpsest (we imagine) of the Victorians and the society they bequeathed us,

which in practice endured for a further fifty or sixty years, Gin Lane operates

on us in different ways, but mostly, I’d suggest, as a breath of fresh air from

earthier, grittier, perhaps more honest but certain jollier times. Gin Lane is

shocking, but also grimly, blackly funny, sanitised as it has been by the very

passage of time. But maybe this image is no longer really shocking at all, and

has more in common with feelings we might have about a lost Merrie England,

safely heritaged up and really rather attractive in its own harsh, pissed up way

evoking in us a sentimental view of red-faced squires and sentimental gamins

and bellowing eccentrics gobbling veal pies washed down with gallons of port

as stagecoaches get stuck in snowdrifts. That was not Hogarth’s intention, if

we accept that his intentions have any validity anyway, because

Gin Lane has less in common with that imagined world and far more to do

with the mindset of that much derided school of art called Socialist Realism. It

was one of Hogarth’s cheaper prints, intended for mass circulation, and was

intended, highly didactically, as a warning against the evils of Dutch (for

which read, in Hogarth’s notoriously xenophobic mindset, foreign) gin. More

to the point, it was inspired by a contemporary news story, the 18th century

equivalent of a tabloid shock horror story now, of a woman who murdered her

baby in order to sell its clothes in order to buy gin. Its modern parallel would

be a junky murdering an old age pensioner for ten quid so he or she can score

to feed his or her habit.

But intentions, even when we accept their validity, don’t always count.

Sticking with Hogarth, he produced another cheap popularseries called "The

Idle and Industrious Apprentice" which was intended to be hung up in

workshops to in order to improve the morals of apprentices through horrible

example. In brief outline, the series contrasts the fates of two apprentices, one

of whom works hard and becomes Lord Mayor of London while the other one

idles, gambles, whores and then murders his whore and ends up on the gallows

at Tyburn. So far, so good, or bad. However, even at his most grimly and

intentionally documentary, Hogarth reveals a trait which runs through British

art from Chaucer onwards, and probably through all human art since the cave

paintings which, for all we know, may indeed have been caricatures. If you’ll

forgive me a minor digression, we have no way of knowing, and therefore no

reason to disbelieve the idea that those big arsed stick people are actually

crude satires about the bloke with the fat bum in the next cave who couldn’t hit

a wooly rhino with a spear to save his neolithic ass. To get back on track, it’s

interesting to note that even at his most morally polemical, Hogarth could

never quite resist putting in a ludicrous or satirical detail. That’s why Gin Lane

is essentially, if grimly, a comic image, and why, in the print in the series

depicting a Guidhall Banquet where the Industrious Apprentice awaits

induction as a Sheriff of the City of London, he can’t seem to help himself

from undermining his whole polemical purpose. Because what we see, and

what our eye is drawn towards, is this wonderfully wrought group of swinish

city burghers with their snouts in the trough, while the Industrious Apprentice

lurks, obscurely and almost unnoticed, stage left. Are these scenes of

monstrous bacchanalia the rewards of virtue? Is Hogarth merely being an

accurate documentarist , albeit, unlike a camera, passing the visual information

through his own, perhaps irredeemably and therefore unavoidably satirising

consciousness? Was it that he just couldn’t resist taking the piss?

I use that foul word advisedly. That trait Hogarth shared with Chaucer and the

cave painters, along with Shakespeare, Swift, Sterne, Gillray and, in fact,

almost everyone who’s ever lived, that reach seam of silver that runs through

all our lives and makes them bearable is our capacity to laughter. Personally, I

think laughter is evolutionarily hard-wired into us, as an essential survival

mechanism. If we couldn’t laugh, with our over-evolved brains our

consciousness of our inevitable deaths would result in everyone spending their

entire lives screaming in existentialist terror. There are, of course, other

palliative mechanisms to help us endure the empty days between birth and

death, like religion, art, politics, drink, late night conversations, lectures on art

and literature, drugs and so on, but of these the greatest is laughter. Moreover,

there is, I believe, a universal ur-humour, which might be summed up as

"Pthwssssst!", a noise guaranteed to make the smallest baby anywhere in the

world laugh, which is also the noise made by all the horrible things that pour

out of our bodies on a daily basis. And here’s another hardwired survival

mechanism - we instinctively shy away from those horrible things, but

recognise the contradiction inherent in so doing, and therein lies the joke.

What Hogarth did - what satire does - is to build on the hilarious nature of

those contradictions: confronted with the finery of the fops of his own time,

Hogarth saw beneath the skein and ripped aside the skirts and breeches to

reveal the blood, shit and piss beneath. The laughter comes in equal parts from

the shocking indecency of his actions, the humiliation of his victims at being

thus unclothed, the nature of the horrible stuff he reveals through those actions

and the shamanistic transformation of those victims into his and our control

through his caricaturing consciousness. This is because taking back control,

schadenfreude and farting are the triple pillars on which all humour is built.

Hence taking the piss. Hence Bush and Blair’s bottoms. Hence Tristram


But we’re getting far too close to the subject here, so time, once more, to go ab

ovo. While I was wasting my time at Cambridge doing stupid drawings, I was

also compelled to turn up, usually, to those weekly supervisions having read

my way, lickety-spit, through that week’s topic. For the 18th Century paper I

was supervised by a man called Professor Ian Jack, not to be confused with the

enlightened and splendid current editor of Granta. Jack had a curious method

of supervising his 1st year pupils, which we all recognised even then was

mostly intended as a controlling mechanism to put us ill at ease. In his own

way he was taking the piss, I suppose, but knowledge of that didn’t help. He

supervised in a tiny square room painted blood red and dimly lit by a lamp

beneath a blood red shade. In addition, he had a strange mannerism of

apparently involuntarily and jerkily snapping his jaws together like a gin trap

without warning, which led to several filthy undergraduate jokes I won’t repeat

here. To cap it all, while you read your essay out to him he would, as often as

not, stand, turn his chair over and start unfurling and reweaving its rafia seat.

This was deeply intimidating but, defending my corner, I read out my essay on

Tristram Shandy, most of which I’d read by that stage, and concluded, after

quoting the novel’s famous last line, that it could be read backwards with as

much reward and benefit as reading it forwards, and that Lillibulero was the

call sign of the BBC World Service. He seemed to like that last point, but

dismissed everything else I’d written by enjoining me to concentrate, a la

Arnold Kettle, on Tristram Shandy’s role in the development of the English


This experience had four direct consequences, three of which I’ll address here.

The first was that, a few weeks later, I was so depressed that I told my moral

tutor that I was sick of the course in particular and Cambridge in general and

couldn’t face another supervision with any of my supervisors (having escaped

Jack, we’d moved backwards to the Renaissance Paper and were due to be

covering Paradise Lost that coming week). In short I wanted out. My tutor was

a man enlightened and kinder than I perhaps realised at the time: he gave me

lots of whisky, told me Jack was an old fart, said I should forget about the

supervision and do some reading for pleasure instead, so I spent the week

immersed in almost all of Raymond Chandler’s detective novels, which gave

me my first moments of real pleasure for months. The second consequence

came a year later, as I sat my Part I exams, no less sick of the Tripos in

particular and Cambridge in general, and after a couple of papers I thought, the

hell with this. This epiphanic moment came when, during the 18th Century

paper (the paper Jack had taught) I read the question "The artistic creations of

one age cannot properly be analysed using the critical attitudes of another.

Discuss." At which point I quite deliberately committed academic suicide in

the following way. Assuming this statement to be true, it is unanswerable: to

make it answerable it is therefore necessary to suspend chronology and assume

that everything happens at once, allowing one to discuss the influence on

Christopher Marlowe of the dramaturgical mores of Brecht and Irwin Piscator.

Likewise, we may assume that while Milton is dictating Paradise Lost in

Chalfont St Giles, at exactly the same time Tristan Tzara, the noted Dadaist,

has acquired 750 orang-utans whom he has chained, as a Dadaist act, to 750

typewriters in the basement of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, leaving them to

get on with it. In time (but also, obviously, simultaneously) Milton croaks out

"They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their

solitary way" to his long suffering amanuensis, at exactly the same instant as

the orang-utans finish typing out the complete text of Paradise Lost which

Tzara, on reading it, recognises as just the kind of unbelievable bullshit he

needs for his next Dadaist manifesto. Milton’s daughter and Tzara both then

post their manuscripts off to a publisher in Bloomsbury who, as is standard

practice, only accepts the orang-utan’s typewritten manuscript. (Milton’s, as

you’d expect of the 17th Century, was written in longhand). All of which

places the poem in an altogether different light once its true authorship is

recognised, explaining, for a start, the sympathetic portrayal of Lucifer, when

you consider that the apes might possibly harbour a grudge against God for

making them fat, inarticulate and, worst of all, orange. I got a special for

inventiveness, although I was told, strictly off the record, that one examiner

thought I deserved a first. Anyway, the third consequence was that, after

leaving Cambridge after being persuaded to return to sit Part II, I didn’t read a

book for years.

Now all of this takes us off, pell-mell, in dozens of different directions, and

poor though shepherding skills are, I’ll attempt to corral us at least in one

direction at a time to see where we might end up, while enjoining you all to

keep your temper. Balancing wit and judgment as best I’m able, I should at

this point go back to the beginning of this talk and justify my statement that I

shouldn’t really be here. I’m no literary critic, having neither periwig nor

beard, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, as a satirist and a practising political

cartoonist, I see myself in an honourable tradition of taking the piss stretching

back to Hogarth, Sterne and beyond. That said, given the venue, given the

occasion and given you, my audience, it was my intention at this point to

digress for the rest of my talk, imitate the action of my betters and launch into

a punctuation mark by punctuation mark deconstruction of the first page of "A

Sentimental Journey". However, as that may be rather boring and as we’re

nowhere near my promised explanation of how and why I turned Tristram

Shandy into a comic book, I’ll merely ask you to recall that instead of reading

Paradise Lost I read Chandler, which stood me in good stead for my 1990

comic book version of T.S.Eliot’s "The Waste Land". For some time I’d been

waiting to get even with Eliot for "The Waste Land", and was exploring

various ways of doing this - one was going to be the Waste Land colouring

book - colour this rock red - colour Mr Eliot’s mood black and so on - when I

had a flash of inspiration. If you remember the poem, Part IV, "Death by

Water", begins "Phlebus the Phoenician, a fortnight dead..."

In the way ideas associate with each other (vide Locke), one morning in my

mind I collided this with the scene from Howard Hawks’ film of "The Big

Sleep" when the Sternwood family’s chauffeur, still at the wheel of the family

packard, is dredged out of the bay. If you’ll allow me another digression, it’s

worth noting at this juncture the significantly Shandean fact that, during the

filming, Bogart turned to Hawks and asked him what significance the dead

chauffeur played in the rest of the plot. Hawks wasn’t sure, so he asked the

scriptwriters who, equally in the dark, phoned Chandler, who said he’d

forgotten. Once I had this image, I then knew what to do, which was to turn

The Waste Land into an incomprehensible Chandleresque film noir, with Chris

Marlowe instead of Philip and the Holy Grail instead of the Maltese Falcon.

Apart from various horrendous run-ins with the Eliot estate, the book was duly

published (although in the Penguin edition I was prevented by Eliot’s lawyers

from quoting anything from the poem, including the quotations) and, apart

from being turned into an opera which was a minor hit at the 1994 Covent

Garden music festival, the book continues to enjoy a bizarre academic

afterlife, being the subject of at least 2 PhD theses (one in Italian, which I can’t

understand). Indeed, a year and a bit ago I was invited to a plenary talk at

Birmingham University on my book, and although nothing on earth could

compel me to travel, by train, to Birmingham on a Sunday evening in late

March, I was sent a synopsis of the talk which concluded thus:

"The present paper interrogates Rowson’s parody for what it reveals

both about the process of narrativization and about the traffic between

elite and popular genres in the modernist period and since. The talk...

will reflect not only on the readerly (re)construction but also on the

poetics of the graphic novel, the epistemology of detection and the

heuristic uses of parody."

For the record, I did tell them that my intention in producing the book was just

to take the piss, but that didn’t seem to cut any ice. Anyway, you may wish to

compare that opaque passage with a talks bubble I wrote six years earlier in

my, possible heuristic, comic book version of Tristram Shandy. For those of

you unfamiliar with my text, in Volume II me and my talking dog Pete, who

spend the book commenting on Tristram narrativization have scarpered from

the Shandy household just as Trim begins to read the Sermon on Conscience,

to wander off into the internarrative critical nocriticsland that intersperses

Tristram’s metanarrative and the subnarrative of Walter and Toby’s

narrativization co-existing in parallel with the renarrativizing of the

denarrativized circumstances of Tristram’s birth. Or something. There, as we

can see, we are suddenly swept aboard the learned Stevinus’s Sailing Chariot,

which hurtles through an almost empty lecture hall at St Ernulphus’s

University at Berkeley, staging the 35th World Congress of Shandean Studies.

The keynote speaker holding the floor is Duane Steep, visiting reader in Queer

Studies at Brownhat University, who says:

"I’d like to thank my colleague Jack Rack from the school of SM

studies at Frott State for the ground breaking paper he delivered at

yesterday’s session, on piercing, mutilation and safe sex in Volume V.

Expanding on Professor Rack’s theme, but concentrating on the

specifically queer themes of the novel, in particular the gay marriage of

Toby and Trim, I intend in this session to exegesize the defining line

"My sister [sic] doesnot care to let a man come so near her ****"

Outwith the particularised denial/outing threnody employed here,

delegates may wish to concentrate on Toby’s gender preference choice

identifying objectification of the ****, the orifice that dare not speak

its name (heh heh) as the actual organ of insemination/generation and,

indeed, birthing itselfin his veiled hymn/him to sodomy"

Passing rapidly over David Richter’s recent paper, published in The Shandean,

entitled "Narrativity and Stasis in Martin Rowson’s ‘Tristram Shandy’",

halfway through Volume III of my version we get more of this stuff when Pete

and I, along with Tristram and his interlocutors, Dr Johnson and an academic

figure people apart from me have identified as Professor David Bindman of

University College, London, find ourselves in the belly of a huge whale, a

grateful nod to Swift’s "Tale of a Tub", who’s also swallowed the Legendary

Lost Wandering Ship of Critics. As Tristram finally presents his Preface, and

commences to discuss Wit and Judgment, behind him the critics converse,

saying, among other things:

"Agelastes’s latest paper in Scatologies ventures into a critical cul-de-

sac (heh heh) with his assertion that the semi-colon signs the inverted

defecation (stop) urination (comma) evacuation dichotomy evidenced

throughout the novel, although I greatly admire his pioneering work on

the novel’s long dash as detextualised stream of consciousness/stream

of piss slashed in the interfacer’s interfaeces"

along with

"Our new defence procurement faculty has paid for NASA to take a

latext simulation of the plot of Tristram Shandy up in the space shuttle

to see how it behaves in zero gravity"

"So what? Our ballistsics departmemnts’s placed the entire text in our

20 mile long particle accelerating loop! Last month we achieved partial

fusion for almost 0.0005 nano seconds"


"Of course, since Le Prout’s pioneering work in abstracting all the

punctuation onto floppy disk, one no longer actually has to read the

actual text..."

"What a relief, eh?"

Not wishing to flog a dead horse (although, on the flip side of the famous

black page, this is exactly what Pete and I discover someone suspiciously like

Sterne doing), I think you get my point. In fact, we’re getting so dangerously

near to the point I’d better backtrack again and return to Milton, Tzara, those

750 orang-utans and Paradise Lost.

Without quite realising what I was doing in that exam hall on the Sedgewick

site in 1980, I recognise in retrospect that I was discovering for myself that

specifically Shandean school of criticism that runs through Tristram Shandy

itself, as well as through Flann O’Brien’s De Selby in "The Third Policeman"

and "The Dalky Archive", and which Sterne himself relished in the whimsical

arcana he read in Hall-Stevenson’s gaff between the bacchanalia and the

booze. I used it, in visual form, in my version of The Waste Land, with cod

notes at the end, a la Eliot, pointing out that dried tuba should be read dried

dried tuber throughout, and so on. My favourite learned footnote in Tristram

Shandy, which I incorporated towards the end of volume II as a speech bubble

spoken by a shadowy Sterne explaining things to me and Pete, corrects

Tristram in his learned discourse, and is worth quoting in full as I think it’s one

of the funniest footnotes in English Literature:

"The author here is twice mistaken; for Lithopaedus should be written

thus, Lithopaedii Senonsensis Icon. The 2nd mistake is, that this

Lithopaedus is not an Author, but a drawing of a petrified child. The

account of this, published by Albosius, 1580, may be seen at the end of

Cordaeus’s works in Spachius. Mr Tristram Shhandy has been led into

this error, either from seeing Lithopaedus’s name of late in a catalogue

of learned writers in Dr -------, or by mistaking Lithopaedus for

Trinecavellius - from the too great similitude of the names."

Hardly Melvyn New, I’m sure you’ll agree, but certainly deep in the heart of

that Great Tradition of taking the piss.

Which, as I’ve said, is precisely what Sterne was about in Tristram Shandy. To

heed, at last, Professor Jack’s plea that I look at the novel in its historic

context, it seem pretty obvious to me, without necessarily having recourse to

re- or de-narrativizations, that Tristram Shandy was not so much a critical

response as a criticism of the novel as it was then developing, so, as here,

Tristram chucks that baby reading Pamela out with the bathwater, insisting that

"beg[ging] Mr Horace’s pardon... I shall confine myself neither to his rules nor

to any man’s rules that ever lived", so that in Sterne’s hands the denatured,

strained and ultimately false naturalism of the developing novel form becomes

instead an exuberant, hyperealistic version of life, transformed and synthesised

through Sterne’s consciousness, like a caricature of Alastair Campbell or

anyone else, more real than life itself, and thus more fragmented, more easily

distracted, more insistent, like the bloke in the pub, of giving you the full

background to everything before getting on with the actual story and, finally,

ultimately both longer than a man’s life and just as filthy. To digress from that

last point, but to underline its immediate predecessors, the great 20th Century

cartoonist David Low once observed, when someone caricatured said "But that

doesn’t look like me", "That, sir, looks more like you than you do."

What a rate I have gone curvetting and frisking it away 2 up and 2 down for

what now seems like hours, but I had no thought to tread up his worship

Professor David Richter’s gown, and I should this minute beg his honour’s

pardon and offer some small redress by humbly quoting his opening remarks

on me, narrativity, stasis and Tristram Shandy. "When Wayne Booth, who

taught me Tristram Shandy, used to say that it was a comic book, he meant

that Sterne had crated a potentially infinite text that, like the satirical ‘L’il

Abner’ or the sentimental ‘Little Orphan Annie’, could be extended

indefinitely, or at least as long as the writer kept pleasing his readers and

gratifying his publisher." Which, rather gratifyingly post argumentum, justified

my artistic response to Tristram Shandy by turning what was an ur-

comic book into a real one. In fact, any artistic response to anything is

validated by its very existence. When circumstances change, we change the

ways in which we cope with them. In that little explored avenue of Literary

Criticism we might just for tonight dub "Terratological Studies", it has to be

admitted that age, taste and obscurity have, for many readers, turn Tristram

Shandy into as terrifying and intimidating a monster as any of the other things

that go bump in the night and disturb our easy sleep. We thus reorder Tristram

according to our current needs and laugh ourselves back to some state of

relative calm. So now we have Michael Neiman’s opera version, which is

taking as long to come to fruition as Tristram feared it would take him to get

his father and Toby down the stairs, or my imaginary Oliver Stone movie of

Tristram Shandy, staring de Niro as Walter, Tom Cruise as Toby, Danny

deVito as Dr Slop and Meryl Streep as Trim, or even these versions,

respectively written by Martin Amis, Raymond Chandler, Bret Easton Ellis,

Garcia Gabriel Marquez and TS Eliot, which Pete and I log onto once we

literally lose the plot at the beginning of Volume V when some dangerous idiot

digitalises the whole damn text and downloads it into cyberspace. In fact, at

one point I thought a better artistic response would be to imitate the actions of

Borges’ Pierre Menard, who, like the orang-utans with Paradise Lost, rewrote

Don Quixote without ever reading a word of the original. Which would have

saved me some time, while offering wonderful new broad, sunlit uplands of

explication and analysis for all those hungry critics. Although it must also be

said that there’s another Borges story, about a man who produces a map so

accurate it covers the entire area it maps, at a scale of 1:1, which provides

another useful paradigm for dealing with Tristram Shandy.

But whoa there! My quarry is getting perillously close - is in my arms already

- is snapping at my nose as I speak! Let’s quickly get back to The Waste Land,

where I’ve already said that my intention was to take the piss out of this

lumbering behemoth of Modernism, under whose Brahminist shadow English

poetry has withered away to a rather few precious, etiolated weeds, and which,

whenever I reread it, strikes me more and more like the lyrics printed on the

inner sleeve of one of Led Zeppelin’s later albums. If the good doctors of

Birmingham don’t quite get the point, at least the Eliot estate did, as did an

early reviewer who wrote "If Eliot were alive to read this, it would kill him all

over again." Which was a result, if you like. But remember that I’m a satirist,

and all satire - all humour, for that matter - is knocking copy and I didn’t

necessarily want to do that with Sterne. I liked him too much, and although his

widow had been dead for centuries and his estate moribund (although you

never can tell), to make the whole thing work I needed something to get my

teeth into to stop it all becoming just another of those dreadful "Classics

Illustrated" comic books popular in the United States in the 1950s, where the

whole of Moby Dick would be reduced to 36 pages of pictures of whales. That

said, in the American edition of the book (which is still in print, unlike

Picador’s edition which has sold out), on the fly-leaf some bright spark wrote,

and I quote:

One of the longest works of Western Literature, Tristram Shandy is

stunningly compressed by the irreverent Rowson... Mercifully shorter

than the original, Rowson’s Tristram Shandy stands as brilliant

testament to the adage that size ain’t everything."

Apart from observing that blurb writers come under the heading of "Acts of

God", that wasn’t quite the point, although obviously I was compelled to do a

certain amount of compression and, through various stylistic tricks managed to

lose most of volumes 5 and 7 and the whole of volumes 6 and 8, but there you

go. As it was, I only had 160 pages, and even then was two and half years late

in delivering the artwork, during which time the whole project got to be

known, in-house at Picador, as "Straus’ folly", in honour of Peter Straus who’d

commissioned it in the first place, and is seen here in Hell while Satan

discusses the options for the film version with Pete while I stand mutely by,

horrified at how so many volumes have could disappeared through the

vicissitudes of digitalisation, Pete and me stumbling into one of Wilhelm

Reich’s orgone transmuters (designed to harvest the entirely non-existent and

tantalisingly Shandean orgone from the air to guarantee a better orgasm) or,

lastly, as a result of bad draughtsmanship falling into the codpiece of Death


Let’s digress for a moment on codpieces and their contents. I first worked out

how to translate - for want of a better word - Tristram Shandy into a comic

book in one of those moments, similar to the Phlebus/Big Sleep flash of

inspiration, that come from nowhere and are both unbiddable and inexplicable.

This was when I associated the opening of the book, with Tristram

commencing his narration, with where, ab ovo, that might take place, with

what that place might look like, with an iconic 18th century image, in this case

one of Piranesi’s carceri series of imaginary and ruined prisons, which in this

case serves as the interior of Walter Shandy’s scrotum, and allows Tristram to

round up the animal spirits, recruit the homunculus, witness the accidents

which befall the little gentleman, and finally exeunt. To digress back to an

earlier point, if you have a fancy for such things you may here observe

Tristram, or me, adopting an old shamanist trick of changing size at will.

Using the same trope later in Volume I Tristram ventures into Toby’s far more

dilapidated groin, repeating the trick during the conference in York convened

to discuss whether Walter can change Tristram’s ill-omened name.

For the record, the scrotum here belongs to John Walsh, former books editor of

The Independent and celebrated ladeez man, and while we’re pursuing this by-

way, those of you familiar with the version might be interested to identify

other dramatis personae on a "Where’s Wally" basis. In this Last Supper scene

of the York Meeting, from left to right we have Toby, Blake Morrison, Walter,

Peter Straus, Antony Farrell of the Lilliput Press who first proposed that I

produce the book over a pint of Guinness in Dublin, to my horror and

disbelief, my agent Giles Gordon, Yorick (based throughout on Patch’s

portrait of Sterne), my late father-in-law Russell Clarke, Francis Wheen, my

step-father-in-law Sir Thomas Legg, a former Permanent Secretary in the Lord

Chancellor’s Department, Dr Robert Buttimore, now sadly dead, an old friend

and calssicist who helped me with the latin in the book, Salman Rushdie and

Walsh again. The widow Wadman, undrawable in Sterne, is a peeked portrait

of my wife Anna. Tristram interlocutors, to whom he tells his story and leads

on a merry dance, are meant to be Joyce, Virginia Woolf and, it finally

transpired, Death himself. Walter was based on Moominpapa from the

Moomintrolls and Obediah, for no particular reason, on Professor Ben Pimlott.

Visually, Sterne provided a lot of the gags himself, as here, with a steeple

chase through his plotlines, or the marbled page being the portal to Walters

rather meagre library. Hogarth gave me a lot of the other gags, like this direct

steal from "Stages of Cruelty", allowing Tristram to discourse on cerebella and

so forth, and Hogarth also helped me work out my method for shortcircuiting

Slawkenburgius’s tale, on the assmuption that it had been lost during a fire at

Shandy Hall in 1837, allowing us, just about, to piece together the 9th tale of

the 10th decad through illustrations gleaned from various editions down the

ages. Thus, we have a primitive 17th century German Woodcut, a Durer

engraving from 1518 (complete with shitting dog), Hogarth again, along with a

nose sharpening machine, a common sight at eighteenth century street fairs, a

suppressed Aubrey Beardsley drawing and, finally, George Grosz artwork for

the poster of Piscator’s 1922 production of Brecht’s "Slawkenbergissimus".

Finally a close and careful study of late seventeenth century warfare and

fortifications was essential (and gruelling), and allowed for three filthy visual

jokes of my own at the beginning of Volume II, and in the bottom of the

lowest panel, you can see the key spells out the word arsehole.

Which might bring us back to Bush, Blair, satire, shamanism and maybe, if

we’re lucky or inconscionably clumsy, to Laurence Sterne, but instead I’d

prefer quickly to wheel leftwards back to the cod notes I wrote at the end of

The Waste Land, which included this passage from his inaugural lecture as

Professor of English at Sheffield University given by William Empson, who

can also be seen aboard the aforementioned Legendary Lost Wandering Ship

of Critics. I quote:

"I was rather pleased one year in China when I had a course on modern

poetry, The Waste Land and all that, and at the end a student wrote in a

most friendly way to explain why he wasn’t taking the exam. It wasn’t

that he couldn’t understand The Waste Land, he said, in fact after my

lectures the poem was perfectly clear: but it had turned out to be

disgusting nonsense, and he had decided to join the engineering

department. Now there a teacher is bound to feel solid satisfaction; he

is getting definite results."

The fact that Tristram Shandy is far worse disgusting nonsense than The Waste

Land could ever be was what attracted me to it in the first place, because as

such it is, I believe, an accurate portrayal of life as it truly is, with the

compensating factor of making us laugh, despite that revolting gravitation pull

which ceaselessly strains to bring us down to earth and make us stare,

straightfaced, into the grinning face of Death, rather than laughing in it, and

kicking the old bastard in the cobblers before making as quick a getaway as

you can for as long as you can get away with it. And that’s why this oddity that

would not last has lasted so long, and continues to have such vociferous

champions, including some, like Francis Wheen, who warned me off before I

drew a line, and the late, great and sainted Kenneth Monkman, to whom I

showed the first 10 or so pages I’d drawn, and who complained that I was

making the smut too obvious. I don’t blame them. For many of its fans,

Tristram Shandy is too precious and valuable a joke at life’s expense to share

with anyone else.

Except, of course, the critics and the academics like our old friend Professor

Jack, who swaddle the book’s perceived impenetrability in aprons of learned

discourse I suppose, ultimately, to make it appear decent. These are, after all,

decent people. But not me, and I lied to you earlier on, because although I’ve

succeeded in failing to come to the point, and I still have at least another 13 or

14 hours worth of information and anecdote and stories, along with

genealogies, slide-rule calculations, recipes for indian ink, handy hints on the

manufacture of paper, a nice observation by my young daughter about

Napoleon’s horses skeleton - a brief digression: this nag’s remains are in a

glass case at the National Army Museum, whither I travelled with my children

in search of maps of the siege of Namur, and where, beholding the boney

beast, Rose said, "Why don’t they put Napoleon’s skeleton on top?" - to say

nothing of whiskers, button-holes, chamberpots, sash windows, noses, the

epidemiology of venereal disease, sentimentality, obstetrics, Karl Marx,

Jacques Derrida (for which read "Dear Reader"), von Clausewitz, the

enclosures acts and Ensign Sterne’s disputed goose, although I have neither a

day-tall critic nor Stevinus’s Xenoid (as in Xeno’s paradox) Talking Time

Toilet to get us down that particular staircase in good order before the pubs

shut, so it seems, despite all I’ve done to dodge the issue and make you regret

the six quid you paid to get in, I have no other option but to describe the

circumstances and purpose, reasons, whys and wherefores of how I ended up

doing something as deranged and purposeless as produce a comic book version

of Tristram Shandy. But not before, doffing my cap and bells to the Reverend

Sterne, his shade, I observe that wonderful point about Tristram Shandy is that,

like life, it just is, and you’ve got to live with. To put it bluntly, Life’s a bitch

and then you die which, if you can stand it, is Sterne’s and, thanks to him, my

joke in a nutshell. Anway, Peter Straus at Picador paid me 15 thousand quid to

do it (all unearned), minus dibs for my agent, and he expected me to actually

produce and deliver the damned thig. So if you’re wondering what on earth

this lecture has been all about, it’s about a CHEQUE and some BULL - and

one of the very best of its kind I hope you’ve ever heard.

Thank you.

How I want thee, humerous Hogarth!

Thou, I hear, a pleasant rogue art.

But were you and I acquainted

Every monster would be painted:

You should try your graving tools

On this odious group of fools;

Draw the beasts as I describe them;

Form their features while I gibe them

Draw them so that we may trace

All in the soul in every face

On The Death of The Novel, for New Humanist Magazine, published by Rich Hobbs

They say that good things come to those who wait. So thirty years doesn’t

seem that long to wait for the collapse of neo-liberalism, given that its final

failure was so complete and comprehensive.

But something I’ve been waiting for for years is The Death of The

Novel. This has been promised over and over again, by academics and the

higher hacks, but still seems no closer. Thus The Novel continues its 300 year

old hegemony as the acme of human creation. This means that we carry on

venerating novelists, expected to endure the dreary opinions of people like

Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, unquestioningly accepting that, because they

can occasionally turn a slick phrase, they must be wiser than us. Worse, the

obvious rewards - swag, reverence, invites to smart parties - inspire everyone

else to seek the status of these shamans, so everyone - and I mean everyone -

is now assumed to "have a novel in them somewhere", like a fart or a tumour.

Forget the fact that most novels sell about 400 copies - if they’re

extraordinarily lucky; or that there’s more than enough books already to fill a

lifetime of constant reading. The real bugger about The Novel is the widely

held myth that it’s "realistic". Well, it is in the sense of a recent Guardian film

review, which commended a movie for its "hyper-realistic black and white

photography". That may well be true, but only if you’re colour blind. But

mostly our idea of "realism" in novels as well as movies - maybe even

"reality" itself - is just another highly artificial construct designed to help us

maintain a superior air of earnest misery.

And yet The Novel is one of the flimsiest receptacles for "reality"

imaginable. This was realised early when, in 1759, an obscure Yorkshire

vicar called Laurence Sterne successfully skewered The Novel with The Life

and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. For those of you who’ve never

read, or tried and given up, Tristram Shandy maintains the reputation Dr

Johnson gave it: "Nothing odd will do for long; Tristram Shandy did not


This judgement is odd in itself. The book has never been out of print;

more to the point, its oddness lies in its slavish fidelity to recreating reality as

it truly is. Tristram Shandy, to the joy of admirers from Hazlitt and Nietzsche

to Salman Rushdie and Her Majesty’s late Inspector of Prisons Judge Stephen

Tumin, is a long, rambling, digressive, funny, filthy, sentimental dirty joke,

but the best joke of all (which Tristram sadly acknowledges in Volume III,

when he still hasn’t got to his own birth) is that it’s both impossible and

ridiculous (if enormous fun) even to attempt recreating reality in The Novel.

Another thing I’ve been awaiting is someone to re-issue my 1996

comic book adaptation of Tristram Shandy, out of print for 12 long years. And

the wait was worth it. SelfMadeHero, a small, young publisher specialising in

graphic novelizations of the Classics, is bringing it out again in May. For

though I may still have a long wait for the final Death of The Novel, it’s

always reassuring to recall that Sterne gave it a delightful duffing up 250 years


On Ronald Searle at 90, for Cartoon Museum catalogue by Rich Hobbs

In 1999 Ronald Searle was judged, by his fellow cartoonists, to be the greatest

cartoonist of the 20th Century. It’s a judgement I thoroughly endorse, though

as someone who was brought up on Searle, like most people of my generation

born in the late 50s and early 60s, I thought distant worship would be as close

as I ever got to him. After all, Searle famously scarpered when I was about

one, so I, along with other British cartoonists, could only ever venerate him as

the King Across the Water.

Still, when I was approached in 2005 to front a BBC 4 documentary about

Searle, I jumped at the chance, even though he made clear very early on he wanted nothing

whatsoever to do the making of the film or anyone involved with it. That’s his

prerogative, and my reverence for him includes a deep respect for his desire

for a bit of peace and quiet. Nonetheless, the programme went ahead without

him, and I enjoyed it for the most part (although, as I’d decided to speak to

camera unscripted, to capture a greater sense of immediacy, there were

occasions when the demands of the producer that I repeat a line 20 times

meant that by the end I kept forgetting it, as well as forgetting what it could

possibly mean.)

Part of the gig - part of the reason they’d got me to do it in the first place - was

that, when pressed, I can draw a little bit like the master, and I did several

pieces to camera sitting at a drawing board and replicating his style. One riff I

went off on was the idea that Searle had invented his version of Hogarth’s

famous "Line of Beauty", which in his case was the "Angle of Beauty", which

I claimed was an acute angle of 37 degrees (I made that bit up, but you get the

point) which can be seen repeated again and again in his depiction of feet and

noses. I argued further that feet and legs - be they spindly, black-stockinged St

Trinian’s legs, or the tree-trunk legs of the Masters at St Custard’s - were, for

Searle, the windows to the soul.

All that may or may not be true, but I discovered a deeper truth when I was

reproducing the standard Searle script for the "Entr’-Act" cards for the

programme. Apart from the fact that each letter tended to twist my nibs into

unusability, I soon realised something about that gnarled, nobbly lettering: that

without the way Searle drew and wrote, most of the best British post-war

cartooning would be unimaginable. Every line of Steadman’s or Scarfe’s had

its origins in Searle’s blots. Those blots had shown us all the true path.

Anyway, we finished the film and it was duly broadcast - though in post-

production I felt they added too many interviews about his life, and didn’t

concentrate enough on his drawing, but what do I know? The production

company sent him the film, and were greeted with silence. But unreciprocity

from your gods is what you should expect, so I didn’t mind that much.

But then, a few weeks after the programme’s first transmission, I got a letter,

sent to my home, addressed in a strangely familiar handwriting. It was a

personal letter from Searle, thanking me for placing the garlands on his brow

and apologising for the fact that he’s be dead by the time it was my turn. The

letter is now framed and hangs in its place of honour next to the only Searle

original my wife could afford to buy me. Better yet, in the few interviews he’s

given since, he’s been kind and generous enough to say he likes my work. So

happy 90th birthday, Mr Searle, from a very humble and grateful admirer...