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