The study of history can be very tricky. You want to read the history of the First World War? Well, there’s Conan Doyle’s mammoth six volume work or Douglas Haig’s sumptuously produced two volume of Despatches complete with matching map folder(1919) Or perhaps a more modern work – Liddell Hart? Martin Gilbert? John Keegan? A.P.Herbert?
Hold on. A.P.Herbert? The author of “Misleading Cases”, a satirical look at how the Law works and which was televised as a series way, way back? That A.P.Herbert? Indeed it is. His very first book, “The Secret Battle” – a miserable production due to paper shortage – was published in 1919 (same year as Douglas Haig’s Despatches) to very little acclaim and had poor sales. It tells of one officer volunteer who having survived Gallipoli and the Somme finally cracks and is shot at dawn for cowardice in the face of the enemy. The descriptions of Front Line life and the effects on the men – and the women left behind – were obviously too graphic for a country that was still raw from the events of 1914-1918. It was probably the main reason the book failed to gain traction at that time but since then it has come to be recognized as one of the core WW1 texts.
All of this is a precursor to my contention that one needs to approach history crab-like, sidling up to it sideways, peering at it out of the corner of one’s eye, avoiding the obvious or vested interests – Haig desperately needed to cover his back and give his account before others got the knives out – and use other sources for your investigation and erudition. Too often history is written by the victors or by those wanting to cement their place in a favourable light in the discourse. One of those valuable sources is perhaps one of the most unlikely. Cartoons.
Being British one can be a little reticent about name-dropping but for the purpose of this Going Postal blog I am going to break the stereotype for once and mention my long-term friend, the late Ronald Searle. Most of you will know him from the St.Trinian’s girls and the illustrations to the Nigel Molesworth masterpieces written by Geoffrey Willans but his work has been wide-ranging, stretching from graphic work of his time as a Japanese prisoner of war to the manic world of cats. His wife, Monica, was a customer of mine for many years and back in 1990 I was invited down to their hideaway in southern France. It was there that I first enjoyed the delights of Laurent Perrier champagne – the daily tipple for Ronald and Mo – and, equally enjoyable for a bibliophile such as myself, viewed Ronald’s extensive collection of books on cartoon history. There, in his exquisite studio/library were original Gillrays, Rowlandsons, Cruikshanks and Lows. I didn’t see any Ponts, Batemans or Fougasse but I am willing to bet that they were represented somewhere in the acres of prints in the pull-out drawers or on the many shelves of books.
Now, I hear you say, lovely anecdote old boy but just what has this got to do with us? Well, having read Going Postal for some considerable time – more or less since its inception – it struck me that it has the same irreverent and scatological content as the old time satirical cartoonists.
Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders
Here’s Gillray skewering the hapless Duke of York (George III’s second son) who had just led a British Expeditionary Force to ignominious defeat in the first Napoleonic War of 1793-5. He is pictured enjoying the delights of a fat Flanders mare while the emaciated guardsmen, poorly fed and ill-equipped, bring on yet more bowls of punch to his over-stuffed officers. Gillray had already broken down the barriers between public and private discussion of infidelities within the
establishment class with his 1782 etching entitled “A Peep into Lady W!!!!!y’s Seralgio”.
I would invite those interested in what this picture depicts to google Lady Worsley or Seymour Fleming to read the whole mind-boggling story.
Rowlandson’s work was similar to Gillray but he probably is best remembered for his social caricature. Greenwich One-Tree-Hill depicts the cavorting and fun and games of society at play.
There is other, much more risqué material by Rowlandson, easily found on line which would never have been allowed in such stalwart jazz mags of my youth such as Spick and Span, Razzle or Harrison Marks’ collection of ladies déshabillé in his long run of Kamera.
Here, however, he is having very little compassion for sacked politicians who are complaining to John Bull about having to leave office.
So what does all this knockabout stuff signify? And here I speak not only of Gillray and Rowlandson and their ilk but of this Going Postal blog. I would argue that it is, like the cartoons pictured here, a legitimate venting of both political and social anger at the Establishment. It punctures the pomposity and entitlement that goes hand in hand with those who have power both in the political world and in the media who believe that they are right and you are wrong, always wrong. Much of what these Georgian caricaturists produced was transient puffery (wankpuffery?) but their very best work showed up the corruption and hypocrisy of court life, politicians and high society which endure and have relevance today.
In a later piece I hope to cover such cartoonists as Bateman, Fougasse, Pont (my absolute favourite of the 20th century) and Low.
(I am indebted to Frank Huggett’s admirable book “Cartoonists at War” Guild 1981 for background information.)
Roger Ackroyd ©