Professors of cross-patching

A SENSE OF PERMANENCE? Essays on the Art of the Cartoon ed Robert Edwards, University of Kent at Canterbury pounds 9.99, ISBN 1-898094-20-9

Just how serious - depressing, even - a business humour is becomes clear as you read this book, published by the Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature at the University of Kent at Canterbury to celebrate its 21st birthday. In this thin volume, a handful of cartoonists bemoan their lot, complain of their impotence and despair of the future for their profession. Among these jeremiads, a couple of writers about cartoons boldly declare the richness of contemporary British cartooning and look forward to a rosy future. Which happy dichotomy neatly explains British cartooning, British cartoonists and, indeed, the existence of this book in the first place.

In America, they fill stadia with Cartoonists' Conventions addressed by Schultz or Oliphant, while in France almost every other week there is another Cartoon Festival, boasting endless workshops and seminars earnestly discussing the nose as trope and signifier in European caricature. But what of Britain? To the despair of British cartoonists, there is bugger all. True, the Centre at Canterbury offers us some academic kudos by dragging old cartoons under the various umbrellas of Cultural Studies and the Politics and History departments, but as for packing the Wembley Arena, screaming fans ogling cartoonists as the greatest and sharpest artists and commentators of this or any other age, you can forget it. Little wonder, then, that British cartoonists tend to be rather grumpy (an old cartoon editor on Punch coined the collective noun for cartoonists as "a whinge").

And thus, in this book, John Jensen complains that the gag cartoon is all but dead, along with satire, killed off by telly, the Internet, the fact "that we all now take the piss out of everything ... We do not have to be able to draw to do it: we only need to be world-weary and cynical"; Ralph Steadman, in typical manic faux naif vein, opines "what is the cartoon's purpose? If it is not a corrective of some sort, it plays the politician's game and wallows in the realms of light entertainment", and enjoins his colleagues to stop drawing politicians altogether; Steve Bell gets all deconstructionist, and Nicholas Garland sniffs, reflecting on the work of Bernard Partridge and Ernest Shepherd for Punch between

the wars, "None of us is as good nowadays, I think."

Apart from dismissing out of hand cartoonists of the calibre of Steve Bell, Chris Ridden, Matt, Michael Heath and a dozen others, this gloomy reverence for the past might go some way to explain why Garland (inexplicably) draws exactly like Vicky on a slow news day, only without the gags. (Another explanation is that this is the only physical proof we have for the transmigration of souls, and that after Vicky topped himself his tormented soul wafted o'er the earth till it popped into the young Garland's ear, but, as Vicky's soul is not at rest, it means he can't draw funny any more.)

That said, what this book tells us more clearly than anything else is that cartoonists, by their own testimony, are undervalued by their culture and their editors, ultimately ineffectual as satirists and, like Punch and the England cricket team, not as good as they used to be. But don't let that worry you the next time you smile wryly, cringe, guffaw or pass on, puzzled, from a cartoon that's delayed you for probably all of 20 seconds. It's only wanting to be respectable and get invited to smart parties that makes cartoonists go on so. If Britain honoured its cartoonists in the way they think they deserve, with Pulitzer Prizes and Emeritus Chairs in Cross-hatching, they'd only moan about that as well.

Rest assured, books like this one are very few and far between - and, it is hoped, will remain so. After all, when you're finally laid out on the slab, you don't want the bloody undertaker droning on about how embalming fluid isn't what it used to be, do you now?

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