Business Book Of The Week: Cartoons fail to draw a laugh

The New Yorker Book Of Money Cartoons

(Nicholas Brealey, pounds 12.99)

I AM an occasional collector of original cartoons. I own a dozen or so of these eclectic drawings, picked up over the years where there was a connection with my work. My favourite is framed and sits on my desk to remind me of an unusual incident 15 years ago.

At that time, I was advising Bell's, the whisky blender, in its very hostile takeover of Gleneagles, the Scottish Mausoleum (or Hotel as the Bell's chairman had it). At the height of that battle the all-powerful Kuwait Investment Office, for reasons known only to itself, intervened with a distracting partial offer. It was all to no avail and Bell's duly collected their prize.

On the same day, a neat little cartoon appeared in a national newspaper with a drawing of two gentlemen in Arab dress staring at a picture of a lofty Gleneagles, one saying to the other: "No Effendi, it is a mirage."

This seemed to sum up the irony of the situation perfectly and illustrates the impact of a talented cartoonist to catch an ethereal moment of humour which usually understood only by a select few. I keep this original by me to remind me life is but a transient process for all of us.

With this in mind I approached The New Yorker Book of Money Cartoons. My understanding of this magazine was that it was an American attempt to replicate a type of Punch which has never quite succeeded. I put this down to a humour failure inherent in the American way of life. I illustrate this with the cartoon of a man with an arm on his son's shoulders, saying: "And remember, son, perception isn't reality - money is" (page 73).

The same effect is achieved in a drawing of a doctor, with his hand on a weeping wife's shoulder at an intensive care ward, saying: "His final wish was that all his medical bills be paid promptly" (page 68).

The Money aspect in this book is a peculiarly American vision of this commodity. Another sums up the American approach to humour with a fairy waving her wand at a young and clearly greedy young man: "Three wishes - less commission" (page 18).

I remember a famous and possibly apocryphal tale of a merchant bank which wrote to a client saying their management of his finances had reduced the value of his portfolio to below their minimum so would he please take his account elsewhere. This is almost picked up in these cartoons with a drawing of a banker telling clients: "Your money was working for you, but it suddenly quit and now it is working for me" (page 96).

I find this little book with its 110 examples fails entirely to leave any lasting impression on me. Maybe, as a Scotsman, that is not wholly surprising. My mother brought me up with the continual reprise that life is not fair, a very good grounding for the battles of the past 12 years with the authorities over their conduct of the Guinness trials.

During these events, I had an amateur cartoonist beside me who used to keep me laughing during the dark days and whose inspired drawings were strangely percipient. His talents were never recognised outside our team but one day I might include them in a similar little book. They would have much more impact than these so-called classic cartoons of the New Yorker.

Perhaps that is too cruel a verdict on these American cartoons, reflected perhaps in my favourite which is truly timeless. It is a simple quick sketch of our solar system with a 10th planet outside the orbit of Pluto. This planet is drawn as an addressed envelope: "The check (sic) in the mail" (page 24).

In the end, I find it difficult to build up any real enthusiasm for this book. I still wish for the return of Punch as it used to be. I guess this was the golden period for cartoons. I cannot see the New Yorker version having the same devastating impact - so much the pity.

Patrick Spens

Lord Spens is the former managing director of Henry Ansbacher