A picture's worth a thousand words, a cartoon even more

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IN ITS lifetime, Punch magazine was famous for its cartoons, not its words. No writer ever became famous writing for Punch; lots of cartoonists did. When people quote from Punch ('bit of a curate's egg situation' . . . 'dropping the pilot' . . . 'I keep thinking it's Thursday'), it is the cartoons they're quoting, not the writers. Look up Punch in a dictionary of quotations; nine-tenths of the entries will be from cartoons.

And yet the extraordinary thing is that Punch was never run by cartoonists, except for the very brief editorship of Kenneth Bird ('Fougasse'). All other editors were writers. Writers had the final say over the selection of cartoons. (It was about as logical as having the population of Britain, which is predominantly female, run by a male government.)

This led to a situation in which the cartoonists tended to see all the writing as a featureless kind of grey porridge that flowed past their masterworks and served only to sepa rate and highlight them. The writers saw the cartoons as patches of turbulence that interrupted the otherwise smooth flight-path of their prose, or perhaps as service areas on the motorway of their writing, where the reader could briefly stop off and have a snack before returning to the real journey. . . .

A few years back there was an attempt by British cartoonists to start a cartoon-only publication. It was called Duck Soup. I was approached by Duck Soup. They wrote and said that they were looking for small pieces of prose to insert between the cartoons in Duck Soup, and asked if I had any small notions.

I wrote a few bits and sent them with a letter saying that I liked the idea and would be happy to try some more. Unfortunately, they ignored the bits I sent and printed my letter under some such heading as 'Comic Writer Fails To See The Joke'. I was most chagrined. Collapse of Stout Party (to quote another Punch caption).

Cut to a few months ago, when the cartoonist Steve Way told me that he and some other cartoonists were producing a new newspaper called the Cartoonist. The idea was that the Cartoonist would be exactly like any other paper, except that it would have cartoons where there was normally prose, and prose where there were normally cartoons. This meant that it would be 99.9 per cent cartoons. As Steve remembered my humiliation by Duck Soup and felt like cheering me up, he wondered if I would like to try writing some of the 0.1 per cent given over to prose.

How could I resist? Pausing only to insert into my contract a clause stating that if this turned out to be another leg-pull, I would burst into tears, I sent stuff off to the Cartoonist. Late, but I sent it. Very late, sometimes. Well, that's how writers work. They send in stuff after the deadline. Especially when working for cartoonists. But I have to say I think it looks a damn good product, the Cartoonist. I think the cartoonists have done it. Got their act together.

I also now realise that it was not just a one-off. There is a new magazine coming out this week, edited by Colin Jacobson of the Independent, called Reportage, which does for photographs what the Cartoonist does for cartoons - strips away all that prose and puts the photos centre stage. It seems to me like the opening breeze of a wind of change and that the writers may soon be on the retreat.

'Actually, Dad,' said my son, Tom, when I bruited the subject to him, 'I am afraid the writers may have lost already. If you read any of the magazines aimed at youth, you'll see that the writing is all given glitzy razzmatazz design. Articles are all made to look like glossy packages. There is a message in that gloss. Do you know what the message is?'

'This is worth reading?' I suggested.

'The opposite,' he said. 'The message is: 'You don't need to read this - just look at it and pass on]'. Honestly, Dad, the designers are winning and the writers are


I indicated that he didn't know what he was talking about. He shrugged.

'OK, Dad, but if they ever put your photo on your piece, I should start to worry.'

A week later they put my photo on my piece. It is at times like this that we should all think of Richard Boston.

(Tomorrow - the second part of the Miles Kington Memorial Lecture on Design explains why, at times like this, we should all think of Richard Boston.)