Miles Kington: Why I fell about laughing at a cartoon without even seeing it

Cartoonists were overjoyed because at last they were in the news again (even if they were only Danish cartoons)
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The Independent Online

Shortly after my family acquired a springer spaniel, I was taking him for a walk when I was stopped in a field by an old lady who looked at him sternly and said: "Is he a working dog?".

What she meant was, Did I take him shooting and make him retrieve dead pheasants? Before I could answer, an image flashed across my mind. It was of a lovely New Yorker cartoon which you occasionally see used as a greetings card, in which two women are sitting in an apartment, glancing up at a smartly turned-out dog who is just leaving, walking upright and carrying a briefcase. One of the women is saying: "He's a working dog, but we don't know what he does."

I want you to bear that image in mind till the end of this article. Now we are going back to the news. Last week the big story was about those Danish cartoons. Do you remember? I wouldn't be surprised if you don't. We all have the attention span of a mosquito these days. The big story is now about the US Vice President shooting his friends during a quail hunt, and people wondering why he is not being sent out to Iraq which is the best place for an expert on friendly fire.

Actually, that story is dead as well by now. We are on to non-smoking now. No, sorry - glorification of terror. But back then it was all about Danish cartoons for a whole week, and everyone was very depressed about the whole thing. Except for one set of people: cartoonists.

Cartoonists, I imagine, were overjoyed because at last cartoons were in the news again (even if they were only Danish cartoons). When were cartoons last in the news?

It's a hard job being a cartoonist these days. Nobody publishes cartoons. That's not quite true. Some magazines do still publish cartoons. Stand up, Spectator, Private Eye and The Oldie. And the New Yorker. But not many others. So now you can sit down and answer this question: How is a cartoonist to make a living if only four magazines in the world publish cartoons?

And, of course, a newspaper in Denmark, called Jyllands-Posten. Except that the Danish paper, like all other papers in the world, is more likely to publish political cartoons than funny cartoons, and political cartoons are not really cartoons at all so much as political one-liners. Even a fluent and gifted political cartoonist such as Matt in The Daily Telegraph is not going to create gags that last more than a week or two. By the time a political cartoonist collects his cartoons in book form he generally finds himself having to add notes to explain what forgotten event or personality he was making fun of, whether it was the EU constitution defeat in France (remember that?) or Jade (who?).

What real cartoons are about is being funny. I remember hearing Stan McMurtry ("Mac" of the Daily Mail) being asked by Ned Sherrin on Radio 4's Loose Ends to give an example of a particularly funny cartoon.

"I can't remember who drew it," said Stan," but I fondly remember a cartoon set at the time of the French Revolution, with the executioner holding up the head of someone he's just guillotined and showing it to the bloodthirsty ladies round the scaffold. This head he's holding up, bleeding and severed, still has a fearsome expression in death, half anguished, half leering. And one of the women round the scaffold is saying to a friend: 'It's been years since a man looked at me like that.'"

I cracked up laughing. Everyone in the Loose Ends studio cracked up laughing. We all thought it was a great cartoon. And yet none of us had actually seen the drawing. From the description alone we were falling about laughing.

Later, I did see the drawing in (I think) a Punch collection, and it was even funnier than I thought it would be, because the face was so manic. But, just for a moment, I felt the power of the cartoon from a man simply describing it and getting people to laugh.

It's a thousand miles from a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.

Incidentally, did you know that Britain's first ever museum of cartoon art is opening in London in a week's time? No? Then I feel I ought to come back to this subject before then.