The Royal Family especially was idealised by the press: lovely granny, hard-working mummy, handsome daddy with medals on his chest, kiddies with sleeked-down hair and velvet-collared coats. Such intrusions on their privacy as took place took the form of smiling fireside groups or sunny picnics on tartan rugs, corgis in attendance, or occasionally a daring shot of the Queen in a headscarf at the races.
But there was an alternative family image for a hard-pressed tomboy. I opened my gran's Express - and there was Giles! There was the whole joyously subversive clan - bawling, squalling, running away and Grandma laying about her with her umbrella. If the Giles family foregathered round the fire, it was to grumble about the price of coal. If they went on a picnic, it poured with rain and no one remembered the salt.
Giles saved us from becoming a nation of pious frauds. He gave us the antithesis of the sugary-sweet images of family life that were pumped out to the British after the war. There were his muddled, struggling characters, a quarrelsome, dysfunctional gang who formed almost a perfect mirror reflection of the image held up to the nation as the epitome of all that was best in domestic virtue.
Grandma, in particular, was the horrific and magnificent antithesis of that national grandmother-saint, the Queen Mother. If the Queen Mother is the fairy godmother, then Giles's Grandma is the wicked witch. Grandma wears funereal black from head to toe, whereas the Queen Mother was always presented in my mum's magazines as an airy powder-puff of pastels. Grandma has a permanent expression of bad temper: the Queen Mother has a perpetually gracious smile as she waves from balcony or carriage. Grandma ages horribly into wrinkles and tantrums: the Queen Mother becomes more golden as the years go by.
Clustered around Grandma is the next generation: the lazy good-for-nothing husband who thinks he is in charge, the downtrodden wife who really runs things. Fifties magazine articles always implied that Prince Philip was really the Man of the Family, wielding traditional male authority in family matters. As for his wife actually being Head of State in Her Own Right and all that - well, they implied, that was a minor detail: Philip made the really important decisions, like what colour car to have.
Auntie Vera seemed a particularly familiar figure, dyspeptic, drooping. Every family had an Auntie Vera. Our Auntie Annie was like that and so was the late Princess Royal, always spoken of as the "poor Princess Royal" for some mysterious reason never divulged to children.
There was the scruffy tearaway kid, grubby-faced, his socks always falling down to set in opposition to good little Prince Charles with his well- scrubbed ears. And beyond was a whole gallery of screaming brats and wailing babies, a healthy touch of reality in contrast to the royal christening photographs welcoming a new member of the nation's Most-Loved Family, photographs of smiling generations round some innocent in a lace christening- robe.
It wasn't just the wit and skill of Giles's drawing that made for the success of his work, but the nitty-gritty real relationships in the Giles family: to a nation fed on pap, Giles provided a blessed counterblast. It's significant that his work became less popular in recent years as reality intruded more and more into the lives of that other family, and the royals have become tarnished tinsel. Only the Queen Mother keeps her radiance, as grandma keeps her peculiar malevolent charisma.
Thank you, Giles, for dogs that sunk their teeth into ankles and uncles who tippled, thank you for horses that were battered old nags rather than sleek Derby winners and hats that were jammed on heads like pudding basins like my old school beret. Thank you for your naughty children! Thank you on behalf of all ragamuffins everywhere!
Miles Kington is away.Reuse content