The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
MICHAL BONCZA looks at the bloody history of the last century through the mischievous eyes of its shrewdest cartoonists.
The 20th century keeps breathing heavily down our necks. And bad breath it has, too.
So, perhaps mindful of the fate of Lot's wife, we accelerate blindly into the next as if putting such illusory distance in between could somehow redeem us.
In fact, a little "looking back in anger" could prove to be therapeutic, as farcical repeats have been plentiful since 2000.
This is what Tim Benson, an historian with a difference, does expertly and engagingly, using for the purpose a wondrous time machine - the vehicle of cartoons.
At the opening of the accompanying exhibition, he shared a terrible truth that he had gleamed from his travails. "The difference between the beginnings of both centuries couldn't be starker," he confided straight-facedly sparking an immediate suspicion of mischief.
"At both times, the Labour Party was led by a Scot, the Tories by an aristocrat and Britain was busying itself with a war far away from its shores."
In this handsome opus of 250 pages, Benson democratically assigns six cartoons to each year, each an acerbic comment on a key political event supported by a generous yet succinct caption.
The pages dazzle visually with a plethora of last century's oft-forgotten follies - every one a ready-made worksheet for a GCSE or A-level history lesson.
"The Benson principle" of never using cartoons that have been seen recently is strictly adhered to. The reader sees work that has, with a few exceptions, never been reproduced anywhere else since the day of their initial publication.
The search was far from easy. Some years posed particular problems, simply because "bugger all happened," he admits with a laugh.
Finding them by trawling through volumes of private collections was one thing, but getting the copyright waived was another. As Benson cunningly applied the domino effect to wrestle one accord after another, you felt that Machiavelli and von Clausewitz might have been shifting uneasily in their graves.
The tone is set when, in 1900, two cartoons present contrasting views of the British Empire. For conservative Harry Furniss, it is the "king of the jungle" tattooed with the names of the Commonwealth component states, whereas the French Le Charivari sees it as a smash-and-grab paw gnawing at the globe.
In 1919, WK Haselden's strip in the Daily Mirror most remarkably predicts the advent of the mobile phone. The 1930s see Stanley Baldwin's decision to ignore the Jarrow marchers outrage Wyndham Robinson of the Morning Post and Will Dyson savages the ruling class with one aristocratic lady telling another that she's "made her own contribution to the nation's sacrifices by feeding her dogs the same food as the servants."
As World War II draws to an end, a hand raises in a nazi salute from a ruin of a shattered swastika. Stalin, Montgomery and Eisenhower look at it and demand in unison: "Both hands, please."
Salvaging historical memory on this scale is as commendable as it is necessary. Random House put its head above the publishing parapet with courage to be saluted, as this was apparently the book that, in the opinion of many, "couldn't be done."
The exhibition The Cartoon Century: Modern Britain Through the Eyes of its Cartoonists continues until 22 December, at the Political Cartoon Gallery, 32 Store Stree, London WC1E 7BS. Tel: (020) 7580-1114.
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