My school days are a blur of learning, laughing and political backstabbing. Friends and enemies (because, let’s face it, in the words of the very grown-up Mr Bush, you were either with us or against us) lurched from one class to another, one sports field to the next: both battle grounds for petty exchanges and brooding egos.
There were Masters who were terrifying and Masters who were terrified; boys who could and boys who couldn’t; and a sprinkling of 6th form girls who …. well, wouldn’t, despite how nicely you asked. All of this in the confines of a grand old school that had seen fifty-thousand boys come and go, some ascending to the heights of military, political and commercial success, others who perished on the battlefields of Europe in the name of the King – innocent lives snubbed out with their First XV medal still shining in their rucksacks.
The ghost of every boy who attended that school lived within its poorly lit corridors, on dulled silverware, faded pictures and dusty memorial plagues. Even its perfectly manicured sports fields were a testament to those who triumphed for King and country, each one named after some unassailable high-achiever. It was a place that celebrated past successes as much as it fostered future leaders.
Memories of this place have blurred since I walked out of its heavy oak doors some 25 years ago. But there are small parts of it that left an extraordinarily deep mark on my very impressionable young mind. One such place was the school library. Now let me make something very clear. I’m no swat. In fact, I could probably count the number of times I went to the school library on the pages of a Jack and Jill 1A book. But the fact that I remember aspects of it so well, clearly means that it had a sense of place about it.
I recall its earthy scent, wrapped in a shroud of rarefied silence. And the shafts of afternoon light that stretched long across the dark wooden floor. But most of all I remember volume after volume of Punch Magazine, each copy bound in a deep, leather burgundy hew. On occasion (usually when I was trying to avoid a chemistry lesson, I suspect) I’d sit and paw through the stiff, yellowing pages and ponder over the political animations that filled each volume.
Punch was the thinking man’s Spectator of the 19th and 20th Century. Its cartoons were famous for piking every politician, industrialist and social riser with curt, harsh criticism that went right for the jugular. It represented everything that was British satire of the time and it’s animations captured the mood of the nation in a way that no journalist or writer ever could.
The impact of the Punch cartoons was as much about their poignancy as it was their double (and sometimes, triple) entendres. Moreover, they stood the test of time like no other news report of the era, an enduring reminder of the political and social mood of the moment.
The magazine died in 1992, after 150 years of satirical beat-ups. It had what I’d refer to as a Martina Navratilova moment in 1996, when it was re-born again, only to die an agonising death 6 years later when the last of its nostalgic line-up of 90-something supporters gave up the ghost and started buying the Viagra-fuelled GQ instead. But while Punch may be gone, its spirit lives on.
Satire aside, the cartoon is making a slow but stated return to its standing as a hyper-relevant means of communication. Much of its strength lies in the fact that it takes up little editorial space, but can speak volumes. Moreover (and actually much more significant) is the fact that as real news shifts to the digital space, traditional media has become more focused on the provision of comment and opinion.
As more of us go online or to 24 hour broadcast stations for our regular intake of the news of the moment, the morning newspaper will become less about news and more about points of view (a victim of digital gazumping if ever there was one). For the cartoonists and animators, this is fertile ground. Their work is as transferable to one medium as it is the other.
And don’t doubt the impact of cartoons. According to (the Parisian daily) Le Monde’s favourite scribbler, Plantu, “Our job is to annoy everyone”, a statement that was spectacularly realised in February 2006 when a Danish newspaper’s decision to print caricatures of the prophet Mohammed prompted a massive outcry across the Muslim world, eventuating in the deaths of more than 50 people.
Of course, in the current climate, every modern resurrection worth its salt demands an advocate of global standing and a message of Planet Saving scale. Enter Kofi Annan and his Cartooning for Peace forum, an organisation that, perhaps not surprisingly, taps into the power of cartoons to bring better understanding of the world and its peoples. It’s a neat idea. That said, I do get the sense that the cartoonists themselves may struggle to surpress their inner desires to satirise until the cows come home. Something that could be the unravelling of Annan’s very innovative approach to world peace.
Whether it works or not will depend on many factors, not the least of which is that fact that there are clearly some topics that are off-limits. But the fact that Cartooning for Peace exists at all is a significant indicator on the role that cartoonists, both as powerful observers of social sentiment as well as visual interpreters of easy-to-access points in history, play in contemporary media.
Some may argue that the cartoons of today are actually the multi-media segments that populate FaceBook, Bebo and MySpace. They may have a point. But there’s something about the dark lines of a well-formed caricature that fuel the imagination more than any 500-word article or video clip. And they are as equally articulate in print as they are digitally. Whatever the format, I’m sure of one thing. Punch may be dead, but his legacy lives on.