Lessons taught with laughter

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
By the time I was born, the Second World War was long over. But I learnt my first lessons about it when I was five or six, from old Giles cartoon annuals on my parents' bookshelves. From Grandma and Auntie Vera, I learnt about the privations and irritations of the Home Front, about the gentle cynicism with which Britain met its own government's propaganda,Jand how much it helped to laugh at Hitler and his jowly lieutenants.JI learnt a little about soldiers too, from Giles' tubby, muddy,Jresigned chapJin the trenches, one looking up at an advancing bomb with, "'Ere comes your Easter egg!"

Later, I found the much darker work of Philip Zec,Jnotably the marvellous cartoonJpublished on VE day, with an exhausted, wounded TommyJhanding back a muddied laurel marked "Peace" and saying, "Don't lose it again!" I learnt that Zec also got into trouble with Churchill's government for his cartoon of a torpedoed, oily sailor on a raft captioned, "Don't waste petrol. It costs lives." It was felt to be a criticism of the oil industry; Herbert Morrison called it "wicked"Jand Ernie Bevin said Zec was lowering morale.JSee - great big ministers, war leaders, all of them spooked and scared by six words andJa few black lines on paper.JThere's a lesson in that.

Meanwhile,Jturning to more current cartoons as I grew upJin the 1960s, I started to comprehend the passions that politics can stir up. There was SuperMac, Vietnam, the Cold War, and a wonderful one of Harold Wilson as a huge puffed-up balloon about to be deflated by a sharp missile marked "economic realities".

I also learnt that there is no fashionable or artistic or psycho-babblish theory,Jno type or social groupJso sacred that it can't be deflated by a mischievous pen.J Posy Simmonds alone skewered a particular set so accurately that to this day I see people walking around in Islington or Notting Hill and find them turning into cartoons. And on this page for some years, Bill Stott - with the jaundiced eye of a former teacher - has drawn schoolchildren I can then spot, correct in every detail only noisier, on the train home.

So,Jfor those charged with teaching history and citizenship and the modish concept of "Britishness", there is now a great new resource and a cracking school trip to be had in London. J As of this year, we now have a National Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street, offering everything from Gillray to Scarfe to Martin Rowson (I have a wonderful Rowson about the EU Constitution referendum, with Eurocrats bending down a huge mouth that is shouting "No!"Jbut muttering, "What was that?JI think they're trying to say yes.") Right now there is a display of 45 years of Private Eye cartoons.

It doesn't have to be political history - they've got early pages of the Beano andJcomments on fashion, fads,Jarts, politics and social change over the decades. In future centuriesJit will be the cartoon archive that expresses to our wondering descendantsJthe current fear of boys in hoodies and women in veils. And it will do it, as cartoons always have, with a light but intelligent touch,Jsaying in a few lines, and fewer words, more than many of us can do in a long column.

I treasure one by Martin Honeysett, at the time Carole Caplin's ascendancy at Number 10Jwas making life-coaches fashionable.JA huge, grumpy slob of a woman sits in an armchair surrounded by vodka bottles,Jcans, pizza boxes,Jcelebrity magazines and several days' worth of litter.JHer husband is leaving the room in mid-row saying, "And another thing, thatJlifestyle guru of yours is a waste of money!"

Cartooning is a true art form - a hybrid of draughtsmanship, comedy and journalism - but is often underrated,Jespecially since the British have excelled at it for two centuries and continue to do so. We need the cartoonists,Jand not just for laughs, today. You can't understand your country's past until you start to understand how it felt. And if you want to get close to someone else's feelings, the best way is either to laugh with them or get angry alongside them - as I did with my parents' wartime generation,Jturning the pages of Giles books or staring in pity at Zec's wrecked soldier giving the laurel to the politicians.

Take the kids to the cartoon museum, even if it means your next homework assignment gets submitted in the form of a line drawing and a six-word caption. "Miss, you said it was worth a thousand words..."

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