An inquisitive child can learn a great deal by browsing through his (or her) parents’ bookshelves. I know I did.
As a small child, my favourites (apart from various works by the late E.W. Swanton) were those adult books that had pictures in them. I remember with particular fondness a book of Thurber cartoons and a collection of Way of the World columns by Peter Simple (I can’t have had the faintest idea who the likes of Mrs. Dutt-Pauker, the Hampstead Thinker, were meant to be satirising, but I recognised a thoroughly imagined alternative reality when I saw one).
Another was The British Character by ‘Pont’. ‘Pont’ was the pen-name of Graham Laidler, a Punch cartoonist of the 1930s. Born in Jesmond, Newcastle (the home, too, of the founders of Viz) he suffered from tuberculosis and was forced to spend much of his life in a sanatorium in Switzerland (presumably why so many of his cartoons feature observations of the British abroad). He died of polio in 1940 at the age of 32, though not before he had made a contribution to the war effort with some drolly morale-boosting cartoons. He also left enough for a posthumous post-war volume Some Of Us Are Absurd (something of an understatement, in my view).
The British Character was hugely popular in its day, to the extent that some of the observations now seem trite (more so, I imagine, than when he first made them). It is also true, as E.M. Delafield points out in her introduction, that it is the English, rather than the British character that he is concerned with, and that, as Punch generally did, he is presenting a version of upper-middle class life (people have butlers, they dress for dinner) to a middle class audience.
I suppose that the book’s popularity owed something to the fact that Pont was depicting the English as they liked to see themselves, but then the projection of an idealised self-image can be as revealing as the acutest of observations.
John Betjeman – in what was an otherwise unencouraging round-up of humorous books – had this to say about it in the New Statesman in 1938 –
“‘Pont’ is in the newer Punch tradition and he is good at drawing semi-imbecile clubmen, middle-aged ladies and vacuous ‘modern’ girls. Here and there the restrictions demanded by the Punch public appear but on the whole he has his own gentle sense of satire and sticks to it. I liked some of his drawings immensely …”
And I think it is the quality of the drawings, rather than the observations, that make it live.
I thought it might be interesting to revisit ‘The British Character’, 80-odd years on, and see how much has changed. So here, as the first of a mini series, is one character who, I think, has managed to make a seamless transition to the digital age.
“Don’t throw that newspaper away, Sir – you’ll need it when you write an angry post on your blog! Or have you thought about contributing to Comment Is Free?”
I should apologise for the quality of the image here – it is a very old book. The colouring-in of the background is the work of WordPress itself, not another attempt at Hockney pastiche.