Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

In May 1977 young Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds (born 9 August 1945 and so aged 32 at the time) started to draw a weekly comic strip for the Guardian newspaper. It was initially titled ‘The Silent Three of St Botolph’s’ in a jokey reference to the 1950s comic strip ‘The Silent Three’ by Evelyn Flinders, and consisted of parodies of jolly hockeysticks public schoolgirls’ adventures.

However, the strip soon evolved to show how these three girls had grown into middle-class, middle-aged adults and became about their grown-up lives and tribulations, the three being:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a large, exhausting brood of children
  • Jo Heep, married to whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and mother of a young baby

The strip soon dropped the St Botolph’s title to use ad hoc titles for specific strips or episodes, eventually becoming known simply as ‘Posy’. In the end the Posy strip ran in the Guardian for ten years, until 1987. During that time batches of strips were periodically collected into book format. Mrs Weber’s Diary was the first of these book-sized collections. It was published in 1979 and is a slender 64 pages long.

Mrs Weber’s Diary

Diary format

The first thing you notice is that, for the book version, Simmonds embedded what were originally simple cartoon strips into mock-ups of an actual diary. These ‘diary’ entries include shopping lists, lists of chores, notes and doodles, and occasional longer entries which comment on, or explain, the strip below.

January entry from Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

I’m sure Wendy’s academic husband, George Weber, would have a field day discussing the hypertextuality and interplay of discourses thus created, but I found that the diary entries read a lot like, well, diary entries. ‘Cleaned out lint from tumble dryer’, ‘lunch with the Whites’, ‘must get new guinea pig litter’ – it’s not riveting stuff. More a kind of ‘phatic’ text which helps to extend – and so further enfold you – in the imaginative world of the cartoon’s characters.

And like Bridget Jones’s Diary (which started a generation after Posy, in 1995) the diary format, apart from anything else, fills up space and pads the book out. (The diary format was dropped in the succeeding books with the exception of the 1993 collection, Mustn’t Grumble, which collected the large-format calendar pages Simmonds made for the years 1988 and 1989, with each month represented by a full-length profile of one of the characters.)

Wordy

The next impression is how very wordy the strip is. Everything requires a lot of talking. The strips are packed with speech bubbles. Dialogue is absolutely crucial because the humour – such as it is – lies in the nuances of what people are thinking and saying, rather than in anything they actually do. It lies in satirising the modish, liberal, left-wing views and attitudes of the comfortable middle-middle-classes (and their often rebellious children), and these have to be fully expressed in order to be lampooned.

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wordiest of all the characters is George Weber, who poignantly struggles to maintain his earnest feminist, environmentalist and socialist views in a world which obviously doesn’t give a damn. George is supposed to be writing a vast book which will be the last word in structuralism and semiology – a theory of how meaning is constructed in cultural artefacts – which was all the rage in the late 1970s. But the book will obviously never be published or even completed, while his long-suffering wife Wendy, a part-time illustrator of children’s books, is the one who really keeps the household together.

In an early strip, Wendy changing the kitchen curtains triggers a characteristic outburst of George’s over-intellectual rhetoric: ‘the blind translates the window into a mirror of attitudes totalisantes,‘ he is prompted to exclaim.

From Mrs Weber’s Dairy by Posy Simmonds

Variety of font and style

In the strip above you can see – before you even read the words – that they are arranged in a striking variety of fonts and SIZES and formats. A lot of the words are in bold, symbols are used to replace s***rwords, there are a lot of dots indicating pauses… there’s the alternation of sentence case with Capitalised Words – in general, there is a lot going on in the text.

In fact arguably more goes on in the speech bubbles than in the actual ‘world’ of the images, and this is entirely characteristic. The strips are about what people are saying and thinking, often at great length, rather than what they do – which is often little or nothing. (Which is in its own way a typographic satire on bien-pensant liberals’ concerns with what people say rather than what people actually do.)

The most common typographic technique is to use bold and/or capitals to bring out the simply adorable emphases which the unbearably twee and posh middle-classes give to their speech to make everything sound so simply super and marvellous.

Thus the exchanges in this picture: ‘Wendy! You DIDN’T make ALL those!’ ‘PIZZA too! How SUPER!’

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds

One dictionary definition of satire is:

The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

So I guess this is out-and-out satire, satirising a class or group, its habits and thoughts and conversations, although the phrase ‘stupidity or vices’ is a little harsh. Simmonds’s satire is more sly and understated than that. More friendly, comfortable and polite.

And insofar as it’s satire, Simmonds’s work tends to prove the old, old truth about satire – that the people being satirised often love it! ‘Did you see the Posy strip, darling? It’s just so us!

No continuous narrative

Within each individual strip there is a strong narrative with a (sort of) punchline or payoff, but between strips there seems to be no overarching narrative. In fact, as well as the ten or so regular characters who we get to know (based around the three women, their husbands and the kids) Simmonds sometimes introduces completely unrelated characters and stories.

Some strips abandon the format of a series of pictures to focus on a few large ones, or even one very big one – for example as in the scene above which depicts a street party in the street where the Webers live.

The ‘joke’ of this piece is that all the well-meaning mums and dads have spent ages agonising over preparing all the food themselves, making sure it is vegetarian and organic and home-made and all the other Guardian reader shibboleths, in the name of keeping it as simple and ‘authentic’ as possible – with the inevitable result that the street party is a pretentious, urban, middle-class pastiche of a peasants’ meal. Witness the man at the bottom left offering his daughter, Sasha (such a nice middle-class name) a glass of mead. Yes, mead.

This is the tone – an insiders’ view of the pretensions and foibles of the well-educated, southern, English middle classes of which Simmonds was herself a member and acute observer.

But the picture above contains another joke because the composition of this large final frame in the strip is based on a 1567 oil painting, The Peasant Wedding, by the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel (1567)

So the image is itself the kind of arty in-joke all self-respecting Guardian readers would be expected to understand, a reference they would all pride themselves on ‘getting’.

This is learned and witty, but not what you’d call funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, anyway. It typifies the way more than half the pleasure of the strips comes from getting the references, not the jokes. When George starts droning on about Nathalie Sarraute or the nouveau roman or Roland Barthes or hypertextuality, the reader is not meant to laugh out loud. It is, after all, not particularly funny. It’s more that the reader is meant to nod wisely to themselves and think, Nathalie Sarraute, yes I’ve hear of her; the nouveau roman, I tried reading an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel once. And generally to spot the cultural signifiers, as George would put it.

In other words, you have to be fairly far inside this world to really ‘get’ all the references to it. She is satirising her panoply of middle class characters, but the reader has to themselves be someone very like the characters in order to really appreciate the digs and jabs about their lifestyles and turns of phrase – and even more so to fully appreciate the cultural references.

Later in the series, Simmonds plays the same visual joke of referencing a classic work of art. Jocasta the art student and several other young women go out to the country for the day with their tutors. The tutors criticise something the girls are wearing which prompts the girls to take off all their clothes – but the point, the purpose and the ‘punchline’ of the strip is that the final picture is a Simmonds version of the famous Manet painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.

There is a kind of cosy self-referentiality going on, where readers of the Posy strip can congratulate themselves on being as well-read and culturally in the know as their creator and – presumably – all the Guardian‘s other clever, with-it, intellectual readers.

My teenage son and his mates had a phrase for this kind of thing, when someone made a rather strained or not-that-funny reference or pun, they used to  say: ‘I see what you did there’ – which shows that they ‘get’ what you’re saying, they acknowledge the cleverness of the pun or the reference… without actually laughing because it’s not actually that funny.

The same is even more true of so many of the ‘situations’ Simmonds depicts – mums in the playground blaming each others’ kids for an outburst of nits, George’s acute embarrassment at being deputed to make the farewell speech to the extremely unpopular serving lady at his polytechnic’s canteen, George agonising over the morality of having a vasectomy, George and Wendy being berated by their teenage daughter’s punk boyfriend, Wendy’s chagrin at her little boy not getting involved in the perfect party and party games and party spread laid on by a perfect mother (Pippa – ‘I don’t know HOW she does it!’)

These are all very mundane everyday subjects and that’s the point. The humour comes from the familiarity, from recognising the situations, from thinking, ‘Oh God, yes, that happened to me. I recognise the type. I know just that kind of mum/dad/child, yes.’

The smile of recognition. Maybe it could be called Recognition Humour.

Sexism and feminism

Probably the two most consistent threads running through the strips are a) the draining harassment of being a mother and b) the permanent atmosphere of harassment endured by women at work, in pubs and bars or even walking down the street. The cartoons vividly convey exactly the kind of angry, embattled feminism expressed by the young women I met at university in the early 1980s.

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

There is a vast amount to be said about this but I suspect that many thousands of feminist critics have and could say it far better than me. Just noting that it is a big and persistent strand in the strips.

Wendy’s glasses

Many of the greatest cartoon characters have one or two tell-tale motifs. Arguably the entire Posy strip is signified by Wendy Weber’s enormous glasses in which the black pupils of her eyes roll around like marbles.

Although she is just as liable to say or think silly things as any of the other characters, there is a deeper sense in which the whole world is seen, caught and captured through Wendy’s eyes. Wendy Weber sees all and knows all, particularly in this book, where the initially rather random cross-section of subject matter is all rolled up into – caught and contained within – the format of being from Wendy’s diary.

Frontispiece to Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Quality drawing

Close study of all the examples I’ve chosen will show you how very carefully all the strips are drawn. Each frame is packed with detail. Take the two cars parked in the first frame in the January picture, or the detail of the piano keys in the punk strip, or the scaffolding, sack of cement and traffic cones in the one about workmen wolf-whistling the girls.

Again, this isn’t exactly humour, but it is the transformation of the world of reality into a gentler, rounded, somehow mollified and more reassuring cartoon format. Everything is just so, everything is just as you would expect it, but nicer.

Simmonds the feminist may be mad as hell about street harassment and everyday sexism, but the viewer’s eye, while taking the point, also takes in the myriad details including, for example, the care with which she’s drawn the metal clips on Jocasta’s dungarees.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the famous modernist poet T.S. Eliot said that the ‘meaning’ of a poem is a bit like the raw steak a burglar throws to a guard dog to keep him distracted while he goes about his business of nicking stuff; the ‘meaning’ of a poem is the bit which engages the conscious mind while the actual poetry – the euphony of sounds, the metre and rhythm, the alliteration and assonance and so on – do their infinitely subtler work of conveying feelings and impressions to the unconscious or preconscious mind. Of changing your mood and, maybe, perceptions without you quite realising it.

Same here: each strip has an ostensible subject – children’s parties, old drunks down the pub, meeting an architect to discuss an extension to the house, a visit from an American friend the Webers knew back in the heady 60s – but I didn’t find any of them funny, and not many of them even amusing. Often they lack any kind of recognisable punchline, or the punchline – instead of being a shock or surprise which triggers laughter – is more like a confirmation of everything about the situation which you had already noticed.

But the strip does its artistic work, conveys its visual pleasure, despite or around or beside the ostensible subject matter. Each strip tells a ‘story’, but the real pleasure comes from immersing yourself in the reassuring visual conventions of Posyworld.

Take the strip in which a too-perfect househusband Adrian Smythe, and his adorable daughters Amy and Saffron, drop in on their neighbour Trish Wright, and while she rushes round flustered and harassed by her one child, young Willy, he coolly, calmly sorts everything out and – without meaning to – shows off what a perfect father he is – growing vegetables with his kids, having set up a Nature Table for them to study insects and flowers, and so on and so on – and all the time, of course, writing his next book, which, in the last frame, Trisha, pushed to the limits of chagrin and frustration, thinks should be titled ‘One Woman’s Sink Is Another Man’s Swimming Pool’.

I recognised the general situation, having been a househusband myself, and I recognised Trisha’s irritation at Adrian’s calmness and effortless superiority. But I didn’t think it was funny, and certainly the punchline – Trisha’s alternative title for Adrian’s book – didn’t strike me as either funny or clever.

The point of the strip – as far as I could tell – was not humour as such, but the reader’s recognition of the situation – and in this transformation I am describing, the transformation of the harsh unpredictable world into the warm, cosy and predictable set of stereotypes and caricatures with which she populates the cartoons; and in the essentially softening effect of the visual style. Simmonds perfected a kind of comforting satire.

A daughter’s perspective

I showed the book to my daughter, aged 19, who’s studying sociology, a feminist who goes on Black Lives Matter marches. She flicked through the book before settling on a couple of the strips to read through carefully – and concluded that she didn’t like them because they were ‘too preachy’.

And this suggested another way in which the strip was perfectly suited to its host publication, because the Guardian is a very ‘preachy’ newspaper, continually hammering away at a handful of woke issues, then (in the 1970s) as now. In fact one of the unintentionally funny things about reading these old strips is how very little has changed in the forty years since they first appeared. Feminism, racism, the unbearable smugness of the professional middle classes, the intellectual snobbery of a certain kind of sociology/media studies academic, and the evils of gentrification were recurring themes in the Posy strip of 1977 just as they are in the Guardian of 2020.

Credit

All images (except the Bruegel) are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism.


Related links

Other Posy reviews

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1 Comment

  1. Chris Parkins

     /  July 19, 2020

    “ The point of the strip – as far as I could tell – was not humour as such, but the reader’s recognition of the situation”. You say this as if it’s a bad thing? I bet you don’t like Doonesbury, either.

    Reply

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