The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

A short novella, 128 pages in the Gollancz paperback edition, this is a furious satire on the arrogance, ignorance and grotesque violence of colonialism, fired by Le Guin’s anger against American behaviour in the Vietnam War. It is cast in the shape of a science fiction story which slots into the ‘Hainish’ universe and so it set on a planet far away and in the future. But the despicable behaviour of the marauding human colonists clearly reflects media coverage of the American army in Vietnam.

Athshe

Le Guin invents a planet from her ever-expandable range of planets set in the so-called Hainish universe. This one is named Athshe and consists mostly of warm ocean, but has one archipelago of islands covered in rainforest. Hidden away in burrows and primitive villages in the forest live the metre-tall, furry Athsheans, who spend a lot of their lives in ‘dreamtime’.

[As with all the planets in the Hain cycle or universe, the idea is that the humanoid Hain achieved space travels hundreds of thousands, maybe a million years earlier – and colonised or populated a range of habitable planets across the galaxy. These varieties of human have evolved in sometimes striking different directions but are, genetically, all part of one genus. Thus, despite their physical differences, the Athsheans are, at bottom, human and, in their own language, refer to themselves as ‘men’ every bit as much as the humans who arrive on their planet.]

Men, yes, men, because, alas, four years before the story started, colonists from Earth arrived on Athshe (known to Terran explorers as Planet 41 and named by the settlers ‘New Tahiti’). They immediately set up logging camps in all the forests of all the main islands, and proceeded to chop down all the trees, strip & shape them and ship them back to Earth, which is a sterile world of concrete in this (characteristically) dystopian future.

The colonists call the natives ‘creechies’. The natives call the colonists ‘yumans’.

Le Guin makes these human invaders as blunt and gung-ho, Yankee, big-swinging-dick, macho shitheads as she can, led by one Captain Davidson, head of the ‘Smith’ logging camp.

We watch Donaldson beating and berating the little furry Athsheans, getting them to fetch and carry and slave for the white man. In case we don’t get that he’s a prime slab of toxic masculinity, Davidson is shown swaggering around the camp fnah-fnahing with his logger mates about the new consignment of womenfolk who’ve just arrived on a spaceship from earth, prime meat, get it while you can boys, yee hah! And all that’s before we learn that he raped and killed one of the Athshean females.

Attack on camp Smith

Captain Davidson flies to Centralville, the headquarters of the colony, for a little R&R but, upon his return, is astonished to find Camp Smith a heap of smouldering ashes. The Athsheans have risen up and wiped out the 200 or so men there and burned everything to the ground.

A couple of them then jump Davidson, take his gun off him and let him loose to go and tell the other men that the Athsheans are having their revenge. Just to rub in what a toxic slab of male cowardice Davidson is, Le Guin has him whining and mewling that it’s not fair that he doesn’t have a gun anymore.

Sometime later he returns in a helicopter from the nearest surviving camp which is, characteristically, equipped with machine guns and flamethrowers, and ravages the entire area, in mad psychopathic anger – a sci-fi equivalent of the ship Marlow sees off the coast of Africa firing its canon into the forest out of blank, hopeless rage and frustration in Heart of Darkness.

Selver and Lyubov

Then the scene cuts to follow the Athshean who confronted Davidson, Selver, making his way through the vast tropical rainforests to the nearest native village. He jumped Davidson alright, but not before the big white man got off a shot on his blaster which badly burned his shoulder.

Selver comes to a native settlement which seems to be made of burrows in the ground. He is greeted by an old man of the dreamtime, who introduces himself as Coro Mena of the Whitethorn. Our guy replies that he is Selver of the Ash – for these people are organised into clans named after species of tree.

From that point we are taken deeper and deeper into Athshean society, culture and customs: the novel is, in other words, another of Le Guin’s anthropological exercises.

Something which is made unmistakable by the way that, as so often, the lead (human) character is an anthropologist – in this case described as a ‘hilfer’, a professional student of Highly Intelligent Life Forms, the only Terran who has made the effort to half-understand the Athsheans and their strange mystical relationship with a) the all-encompassing tropical rainforest and b) the dreamtime.

His name is Raj Lyubov. Before the narrative started he had befriended Selver and learned some of the natives’ language and beliefs from him.

But it’s very characteristic of Le Guin that this fragile understanding and cross-cultural friendship is doomed to be crushed under hard, not to say cruel, events. For now we learn that the trigger for all the events is that, before the story started, Davidson had plucked Selver’s furry little wife from the pen where the ‘yumans’ locked up the creechies every night, and he raped her, and she died during the experience.

At the first opportunity afterwards, Selver tried to kill Davidson by attacking him in the street of Camp Smith. Davidson, at twice Selver’s height, was defending himself, in the centre of a circle of cheering, jeering jock humans, when Lyubov pushed through and pulled Selver free, carrying him back to his house. Here Lyubov washed Selver’s wounds and tended him back to health, the other colonists too ashamed to intervene.

Selver and Lyubov form a friendship of sorts, Selver helping the hilfer understand native language and, above all, the central importance of dreaming, of being able to go off into dream states, to Athshean culture.

But Selver is still driven by bitter anger and it is this, compounded by other horrors which are casually mentioned (for example, we learn that one of the colonists, Benton, likes to castrate ‘uppity’ creechies in front of the others), which lies behind the creechies’ massacre of the settlers at Camp Smith.

The cycle of violence

Just when you thought Davidson couldn’t get any more loathsome, he leads a group of gung-ho soldiers on a retaliatory attack on a totally innocent Athshean village. They napalm the burrows and burn alive the furry little natives as they run out. They stamp on them to break their backs, they shoot them and burn them alive. In a bitterly satirical aside, Le Guin says they didn’t even reserve a few of them to gang rape, they were that consumed with blood lust.

There is a plot of sorts, but I found it hard to read because by this time I was feeling pretty sick. As I commented about City of Illusions, Le Guin can, when she wants, write extended descriptions of the natural world but…rarely a page goes by without it being ruined, spoilt, desecrated, by horror, terror, violence, beatings, killings, rapes and, as in this novel, castrations. The cumulative effect isn’t insightful or evocative, I just find it grim and depressing. Depressing because this is fiction. She could write about anything – but she chooses to write about burning people alive and raping and castrating.

The authorities intervene

Back in the plot, the spaceship from Terra which arrived with the women colonists also carried two humanoid aliens, a Cetian and a Hainish, and the unexpected massacre at Camp Smith compels them to jet down for a conference with the military leaders of the colony.

As it emerges out that the colonists are using the locals for slave labour and raping their women, the two officials are not impressed. The meeting/conference is described in some detail, and especially the role of Raj Lyubov who tries to respectfully disagree with his military masters and make the truth known to the ambassadors, painfully aware of how the soldiers look at him with growing hatred, Davidson in particular.

Now these ambassadors are carrying an example of a new invention, the ansible, which they had been tasked with taking on to another colonised planet. Now they decide to leave it here so that the colonists can be in instantaneous communication with the Administration back home. They point out that in the years since the colonists arrived, the Earth has joined the League of Worlds, and has moderated its rapacious demands on other planets. Now instructions start being conveyed from the home planet Administration via the ansible, live, in real time.

Of course the military, especially numb-nuts Captain Davidson, not only reject this but suspect it is a hoax, a con, the ansible is a fake and the strict new, native-friendly rules being sent through it and imposed on the military are some kind of alien coup cooked up by the pallid Hainish and the hairy little Cetian.

Davidson is painted as such a cowardly, murderous, psychopathic rapist – and the Athsheans such lovable tree-hugging, green furry dreamers – and Raj Lyubov so much the sensitive man-in-the-middle who ends up alienating both sides – that I couldn’t help have a sneaking liking for Davidson. In free indirect speech Le Guin lets us overhear his thoughts and share his worldview, and captures the big swinging dick, macho bullshit of testosterone-overdrive American culture so well. Monsters are often thrilling. That’s one of the most obvious findings or discoveries of literature.

That said, there is a running stream of feminist comments throughout the book, a counterblast to Davidson’s appalling macho mindset.

The Athshean communities are run by headwomen. Casually we are shown female Athsheans being messengers and doers. I was particularly struck by the idea attributed to the thoughtful Lyubov, that what the colonists really needed was not big-breasted dolly birds but more old women. Old women have a special wisdom. Old women speak their minds and (though it isn’t expressed) old women can shame full-grown men into half-decent behaviour.

Lyubov is spurned by the Athsheans

Once the ambassadors or administrators from Terra have moved on, leaving a chastened military leadership reluctantly following its new orders from the home Administration back on Earth via the ansible – Lyubov ventures out to the nearest Athshean village. Here he is shocked to find the headwoman and other elders no longer talk to him or even look at him. He is the most sympathetic and understanding of the yumans but the days of peace are gone. Lyubov encounters Selver, who is recovering from leading the attack on Camp Smith. The other Athsheans look on him now with awe, as a human who can wreak such devastation in the ‘real’ world.

From Lyubov’s memories of rescuing and helping Selver we gather a lot more information about a) the Athsheans’ culture and language and especially about their ability to dream with their eyes open and remember and in some sense live by their dreams, and also b) more of the backstory about how Lyubov rescued Selver from probably being beaten to death by Davidson, nursed him, and in doing so struck up an intense relationship in which they taught each other their languages. But the violence has severed that link. Now Selver can barely talk to him. Devastated, Lyubin returns to the main human settlement, which they call Centralville.

The cycle of violence continues

That night Lyubov wakes from ominous and fateful dreams to discover that Centralville is under ferocious attack from the Athsheans. Later we get the detail of how about 5,000 Athsheans, organised by Selver and others who had been slaves at Camp Smith, launched a carefully planned attack, cutting off the water supplies, surrounding the base, planting a huge pile of dynamite in the central HQ then waiting with flamethrowers (!), some guns and plenty of knives and laces for the terrified yumans to emerge into the night.

Later we learn that the Athsheans knew the human women had been sent for safety from all the remote colonists’ settlements to Centralville and took special care to target the women’s dormitories and – annihilate them – mostly by burning them to death inside their buildings, or as they tried to escape, or slitting their throats or stabbing them with knives or lances.

All this we discover later, but at the time the scene of carnage, explosions, burning and screaming is described through Lyubov’s terrified perceptions, right up to the moment he goes to the help of a screaming woman running out of a building, just as the building topples forward and crushes them both, smashing Lyubov into the mud.

Next day, amid the smouldering ruins, Selver wanders dazed at what they’ve done. All the women, some 500, were massacred, as planned, to prevent the colonists breeding like locusts. The surviving men have been rounded up and placed in a pen, a lager, a camp. Wandering the smouldering streets Selver is dismayed to come across Lyubov’s body, crushed under the beams of the fallen building. He cradles the hilfer’s head but Lyubov can’t move because his back is broken and after a few words he dies. Or, as Selver perceives it, passes into the dreamworld.

See what I mean by hard and unrelenting and callous and cruel? I found it a struggle to finish this short book, not because it reflects the brutality of Vietnam – it doesn’t particularly – for me it felt like a continuation of the callous, heartless violence I’ve experienced in all of Le Guin’s novels. Remember the helicopters hovering over the protest meeting in The Dispossessed and suddenly opening fire with machine guns and massacring hundreds. All seven of the novels I’ve read have been characterised by wilful, hard, unbending, unsentimental, bleak, cruel violence.

The colonists at bay

The surviving men colonists are rounded up and kept in a pen. I kept envisioning this as like the camp in Bridge On The River Kwai. Selver has by now established himself as leader of the Athsheans, who have no central organisation or government or leadership in our sense. We are shown younger creechies watching in awe as he passes by. He is regarded as a ‘god’ because he has brought something from the dreamworld into the real world – namely war and death.

Now he negotiates with the remaining leadership among the colonists.

Cut to Davidson who hadn’t been at Centralville when the big attack took place, he was at a different settlement called New Java. Now he gets radio messages from his superiors inside the camp, telling him they’ve made peace with the Athsheans and he must cease any engagement with them.

The novel really becomes about Davidson now: it emerges as the portrait of a military psychopath because Le Guin takes us inside his head, hearing all his rationalisations and justifications for disobeying military discipline, for ignoring direct instructions to ceasefire. He decides his superiors have gone soft, and leads the more gung-ho elements on a series of helicopter attacks on nearby villages, once again, carpeting them in napalm and bombs, watching entire settlements – of sweet organic burrows mostly buried in the ground amid the roots of the great rainforests – going up in flames and watching the little creechies run around on fire.

Another Athshean attack

As you might expect, after some days of this there is a massive Athshean attack on Davidson’s camp. Amid all the explosions and confusion, Davidson and a few others make it to a helicopter and take off. In the dark night Davidson orders the pilot to return and strafe their own camp.

What I haven’t really brought out is the extent to which Davidson has gone nuts. From a technical point of view, one obvious interest in the narrative is the way Le Guin plots Davidson’s progression from gung-ho soldier, to disobedient officer and then onto crazed killer.

Davidson argues with both the other colonists in the chopper, including the one flying it. He gun-punches one of them, knocking him out and then, in a mad moment, turns out the cabin lights in the chopper – the aim being to see the lights of the flames from the camp so they can return and strafe it.

It’s only for a moment but it’s long enough for the chopper to lose enough height to crash into tress and then topple down through the treecover crashing down to within a few feet of the ground, in a way we’ve all seen in umpteen action movies. Davidson comes round from concussion, falls the few feet to the ground, realises that he’s slithering around in the sticky remains of the pilot’s body (yuk), has all kinds of delusory thoughts about flying back and killing everyone but…

Instead he regains consciousness and is confronted with his nemesis, Selver. Selver says he is mad. (There is a lot of rhetoric about madness and sanity in the book.) And so they’re going to do what they do with natives who go insane – take him to a desert island, in this case, one of the ones the humans have utterly devastated. Dazed Davidson feels a rope noose being lowered over his neck and capitulates.

Coda

The spaceship which dropped off the women colonists at the start? It’s back from its mission to some other planet bringing with it the only two grown-ups in the story, the Hainish and the Cetian representatives of the League of All Worlds.

They apologise to Selver (who has emerged as the leader of the Athsheans) for the behaviour of the colonists, and explain that the entire colony is shutting down. All the humans and all the equipment will be removed. No more humans will arrive or disturb them. Athshe has been made subject of a League Ban, and will be protected.

The last thought is Selver explaining how his culture considers new inventions or discoveries to originate in the dream world and be brought from there into the real world, and how those who bring them about are considered ‘gods’ (in their local language; in fact different from what we consider gods).

Anyway, the last thought is that his people consider him a god because he has brought forth organised fighting on a scale his world has never known. Now, sadly, he thinks his discovery of killing will not go away…

In this excerpt of the novel’s last page, Lepennon is the name of the Hainishman, Lyubov – although dead – continues to haunt Selver’s consciousness and Davidson – as we’ve seen – is alive but isolated on an island for the mad (something Lepennon and all the other Terrans are [ironically] unaware of.)

‘Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’

Lepennon laid his long hand on Selver’s hand, so quickly and gently that Selver accepted the touch as if the hand were not a stranger’s. The green-gold shadows of the ash leaves flickered over them.

‘But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason,’ Lepennon said, his face as anxious and sad as Lyubov’s face. ‘We shall go. Within two days we shall be gone. All of us. Forever. Then the forests of Athshe will be as they were before.’

Lyubov came out of the shadows of Selver’s mind and said, ‘I shall be here.’

‘Lyubov will be here,’ Selver said. ‘And Davidson will be here. Both of them. Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.’

Conclusion

This book should have thrilled me since a) I am interested in, and have read fairly extensively about, the Vietnam war:

and b) I like science fiction.

But, although it has some elements which showcase Le Guin’s characteristic Deep Thought (the sleep/dream culture which she invents and ascribes to the native species, as well as their cultural tradition of holding singing contests instead of fighting) – nonetheless, I was disgusted and repelled by the unrelenting, sickening violence of the story which simply, for me, had no redeeming feature.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Lord Berosty rem ir Ipe came to Thangering Fastness and offered forty beryls and half the year’s yield from his orchards as the price of a Foretelling, and the price was acceptable.

Le Guin’s anthropological approach

This is the second Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read and I’m beginning to realise why all the author blurbs, articles and essays about her tend to start with the fact that she was the daughter of an eminent anthropologist.

It’s because her books are interested in creating whole fictional societies – with languages, customs, social systems and networks and values different from ours – and then sending an outsider into them to explore them on our behalf.

These worlds are often, at root, so schematic that they are indeed like essays in sociology or politics or philosophy. This was very true of The Dispossessed, which amounted to a kind of thought experiment – what would happen if dissidents from an authoritarian capitalist system didn’t just leave their country, but left the entire planet to go and colonise another one, nearby, and set up a cash-free, government-free anarcho-syndicalist society?

To find out, let’s send an inhabitant of the poor but honest utopia back to the corrupt capitalist mother culture so that he (and the reader) can compare and contrast the two of them.

The Left Hand of Darkness dates from five years earlier, but the recipe is similar: imagine a planet with one dominating feature and two fully imagined and distinctive societies, then send in an outsider to explore it for us, report back to us, describe the climate and culture and customs and so on.

And that’s exactly what happens here. In this case it is the planet ‘Gethen’, which the first visitors from the Hainish Federation named Winter because it is, er, always winter – a deep freeze world, a world of snow and cold, ice and pine forests in the mist (and hence, we are informed, the sixty-two Karhidish words for different types and conditions of snow, p.169).

And so it is that the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of the reports of the envoy Genly Ai back to the Federation – or, to give it its proper name, the Ekumenical Scope.

Genly’s neat, chapter-sized reports are interspersed with folk tales and legends from Gethen which pad out our understanding of their people and folklore – and also the point of view of a completely different narrator, a high-born inhabitant of Gethen, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who gives his (or its – see below about hermaphroditism) own first-hand account of its adventures, which join up and then become utterly entwined with Genly’s.

Fantasy nomenclature

So I can see the fictional intention very clearly… but… but… I have real trouble buying into these fantasy novels.

The most obvious reason is the names. The names Le Guin gives planets, people and places and their customs are often so preposterous that I wonder if she’s daring people not to have a fit of the giggles.

Thus the envoy from the Ekumenical Scope is named Genly Ai, her initial contact at the court of King Argaven XV is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the text sounds like this:

[My story] starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide…

Ehrenrang. The book is absolutely crammed full of silly sci-fi fantasy names and people, and whether you take to it depends largely on whether you enjoy reading about made-up histories of made-up people with fake-exotic made-up names.

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Inner-land Faction.

As well as sounding plain silly, a more important issue I have with the names is their lack of depth. They all have an eerie sense of familiarity which, I think, is created by mashing up vague bastardised memories of medieval history, with exotic names which seem to have come out of the Central Asia of Genghiz Khan’s time. They all tremble on the edge of pastiche or parody.

‘You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years.’

The entire novel is written in this style, with this kind of clutter of faux-exotic names, all the way through, on every page. It’s not an original style. The names sound like they could come from Star Trek, the TV series of which came to an end the same year Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969. (Top Star Trek enemies included the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Lore, the Romulans, the Holodeck, any of whom could step easily into this book.)

So the degree of your enjoyment will depend on how much imaginative energy you want to invest in characters with names like Ong Tot Oppong, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and Lang Heo Hew. When I read about the summer palace at Warrever, I thought ‘whaddever’, indeed.

Hermaphroditism

Anyway, the regrettable thing is that – as in the Left Hand of Darkness – inextricably mixed up with the silly names are genuinely interesting ‘ideas’. The winter theme is developed up to a point, but far more dominant is the fact that all the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites. 

In her interest in sex and sex equality, Le Guin sometimes seems like a prophet of our own times, obsessed as we are with ‘gender’ and gender equality and gender issues and transgender rights and so on, and in this book she approaches it with characteristic thoroughness and imaginative depth.

Chapter Seven of the book is a report from another investigator from the Ekumen who, if I understand the dating system correctly, visited Gethen with the first landing party some 50 years before Genly, and wrote a thorough report on all aspects of the inhabitants’ hermaphroditism. Her name is Ong Tot Oppong (stop tittering at the back) but Le Guin’s working through of what a hermaphrodite society would really look and feel and think like makes for fascinating reading.

On the one hand there’s the biology – each Gethenite enters estrus for a week once every month, enters into a bond with another Gethenite, and then subtle hormonal changes decide which one will develop their latent male or female genitalia: everyone has them, it is in the subtle pair-bonding period that hormones decide which one will develop their genitals enough to be used. With the result that a Gethenite can both bear children and father children; may have borne children to one partner, but be father to the children of another partner. It matters not (her fake medieval style is catching) since the children (like the children in The Dispossessed) are taken away and raised communally.

Here, amid all the silly names and fantasy clutter, are some really thought-provoking ideas:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological
effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

The most striking speculation in this anthropologist’s report is that the absence of a fixed male or female gender may explain the absence of war, which can be seen as a vainglorious exaggeration of all the worst male characteristics (a theory attributed to the famous sociologist, Tumass Song Angot, p.96)

As in her treatment of an anarchist, egalitarian, propertyless society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin is excellent at thinking through her ideas to great depth and considering all their ramifications.

Thus her envoy gets caught up in the palace politics of Karhide (one of Gethen’s two major cultures) but the novel really binds and engrosses as we are drawn into his honest depiction of his confusion and difficulty in understanding such an alien condition – here, as in numerous other places, the anthropologist’s daughter is doing something really interesting.

Amazingly, by the end of the book, she has you seeing gendered human beings as the weird ones, with several of the intelligent Gethenites pointing out how tiresome, wearing and confusing it must be to be in heat all the time as humans, alone of all mammals, in fact are. In Gethenite society people in heat all the time are referred to as ‘perverts’ and the intelligent people Genly talks to find it hard to overcome their repulsion at the notion of humanoids living in such an icky, sticky condition.

Although, here again, with the best will in the world, I found myself stumbling over the way interesting ideas are inextricably tied up with ludicrous fantasy elements.

Take just the word Le Guin invents for the period during which Gethenite couples pair off – kemmering – it’s just one example of the many places where the high-minded thought experiments are undermined by the dubious or downright laughable words she coins.

At some moments, the narrative grips you as if they really were reports from a strange new world; but the next minute she gives out such an over-ripe burst of pseudo-medieval diction, or preposterous names, or silly made-up words, that I couldn’t help thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again.

‘And the Lord of Shath commandeth that thou shalt never kemmer again!” – Imagine John Cleese saying it

When Ai’s contact, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is banished for conspiring with the envoy – Genly Ai – to undermine the Kingdom of Karhide, Ai decides it’s also time to make himself scarce and so journeys into the mountains, faring through the passes of Wehoth, in the shadow of the Fastness of Ariskostor, in order to reach the Fastness of Otherhord, where dwell the nine legendary Foretellers of the Handdarra.

Is that anywhere near the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, I wanted to ask.

That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth…

Ah, the Question of Shorth. Of course, the world-changing Question of Shorth.

I think that Tolkien is the lord and master of fantasy fiction because he was well aware that he was channelling the myths and legends of North Europe into fictional form and, crucially,

  1. He knew those myths and legends inside out (he translated many of them)
  2. He knew their languages

The names in The Lord of The Rings have a just-so, just-right quality because Tolkien took many of them from existing Old English or Old German or Old Norse sources, and his intimate familiarity with the sources underpins every sentence.

Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and so his first study was words, words across the full range of Dark Age ad medieval Germanic languages, and so his use of words – and his invention of entire other languages, such as Elvish or Dwarvish – have a phenomenal amount of historical knowledge, authority and depth behind them.

With Le Guin and the hundreds of other authors who have written space fantasy, you have the opposite feeling: you get the sense that they’ve had this or that good idea for a planet (an egalitarian utopia, or a world of hermaphrodites, say) and have then mapped out a narrative which lets the protagonist explore the planet and its culture and customs in some depth – i.e. the ideas and the stories are often deeply worked out – and sometimes so thought-provoking as to be actually gripping…

But by lacking a profound rootedness in genuine myth and legend and, above all, by lacking a sure grasp of medieval languages, both the stories themselves and, above all, the names and the made-up words which play such a central role in sustaining belief in the made-up societies with their made-up customs, the words and names have a shallow, willed, at times laughable quality.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land.

The Domain of Stok.

Eastern religion

In the first sentence of Le Guin’s encyclopedia entry it tells you not only about her 1. being the child of a leading anthropologist, 2. about her interest in ‘gender’ but that 3. she was interested in Eastern philosophy, specifically Taoism.

This is not exactly buried in her fiction – it’s upfront and obvious in both the books I’ve read. In The Dispossessed it is cleverly integrated into the story because the main character is a physicist thinking about the nature of time in a way which overlaps the hard equations of physics with mystical speculations about the nature of time and being.

Here, the Eastern interest felt less integrated, more of a bolt-on tourist feature. Genly Ai tells us that in the kingdom of Karhide are those who practice Handdara and that:

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime…

I imagine the incorporation of pseudo-Eastern mysticism was one of the many elements which helped make The Left Hand of Darkness a cult classic in the late-1960s, and helped make Le Guin’s name as a kind of fantasy novelist for the Woodstock generation.

The book came out only a year after the Beatles went to stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, and the mystical chapters don’t hold back.

A hundred yards beyond him stood another statue, in blue and white; this one never moved or glanced our way all the time we talked with the first one. They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance – the Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance – involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence;

Or as George Harrison once said: ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’

Or as Jeff Beck put it: ‘You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – that’s where you’re at.’

I suppose that – as with the exploration of the anarcho-syndicalism in The Dispossessed – if this was the first place that you ever came across these Eastern and mystical ideas, then the book would make a deep impact on you, might become a kind of bible of new ideas for the impressionable schoolchild or student.

And at some moments the book does, in fact, express these and related ideas in powerful imaginative settings (amid fantasy mountain fastnesses, full of weird asexual monks), and gives some of the characters interesting and serious things to say:

‘The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action.’

But… but… When she describes the frenzied conclave of the filthy, possessed Foretellers of Otherhord, and the way the one in kemmer paws the other one, while those around screech their prophesy… My imaginative bond with the narrative snaps. The Domain of Stok, I think: Is that anywhere near the Fastness of Oxo?

Bible diction

One of the most irritating aspects of this kind of fantasy fiction is the way it shamelessly pastiches the diction of the King James translation of the Bible, on the assumption that readers will find it ‘profound’ and archaic and deep.

Being more familiar with the original King James text than with fantasy fiction, I can’t help finding all these efforts cheap and tacky, a quick-fix way of trying to win respect for the ‘depth’ of your fake folk tales or imaginary myths. Here’s a ripe slice of fake Bible from one of the ‘Gethenite legends’ which are interpolated throughout the text:

When Ennoch was an old man dwelling in the plains of Rer he met a man from his own country, and asked him, ‘How fares Shath Domain?’ The other told him that Shath fared ill. Nothing prospered there in hearth or tilth, all being blighted with illness, the spring seed frozen in the ground or the ripe grain rotten, and so it had been for many years. Then Ennoch told him, ‘I am Getheren of Shath’, and told him how he had gone up on the Ice and what he had met with there. At the end of his tale he said, ‘Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow.’ Not many days after this Getheren took sick and died. The traveler carried his words back to Shath, and they say that from that time on the domain prospered again, and all went as it should go in field and house and hearth. (p.25)

This is just a ridiculous pastiche of the Old Testament. Ennoch indeed. Any relation to the Biblical Enoch, by any chance? And yet, there is, as a glance at the jam-packed fantasy shelves in any bookshop will show, an enduring audience for this kind of would-be profound, pastiche Bible, fake medieval diction.

‘Seven years we were kemmerings, and had two sons. Being of his flesh born they had his name Foreth rem ir Osboth, and were reared in that Clanhearth. Three years ago he had gone to Orgny Fastness and he wore now the gold chain of a Celibate of the Foretellers.’

‘Being of his flesh born.’

Another example of the way this kind of fiction piggy-backs on the genuine otherness of Christianity, particularly Dark Age and medieval Christianity, is the way the clock is divided into First Hour, Second Hour, Third Hour etc, all announced with great seriousness, as if they weren’t a blatant rip-off of the liturgical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and so on. As if the ideas of mountain fastnesses where monks and holy men practice strange rites wasn’t entirely ripped off from more serious and worthy religions, ripped out of context and sellotaped into narratives about spaceships and alien envoys.

The book has a three-page appendix explaining in detail the period of Gethen’s orbit around its sun (8406 Standard Terran Hours), its daily orbit, the period of rotation of Gethen’s moon (26 days, in case you need to know), the Day and then the meaning of the Hours. Onnetherhad, the 18th of the month (p.61) (The Gethenites often think in terms of 13s, 26s and so on, a function of the lunar calendar, p.170)

I couldn’t help thinking, again and again, that this kind of fantasy fiction wants the praise and profundity of real myth and real religion – it borrows the clothes of the Bible and of pagan myth – without asking the reader to engage with any of the difficulty and the actual strangeness of genuine pagan myth – the difficulty of reading the strange and obscure Prose Edda, for example – or of the difficult doctrines of Christianity.

At its worst, it is a Big Mac version of religion and mysticism – cheap and garish and thin and insubstantial.

A universe of human

Unrelated to its rip-off of religious diction, there is another deeper problem with reading all sci fi stories of this ilk – which is the notion that humans, more or less like us, could be inhabiting numerous other planets around the universe.

The odds against there being loads of other planets inhabited by humanoid creatures are immense, and the odds against them being exactly the same shape and size and talking, and talking languages which we can learn pretty easily, are ridiculous.

Apparently, elsewhere in the ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels and stories she is explicit that the Hain are the oldest of all the inhabited peoples and they populated the other planets with humans like themselves. We really are all descended from one mother race. I like science fiction, so I like that as a sci fi idea, but it doesn’t quite totally get her off the hook. Having set out to be a ‘serious’ author and put forward ‘serious’ ideas, invites the fairly obvious thought humanoids ‘seeded’ across a wide variety of planets, millions of years ago, would in fact have evolved in all kinds of directions, into different shapes and abilities, and over one million years would have lost anything they’d originally had in common. Compare aborigenes and Indonesians whose lineages diverged only tens of thousands of years ago. A million years divergence would result in wild differences.

And yet, in the novels, the only difference between these races from different planets is some are a bit taller, some a bit shorter, some a bit hairier, some a bit smoother, than the others. they all basically think and speak and act alike, in fact they’ve got more in common than the inhabitants of the diverse London borough I live in (with its population of Asians, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Somalis and Eritreans, Nigerians and West Indians).

The plot

Terran envoy Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumenical Scope to explain to the king of Karhide, one of the several kingdoms on Gethen, that there is a universe of inhabited planets out there, organised into the Ekumen, and they wish to introduce the inhabitants of Gethen to it.

But King Argaven XV is mad. Genly has been working through the King’s Minister (known as the King’s Ear) Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. But the king doesn’t believe there is intelligent life in outer space and so thinks Ai is a spy and Estraven is conspiring with him to overthrow him, the king. So the king banished Estraven who packs his bags and heads east to the rival country of and Ai, after an edgy interview with the mad king, also realises it’s time to leave and himself travels to Orgoreyn.

He travels over the high snowy mountains where he makes a detour to witness the famous Foretellers in action – a chaotic shaman performance involving half madmen, but which does climax with an answer he set them: will Gethen be in the Ekumen within five years? The answer is Yes.

Estraven is replaced by the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and when it is announced that King Argaven XV is pregnant it begins to look like a coup by Tibe.

Meanwhile, Ai is received by the Orgata authorities and impressed by the quickness and efficiency of its bureaucracy and the orderliness of its countryside and capital city. Ai gives a dry factual anthropological report on their habits, especially their child-rearing, and how, since everything is owned and run by the state, there is full employment. The Orgata are very different from the Karhiders –

Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. (p.173)

He is placed in the enthusiastic hands of Commissioner Shusgis. To his surprise, at a banquet, he finds himself sitting next to Esraven. Estraven had quite a torrid time of it after he left the court, working his way along the coast as a lowly fish-worker, until spotted and picked up by the Orgata authorities.

There are complicated manoeuvres between characters, but basically none of the Orgatas believe Ai and she is abruptly arrested one night, after having been a guest a a government feast, taken to a big prison, injected with truth drugs and interrogated for days.

When she comes to she is one among 26 or so prisoners, stripped naked, covered in vomit and faces, trapped in the sealed metal back of some horse-drawn cart which spends days and days climbing higher into the mountains, with no food, and only a jar of water once a day between them, as one by one they die off or huddle together for filthy body warmth.

Genly arrives at a labour camp up in the frozen snowy north – the so-called Pulefen Farm – and describes the brutal regime, lack of food, sleeping facilities etc. It is clearly a pastiche of a Soviet labour camp, but without the dignity or authority of being real. For real descriptions of labour camps, read:

Estraven, back in the Orgata capital of Mishnory, having noticed Ai’s disappearance and realised the sceptics on the Grand Commensal didn’t believe his story and so probably also think Estraven must be some kind of traitor in league with him – decides to sneak out of Mishnory.

This he does, fabricating a pass as the fishermen he spent some time with showed him. He buys a sledge and food and joins a trapping party heading north, but then ducks out and off to the labour camp where he has discovered Ai is being held.

And he rescues him. He changes his papers to those of a prison guard, is accepted at the camp and learns the chores and routine, then one night stuns Ai’s (already sleeping unconscious) body, claims he’s dead so as to get past several sets of guards, then invokes the mystical strength, the dothe which adepts at Handdara can call on, to carry Ai’s body to the sledge he’s hidden in the forest, complete with tent and provisions.

Over the next few days both of them recover in the tent, eating the food, lighting small fires, sleeping, and then… the rescue turns into the largest single section of the book, the last third or so, occupying pages 190 to 290 of the 300-page SF Masterworks paperback.

Genly having handed over his ansible, the only way he has of contacting the Ekumenical spaceship which is out in space waiting a message from him – over to Orgata officials, and having been stripped absolutely naked before being shipped off to the labour camp; and Estraven having rescued him but himself now at risk of arrest for disappearing from official view in Mishnore, let alone helping Geny escape…

The only thing for this unlikely and reluctant pair to do is to embark on a massive, heroic, epic seventy-five day hike across the ice caps of Gethen, experiencing blizzards, snowstorms, slippery glaciers and treacherous crevices, by day strapped up to the sledge bearing all their kit, by night huddled in a small (but conveniently hi-tech and efficient) tent, round the (conveniently small, light and durable heater-cum-stove) warming up the (conveniently freeze-dried and light, nutritious) food blocks in a pan of warmed ice.

his is the core of the book, its narrative but especially its emotional core because, mirabile dictu, what happens is Genly finds himself falling in love with Estraven; while Estraven undergoes kemmering during the epic journey and delicately tells Genly he must avoid contact with him.

Both characters, therefore, undergo feelings and emotions quite outside the limit of human experience. Suddenly – as in the final sections of The Dispossessed – finally, you feel you’ve arrived at the core of a far more serious and searching and mysterious and wonderful work of fiction than the opening sections suggested.

Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen showing the two main states of Orgoreyn and Karhide, and the (top left) route of Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice

The long journey and the shared privations, risks, fears and experiences of extreme cold, frostbite, snowstorms and so on which the pair experience together are the heart of the book.

The silly names fade away, for the pair could be sledging across Antarctica or Canada or Siberia. What is weird and wonderful is that Le Guin draws you into the eerie possibility of a previously unknown, unnamed emotion felt between a male human and a hermaphrodite alien. The book takes you to an entirely new place never before explored in literature. This is why it won prizes and made her name, not for the tiresome fol-de-rol about Ennoch of Rer and the Indwellers of Otherhord.

So deep does the pair’s suffering and endurance go, that Genly offers to teach Estraven the off-world skill of telepathy and after many failed attempts, finally manages to speak directly into the latter’s head – although, in a moment which is clearly meant to be deeply moving – he speaks in the voice of Estraven’s long-lost, estranged and dead younger brother – causing the Gethenite to shout with terror.

Eventually the pair survive their immense ordeal and come down into the villages of northern Karhide where they are made welcome in the way of all travellers in folk stories. good honest yeomen who don’t have much but share what they have with an open heart. Ooo-ar.

Except that the kindly old man who gives them shelter in fact betrays them to the Karhide authorities and Estraven, unwisely, tries to make a run for it on his skis across the snowy landscape.

He is shot down at the border by Karhidish gaurds who have been tipped off. As in a thousand buddy, adventure and war movies, his friend and – at least in emotional terms – his lover, the bewildered Genly, skis up just in time to hold Estraven’s gashed body as the Gethenite breathes his last.

Shocked and stunned, Genly is taken off by the guards to Ehrenrang, where he is treated kindly, given a personal doctor, lots of food and then meets the king again. This time they believe him, and he signals his spaceship to land.

Like so many voyagers to distant lands he now finds the appearance of his gendered colleagues – half tall and deep-voiced, half shorter and light-voiced – repulsive. This notion, of the traveller who has stayed so long with another race that he now finds his own people repulsive, dates back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, at the end of which, after living among the peaceful horse-like creatures for so long Gulliver finds he can’t stand the sight of his own hairy, savage brethren. And that was back in 1726. Two hundred and fifty three years before the Left Hand of Darkness was published.

As so often with genre fiction, with sci fi or fantasy, they sell themselves as being somehow bold new innovations and exciting new ideas – but they are, in fact, old old old fictional ideas, deliberately told in an old old old fake-Bible, faux-medieval diction.

Glossary

I compiled a glossary, for my own reference, and to give a sense of the made-up vocabulary.

Places

  • Ekumenical Scope – name of the federation of 83 inhabited planets (p.34)
  • Ehrenrang – capital of Karhide
  • Gethen – planet the book is set on
  • Hain –  the Prime World of the Ekumenical Scope (p.37)
  • Karhide – one of the nations of Gethen
  • Kerm Land
  • Kuseben on the Gulf, 85 miles from Ehrenrang (p.72)
  • Mishnory – capital of Orgereyn
  • Orgny Fastness – there are lots of fastnesses, remote communities up in the mountains
  • Orgoreyn – Karhide’s rival and neighbour: Orgota, adjective meaning of Orgoreyn
  • Otherhord – where the Indwellers of Otherhord live
  • the Pering Stormborder
  • Sassinoth – disputed location between Karhide and Orgoreyn
  • Terra – earth

Names

  • the Foretellers – go into a kind of trance and can tell the future
  • Genly Ai – Ekumen envoy to Gethen and main narrator of the story
  • halfdeads – Karhidish slang for the infertile
  • Handdara – mystical religion – Handdarata – followers of Handdara
  • the Indwellers or Otherhord
  • King Argaven XV of Karhide
  • Lord Meshe – figurehead of the Yomeshta, born 2,202 years ago (p.47) founder of the Yomesh cult (p.60)
  • the Lord of Shorth – come on, everyone knows who the Lord of Shorth is
  • Commensal Obsle –
  • Ong Tot Oppong – undercover Ekumenical visitor to Gethen, who compiles a detailed report on the natives’ hermaphroditism
  • Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe – King Argaven’s cousin, takes over running Karhide
  • Stabile – the Stabiles are the senior officials of the Ekumen who Ai reports back to (p.16)
  • Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – formerly chief minister to King Argaven, goes into exile and narrates a number of the chapters
  • Yegey –

Things

  • amha – parent in the flesh (p.92)
  • ansible – instant communicator owned by Hainish envoys, explained on page 37
  • Commensals – the Great Commensality of Orgoreyn is divided into 33 commensals or districts
  • dothe-strength cf thangen-sleep – deep sleep, ‘the dark sleep’, after you’ve willed a period of dothe-strength (p.196)
  • farfetching – Hainish word for training given to envoys in forming a holistic picture of the society they’re investigating (p.146)
  • foray – Getheian word for attack, violence
  • gossiwor – musical instrument played in royal processions
  • kemmer – process of sexualisation and emotional attachment which allows Gethenians to mate;
    • secher – first phase of kemmer
    • thorharmen – second phase of kemmer
    • thokemmer – culminant phase of kemmer
    • oskyommer – vowing kemmering to another Gethenian
  • the kyorremy , the upper chamber or parliament in Karhide which Estraven heads
  • lifewater – a drink (p.84), ‘a fierce licquor’ (p.134)
  • mind-speech – telepathy, brought to Terra by Rokkanians, according to Genly
  • nusuth – no matter, the wilful wish for ignorance among the Handdara
  • orsh – ‘a brown, sweetsour drink, strong in vitamins A and C, sugar, and a pleasant stimulant related to lobeline’
  • sarf – gutter Orgata meaning ‘trash’
  • shifgrethor – prestige, place, pride (p.13)
  • thore-forest – deep snowy pine forest

‘I’m a Yomeshta, praise to the nine hundred Throne-Upholders and blest be the Milk of Meshe, and one can be a Yomeshta anywhere. We’re a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that.’

Credit

The Left Hand of Darkness by Usrula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1969. All references are to the 2017 SF Masterworks paperback edition.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

John Opie @ Tate Britain

Tate Britain is labyrinthine enough to have half a dozen side rooms and spaces where it mounts small (and sometimes not so small) ‘spotlight’ exhibitions, focusing on a particular topic or artist.

In a modest room off the main atrium, little more than a glorified corridor, Tate Britain is hosting a small but beautifully formed exhibition about the painting and cultural environment of the late-eighteenth century English painter, John Opie (1761 – 1807).

The Cornish Wonder

Opie’s success is surprising because of his background. In the late eighteenth century artists generally came from artistic families, or from educated, middle-class homes where their interest in such a risky career could be indulged.

In contrast, Opie was born at St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a mine carpenter. Although he did attend school, he was probably largely self-educated. A wealthy local couple later reported that he visited the library in their house and ‘read every book in it’. But Opie’s father opposed his intellectual and artistic interests, and trained him as a carpenter.

Opie’s life was transformed when he encountered the poet and art critic, Dr John Wolcot, who brought Opie to London and launched him on his career. Wolcot became the painter’s manager, taking a cut of his earnings and helped him gain fame as a sort of self-taught genius. Opie’s dramatic style and mastery of light and shade that prompted comparisons with the most admired Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and earned him the reputation of ‘the Cornish wonder’.

Portrait of the Artist by John Opie (c.1790)

The common people

When Opie first came to London, much was made of his humble origins. The Peasant’s Family is a good example of his dignified images of ordinary people. One critic wrote:

Could people in vulgar life [the working-class] afford to pay for pictures, Opie would be their man.

Little is known of the early history of this painting. There is no documentation to prove without doubt that Opie painted it, but it has always been accepted as by him.

The Peasant’s Family by John Opie (c.1783-5)

Portraits

Opie produced portraits and subject paintings of striking originality and realism. Although little-known today, his work created a sensation in exhibitions during his lifetime. Opie was working at a time when fame was becoming an increasingly important part of artistic success. Artists jostled to grab public attention, painting more flamboyant and dramatic pictures.

We do not know the identity of the woman in this painting who is depicted as the heroine of Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida, but she is probably a celebrity or actress who contemporary viewers would have recognised.

Portrait of a Lady in the Character of Cressida by John Opie (1800)

Radicals

Mary Wollstonecraft was a ground-breaking feminist. This portrait shows her looking directly towards us, temporarily distracted from her studies. Such a pose would more typically be used for a male sitter. Women would normally be presented as more passive, often gazing away from the viewer like Cressida above.

The painting dates to around the time she published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). This argued against the idea that women were naturally inferior to men and emphasised the importance of education.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie ( c.1790-1)

The intellectual milieu

In fact Opie was part of the leading radical circles of the day. After the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and then Britain went to war with revolutionary France in 1793, radical beliefs of any sort became dangerous, but Opie was part of a liberal metropolitan circle which included Wollstonecraft, her philosopher husband William Godwin and the ‘sensation’ painter Henry Fuseli.

Aside from the portraits, one of the most interesting exhibits here is an elaborate anti-radical cartoon by the famous Georgian caricaturist James Gillray. It depicts sequences from a long anti-revolutionary poem by George Canning.

The caricature warns of post-apocalyptic world where evil has triumphed, where the president of the French Directory (Revelliere-Lepeaux) is being installed at St Paul’s Cathedral as the head of a new religion named ‘theophilanthropy’, and where the Leviathan arrives accompanied (and ridden) by an extensive retinue of triumphant British followers waving their revolutionary bonnets rouges.

NEW MORALITY, or, The promis’d Installment of the High Priest of the THEOPHILANTHROPES, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite by James Gillray (1798)

As intended, it’s fun reading the elaborate caption under the cartoon and trying to identify the contemporary political and intellectual figures who are being so thoroughly lampooned. And the wall label tells us that Opie in fact painted many of these ridiculed radicals – including Charles James Fox, John Nichols, Lord Moira and Samuel Whitbread, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Stanhope, the scientist Joseph Priestley and the radical John Horne Tooke.

The ‘cornucopia of ignorance’ which the acolytes are emptying before the altar contains works by Mary Wollstonecroft, the playwright Thomas Holcroft, and the novelist Charlotte Smith, all of whom had sat for Opie.

Amelia Opie

And he married someone from this progressive world – the liberal novelist and poet Amelia Alderson.

Amelia Opie by John Opie (1798)

Amelia was the daughter of a successful physician. She was already gaining notice as a writer with strong liberal and radical sympathies when she met John around 1796. He probably painted this wonderfully feeling portrait in 1798, the year of their marriage. As Amelia Opie she went on to achieve success as a novelist, poet and political activist, especially against the slave trade.

Early death

Despite his unconventional manners and his resolutely working class origins (his father in law was revolted by his table manners; even his wife admitted his studio was like a ‘pigsty’), John carved a career for himself in London’s fast-moving and competitive art market. He had just been made Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy when he died suddenly, at the early age of 45. For the rest of her life, Amelia did much to promote his memory and achievement.

Thoughts

This is a charming, funny and interesting little display. There must be hundreds of similarly obscure and forgotten British painters who would benefit from the same care and attention.


Related links

  • John Opie continues at Tate Britain until 23 February 2020 and it is FREE

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Käthe Kollwitz @ the British Museum

This is a really brilliant exhibition. Kollwitz is a genius and this is a searing, dazzling, breath-taking exhibition of 48 of her best prints – and it is FREE! You should go see it.

Biography

Kollwitz (1867–1945) was the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a radical Social democrat, and Katherina Schmidt, daughter of a freethinking pastor. She was born and raised in Koenigsberg in East Prussia. Two key points: her family were committed socialists who exposed her to the social realist novels of Zola et al, as well as discussing the social issues of the day – supported her through her art school studies.

The result was that her work, throughout her life, was devoted to the suffering of the poor – especially poor women – and a particular interest in moments of rebellion and uprising and social conflict.

Plate 2 Death from A Weavers Revolt (1893-97) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Berlin

After studying art in Berlin and Munich, in 1891 Kollwitz moved permanently to Berlin, when she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor. They lived near his practice in a poor working class district of the rapidly growing city. They were both politically committed special democrats, and it shows, God it shows, in a series of dark, raw and intense prints showing the harrowing poverty and squalor of working class life.

Between 1908 and 1910 she made fourteen drawings in this realist style for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, on social realist themes such as unemployment, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy and suicide, including this one.

Unemployment (1909) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the captions refers to the plasticity of her style, the superb modelling of faces and bodies. In a work like Unemployment this comes over in the dramatic contrast between the faces of the two toddlers and the baby on the bed, and the sparseness and vagueness of other areas of the composition, notably the hard troubled faces of the two adults. These key areas are soft and sensitive, while the surroundings – and the brooding figure on the left – feel harsher, darker, rebarbative.

As early as 1888, aged 21 and at the Women’s Art School in Munich, she had realized her strength was not as a painter, but a draughtswoman, and the strength and shape and depth of all the compositions here is wonderful. Thus her increasing focus on the techniques of etching, lithography and woodcuts.

Series

Paintings are often one-off affairs which can be sold at a premium (especially if commissioned by a rich patron), but the effort required in making prints, etchings and woodcuts has meant that artists often conceive of them as series, to be produced and sold in limited runs, and maybe collected into books.

The Weavers – Six prints, 1897-8

Kollwitz based her first series on a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langenbielau and their failed revolt in 1844. She produced three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). See the grim image which opens this review. When they were exhibited in 1898 they made her name.

The Peasants War – Seven prints, 1902-1908

Kollwitz’s second major cycle of works was the Peasants War which occupied her from 1902 to 1908. This was another rebellion of the workers, in this case the maltreated peasants who rose up against their feudal lords in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in 1525, and were eventually defeated in a bloodbath.

Plate 5 Outbreak from The Peasants War (1902-3) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

At first sight there is a tremendous dynamism in this image, with the figure of the woman rousing and encouraging the men dominating the foreground. Looking closer I was struck by the ape-like clumpiness of many of the peasants – look at the man on the right. This heaviness, this simian Neanderathal appearance, seems to bespeak their status as oppressed serfs, as people who are in fact, barely human, so low have they been degraded.

All the images are tremendous but I was thrilled by Arming in the vault where she uses dark and light to convey the sense of a great horde of proletarians emerging from the underworld, armed to the teeth, ready to cause havoc.

And there is a detailed and devastating print titled simply Raped which shows the foreshortened body of a woman lying amid dead leaves in an orchard or garden, wearing a skirt but her hard peasant’s feet and calves and knees towards us, while lost in the overhanging trees, her young son looks down at her ravaged body. Note how the woman’s head is set at an unnatural angle, lying back into the leaves.

Sensuality

But alongside the historical-political series, Kollwitz also produced images of startling sensuality. They date from the early 1900s after she had made several trips to Paris and been amazed at the colourfulness and vivacity of its streets and social life as well as its brilliant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. The experience inspired experiments in sensual and also with colour. This female nude is stunning. I found the pinpoint accuracy of the draughtsmanship breathtaking.

Female nude seen from the back with green shawl (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Self portraits

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography, of which about 50 are self-portraits. The wall labels tell us that she also kept extensive diaries and wrote many letters describing and analysing her own feelings, her art and career.

One wall of the show is devoted to half a dozen or so self-portraits which showcase her tremendous draughtsmanship and accuracy, along with a deep brooding gaze, and the ability to capture mood and personality to a spooky extent. She is as harsh and unforgiving on herself as she is on her grim peasants and mourning mothers. What technique! What a godlike gift for capturing the intensity of the human soul!

Self Portrait (1924) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Great War

Then Europe went to war and her youngest son, Peter, aged 18, volunteered, marched off, and was killed in October 1914. The suffering of poor mothers had been a constant topic of her social-realist work, and – eerily enough – a decade earlier she had created this haunting image of a mother cradling a dead son, for which she had herself modelled, holding the self-same Peter as a seven-year-old boy.

Woman with dead child (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

In fact the exhibition contains three of the eight working versions of this work, which demonstrate how she created, modelled and evolved her way towards the final image, a fascinating insight into her technique.

The War series – Seven woodcuts, 1922-23

The loss of her son, and the slow strangulation of Germany caused by the Allied blockade, the loss of so many sons and husbands, as well as the gradual impoverishment of the entire nation, burned and purified her art to its essence, resulting in the scathing series of woodcuts she titled simply War.

God! How searing and blistering are her stark woodcut prints of mourning mothers and starving people, carved out of what look like blocks of coal, or ancient fossilised trees, images which reach right down into the roots of the earth, deep into the lineage of human experience.

All the light and shade, the modelling and depth and (sometimes brutal) sensuality of the earlier works has been burnt away in the fires of war. Now Anguish speaks in stark flat images dominated by lignite black, from which lined and haggard faces emerge like nightmares.

Plate 7 The People from the War series (1922) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

All seven of the War prints are here – The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People – ranged along the opening wall, bringing a new visual intensity to her approach.

It’s that emotional intensity and the stark black and white of the images which leads some histories to group her with the German Expressionists, except that the Expressionists were mostly a pre-war movement, and Kollwitz’s pre-war images had been much more smooth and naturalistic, as we have seen.

In fact Kollwitz went on producing work into the 1930s and indeed up till her death, in 1945. Her last great series of prints was the Death cycle of the mid-1930s.

Death Cycle, Eight prints, 1930s

Her last great cycle rotated around the figure of Death and consisted of: Woman Welcoming Death, Death with Girl in Lap, Death Reaches for a Group of Children, Death Struggles with a Woman, Death on the Highway, Death as a Friend, Death in the Water, and The Call of Death.

It marks a return to lithographs, with their ability to give depth and shade, unlike the medieval starkness of the war woodcuts. And also a return of the Neanderthal or simian quality which recurs throughout many of the harsher works, gaunt images of creatures who are barely human, with thick, knotty hands and feet. Big, clunky hands and especially feet, bony feet, huge knuckled feet, used to carrying burdens and long days of physical labour, are a trademark feature of her work, even in so ‘tender’ an image as Woman holding a dead child, the knees and feet are prominent and brutal.

Plate 8 Call of Death from the Death series (1937) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

This one, Call of Death, reminded me of Holocaust or Gulag or prisoner of war imagery. Homo redux, reduced by the crimes and the atrocities of the twentieth century to a bare minimum, barely human rump. And of the great poem, Death is a Master from Germany, written at the end of the war by Paul Celan.

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

Summary

All of the images in this exhibition are brilliant. I honestly can’t think of another exhibition I’ve ever been to where the quality of all the works is so uniformly high. The images of peasants pulling ploughs in muddy, wet fields, with harnesses round their necks are searing.

The barely human, half-apes sharpening their scythes from the Peasants War series are terrifying.

The woodcut she made commemorating the funeral of Communist agitator Karl Liebknecht is a great piece of popular art, albeit in a dubious cause (Liebknecht wanted to bring Leninist rule to Germany, but was murdered by right-wing militias in 1919 during the chaotic street fighting which followed the collapse of the German Empire. Same year Kollwitz was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. In letters she is recorded as explaining she had no sympathy for his cause, but was moved by the huge crowds of working class mourners who attended his funeral, the class she had been depicting for decades.)

Even before the Great War she was a well-established artist in her genre, which was acknowledged by her receiving the position at the Prussian Academy immediately it ended. But between the wars she developed a reputation not only in America (land of the rich collector) but, amazingly, in inter-war China, riven by civil war and Japanese invasions, where her blistering images of the poorest of the poor peasants working the land influenced the Woodcut Movement among socially conscious artists in that vast, peasant-based country. Her Peasants War work was seen by, and directly influenced, the Chinese artist Li Hua, who founded the Modern Woodcut Society at the Guangzhou Art School in 1934.

Struggle (1947) by Li Hua © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Campbell Dodgson collection

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography. This exhibition features 48. Why these 48 and no others? Because these prints were collected by Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings (1893–1932) who then bequeathed them to the British Museum in 1948. Dodgson was influenced by his colleague Max Lehrs of the Dresden and Berlin Print Rooms – Kollwitz’s first and greatest champion – and acquired as many of her works as he could.

And then donated them to the museum. And now all 48 are on display here, along with generous picture captions and labels which give full explanations of her life and work and the motivation and process behind each one of these wonderful works. She is a really great, great artist. This exhibition is FREE. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Death and woman (1910) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum


Related links

Germany between the wars

Art and culture

History

Victorian poverty and violence

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)

Cassandra Darke is 71 years old, which is an immediate change and relief from the protagonists of Posy Simmonds’s two previous graphic novels, Gemma Bovery and Tamara Darke, who were both nubile, lithe, sexy, twenty-something, young women whose lives revolved around a series of romantic ‘liaisons’.

By complete contrast, right from the start of this book we are in the company of, and listening to the narrating voice of, plump and bustling, grumpy old misanthrope Cassandrara who is more than usually bad-tempered because it is Christmas-time and we know from her previous cartoon strip that Posy Simmonds particularly dislikes Christmas, as does her Scrooge-like creation.

However, if the reader thinks they’ve escaped from ‘Simmonds World’, a smug, self-centred world of upper-middle-class, white London professionals, where all the women are obsessed by men and define themselves by their sexual relations (or lack of) with men – they would be wrong.

The character of Cassandra is great – she doesn’t give a stuff about anything, swears freely and has a bad word for everyone, but, barely had I started enjoying her rude obnoxious character than – like all Simmonds’s women – she began to define herself, and her life and career, in terms of men, starting with her husband, Freddie.

Thus it was forty years earlier that Freddie and Cassandra set up a swish art gallery together. However, some time later Freddie ran off with Cassandra’s half-sister, Margot, and the pair got divorced. Cassandra was able to carry on earning a living by dealing art from home, and from writing. Then, decades later, Cassandra bumped into Freddie at an art fair and he told her he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and asked if she like to take over the old gallery from him. She agreed to.

Anyway, this is all background to the issue which dominates the opening pages, which is that Cassandra has been caught dealing fake copies of valuable sculptures. She has charged a rich American collector £400,000 for an illegal copy of a limited edition modern piece of sculpture and he has found this out and sent her a letter threatening to take her to court.

Thus the book opens on a note of unease as Cassandra, although in posh Burlington Arcade surrounded by happy Christmas shoppers, is show trying to avoid the widow of the sculptor in question, and delays going back to the gallery, strongly suspecting that bad news is waiting for her. As it is.

In a sequence which is now shown but briefly referred to, Cassandra is duly tried and convicted of fraud, her case being reported in sundry newspapers. She might well have gone to prison but – being posh – is let off by the (woman) judge with a hefty fine and told to do community service.

Nonetheless, she still has to sell off her private art collection and the house in Brittany (I know: imagine the heartbreak of having to sell your house in Brittany!) to pay the fine.

Here is the first page of the book, establishing Cassandra’s look and character, and the central London setting of most of the story, and straightaway the sense that something is wrong. Cassandra is trying to avoid Jane McMullen, wife of the sculptor whose work she has fraudulently sold, and who – it turns out – is looking for her in order to deliver the letter which accuses her of dealing in fakes.

First page showing Cassandra emerging from Burlington Arcade and spotting an old acquaintance she wants to avoid © Posy Simmonds

December 2017

The accusations, her arrest, and trial and conviction and sentence are all dealt with very quickly, and the narrative jumps to a year later, December 2017, as Cassandra is nearing the end of her community service.

We now find Cassandra without work but still living in her nice house in ‘Osmington Square, SW3’ i.e. Chelsea, nowadays populated by rich Chinese and Russian billionaires and their wives and nannies.

Osmington Square, where Cassandra lives, mostly empty apart from a few Russian or Chinese nannies and their charges © Posy Simmonds

Cassandra gets home to find an invitation to Freddie’s memorial service – the Alzheimer’s has finally killed him. She takes a taxi to the service and hides up in the gallery of the Mayfair church, making acerbic comments about all the other attendees, including her half-sister Margot (who Freddie ran off with all those years ago) and Margot and Freddie’s grown-up daughter, Nicki, who Cassandra cheerfully refers to as a ‘shit’.

Then Cassandra sneaks out and walks through the dark Christmas London streets, morbidly reflecting on Freddie’s sad decline into senility, thinking how she would prefer to commit suicide than end up like that, and then weighing the different methods of killing yourself. Cheerful stuff!

Cassandra ponders different ways to kill herself © Posy Simmonds

Once home, Cassandra finds gravel in her kitchen which looks like it must have come from her small back garden, and at first panics and thinks someone has broken in. But she discovers nothing has been stolen, calms down, and then decides it must be Freddie and Margot’s grown-up daughter Nicki, who she let stay in the downstairs flat the previous year, and for some reason has come into the main house.

Cassandra goes down to the basement flat to explore, and finds some dirty clothes and then, rummaging in the linen basket – finds A GUN, a pistol! Christ!

A gun and a peculiar pink glove with kind of raised blotches on it, and a little make-up bag, all bundled up in dirty linen and stuffed at the bottom of the bin! What is Nicki involved in?

Cassandra goes back to the house and sits obsessively running through all the other people who have had access to the flat, for example the two different cleaners she’s used, any other friends or relations… but keeps coming back to Nicki, bloody Nicki. A GUN! What the hell is she doing leaving a GUN in her flat?

The events of 2016

In order to discover how we got here the narrative undergoes a big flashback, going back in time a year to the middle of 2016. It was then that Nicki Boult, Freddie and Margot’s daughter, turned up out of the blue at Cassandra’s gallery, saying that she was broke, had lost her studio in Deptford and her share of a flat, and asking Cassandra if she can stay?

After initially saying No, Cassandra relents and says Nicki can stay in the basement flat providing she earns her keep by doing regular chores for Cassandra.

Nicki Boult arrives, asking Cassandra for a job or a place to stay © Posy Simmonds

(As a side note, Cassandra tells us about Nicki’s art, which is a kind of performance art. Nicki goes to galleries and stands in front of paintings of women being harassed, attacked or raped, copies their poses or has written on her body or clothes the message RAPE IS NOT ART and has a friend video it all. Radical, eh? As Cassandra sourly points out: ‘And you think that people can’t work that out for themselves?’)

Anyway, Nicki moves in and is soon helping Cassandra with all sorts of chores from walking her repellent little pug, Corker, to helping with prints and such. We see Cassandra going about her usual day, being rude to everyone she can – telling kids cycling on the pavement to get off, calling a jogger a ‘prancing ponce’, insisting a woman pick up the poo her dog has just deposited, and so on. She’s a great stroppy old woman.

Cassandra being fabulously rude to everyday people in the street (French translation) © Posy Simmonds

So the pair’s daily routine is established and settled by the time of the first big important sequence in the plot, which is the hen party of Nicki’s friend, Mia. Nicki doesn’t really want to go, not least because Mia’s booked a burlesque session to kick-start the evening, but reluctantly she dresses up as a cowgirl, wearing kinky boots, a pink tutu, a pink bra and pink cowboy hat. She looks like a strippagram.

She is, in fact, another one of Posy Simmonds’s nubile, leggy, twenty-something, single women who look so sexy in a bra and panties (cf all the pics of Gemma Bovery stripped naked or in black stockings and suspenders.)

Nicki at Mia’s hen night, in her pink tutu and bra, and drinking too much © Posy Simmonds

Nicki goes to the party but is ill at ease and drinks too much. The girls play a game of Dare and Nicki’s dare is to get a phone number off a complete stranger, so she is egged on to go up to the bar and approach a rough but handsome dude for his number. Drunkenly, Nicki gives him Cassandra’s name and phone number, but when it’s his turn to give his, as the dare demands, the guy refuses. He and his mates are moving on so he asks if she wants to come? But Nicki realises she’s drunk too much, is going to be sick, and stumbles downstairs to the loo.

Suddenly the stubbly guy from the bar appears behind her, puts his hand over her mouth and pushes her into a side room, presumably intending to rape her. Nicki bites the hand over her mouth drawing blood. The guy slaps her and grabs her again but she reaches down and back to grab his balls and squeezes. The guy loses his hold and staggers backwards, allowing Nicki to escape into the girls toilet. Here she waits and waits until the coast is clear, stumbles back upstairs to her friends, half explains what happened, wraps her coat around her, they’ve called an Uber for her. But!! The guy and his mates are still hanging round outside, so she dodges into an alleyway.

Here Nicki is terrified to discover another young man lurking in the shadows (men! they’re everywhere!) but this one is friendly and guesses she’s hiding from the three bad guys. He tells her when they’ve gone and she stumbles back into the street, orders another Uber, staggers out of it up to Cassandra’s front door because she realises she’s lost her keys… incoherent.. Cassandra looks at the state she’s in with disgust.

Next morning Cassandra is going about her business when she is surprised to get a text on her phone: ‘Big mistake Cassandra!! Break yr fucking legs thats a promise cunt’. It’s from the would-be rapist – remember, Nicki gave him Cassandra’s name and phone number. Amusingly, Cassandra thinks this txt might be from a rival art collector and sends a rude text back, only to receive another: ‘ur dead meat whore’.

Much puzzled, Cassandra returns from a little walk to find a young man on her doorstep, very polite, looking for ‘the young lady’. Cassandra guesses he means Nicki and explains that Nicki lives in the basement flat.

Cassandra gets on with her day. It’s a Sunday and since her ‘lady who does’, Elsa, doesn’t come at the weekend, Cassandra has to fix her own lunch (fix her own lunch! I know, how dreadful! Personally, I am continually brought up dead by the little details in all Posy Simmonds’s graphic novels which indicate just how posh and privileged her character are: not actual aristocracy, just used to a certain level of culture and education and savoir vivre – fine food, fine wine, fine art, fine writing.)

Cassandra phones the rival art dealer and quickly discovers it’s not him sending the texts. In fact, while they’re talking, another abusive txt arrives, plus a photo of whoever it is’s dick. Cassandra is too mature to be offended, just startled and puzzled.

Later Nicki surfaces. She has been for a walk and a chat with that bloke she met briefly in the alleyway, now we learn he’s called Billy. How did he find her? Last night, drunk, she dropped her keys in the alley, which had her address on them. Now Billy tells us more about the would-be rapist and txt abuser. He’s Dean Hart, a nasty piece of work. Billy gives her a full profile: he and Deano grew up together, they used to hang out and do graffiti together, then Deano went a bit mental, took to snorting coke and gambling, supported by his family who are East End crooks.

Later, we see Billy on his way home, back to his mum’s flat in a tower block. He is waylaid by some of Deano’s sidekicks who tell him Deano wants to see him. (This and the subsequent conversation Billy has with his plump, working class mum are a welcome change from the bourgeois writer-and-art-dealer class Simmonds usually deals with.) Billy’s mum said someone called round asking for him, a Dean something. Billy says, ‘Next time tell him I don’t live here any more, I’ve moved out.’ He packs his things and leaves, walking away from the East End council flats…

Simmonds and her young women: love love love is still on Nicki’s mind. It is, after all, weeks since Nicki’s last relationship, weeks, people! So she obviously needs a new man in her life asap. All Simmonds’s heroines can’t function without a man (Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe and now Nicki). Thus she goes out for a drink with Billy, their eyes meet, she wonders whether he fancies her? Ooh-er, it’s so exciting! They leave the pub, snog, walk, then run back to the basement flat for a shag.

Trouble is, Billy’s in a fix. Not only has he not gone to meet Deano as his minders told him to – he’s got something that belongs to Deano – a GUN!

Down in the basement, after the shag, Billy tells her more. A while ago Deano bumped into him in some pub and persuaded him to go with his minder – his uncle ironically nicknamed ‘Nanny’ – to Newbury races. They gambled and made money, get bored, drive home in gathering mist, get lost looking for some country pub and pick up a girl hitch-hiker.

Billy falls asleep, wakes up as they arrive back in London, turning into Billy’s family’s scrap metal yard. Deano gets out with the girl and heads into the house, ignoring Billy, telling Nanny to bring his fags and the tripod. (Tripod? Maybe to film him and the girl having sex.) Billy is rooting around for the fags when he finds some odd kind of pink glove, and a little make-up bag, and a jacket, heavy, with something bulky in it. It’s A GUN! What the…?

Billy suddenly wonders what he’s doing hanging round with these people and… here’s the crux and the slightly implausible thing about the entire plot — he pockets the gun and the glove and the make-up bag. Nanny doesn’t notice, he’s busy in the boot getting the tripod out, now he locks the car with a remote and walks off across the yard ignoring Billy and Billy thinks… screw it! and runs off in the other direction. With the gun and the glove and the make-up bag.

Now he’s on the run from Deano and his mob, with a gun of theirs. He tells Nicki all this, says he’s moved out of his mum’s place, is kipping on a mate’s floor. And so Nicki asks him to move into the basement flat.

Back to Cassandra’s narration. Cassandra spends the day visiting three old ‘friends’ who might possibly be behind the mystery texts, but they are all quite frank and friendly, it’s obviously none of them. Mystery.

Nicki explains her next art project, making objects out of the cardboard boxes the homeless sleep in on the streets of London. Nicki on the phone describing how wonderful Billy is to a friend. Then Nicki has a call with Billy while he’s at work on set. Via basic electrics and wiring he’s got himself a career as an electrician on TV productions.

Cassandra hosts a dinner for gay Teddy Wood and his partner Yves – wonderful food and wine ruined by the very loud love-making of Nicki and Billy downstairs. Amusing pictures of a furry of bodies and limbs – Cassandra envisions two pigs rutting and is furious the evening is spoiled.

Next day, walking in the square, Billy admits to Nicki that he lied about his family situation. In fact he was once married and has a son, Jack. Nicki berates him for lying, and asks if he’s telling the truth now? Of course, he smiles at her. OK, she says.

Cassandra books her regular Christmas trip to a five star hotel in Biarritz – she usually loves the bracing winds and isolation, but this time has bad dreams, cuts the trip short and returns to London.

Cassandra watching Billy and Nicki snogging in the park – and then on holiday in out-of-season Biarritz © Posy Simmonds

Arriving home in Osmington Square earlier than anticipated, Cassandra is horrified to find her house festooned in fairy lights and illuminated Father Christmases and a crowd gathered outside. A friend of Nicki’s is collecting donations in a bucket because they are putting on a show in support of the homeless and the show is… Nicki doing a striptease in the window! At the show’s climax Nicki removes the big feathery fans to reveal her bare breasts each adorned with a shiny star over the nipple! Posy Simmonds does love drawing naked foxy babes.

Cassandra doing a burlesque strip tease in the window of Cassandra’s house to raise money for the homeless © Posy Simmonds

Furious, Cassandra storms inside, turns off the power and the lights and gives Cassandra a good talking to, accusing her of caring bugger-all for the homeless but putting on the show to promote herself, her brand, on social media.

She also makes the fairly obvious point that how can doing a strip-tease be considered an act of the ‘feminism’ that Nicki is always going on about? Surely she is ‘playing out male fantasies’, ‘objectifying the female body’ and all the other things she claims to be vehemently against?

Anyway. Cassandra gives her till Saturday to clear out.

December 20 17.15 One of Deano’s associates, Pete, tracks down Billy’s ex, Dee, and tells her that Billy won a packet on a long-term bet on the horses, and he and Deano want to give him his winnings. Naively, Dee tells Pete that Billy said something about a party in a pub in Soho tomorrow.

December 21 20.15 Pete waits at the Jutland pub, in phone contact with Nanny in a waiting Range Rover. He spots Billy, then follows him through the West End to catch a bus west, phoning his movements through to Nanny who follows.

Meanwhile, this is the same December 21st that the novel opened with, the one where Cassandra is in Burlington Arcade, avoiding Jane McMullen because she knows she is going to hand her a letter telling her her fraud has been discovered and her wronged client is going to sue.

Now, having arrived late at the gallery and been handed the letter and reading it and realising her world is about to come tumbling down, Cassandra arrives back at her house same time as Nicki, disgruntled and worried. She, absent-mindedly asks Nicki to take her ugly little pug Corker to ‘do his thing’ in the square.

Nicki does so but at that moment her mum (Margot, Cassandra’s step-sister who stole her husband Freddie off her 40 years ago) rings on her mobile, to tell her the news about Cassandra i.e that she’s been caught out in her fraudulent dealings. Distracted, Nicki lets the little dog, Corker, wander off.

Meanwhile, Billy has got off the bus from the West End and walks through the snow and darkness towards Osmington Square, followed by Pete, who is giving directions to Nanny who is following in the Range Rover. They pull up in the square and the next thing Billy knows he’s confronted by Pete and Nanny, who punches him in the face, knocks him down and kicks him in the ribs. The dog barks so Pete kicks it in the head. The thugs wander off as Nicki comes running up. She calls an ambulance. She realises Corker is dead.

Next day we see events from Cassandra’s point of view. Nicki’s mother (Margot) turns up to collect Nicki and drive her to their home in the country. With Billy in hospital, Nicki had gone through his rucksack and found the gun and a weird pink glove. She wraps it all up in an old sheet and shoves it in the bathroom bin of the basement flat and gets in the car with her mum. On the drive west she finds herself telling her mum about Billy and his, er, ‘involvements’, triggering a lecture about getting mixed up with the criminal classes.

December 2017

So this brings us back to where we started – to a full year later, and to Christmas 2017 (all the previous section happened in the run-up to Christmas 2016). (Does that mean the gun and the glove have lain hidden in the downstairs flat for a whole year? I am slight confused by this or, if I’ve understood it correctly, slightly incredulous.)

So here we are right back at the scene from near the start of the book where Cassandra has just found the gun and glove and make-up bag in Nicki’s bin and is wondering how the hell it got there. On impulse – and a bit drunk from drinking most of a bottle of claret – Cassandra brings the gun and glove and the clip of bullets up from Nicki’s flat, handles it drunkenly, before stashing it in her own washing machine.

Next day (the day after Freddie’s memorial service which we saw at the start of the book) Cassandra phones Margot, Freddie’s widow, to find out where Nicki is so she can question her. She finds out that Nicki is now living in a shared house in Tooting and working at a swanky art dealers in Dover Street. Cassandra goes to the dealers and confronts Nicki about the gun. Nicki bombards her with explanations, about it being Billy’s, well, not Billy’s it really belongs to Deano who she’s never met, and Billy took it and she was etc etc. Cassandra becomes very confused and threatens to call the police. Nicki say that’s rich, coming from a convicted fraudster.

Cassandra turns away in fury. Too angry to catch a bus home, she pads the streets of London at Christmas-time – thus allowing Simmonds to give vent to one of the most consistent of her themes – something which appears throughout the Posy comic strips – a really jaundiced venomous hatred of Christmas. ‘I pad past Christmas windows, their sterile perfection contrasting with the scrum of shoppers inside, racking up debt, sharing their seasonal bugs – norovirus, coughs, colds, flu.’

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds © Posy Simmonds

Back home in bed, Cassandra has a nightmare in which she is back in court and the judge accuses her of pandering to rich art collectors, price fixing, knowingly taken part in the laundering of money by criminals until the judge finds her… ‘a waste of space’. Reflecting that maybe her whole life has been a waste.

Cut to Billy at MacDonalds with his mum and son Jack. He’s surfing through the news on his phone, as you do, when he stumbles across a news item about a woman’s remains recently found in a wood, with a quilted coat and a distinctive pink glove! Same as the one he took from the car! Same as the one belonging to that hitch-hiker! God, is the body hers?

Billy is stunned. He immediately leaps to the conclusion that Deano and his lot must have murdered and dumped the hitch-hiker.

He texts Nicki and they meet on the Embankment. Now it is that we learn for the first time that, after he got beaten up and hospitalised, it was Billy who suggested they break off the relationship. If it was a relationship. As usual for a Simmonds heroine, Nicki is confused about her emotions and her feelings etc.

Sometimes Nicki wondered if all that stuff hadn’t happened, would she and Billy still be an item?They’d never examined their relationship at the time, had left their feelings for each other unspoken. It wasn’t just sex, there were feelings, Nicki knew. Quite strong feelings. (p.76)

(Maybe this is what helps the book feel like ‘chick lit’ – the heroine’s endless agonising about whether she has feelings and what kind of feelings and whether he shares her feelings and, you know, they need to talk about their feelings and their relationship, we need to talk, I need to talk, are we an item, do you have feelings, is this just about sex or about something more…? Repeat ad infinitum without ever getting anywhere, as the Bridget Jones’ column and books and movies amply demonstrate.)

Back to the plot: Now, at their rendezvous on the Embankment, Billy tells Nicki that Nanny and Pete have been keeping tabs on him, sending him photos of places he’s been to. They’ve turned over his flat twice and demanded to know where the gun is. But he just keeps lying and saying he never took it. (I find it a little hard to believe this has been going on for a year: if I was them I am sure I could hurt him until he admitted nicking the gun and… simply handed it back over. Wouldn’t that be the simple thing to do?)

Like a good middle-class young lady, Nicki tells him he should go to the police. Like the working class boy he is, Billy says no, it’ll be Deano and Nanny’s word against his, and whatever happens, sooner or later they’d get their revenge.

Cut back to Cassandra and some tiresome feminism is injected into the story. She is sitting at home at Christmas feeling sorry for herself, feeling that the world finds her a ‘failure as a woman’ because she hasn’t lived as ‘a woman ought to live’ i.e. got married, had children, grandchildren. I’ve news for her: the world doesn’t give a toss what she does with her life. Only in her head does this self-condemning monologue grumble on. Meanwhile she has led a pampered, privileged life most of us could only fantasise about: she’s had more than enough money, a good education, choice, freedom, travel, comfort, art, opera, theatre, films, books… Ah yes, but ‘society’ (whatever that is) considers her ‘a failure as a woman’ (whatever that means). This is what my daughter (the 17-year-old feminist) calls ‘white feminism’ i.e. the self-centred grumbling of privileged, white, middle-class women. Get over yourself.

There’s a knock at the door and Cassandra opens it to find Nicki with Billy. Nicki admits the truth, about giving Deano Cassandra’s phone number at the hen night (thus explaining Deano as the source of the violent threats and the dick pic), explains how Billy is involved, swears he fled the scene with the gun, brought it with him in his backpack when he moved in with Nicki (which explains the existence of the gun), how they’ve come to the decision to tell the police, but they need the gun. Where is it?

Furious, Cassandra kicks them out, and then – Billy having told her that the body and suspected murder were reported on ‘Crimefile’ – she looks up and watches it on the BBC iPlayer. Through her eyes we watch as the programme interviews the couple out walking their dog who found the corpse.

Cassandra finds herself wondering who the poor woman was. She gets out the gun and glove and the little make-up bag from the washing machine where she’d stashed it. Rummaging through it she comes upon a pack of paracetamol with the label of a pharmacy still attached. She looks it up and discovers this pharmacy is way out East, so Cassandra catches the tube out there to go and investigate.

Cassandra on the tube © Posy Simmonds

Cassandra wanders round the scuzzy district of Lowbridge Road looking for the pharmacy. The Asian couple who run it can’t remember any particular young woman buying it (and, anyway, wasn’t it bought over a year ago?) and neither can any of the other shopkeepers she tries, though she does pick up the knowledge that some of the houses in the area are packed with sex workers, foreign mostly.

Cassandra asks the pharmacy in Lowbridge Road whether they remember who bought the bottle of paracatemol © Posy Simmonds

In fact ill luck befalls her and Cassandra manages to lose her wallet, containing her cash and bank cards. Thus she experiences a whole 90 minutes of feeling poor and abandoned. It starts to rain. She begins to panic. No Oyster card, no money for a taxi. Finally she realises she can pawn her gold necklace, and makes enough money from it to buy a tube fare back to Knightsbridge, where she is once again safely among her people.

Back in her house, Cassandra gets the gun and glove out and ponders her next move. Thinking about the slimeball who sent her those vitriolic texts, she takes a photo of the gun and texts it back to him, a year after the original exchange: ‘Hi, remember me? Keeping your gun safe. And the left hand glove too. Vital evidence I’d say. What’s it worth to you, Deano? You tell me. Cassandra’

Cut to the office of Deano’s scrap metal yard where we learn that i) prolonged taking of drugs has half-unhinged Deano and ii) when the text arrives, it prompts another outpouring of regret, with Deano saying he never meant to kill that girl.

Soon afterwards, Deano goes for a drink and (incredibly fortuitously) sees Billy. Deano follows Billy to a bar where he’s meeting Nicki. Nicki tells Billy what Cassandra’s done i.e. only gone and texted a photo of the bloody gun to Deano, the silly so-and-so. Billy says he’ll go mental! Outside, Deano sees Billy and Nicki smooching and recognises her from that nightclub a year earlier, the infamous hen party evening when Nicki told him her name was Cassandra, and then bit him and squashed his balls.

When Nicki and Billy part, Deano follows Nicki down into the Tube, gets out at Knightsbridge stop with her, follows her along into Osmington Square. Simmonds does that thing where she uses just pictures, with no words, to rack up the tension, in this instance to portray the nagging anxiety of a woman walking on her own in the dark.

Now Deano makes his move, accosting Nicki in the street brandishing a knife, demands the gun, demands to know where she lives. Nicki starts screaming HELP! At that moment, Cassandra, who – as we have seen – had been playing with the gun, emerges from her front door holding it like an American cop, pointing at Deano.

Momentarily confused, Deano loosens his grip on Nicki who runs off. Deano recovers his nerve and crosses the road to Cassandra, who says, ‘Drop it, I’ll shot’, but he knows she won’t. Instead she throws it over the railings into the basement area, but Deano attacks her anyway and, after a tussle, stabs her in the stomach. ‘Stupid arse… what have you done?’ she gasps as she clutches the wound and falls to the pavement. Deano panics and flees. Nicki calls an ambulance and gives a statement to the police.

A wordless page follows which shows Cassandra in bed in hospital, sleeping, on a drip. Waking and talking to the police. Back to sleep. And then:

January Cassandra recovers and winds up the story, tying up all the loose ends.

She’s come to stay with her half-sister Margot in the country (a very idealised super-rural country, a country of postcards very like the perfect countryside around Stonefield in Tamar Drewe). She’s learned not to despise Margot so much, realising she has a lot in common with Margot and that what Margot calls ‘healing’ and ‘closure’ are actually quite enjoyable.

Dean Hart was arrested and confessed to the stabbing which, along with the bloody knife and the photos Nicki took of the fight, convicted him. He also confessed to strangling the girl during sex play a year before. Nanny and Pete were also arrested.

Best of all, Cassandra’s enquiries about the dead girl were followed up by the police who went to Lowbridge Road and on to a squalid flat inhabited by five other girls. Her name was Anca Radu, she was 23, grew up in a Romanian orphanage, was groomed and trafficked to the UK as a prostitute, escaped from the flat, hitched a lift, but was dropped in the middle of nowhere, which is where she had the bad luck to be picked up by Deano, taken to London and then killed, accidentally or not.

Lastly, in hospital the doctors discovered that Cassandra has pancreatic cancer. Given the gloomy thread running throughout the book in which Cassandra periodically worried about becoming senile like her poor husband, and pondered different ways of killing herself to avoid that fate, the reader understands when Cassandra says this diagnosis is a perfect solution. It comes as no surprise that she has chosen not to receive treatment.

She is selling the house in Osmington Square and will give the proceeds to charities, including refuges for women.

Thoughts

Issues

One of the pleasures of the book is the way that various contemporary ‘issues’ familiar to Londoners are dramatised via the characters.

Off the top of my head I remember the several places where Nicki and Cassandra discuss or argue about the purpose and merits of ‘feminist’ art.

Similarly, the ‘issue’ of homelessness is raised via Nicki’s burlesque strip tease fund raiser, but also in the paired moments when Cassandra refuses to give change to a beggar (at the start) and does (after herself being briefly moneyless in the East End).

And the entire plot rotates, to some extent, about sex trafficking from eastern Europe. Other thoughts – about art and class are snagged, or rise briefly to the surface of situations or conversations then disappear again. Taken together, these issues, large or trivial, and other references (to Uber taxis) make the book feel surprisingly contemporary. Gives the reader the simple pleasure of recognition, of recognising the rather mundane world around us transformed into art, well, comic strip cartoons.

White collar versus gangland crime

Implicit in the whole story is the contrast between Cassandra and her smart, Mayfair form of white-collar crime, and the much more brutal, unhinged crime of Deano and his family out in the East End. Two wrongs, two types of wrong, and prompts broader comparisons between life in Chelsea and life out East in the endless tower blocks of east London.

Cassandra’s redemption

Obviously the narrative arc as a whole depicts Cassandra’s ‘redemption i.e. by doing one brave act she stops being such a grumpy so-and-so and sheds her grumpy, sourpuss persona. No more fretting about how ‘society’ sees her. No more dismissing Margot who, at the start of the book, she had found unbearably pompous and touchy-feelie. Instead, acceptance of her own mortality, acceptance of emotions and emotional intelligence.

It is a timeless stereotype that urban characters have to go to the countryside to be ‘complete’, to achieve ‘authenticity’.

Most of all, maybe, it wasn’t the act of bravery – pointing the gun at Deano and saving Nicki so much as the sympathy Cassandra showed for the once-unnamed and now identified person of the murdered woman. It was discovering her identity more than anything that happens to wretched Deano, which matters most. Giving her a name, an identity, and so some respect.

Loose ends and problems

But many things are left unresolved and unredeemed. Cassandra is still a convicted criminal. We have no sense whether Billy and Nicki are going to live happily ever after, or even whether Deano will go to prison. Presumably…

In terms of plot there is a glaring hole which is the improbability of Billy nicking Deano’s gun in the first place. Even he can’t explain why he did it and it is left to the reader to conclude that he did it because otherwise there would be no story.

And the flashback structure – which worked so well in Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe – left me a bit confused. The mapping of two Christmases onto each other, the year long gap, forced me to go back and reread bits to understand the precise sequence of events. And also the way Billy split up with Nicki after he’d been hospitalised wasn’t told at the time, but reported a year later, in retrospect, so it took me a moment to fit that into the timeline.

Art

The use of colour makes for a deep and rewarding visual experience. But to be honest, although some pictures seemed to me to perfectly convey the intended atmosphere – especially lots of the scenery, of London or the countryside – there is an obstinate ungainliness or scrappiness about almost all of the frames which nagged at me, which held me back from going over the top and declaring it a masterpiece etc.

For example, here is Cassandra in a shop near Burlington Arcade, presumably Fortnum and Masons. The top picture of her mooching across a snowy road with her snub nose, pince-nez, slice of lipstick along her thin lips, and characteristic trapper’s fur hat, are all immediately grabby and evocative.

But in the pic below it, look at the girl standing on the right. She just feels to me anatomically incorrect and, stylistically, a throwback to the Posy strip of the 1980s. If Cassandra is fully imagined and drawn, many of the peripheral characters feel less so.

Cassandra in Fortnum and Masons © Posy Simmonds

Here is Cassandra arriving late at her gallery to find the gallery assistant furious that she’s been delayed getting away and organising her own Christmas. Look at the assistant’s face. It is oddly unstable, in the first picture she is characterised by enormous shark’s teeth and big angry eyes – throughout the sequence she has lizard eyes i.e. not with a circular human black pupil, but with vertical slits of pupils. But then in the right-hand picture she suddenly has much softer features and just dots for eyes, a reversion to the Posy strip style, which suddenly makes her seem much less offensive, much less real. In the bottom row second from the left, something odd has happened to her left eye. It’s an example of the way many of the faces in Simmonds are unstable and undergo sometimes striking variations.

Cassandra and her gallery assistant © Posy Simmonds

I know I’m nit-picking but you will read articles claiming Simmonds is the pre-eminent graphic novelist in Britain and I’m not entirely sure. Although I liked the scenery and many of the settings, I still didn’t wholeheartedly enjoy her depiction of faces which too often seemed odd, inconsistent and sometimes positively cack-handed.

Still, that reservation apart, it’s a very enjoyable graphic novel and a very skillful weaving of so many contemporary ‘issues’ into what is, in the end, an extended cartoon strip. And the real point is Cassandra’s journey to redemption, to a form of happiness and closure. If you focus on that, on the skill with which she imagines, describes and draws the central figure – then nitpicking about details tends to fade away.


Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.

Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Mustn’t Grumble by Posy Simmonds (1993)

In 1987 cartoonist Posy Simmonds brought down the curtain on the weekly strip cartoon she’d been drawing for the Guardian newspaper and which featured the everyday lives and woes of a gaggle of well-meaning middle-aged, middle-class mums and dads, coloured by a feminist slant on the tribulations of being a stay-at-home mum, or a working mum, or a young woman, or just a woman, in a sexist, man’s world.

The strip focused in particular on the married couple George and Wendy Weber, he an earnest, hunched-over, mustachioed lecturer in sociology at a London polytechnic, she an ex-nurse and harassed mother of six trying to do night school classes, the pair of them united by a commitment to touchy-feely liberal socialism, and vegetarianism and environmentalism. They felt a bit out-dated when they first appeared in the paper in 1977, and they and their world had failed to move with the times, with the triumph of Thatcherism, the unashamed declaration that ‘greed is good’, the ‘Big Bang’ deregulation in the City of London which brought tsunamis of new money coursing through the capital, out into the Home Counties and bought tens of thousands of holiday homes around the countryside, while the Thatcher government did its best to dismantle the post-war welfare state, demonised single mums and welfare scroungers, and huge tranches of heavy industry were denationalised or scrapped.

In 1987 Simmonds axed the Posy strip and concentrated on writing and illustrating children’s books. She continued to do miscellaneous illustrations for the Guardian and other newspapers and magazines. Then in 1992 she returned to the paper with a new strip which lasted a year, chronicling the misadventures of a grumpy, middle-aged, male novelist, J.D. Crouch. (Why, I couldn’t help thinking, does a vehement feminist devote a strip to a man, and a grumpy, middle-aged man at that? Is it because men are more interesting to write about – but surely that’s feminist heresy. Or is it because men, middle-aged grumpy men, are such fun to lambast and satirise?)

This volume, Mustn’t Grumble, brings together that miscellaneous work, plus some of the Crouch series, so feels a bit bitty.

I think the title, Mustn’t Grumble, is ironic. I assume it is an ironic comment on what would nowadays be called the white privilege of most of the characters, who are members of the comfortably-off, London, middle-classes – with a particular focus on Crouch and the London world of writing and publishing – who, despite living what a lot of the rest of the British population would regard as a life of luxury, still manage to be unhappy and find fault with everything.


A calendar from 1988

Simmonds created large-format, monthly cartoons – more illustrated texts – for the Spectator magazine through 1988 and 1989. The calendar format allowed Simmonds to focus on a completely new range of characters, one a month, whose lives are taken to typify the ‘greed is good’ decade as it ended and gave way to the 1900s. Thus:

  • January Miles Upmaster (42) LMX broker at Johnson, Duff, Morant, lives in Parsons green with wife Vanessa and daughters Jojo and Davina
  • February Chloe Banister (37) design consultant at a top Soho consultancy, a house in Dulwich Village with husband Hugo (TV commercials director) and son Jack, who’s down for Westminster.
  • March Jackie Green (29) bed and breakfast landlady, husband’s off work ill, Jackie’s doing lots of jobs to make ends meet and can no longer afford to live in the seaside village of her birth.
  • April Desmond Duff (82) retired engineer and resident of Deddingham Court Rest Home.
  • May Mr Robin Chutney-Darke, a dealer in 18th and 19th century paintings, educated at Eton.
  • June Katie Gilleyman (7) is having a birthday party, which in true bilious Simmonds style, is an opportunity for her to describe the snobbery, hypocrisy and showing off among the various mums.
  • July Tony McVitie and Lorraine, waiting exhausted in the departure lounge for the plane back to England from Malta, where they’ve been on holiday and Lorraine’s lovely long legs got a) sunburnt b) bitten by mosquitoes.
  • August Farmer Hughes facing financial ruin.
  • September Prissie Rugeley, mother of four and wife of a British Army infantry officer stationed in Germany.
  • October James Dalston Crouch (59) fading novelist, is at Euston accompanied by sexy young publicity girl from his publishers, having arrived back from a dismal outing to a book signing in Manchester where only six people turned up.
  • November Simon Sandercock (33) single, company director, rugger player, in blue and white striped tie and bright red braces, what a hoot he is!
  • December A characteristically cynical and downbeat take on Christmas, Simmonds focuses on an ageing failed actor named Gerald, who had high hopes, played a number of roles in provincial theatres and a few sitcoms, and now is reduced to working as Father Christmas in a department store.

What’s striking is how wordy these profiles are, how densely worked-out everyone’s backstory is, as if they are characters in a novel. There’s nothing particularly comic or even entertaining about the characters, except, maybe, the wry smile of recognition which I identified earlier as the prime pleasure from a Posy Simmonds cartoon.

And they’re in colour, full colour, unlike all the Posy strips, attention to colour which will come into its own in the later graphic novels.

Six bounden duties

I had to look up the meaning of this phrase. A ‘bounden duty’ is ‘a responsibility regarded by oneself or others as obligatory’. Each of the six is in the page-sized format of the Posy strips.

  1. Conservation A message from Aubrey Shyte, owner of Grade II listed Rakesham Hall, in which he spouts the usual crap of owners of very big houses which are largely funded from the public purse, and explains why it is necessary to close the public footpath through his deer park.
  2. Numeracy and literacy As if for children, the strip compares the world of Smilies (1st class travel, 1st class service, 2nd homes, 2nd cars, 3 hour lunches etc) and Grumblies (1 parent families, 2nd class citizens, 3rd world conditions etc) i.e. the gleeful rich and the miserable poor. The sentiment is hardly novel, and the tone is bleak and bitter. The entertainment, such as it is, comes in the format and in the satirical use of child-style drawings to convey this bitter truth.
  3. A sense of humour Simmonds parodies a range of different comic styles with dead humourless, depressing, grim content i.e. the first little strip is about the gender wage gap, then how we’re killing the planet with radiation, then the health gap between the rich and the poor, then a working class woman complaining about male chauvinism… Hard to see who this kind of thing is aimed at… Is it preaching to the choir to make them feel more bitter and angry?
  4. Keeping the lines of communication open Middle class parents in the kitchen with a bottle of wine open discussing their awful children, lazing around reading porn all day… while the teenage kids are in the living room saying their parents are grumpy because they’re going through the menopause and mid-life crisis – both teams saying it’s just a phase the others are going through. This just feels bleak and depressing.
  5. Not to change one’s spots A comfortably off middle class family claim they haven’t changed a bit, well, they’ve sold the old C CV and bought a Volvo, sold the bean bags and Che Guevara posters, and built a new conservatory on the back of the house, still running a poster shop which is doing frightfully well, and as to politics it’s not them that’s changed, it’s the Labour Party. — Obviously the point is to show how they have changed out of all recognition from their young adult selves.
  6. To record Some kind of satire on the middle class compulsion to record everything with a camera and on video, with a bit of extra satire / bitterness thrown in at the end saying there are some events too traumatic to be photographed… and that’s when the bloodsucking media step in… Odd, because Posy did of course work most of her life for the bloodsucking media.

The cherry orchard A satire on Londoners and their second homes in the country, cast in the form of a parody of the Chekhov play, with the middle class couple lamenting the fact that the orchard across the road was sold by the farmer to a developer who’s built a bloody great garden centre there! The couple can’t wait to sell up and get back to London.

Hard Times (1992)

As mentioned above, Simmonds returned to the Guardian with a new strip rotating about the failing novelist J.D. Crouch, but giving herself the freedom to feature other ad hoc characters and even – the occasional cameo appearance from the old Weber favourites.

  • Hard times An ironic strip in which reinsurance broker Miles Upmaster gets home and berates his young wife for having friends round, eating expensive food etc, seeing as he’s had no bonus for two years, the firm’s reorganising and he might even be sacked. In the final picture he lies back on an elaborate, swagged and bow-tied four-poster bed and laments how hard his life is.
  • An explanation by J.D. Crouch, Author Crouch explains that the recent interview and photos of him at home with his family are a travesty, that he dislikes his grown-up son and is going through a rough patch with his second wife.

  • Mid-life libido in forward and reverse J.D. Crouch first of all rants to his wife that their son had a pretty young woman over to stay and how dare he use the place as a knocking shop. When his wife puts him right, that they’re not shagging, just friends, he slept on the floor etc, Crouch switches to the polar opposite position and says, Good God, why on earth is his son not knocking off such a fabulous ‘piece’, lovely bum in figure-hugging leather. In other words, Men, eh! Lascivious hypocrites.
  • Mens sana Crouch and his adult son have an argument because the old man is always having epic baths, which triggers a trip down memory lane, remembering all the baths he’s had in all the cheap shitty flats, and how much he cared about Thom Gunn and Suez in the 50s, and Ferlinghetti and Czechoslovakia in the 60s, and the more luxury bath he got when his first novel made it big and was adapted for TV. Now we find Crouch splashing about in a huge jacuzzi!
  • Literary party Crouch tells us about a literary party he went to, giving his version of events in which he nonchalantly sailed through the crowd – but this is counterpointed by sub-titles pointing out what really happened, which is that Crouch barely got close to the people he said he talked to, and nobody was interested in talking to him except a waitress who said she thought her granny liked his stuff. Depressing portrait of a man on the way down.
  • Club ability Crouch’s wife Sophie is invited to his club where a crusty old cigar-smoking bore explains to her why they don’t allow women members and she proceeds to take the mickey, yes, my God, what would happen if women were allowed in to remind men of their child-rearing responsibilities or maybe drinking all alone at the bar or… Feminism = helping middle-class women join exclusive London clubs.
  • Haves and have-nots An idealistic young teacher is trying to teach a junior school class to pretend to be flower buds in the soil which slowly wriggle upwards and burst into the light. One little boy gets it, but when she asks the others to do the same they explain he’s only showing off because he’s got a brand new pair of Nike Air trainers.
  • Lost Eden A Victorian picture of children playing in the street is criticised by do-gooding modern parents, tut tut, they might be knocked down by a lorry or abducted by a paedo… contrasted with a picture of today’s young people, packed inside onto a sofa, eating junk food and watching violent videos on TV.
  • Noises off A well-off middle class woman is in bed with her husband and the can hear the coughing of the vagrant who sleeps in their doorway all night, and she then has an aria describing how awful it is and how awful she and her husband feel, and that’s why they’re double glazing the window so they won’t be able to hear him any more.
  • The vileness of penury Vanessa, blonde wife of reinsurance broker Miles (who we’ve met several times by now) answers the door to her ex-cleaner. Miles has been laid off so they’ve had to sack all their staff and the strip consists of a sequence of speeches in which Vanessa asks the tracksuit-bottomed cleaner to feel sorry for her, now that they’re both in the same boat and all.
  • Common market A stuck-up posh mum walks round a London market lamenting the scruffy way the common fruit and veg are displayed and comparing everything negatively with the simply super markets you get in France (where she, of course, has a second home) – and wonders why all the stall-keepers scowl at her.
  • Insecurity Miles and Vanessa Upmaster (again) she wakes up in the middle of the night (in their wonderfully curtained and beribboned double bed) because she hears something outside and her subsequent fears give a list of all the burglars and criminals a posh white lady can imagine, up to and including the hiss of an ocy-acetylene kit until they realise… it’s the sound of someone having a piss in their doorway.
  • Beneath the ivory tower The life of a writer is a hard one, grinding away, wasting time in all kind of displacement activities. And so grumpy J.D. Crouch goes to the grocers where he buys some peas and some such while listening to customers discussing the ups and downs of Lady Di’s marriage to Prince Charles (they were married on 29 July 1981, during 1992 the book about her by Andrew Morton, plus leaked phone recording revealed their marriage was a sham). Crouch takes a characteristically pompous and high line that he doesn’t read ‘newspapers’ or mucky his fingers with current affairs. Whereas we then see him take the groceries home wrapped in a newspaper which he feverishly unfolds, straightens out and reads.
  • Agony and ecstasy The Webers haven’t completely disappeared. Here George makes a reappearance. An old friend from the poly took early retirement and was irked when, shortly afterwards, the poly upgraded to a university. Now he meets George and colleagues in the pub who set him right about how working conditions are ten times harder, no-one will fund their course, the seminar room is always booked, the students are doing so many other modules they can’t concentrate on your courses, and so on…
  • Object lesson A mum who bears a resemblance to an older, grey-haired Wendy Weber, tries to comfort her daughter who’s convinced she’s fat and ugly, the mum telling her she’s not and she should be glad not to be treated as a ‘sex object’, the result of all the battles her mum and the feminists of her generation fought, and any way she’s bombarded with phone calls from boys. That, mum, the girl is explained, is because I can drive. They want me to be their taxi driver. As she slopes away she sobs, ‘I’d rather be a sex object.’
  • Dating a single parent Man arrives to take a woman on a date. Her little one bursts out crying and needs to be comforted. When she asks the teenage daughter to look after the toddler, the teenager bursts out that mum doesn’t care about her revision or her exams. So they all end up crying in a cuddle, and when the mum eventually extricate herself to go with her date, she looks frazzled. Being a woman is so hard!
  • Coming cleanish Crouch is having an affair with a young woman (do writers do anything else, in Posy Simmonds?) and spends the strip working through different scenarios how to tell his wife, ending up with bottling out and not telling her at all.
  • Acquiring the habit Crouch comes across his teenage children quietly reading books and is astonished and delighted and tells wife Sophie to keep quiet, but she insists they’re a load of old rubbish they found at the jumble sale, full of nauseating stereotypes and their bickering puts the kids off reading so they turn on the TV and get glued to the box.
  • Fireworks At a fireworks party a grandad is arguing with his teenage grand-daughter, complaining about her generations’s pessimism, they’ve never had it so good etc. The mother intervenes to break up the fight but finds both the others turning on her, the grandad saying the 60s generation had it lucky, with an economic boom, growth in higher education, jobs galore, cheap flats, sex on tap thanks to the pill, yes and all before AIDS says the daughter and before you know it, old and young have ganged up on the middle-aged mum. It’s tough being a middle-aged woman!
  • Sunbeam corner A bizarre strip in which a balding middle-aged man conducts a smiling exercise, in order to keep optimistic, although the words underneath spell the grim news headlines of the day (Maastricht, wages freeze, subsidiarity, British steel, Downing Street, Public spending freeze, Price increases etc.
  • We’re dreaming of a white Christmas Aubrey Shyte, the pompous rich landowner, has become a real hate figure for Simmonds, and leads this hypocritical rendering of ‘White Christmas’, against the backdrop of a dingy, rundown street somewhere in London with a couple of homeless people sleeping in doorways, until the snow covers up the homeless and the street looks remarkably scenic and festive. God, Simmonds hates Christmas! Of the ten or so Christmas cartoons she’s done, all are dyspeptic.

A calendar from 1989

Another series of page-large pieces, each featuring a person of the month, described in immense wordy detail and accompanied by a full-scale, colour cartoon, with a spattering of other smaller ones illustrating the text.

  • Janvier Mme Rutherford, harassed French teacher, two young children in daycare, husband works at a garden centre, worn down with stress by the horrible kids, growing class sizes, LEA cuts so she has to cover other teacher’s lessons, and soon. God, it’s hard being a woman (teacher).
  • February Conversation among a gaggle of middle-aged men and women attending a health spa in the country, ending with the sort of comedy that they sneak out to scoff a packet of Maltesers in the car park.
  • March A soliloquy from Australian dentist Warren McMurdo moaning about the bad state posh patient Simon Sandercock arrives in.
  • April Rachel (14) on her horse Sultan, at this year’s First Gashford Hunt.
  • May Dido is 18 from Haverstock Hill and at a super private school.
  • June Etiquette for the new landed gentry: Dealing with trespassers i.e. if you’re nouveau riche and bought a whopping house in the country you need to clear trespassers off your land but be damned certain they’re oiks and walkers, and not other members of the gentry who you need to keep buttered up.
  • July Gillian Button (25) with a first in French and Drama, is now a PA at the BBC, and a surprisingly heavy smoker.
  • August Clive Troutley (37) a golf addict.
  • September When harassed housewife Pippa gets to W in the alphabet book she’s reading her kids, she realises everything named in it is either a health hazard or threatened with extinction (panda, whale etc). Depressing.
  • October Adam Nubleigh (27) went to a North London comprehensive but dresses and sounds as if he went to a posh private school and flogs fake antique furniture to the over-rich.
  • November Posh Naomi Padfield is a big opera fan. She is given a soliloquy about how she’s driven up to Covent Garden from Beaconsfield despite the beastly traffic on the M40.
  • December Colin Cockley is managing director of Retouché Studios, here he is at the firm’s Christmas party.

Note:

  1. how everyone is white, heterosexual and all are either Londoners or from the sunny Home Counties. Black, Asian or immigrant experience, lower-middle or working-class experience, are things beyond Simmonds’s ken and which she therefore, wisely, avoids.
  2. The use of rich deep colouring.
  3. The very heavy use of text. At least half, sometimes more, of the space is text. There’s little funny or amusing about these caricatures, but a great deal of effort has gone into thinking through each of the characters’ backstories.

Bumping along the bottom

Being a further set of the weekly strips Simmonds devoted to failing novelist J.D. Crouch, with appearances from other characters, and a few cameo appearances from our old friends George and Wendy Weber.

Does ‘bumping along the bottom’ refer solely to Crouch, or to the entire middle class which was hit hard by the recession of 1991-2?

  • Bumping along the bottom Miles Upmaster, who we’ve met a number of times, is now officially unemployed and trying to sell his house, reduced to scrubbing and cleaning it and then keeping his temper while prospective buyers walk round it poking and prying.
  • Scene from a literary life J.D. Crouch takes his dog for a walk on the common and, noticing people stopping and staring, egotistically assumes because he was on TV last night doing an interview. Simmonds gives him plenty of room to preen and swank before pulling back to reveal that all this time his dog is being shagged by another dog. That’s why people are staring and pointing.
  • Missing persons Canvassers for political parties are shown working their way along a busy road of suburban houses, and the inhabitants making all kinds of excuses for not speaking to them. Only at the end does one of the frustrated canvassers explain they’re all dodging the poll tax (which required that you had to register to pay the council tax in order to get on the electoral register. An estimated million people preferred to have no vote and so avoid paying the tax).
  • Election fever A satire on the Crouch household getting ‘election fever’, told from the point of view of the wife, Sophie, who feels dizzy and nauseous for three weeks (being a Labour voter) compared to grumpy old Crouch the novelist who votes Conservative (Why? ‘Because of my wallet’), the strip follows through election night when, contrary to all the opinion polls, the Conservatives under John Major returned to power (9 April 1992).
  • Tired old sociologist George Weber sits, alone and alienated, in a shopping centre and marvels that people are still continuing on the same mindless consumerism which characterised the 1980s, despite the economic crash, unemployment, bankruptcies and so on. His musings are transformed into those of a naturalist studying the great herds of the African savannah.
  • Topped balls Crouch is trying to get membership of an exclusive golf club but his attempts are ruined by his wife, Sophie, who insists on coming along, bring the two small children and picking mushrooms.
  • Spot the difference Using the split screen or binary technique she’s used elsewhere, Simmonds contrasts the fortunes of a dealer in oil paintings and watercolours at their 1988 ‘view’ and the same event four years later in 1992 i.e. at the 1992 view, he can’t afford canapés, the wine is cheap and nobody is buying.

  • Terminal belly ache Waiting at the airport department lounge with his wife and children, Crouch volunteers to go and get a magazine for his wife to read. When he returns after some delay he is in a filthy mood, complaining about the junk people watch and read and eat and drink. Wife Sophie knows what this means. He didn’t find a copy of one his books in the bookstall.
  • Déjeuner sur le patio A simply lovely English middle-class couple lament that their simple holiday hideaway in rural France has been ruined by all kinds of pollution (from the septic tank, the chlorine in the swimming pool, the copper sulphate they spray the vines with), there seem to be endless repairs, snarling dogs if you go for a walk and they’re the only ones in the village who didn’t vote for Le Pen. God how they wish they could return to the simple life in London!
  • Old rose-tinted spectacles Two big pictures contrasting Then and Now. Once, grown-up folk cast friendly eyes on children… Now they’re scared of them.

Old rose-tinted spectacles by Posy Simmonds (1993)

  • One man’s meat A middle-class couple agonise about what to take to their kids’ school’s International Picnic to represent British cuisine. Everything they think of (bacon, ham, sausage rolls, pork pies) will offend one or other religious or cultural sensitivity.
  • The brood Seems to be the Weber family’s kitchen in which are Wendy Weber, now that much older and with grey hair, talking to her married daughter Belinda, who appears to have had a baby, and the eldest daughter Sophie. Sophie’s thinking about having a baby and has seen something on the telly about how over-50s can be fertilised. Belinda and Sophie both think that’s gross and, more to the point, both think Wendy should be investing her time and savings in them and their babies.
  • P.C. PC 43 A heavy-handed satire about a police constable who uses only politically correct language e.g. referring to the homeless as ‘the involuntarily undomiciled’.
  • A lecture Crouch is invited ‘all the way out here’ to the polytechnic where George Weber works to deliver a lecture. Now, afterwards, George is accompanying him to the train station. Initially Crouch complains about the poor attendance and the bad food and the crappy wine and slowly George – an older, grey-haired George Weber – turns the tables and starts to lecture Crouch about how hard it is trying to keep an underfunded university lit and working despite not having the advantage of fancy-ancy Oxbridge colleges.
  • Sour grapes of wrath Crouch is at a book signing and seethes with jealousy because no one is asking for his signature but crowds are flocking around comedian Nigel Doyle and working mum and TV presenter Denni Welch. His loathing bursts out into muttered insults and abuse with his PR people telling him this isn’t going to persuade people to come over. This struck me as sad, not funny and is, I think, the third book signing strip we’ve seen.
  • The perfect present As usual, Christmas brings out the bilious, cynical and bad-tempered in Posy Simmonds, as she describes the tribulations of a young woman who has become the girlfriend of a married man who left his wife for her. This Christmas the ex-wife is holidaying with her lover in Luxor and the girlfriend knows that, whatever she buys and no matter how much effort she goes to, her boyfriend’s kids will vent all their rage and anger at their parents’ break-up onto her.
  • I’m dreaming of… Packed with resonance for fans of the Posy strip, this shows Belinda, eldest daughter of George and Wendy Weber, now married to her banker, (options trader) Alistair Razor-Dorke and director of her own upmarket catering company, as they ponder whether to spend Christmas with her parents (George and Wendy in their poky terrace conversion) listening to them moan against the government, or with his parents (frightfully posh but live in a draughty old country house and will serve posh but decrepit old food) – or stay in their swish two-bedroom, waterfront, duplex apartment, hmmm, it’s not a difficult decision.
  • I’m dreaming of… Reappearance of the appalling alcoholic Edmund Heep who rings work to say he’s too sick to come in and describes the night before when he went on a pub crawl with a friend, downing an appalling amount of booze, nearly getting into a fight with skinheads before stumbling into a late night caff and ordering scrambled eggs. Now he is claiming it was the eggs, the eggs that made him ill.
  • Christmas: The adoration of the general public As usual, Simmonds’s take on Christmas is jaundiced and cynical. Her Christmas strip for 1988 consisted of one large cartoon showing two sides of Christmas (this binary juxtaposition of past and present or idealised and actual, is an extremely common device). On the left we see the crib with the baby Jesus in it and Mary worshiping surrounded by angels, in the style of a Renaissance painting. On the right we see the identical stable but in this one Father Christmas is doling out presents to excited kiddies whose parents are queueing up in front, under the watchful eye of a security guard with walkie-talkie. There is a comic touch in that many of the mums and dads are saying ‘aaah’ at the religious scene, but the security guard is saying into his walkie-talkie ‘aaah… over.’

The end of January 1989

Once again, this is done in a calendar format, with one strip for every month of the year. I didn’t understand why they’re titled ‘The end of…’ January, February etc. The pictures are smaller than ever and overwhelmed with explanatory text, which sometimes begin to read like short stories.

  • The end of January A wordy sequence explaining the career of Kevin Penwallet, once an anthropology lecturer who quite working at the same polytechnic as George Weber to set up a shop in the sweet Cornish?) seaside village of Tresoddit. He started with health foods in 1979, but was forced to bend to prevailing commercialism and in 1989 turned it into Ye Olde Gift Shoppe full of twee knick-knacks before, in 1988, turning it into an upmarket delicatessen catering to the ever-increasing numbers of wealthy Londoners, to a chorus of disapproval from the locals, and from his old friend George Weber who accuses him of ‘collaboration with the consuming interests of the over-rewarded.’
  • The end of February George Weber is appalled by the mother’s day cards his daughters are browsing and points out to Wendy that they all present reassuring images of motherhood, mostly from the 19th century, and this is because we, as a society, are traumatised and sacred of numerous new hazards – streets full of muggers and addicts, paedophiles, country full of radioactive sheep and cows with BSE, rivers full of junk and pesticides, ozone layer being eaten away, sex is dangerous (AIDS) – and so need mummy’s hand to cling on to. Trouble is, when he tries to envision a perfectly up-to-date vision of mother caring for her young ones, what he sees is… a child-minder.
  • The end of March A sustained blast against the comprehensive pollution and desecration of the countryside, as seen by the endless flow of bumper-to-bumper traffic heading down our polluted motorways.
  • The end of April A soliloquy from an unbearably posh upper-class lady telling us how they’ve done up their house, and the whole neighbourhood is gentrified and you can buy decent prosciutto and the tramps have been kicked out of the square which has been turned into a wildflower garden and they can afford the best private education for their kids, mind you all this comes at the high cost of security, security locks, security buzzers, a panic room and an electrified truncheon.
  • The end of May: Jerusalem A satire on the new young rich and their passion for redecorating their stonking new homes, set to a parody of Blake’s Jerusalem: ‘And did those brogues in ancient times, Walk upon Nigel’s verdant sward, Or were they only just acquired, In Bond Street with an Access card…’ and so on.
  • The end of June: Our friendly neighbourhood Use of the frequent juxtaposition technique, two large pictures showing past and present or appearance and reality, in this case showing the polite greetings made between a cross-section of modern young people out walking, set against…the ferociously aggressive messages conveyed by their huge and frightening dogs.

  • The end of July: Turning back the floral clock A history of the floral clock on the seafront parade of some coastal town, as it evolved from 1959, 1969, 1979 to 1989, with tut tutting comments from each generation of locals.
  • The end of August This is a laboured satire on a middle-class family with two older children, just back from shopping at their local organic grocers’ with their right-on dad, who proceed to find various slugs and maggots in all the fruit and veg, much to the children’s disgust, but the patronising father assures them this is a good sign, shows no pesky pesticides were used.
  • The end of September: A Jeremiad for the new academic year We’re in the staff room of George Weber’s poly where the staff are grimly depressed about the start of a new year, and where the principal lecturer in information design brings them even lower by revealing that his students are doing signs for the new massive ‘Phosco’ superstore being built on the edge of town.
  • The end of October Soliloquy by one of Simmonds’s trademark posh mums with massive hairdo who spends the first half lamenting what blood-sucking bastards the people who bought their house are… and the second half explaining how they’ve screwed a great deal out of the people they’re buying from. Hypocrisy doesn’t come much purer.
  • The end of November: The march of feminism as shown by the changing shape of women’s shoes from 1969 to 1989, with a bit of satire thrown in about how the Forward March of feminism seems to be being held up by sisters in the 1980s. Tut tut.
  • A Christmas Carol A typically sour Simmonds take on Christmas in which the spirit of Christmas, looking very much like our old friend, the alcoholic Edmund Heep, appears to a sleek, well, manicured City banker, all to the accompaniment of a parody of the festive hymn: ‘While Shepherd watched his stocks by night, And monitored the pound, The other chaps went down the pub, And Gloria stood a round…’

As mentioned, there’s so much text and information in some of these cartoons that they read almost like short stories. This affects the size of the pictures, which are often very small and crammed with narrative text, and then further filled with speech or thought balloons – quite a stuffing of text and meaning until the ‘reading’ experience becomes quite complicated or demanding.

All this anticipates the style of her graphic novels with their dense interplay of different types of text (narrative, dialogue, thoughts, along with parodies, songs and quotes) with very tightly-drawn pictures arranged in very precise and rather cramped compositions.

Thoughts

Negative and depressing

When I first read through the six books collected in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus I came to the end deeply disliking Posy Simmonds for her unremitting negativity and satire which I felt lacked wit but overflowed with bile.

Having taken the time and trouble to go through and itemise pretty much every cartoon in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, I now realise the negative feeling I took away largely stems from this final collection, Mustn’t Grumble, for in it the tone really darkens, she stops being very funny at all and the satire – for example against brutal rich bastards like Aubrey Shyte – becomes genuinely bitter.

Meanwhile the extended series of cartoons about the failure and self-loathing of past-it novelist J.D. Crouch also – for me – had nothing redeeming about it, it’s just episodes from the life of a middle-aged man who is failing and angry against the world.

And the twenty-four calendar characters from the Spectator similarly have next to nothing humorous about them but are all-too-accurate barometers of a society becoming steadily, relentlessly more greedy, self-serving, and shamelessly unequal.

So I realise now that it was mainly this last book which left such a bitter aftertaste in my mind, and overshadowed the fact that most of the earlier collections are much lighter in tone, and do contain genuinely comic moments which are worth savouring and remembering.

Abandoning the Weber family meant, to some extent, abandoning the containment of her bitter vision of the world within the cosy arena of the regular gallery of comic characters.

Set free, unconstrained, but also unsoftened, by the mollifying filter of the Weber characters, Simmonds’s vision emerges in this final collection, as one of real anger and bitterness at the social injustice and the revolting hypocrisy of the new, rich middle classes of Thatcher’s Britain.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Very Posy by Posy Simmonds (1985)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious, drunk whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Very Posy is the third the series of collections, given that 1981’s True Love was a one-off ‘graphic novel’, loosely based on the schoolgirl crush of one of the characters, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave, philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright.

Historical timeline

Very Posy brings together 91 Posy cartoon strips from 1981 through to 1985. These were the years when I was a student at university. I looked up a historical timeline of the period and discovered that the key events were:

1981

  • Mrs Thatcher is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
  • Ronald Reagan is President of America
  • Leonid Brezhnev is leader of the USSR
  • In January the Yorkshire Ripper is caught, bringing to an end a reign of terror over the Yorkshire region where he had murdered 13 women over a five year period
  • The Iran Hostage Crisis (which had started in November 1979) ends in January 1981 with the release of American diplomats in Tehran
  • April 4 – first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia
  • From April to July there are riots in major British cities, the biggest being the Brixton riot in London, the Handsworth riots in Birmingham, the Chapeltown riot in Leeds and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool.
  • MS-DOS was released by Microsoft along with the first IBM PC
  • On 29 July Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles
  • In September 1981 a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrive at Greenham Common air force base to protest against the decision of the British government to allow cruise missiles to be stored there

1982

  • The first CD player sold in Japan
  • Dutch Elm Disease destroys millions of Elm Trees
  • On Friday 2 April Argentina invades the Falkland Islands, sparking an international crisis and a war with Britain which lasts until British victory on 14 June
  • September, the American centres for Disease Control used the term ‘AIDS’ (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) for the first time.
  • November – Leonid Brezhnev dies and is replaced as leader of the USSR by Yuri Andropov

1983

  • The June 1983 general election returns a Conservative government led by Mrs Thatcher with an increased majority of 188 MPs, against the Labour Party led by Michael Foot
  • What would become the world’s most popular word processing programme, Microsoft Word, is launched.
  • In Ethiopia following the worst drought in history the death toll reaches a staggering 4 million.
  • The US starts deploying Cruise Missiles and Pershing Missiles in Europe at the Greenham Common Air Force Base, prompting the growth of the women-only camp of protestors
  • On Saturday 17 December 1983 members of the Provisional IRA set off a bomb outside Harrods in Knightsbridge, killing three police officers and three civilians, and injuring 90 people.

1984

  • February – Soviet leader Yuri Andropov dies and is replaced by Konstantin Chernenko
  • April – the National Cancer Institute announced they had found the cause of AIDS, the retrovirus HTLV-III
  • DNA profiling developed
  • Apple releases the Macintosh computer.
  • 12 October – the IRA bomb the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference in a bid to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed and 31 were injured
  • 31 October – Indira Ghandi, first woman Prime Minister of India, is assassinated by her own bodyguard and Sikh nationalists
  • 6 November Ronald Reagan re-elected President of the United States, defeating Democrat Walter Mondale.
  • Following the widespread famine in Ethiopia many of the top British and Irish pop musicians join together under the name Band Aid and record the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas, recorded on 25 November and released on 3 December.
  • December 2-3 – the world’s worst industrial accident when the Union Carbide Pesticide plant in Bhopal India leaks lethal gas, leading to a death toll of some 4,000, some estimate long term deaths at 16,000

1985

  • January – Palestinian terrorists the Italian Cruise Liner Achille Lauro and murder an old Jewish man in a wheelchair.
  • March – on the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev becomes General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party and so leader of the USSR.
  • May – the Heysel Stadium disaster when Juventus football fans trying to escape from Liverpool fans were pressed against a collapsing wall in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, before the start of the 1985 European Cup Final, leading to the deaths of 39 people – mostly Italians and Juventus fans and 600 injured.
  • Music CDs commercially launched.
  • 10 July – The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior is sunk by French Agents, killing a Dutch photographer.
  • Saturday 13 July – the Live Aid concert is watched by an estimated 1.9 billion viewers, across 150 nations, nearly 40% of the world population.
  • 19 September – Mexico City Earthquake kills 9,000
  • In response to the spread of AIDS governments around the world launch health and public awareness programs, including the promotion of condoms and safe sex.
  • The first .com domain name is registered and the first version of Windows is released.

Very Posy

Next to none of these world-changing (Gorbachev), traumatic (assassinations, terrorist bombings, famine) or innovative (slow spread of personal computers) events are reflected in the Posy strip. The opposite. The Posy strip formed a safe haven from politics and the hurly-burly of events reported everywhere else in the Guardian newspaper. Instead we are treated to the overwhelmingly domestic concerns of the Weber, Wright and Heep households.

Interestingly, Simmonds mixes the strips up so they are deliberately not in chronological order, with strips from 1985 near the beginning, and ones from 1981 at the end. If there is any structure it is a subtle seasonal one with the book opening and closing with Christmas cartoons, with some summer holidays ones in the middle, some spring showers in the first half, giving the whole thing a subtle underpinning of the changing calendar year.

Themes

Women and feminism (21)

  • A soap opera In the form of an opera i.e. everyone sings rhyming arias, Trish Wright rages at her broken washing machine till smug husband Stanhope offers to do it all down the laundrette but discovers it’s not such an easy process as he thought.
  • Men at work Seedy Edmund Heep, in a workspace surrounded by pin-ups, is preparing lewd Valentine Day cards for some of the young women in the office but when he goes to give them he discovers the girls also have pin-ups, of fit young men and he and the other men are (hypocritically) appalled. Tsk, men, eh.
  • The rebirth of Venus in which three women discuss and pester a friend into losing weight in a series of pictures which spoof and parody Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus to make a feminist comment on how women are forced to conform to body stereotypes.
  • A super woman’s day A cartoon showing how impossible it is to be a modern woman and expected to serve up breakfast to the family, wave them off to work, arrive at the office, do some wise shopping at lunchtime, return to the office, greet the kids back from school, read to them, cook dinner, serve dinner and still have the energy to be… a whore in the bedroom!
  • In a maternity ward three or four female relatives have come to visit a mum with a newborn baby, and the strip shows us all of them, plus visitors to the other mums, all agreeing that a girl is nice but a boy would be better!
  • Momma’s fault Wendy is watching a TV soap in which three generations of women all blame their mother’s for ruining their lives – while her own children stand by, ignored.
  • Acceptable lies and the unacceptable truth A hectic strip in which her assistant and colleagues all lie to clients and customers to cover the fact that Jennifer Cole is not at work because she’s at home looking after her kids during the school holiday. The strip is rounded off with a feminist motto as twee and smug as any Victorian doily: ‘As business folk you now know why / Us working mums are bound to lie.’
  • Waiting for mummy In an anonymous family the mum works while the dad looks after the kids (he is shown reading the paper and ignoring them) until the harassed mum gets home and finds she has to comfort her little girl, and the baby, and her husband and look after the dinner which is coming to the boil. Oh the world is so unfair to women!
  • Debits and credits ‘A full-time working mum has many cares…’ which include trying to persuade her needy infants to accept certain friends round for tea simply to repay the debts she’s accrued from their mums looking after her own kids. Oh it’s so tough being a working mum!
  • Mother’s quiet time Jocasta visits an old friend who’s just had a baby, to discover she is at her wit’s end by the constant endless crying of her infant.
  • Public view A straight-out feminist view on breast-feeding which takes a classical painting of a mother breast-feeding which everyone finds adorable and acceptable in an art gallery, and then cuts and pastes the same image into all kinds of social situations where everyone disapproves.

  • The milk of human kindness A split-screen strip, on one side a frowsy mum, Rose, is disgruntled because she helped out a businesswoman friend for a few hours, tidied and breast-fed the baby and then the businesswoman got home and was disgusted by the breastfeeding and made her feel really inferior – on the other side of the strip the slick businesswoman, Rose, is pissed off because she got home to find Rose had breastfed her baby which made her feel like a negligent mum, made her feel really inferior.
  • Taboo At a packed family lunch Sophie, one of the older Weber children comes and whispers in Wendy’s ear. Then Wendy whispers in all the other women’s ears. Only right at the end do we discover Sophie had whispered that she’d started her period and she nails Wendy’s hypocrisy, for she’d said it was something perfectly natural, something to be celebrated, not something to be hushed up. So why did she whisper about it and not tell anyone?
  • Useful occupations An elderly woman takes a call from her daughter who is upset that she didn’t get a job she applied for. She tries to cheer her up, not least by explaining that women didn’t go out to work in her day – which doesn’t get a very sympathetic response.
  • Medical precautions Jocasta visits her GP who tells her he is planting a chaperone at the door – leading to a misunderstanding where Jocasta assures the doctor he doesn’t think he’ll try anything and the doctor assures her the chaperone is for his sake, in case Jocasta tries anything – leaving them both seething.

  • Fly’s undoing At a business meeting the only women present manages to persuade the men to back her deal. However she knows they’re all going to go off to the gents and persuade each other to change their minds. She wishes she could be a fly on the wall and… is miraculously transformed into a fly and flies into the gents’ and does indeed hear the hawks talking the doves out of agreeing her deal!
  • Paradise lost the Weber’s are on holiday on a hot beach and the women are going topless when George realises a couple of beach bums are commenting, in French, on the shape of every passing woman’s breasts. He intervenes giving them a feminist lecture, name-checking Lacan and Levi-Bruhl and Rousseau to blast them for objectifying women and giving them another chain to shackle them and so on. The French guys just yawn, stretch and stroll away.
  • Grief A woman’s unrestrained grief embarrasses her friends and family. People think grief should be more restrained and demure. The dichotomy is expressed by a contrast between a Picasso image of a weeping woman and an emollient Victorian image of a slightly sad and dignified lady. Sexism!!

Grief by Posy Simmonds

  • The nightmare of Pauline Woodcock Pauline Woodcock (42) international finance correspondent flies to an assignment in the Middle East but has a nightmare in which she is refused entry to the conference because it is for men only, and is forced to go and sit among the harem women who criticise her for having no husband or family and hating women. But it is only a dream and so not a very valid satire on the sexism of Muslim countries.
  • Momentous news Diane, aged 36 and a TV producer, has finally gotten pregnant but when she tells her friends at a garden party they reveal that everyone they know is having a baby late, it’s a fashion, it’s a trend thus patronising and humiliating her.
  • A message to the Monstrous Regiment Peculiarly, this is the final cartoon in the book: It is in the form of a message from Field Marshall Sir Desmond Blundel-Bolass to what he calls The Monstrous regiment, obviously meaning the entire female population, saying they’re a proud little regiment with a long track record of cooking and cleaning and child-rearing, but recently there have been signs of bolshiness and women deserting the regiment to take up jobs in industry, business and so on. THIS MUST STOP and women return to their proper subservient roles. Maybe it triggered a laugh of recognition at the time (1984) but to me it seems elaborate and ‘clever’ but oddly pointless.

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (2)

This obviously overlaps with the large number of working mum strips, with some of the Childhood and small children strips, and with the Divorce strips, all of which depict small children shedding light on the hypocrisies of divorced couples.

  • Music and movement At little Katy’s birthday party the parents gather in the kitchen and nervously discuss the way the five year olds are jigging and jiving to highly sexualised pop music, while George delivers another of his pretentious semiotic interpretations which is no good to anyone.
  • Charity begins at home Working mum Gemma leaves her two little kids in the care of wonderful nanny, Anita, but she tells so many people how wonderful Anita is that one by one all the other middle class mums in the street get Anita to care for their children until her place looks like a zoo – much to Gemma’s chagrin.

Childhood and small children (7)

  • Timor mortis The Weber children’s guinea pig dies and the parents, and grandma, give the kids contradictory stories about what happens to dead animals
  • On a long-distance drive George and Wendy are pestered to pull over at a roadside pub where the kids pig out on steak and chips but George eventually explodes at the so-called waiter and describes at length why every single item was disgusting.

  • Music and movement At little Katy’s birthday party the parents gather in the kitchen and nervously discuss the way the five year olds are jigging and jiving to highly sexualised pop music, while George delivers another of his pretentious semiotic interpretations which is no good to anyone.
  • The birth of the blues A mum has had a baby and is at home nursing it surrounded by cooing friends and family. The strip focuses on the baby’s sister who is hassled by the grown-ups into saying ‘thank you’ for having a new brother.
  • Monkey business Wendy takes the younger children to the zoo where they see monkeys mating and ask mummy what they’re doing. This dilemma has already cropped up at least twice already in the strip. This time Wendy patiently explains a gentle form of the birds and the bees and the gag is that, as she does so, the monkeys put their hands over their baby monkey’s ears to protect their innocence.
  • Just rewards Billy’s mum takes him to play at a friend’s house where he misbehaves – saying rude words, screaming, snatching things. but each time mummy tells him to stop he does. This, the mum explains to her friend, is because she’s instituted a reward system – every time he obeys mummy he gets a reward, and enough rewards buy him a toy. Cut to Billy who has worked out how to play the system, and so deliberately plays up wherever they go – in order to obey the instruction to behave – and thus earns lots of toys!
  • The dark Two of the Weber kids lock themselves inside the old fridge the Weber’s have thrown out to Wendy’s hysterical horror.

Divorce (3)

This is here because after a divorce, Simmonds is interested in the experience of the mother who usually ends up keeping custody of the children, and so ‘divorce’ comes under the broader heading of Women-Feminism-Motherhood-Childcare-Divorce.

  • Unworthy thoughts Two little children come back from a weekend with their daddy and tell the divorced mummy what a great time they had, he took them on a CND march, introduced them to his lovely new girlfriend, had a barbeque and bought them new clothes. The mum promptly rings up the dad to give him a ear-bashing, asking him why on earth he’s being so nice and trying to suck up to her?
  • Home-sick A divorced dad takes his small kids out to a burger bar and the little girl immediately feels sick. All the way home, including on the bus, he is trying to get the little girl to throw up in the street before she gets home. But she doesn’t. She saves it up for the moment she walks through his ex’s door and throws up all over the phone books – prompting a prolonged ear-bashing from his ex about filling them with junk food etc etc.
  • Dad’s girlfriend A divorced woman’s two little kids are joking and taking the mickey out of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, Lynn, at which the mum’s smirk of satisfaction grows larger and larger… unti lthe kids say they don’t want to go to dad and Lynn’s at Christmas – at which point the um realises this will ruin all her plans to go skiing with her new boyfriend Robert… and immediately leaps to the defence of Lynn, telling the kids what a wonderful person she is and how she has a really cool new video!

Sex and adultery (7)

  • Strangers in the night In bed together Stanhope discovers his wife is reading a sexy bodice-ripper and teases her about it.
  • Acting one’s age At a crowded theatre bar, Stanhope makes eye contact with a promising young floozy and Simmonds uses the technique whereby they send dotted eye signals at each other while, in another familiar move, she makes the whole thing a parody, with Stanhope imagining the programme to a grand theatrical production of Their Affair… while his wife spots him and reconceives the same events as a tawdry TV comedy titled ‘It always ends in tears’.
  • And no questions asked Stanhope wakes up in bed with a nubile young woman he has slept with and Simmonds uses the comic, or sardonic technique, of counterpointing all the polite things they say to each other with what they’re really thinking, Stanhope in particular smiling smiling and thinking ‘God, when are you going to bugger off?’
  • Flattery A young woman spends half the strip flattering and chatting up a TV star at a party, giving it her best shot until right at the end he makes his excuses and wanders over to the next pretty fan. This is counterpointed by the same events as enacted by a ewe (Aries) trying to chat up a lion (Leo).
  • Married person’s guide to lunching A series of nine lunches which chart the rise, bloom and decay of an affair carried out , as usual, by Stanhope Wright and his latest victim (which includes a(nother) pastiche of Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe).
  • The transports of love An ironic reference to Stanhope’s car: in the first half he uses it to whisk a pretty young thing off to the countryside where they have a shag, in a picture wherein the car is transformed into an 18th century rococo four-poster bed surrounded by fluttering cherubim – and in the second half, it becomes the scene of an agonised conversation while Stanhope sits with the girl trying to dump her.
  • Derek’s deadly sins A year in the life of a fat gluttonous exec named Derek who regularly stuffs down a heavy lunch with the unbearable Edmund Heep. During the year he chats up a pretty young woman at the office party, and to please his new mistress loses weight, buys new clothes, and the other pub goers take the mickey out of the ensuing affair which runs through May and July but comes a cropper when Derek’s wife finds out about the affair, the relationship breaks up and by the end of the year Derek is back to wearing bad clothes and has his great big beer belly back again.

Academia (8)

  • In his good books Wendy has to sit through dinner with George’s academic colleagues from the Poly all showing off but when they ask her her favourite book, she says Mrs Tiggiwinkle by Beatrix Potter
  • Full stretch George does his yoga while worrying that he is becoming out of touch with developments in the humanities, and ponders resigning.
  • Liaison Presumably published around Valentine’s Day time, this ironically describes the rivalry between the Liberal Studies and Business Studies departments at George’s poly, ending with the suggestion that the two departments amalgamate, which is ironically depicted with one of Simmonds’s flowery rococo pastiches of a valentine’s card between the two.
  • An important meeting George and a colleague go to see the Chairman of governors of the poly but emerge with a surprisingly favourable decision – a big drawing shows what was going on inside each of their skulls, namely that the Chairman made a quick decision because he has a hangover.
  • Unwrappings George and Wendy’s American friend Frisbee Summers is staying. the family pop into a newsagents and while Wendy buys the kids ice-creams George and Frisbee end up discussing the top-row porn mags in high-falutin’ terms of signifying aspects of patriarchal ideology etc. Until Wendy bursts their bubble by whispering ‘Perverts!’ at them both.
  • A notice goes up at the Poly telling staff that unofficial visitors are not allowed. George and his fellow parents on the faculty realise this is a directive designed to stop parents bringing in their children during half term.
  • Eros denied the entire strip is told as a spoof of the Greek gods, wherein Eros fires a dart which hits Mrs Rutland, the Dean’s wife, as she’s chatting to George, and she is suddenly overcome with passion for him, making him blush and the gods panic until another of the gods sends a divine wind to blow away her infatuation and she is restored to normal banality.
  • Funeral rights George is blubbing so much at the funeral of a colleague from the poly who was killed in a car crash that Wendy is proud of him for breaking down sexist stereotypes which insist men keep a stiff, upper lip, and feeling free to express his emotions and… then starts to worry that such an excessive display of mourning will lead colleagues to think he must have been having an affair with the dead woman!
  • The sausage roll that changed the world At a party at his polytechnic, George is pressing the Dean about rumoured cutbacks which might run his new course on Turn of the century Vienna, when the Dean chokes on a sausage roll and Wendy steps in to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre thus saving the Dean’s life – who promptly changes his tune and tells George he’ll see what he can do. (‘It’s an ill windpipe…’)

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (12)

  • Shifting values George and Wendy take a crappy painting his aunt has left him to a valuers who makes an elaborate song and dance over it so that G &W’s opinion is transformed.
  • Black looks George tells Wendy he has just been through an ordeal every bit as bad as the mocking looks he got from his working class dad and his mates when young George went home as an Oxford student – but this time it was the black looks he got as he walked the gauntlet of Belinda and her unemployed punk mates hanging outside the house, as George unpacked the crates of Rioja wine from their Volvo.
  • Left overs George and Wendy have friends round for dinner who praise the cassoulet until Wendy reveals it’s from the freezer of Aunt Gwen who died recently, and left them all her belongings including the contents of her freezer.

  • Killjoy was here Stanhope gets a taxi back from the airport, tanned and still holding his skis from a wonderful skiing break but the glum cab driver soon brings him back to earth and depresses him.
  • Cornish wrestling Taking a cab to the station after a relaxing half-term holiday in Cornwall, George finds a ten pound note down the side of the seat and spends the whole journey agonising whether to hand it in as lost, or use it to pay the fare. He pays the fare.
  • Lingua franca Pippa offers Wendy and the kids a lift back from school and on the way reveals that she’s taken her daughter out of state school and sent her to a private boarding school. ‘They’re very strong on English,’ Pippa explains. They have to be, her daughter in the back thinks – almost all the young ladies at the boarding school are from abroad.
  • Snobs Wendy’s daughter is upset that they won’t buy her a leather skirt for £60, saying all the other girls have got one, and look down on her because she’s poor. What a sordid attitude, Wendy exclaims and tells her daughter that she is in fact, relatively well off with a home and a room of her own and goes to a good school – not to ‘that revolting school in Prosser Street – with all those nasty thugs from the flats.’ To which the family cat comments ‘Sordid attitude’ and Wendy realises what a hypocrite she is.
  • Carping at the shop corner A little gaggle of locals carp about how the local corner shop has changed over the years.
  • Standards of living Wendy leaves Benji with a friend and when her mother and Wendy go to collect him later, the mother spots about a thousand fire and health hazards in the home, whereas Wendy only sees the Noddy book (which I think is meant to be a joke because Noddy books were under fire for being racist).
  • A garden of Eden In early September George and Wendy and a couple of friends are sunbathing in the garden. Then their teenage kids turn up and they become uncomfortably aware of the bumps and blemishes and flab and cover themselves up. Paradise lost.
  • Every picture… At the Wrights’ lovely holiday cottage Stanhope’s art student daughter Jocasta takes Polaroid photos of each other. The joke, such as it is, in the discrepancy between the personal worries and grievances we get to read in their thought bubbles, and the big cheesy smiles they put on for the camera. My daughter read this strip and said, ‘What are they meant to do… shout and scream at the camera? Everyone smiles for bloody cameras and then gets back to their lives.’
  • Lady Bountiful Wendy is walking home from Sainsburys with a friend who points out that Wendy smiles inanely at everyone she meets. Wendy corrects that she only smiles at people less fortunate than her, or who she thinks needs encouraging.  The punchline is that she realises why… why people smile back at her. Standing there weighted down with carrier bags and trailing two mewling children, the reader can see why.
  • Bivouac throughout the strips ‘Bivouac’ is the name given to a kind of Ikea self-service home furnishing company. the strip describes the excitement of buying something in the store, loading it into the car and can’t wait to get it home, then having second thoughts about the extravagant expenditure, and then bickering about who persuaded who to buy it, and then the fate of the bi boxes from Bivouac which is to sit unopened and unloved.

Christmas (8)

Simmonds appears to hate Christmas. Put it this way, all the Christmas-themed strips parody, undermine or satirise the season and its sentiments.

  • Village Christmas
  • What’s in store George and Wendy take the kids to a panto, where they each find something to offend all the family!
  • Och! They’re such a worry The Heeps’ punk sons get kicked out of parties and are forced to go home for New Year’s Eve
  • Festive whirl A circular strip in which George is reluctant to go to a Christmas party, is chivvied into going by Wendy, says they won’t stay long but ends up having a whale of a time, chatting to everyone, then starting to have regrets in the car home, saying he made a number of faux pas, can’t believe he said this, can’t believe he was indiscreet about x, and wakes up the next morning determined not to go to the next Christmas party. Until…
  • The strip World of work has a Christmas theme, consisting of Edmund Heep and a colleague discussing how to wangle the longest break over Christmas.
  • Christmas present George is revolted by a traditional Christmas card from Aunt Bunny containing a traditional cake. George rails against ‘Looking Back Disease’, everyone wanting to preserve a fantasy of some Olde Worlde Christmas and says, if he had his way, they’d dispense with the stagecoach on the Christmas card cover, the Victorian dress, and the port and the lanterns and the snowman, and the robins, out with Santa, in fact out with everything except a message of goodwill. Except that, as he’s dispensed with each of these things, they have been removed from the strip itself until it is just… George and Wendy and a few kids huddling together on a great wide snow-covered plain… with the sound of something hungry howling in the distance.
  • Past 2 o’clock The posh lady with the stiff hairdo and the frightfully, frightfully manner is woken by strangers knocking at the door. It is a reincarnation of Joseph and Mary turned away from the inn and trudging through the snow, and so the humour comes from the tone of voice and excuses made by the posh lady as she explains that she can’t put them up in the main house – the builders are making a frightful mess, but she can put them up in the shed next door, it’s currently housing Sara’s pony but they’re going to do it up and put in a shower and a utility room and decorate it with some rather super tiles they saw in France etc.
  • Christmas wishes A rather bleak strip consisting of two nearly identical big pictures, at the top George and Wendy wishing us a Happy Christmas next to a mantlepiece covered with Christmas cards – underneath, exactly the same scene, but each of the cards has been transformed by one of the worries of contemporary life e.g. a nuclear power station has appeared on the hill behind the sleigh, the wise men had been pointing at a star but now they’re pointing at a mushroom cloud, some deer were looking at a decorated Christmas tree but now they’re looking at a barbed wire fence with a Ministry of Defence Keep Out sign on it. It’s quite funny as humour, but it’s really interesting as social history, as a reminder of just how terrified everyone was of nuclear war or a nuclear accident back in 1983, 36 long years ago.

Pastiches and parodies (7)

Many of the cartoons liven up otherwise mundane events by dressing them in parodies of 18th century rococo or Renaissance paintings, or set them to the tunes of Elizabethan or Victorian songs (updating the words for comic effect) or in other ways frame or transform events into alternative genres, such as when Stanhope imagines a possible affair with a young woman in terms of a grand theatrical production, and visualises a theatre programme giving his and her names as the leading roles…. whereas his wife sees what is going on and imagines the same events as the subject of a silly TV sitcom titled ‘It always ends in tears’.

So humour is often derived not from the events, but from this clever transplanting of them into comically inappropriate genres and formats.

  • The joke Valentine’s Day card in Liaison
  • The appearance and speech of the Greek gods in DIY
  • The use of theatre programmes and the Radio Times format to parody Stanhope chatting up a young lady at the theatre in Acting one’s age
  • Spring fever Spotty punk Julian Heep tries to talk young Helene into shagging him but she refuses saying he’ll just tell everyone at school. The final scene parodies a classical painting of a young man putting his arms round a lady dressed in a classical gown.
  • The transformation of the car into a rococo love nest in Transports of love
  • The rebirth of Venus in which three women discuss and pester a friend into losing weight in a series of pictures which spoof and parody Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus to make a feminist comment on how women are forced to conform to body stereotypes.
  • Cat lovers is told in the form of a rhyme (as are several others), thus: ‘The cat sat on the mat. Back to the flat come Pat and Jack. Jack hates the cat. The cat hates Jack. Pat loves the cat. The cat loves Pat. Pat sat on Jack’s lap. Jack pets Pat. Jack and Pat want a nap. Scram, cat, scram! Drat the cat!’ which tells the tale of a couple coming back to the flat, smooching and then wanting to go to bed… only to find a big cat poo on the duvet. In strips like this you can see a basic childishness, a simple-mindedness about the strip, which means it wasn’t a big departure for Simmonds to branch out into children’s books – the most successful of which were about… cats!

Teenagers (7)

  • Nature, nurture (and nutrition) Fashionable young Belinda Weber has scorned going to university as her parents hoped and is helping out as waitress in a Directors Dining Room because, as she shouts at her mother, she is sick of living in a poky conversion, sick of kidney beans and lentils, sick of pine dressers. She wants to meet someone rich and drive a Saab and live in a nice house. Thatcher’s children.
  • Virtue’s work Father Stanhope gives lazy skiving art student Jocasta a talking to about needing to get a job.
  • Reaction A mother has a trio of teenagers over, slumped in front of the telly, and is appalled at how heartless and cynical they are, fondly remembering when they were small and got upset at Disney films etc. Suddenly she hears them yukking and moaning and goes in to discover that… they are appalled and revolted by the middle-aged clothes, the bell-bottoms and open shirt being worn by a TV news reporter!
  • Honcho Gun The two punk sons of Edmund and Jo Heep go to the cinema but are so obnoxious they keep being asked to move and are eventually kicked out. Home embarrassingly early, they fend off a bollocking from their dad by ad libbing an enormous long complicated science fiction plot which they make up. ‘When in a spot, baffle ’em wiv Sci-Fi!’
  • Home Jocasta is skint and fed up of living in sordid student accommodationso she turns up back at her parents’ house and moves in, stuffing her face with good food, smoking on the sofa and reading in the bath. As so often, there is an ironic narrative counterpoint to all this as music staves run above the strip depicting the lyrics of the Victorian song ‘there’s no place like home’. My daughter read this strip and asked me, ‘Is it meant to be funny? Because it’s just… obvious’.
  • ABC (as it is spoken) Two young leather-jacketed dudes go into their local pub where the landlord asks them for proof of their age and they get stroppy. The ‘gag; is that the entire dialogue, by all parties, consists of abbreviations: ‘L.O.’ ‘2 G.n.T’ ‘A?’ and so on. Clever. Not particularly funny.
  • Marriage à la mode Belinda announces to her parents that she is going to marry one of the rich directors at the offices where she works as a cook. George and Wendy are distraught that Belinda’s not making the most of her education, those A-levels, doesn’t want to be the strong, independent feminist they brought her up to be and worst of all, wants George to ‘give her away’ at the traditional church service… like a medieval chattel. Ugh!

Second homes (5)

  • Village Christmas The book opens with quite a bitterly satirical cartoon showing a cluster of village cottages round a village church covered in snow in complete silence on December 22, and then in successive pictures how holiday home owners arrive down from London, animate the houses with lights and real fires and arguing and partying over Christmas, nursing hangovers on Christmas Day, and are packed up and gone leaving the village silent again, by 27 December. Looking back from 2019 it’s fascinating to see the seeds of the current housing crisis and resentment at the holiday home-owners who have gutted large numbers or rural and coastal communities, being sown so long ago. But the really striking thing about it is how beautifully it is drawn. In the rest of the book Simmonds’s looseness with faces, which are often erratically drawn, is still in evidence. But her depiction of things, and the details of scenes and scenery (indoors or out) go from strength to strength.
  • Home is the sailor During this period Simmonds introduced the Cornish seaside hamlet of Tresoddit whose point is that it is overrun with Londoners who’ve bought up all the available cottages as second homes.
  • One man’s meat The Weber’s visit posh friends who have a home in the country, and the mum delivers a long speech about how the locals buy really expensive processed food at the local store instead of eating the kind of fresh, vegetarian fare which she recommends.
  • Up and down in the country A satirical speech delivered by the same pomaded lady in a quilted Barbour jacket as the previous strip, who explains the work of the Society for the Preservation of Owners of Second Homes or POSH.
  • Nice little men The same woman with a Barbour jacket and over-elaborate hairdo has such a worry about her second home in the country, and calls out a simply super little man who lives locally, but the nice little man overhears her describing him in belittling, superior, patronising tones on the phone and so does a rush job and clear out grumpily… leaving posh lady wondering ‘But he was such a NICE little man, too.’

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

  • Edmund Heep steps in for a colleague at a conference and gives a deeply embarrassing speech
  • Distinguished service Heep is out of action nursing a hangover so his secretary Jackie has to rummage around in his chaotic filing system to find the needed paperwork.
  • World of work On a crowded bus at Christmas, Heep discusses with a colleague precisely how many days off work they can wangle, this Christmas and next Christmas holidays. Neither of them understand why the two blokes behind them become so angry that one of them shoves Heep’s hat down over his ears until… they pair get off the bus at the next stop and go into the local Job Centre – at which they simply feel SHAME.

Miscellaneous (3)

  • Upright citizens Waiting in a long bus queue an old lady reflects that it’s one of life’s little unfairnesses that whereas young people can lounge or sit in doorways, the elderly cannot without being taken for vagrants.
  • Minor op Wendy goes into hospital for a minor operation. The amusement comes from the way Simmonds quotes Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech to name all the ‘roles’ someone having an operation is called on to perform.
  • The house that Jack bought Nice middle-class Jack sells his house in order to move into the one Mr Shite is selling him but at the last minute Shite gets a higher offer and sells it to someone else leaving Jack’s family stuck in expensive rented accommodation. This just seems to be an utterly humourless comment on the sheer hell of trying to buy or sell a house in Britain.

Politics (2)

  • Don’t know A visually funny strip where Jocasta the art student is wakened by a ringing at her doorbell, trudges all the way down the stairs and the hallway to answer the door to a man canvassing for the local Labour candidate. Jocasta takes the flyer, trudges back upstairs and dumps it next to all the other ignored flyers.
  • Judicium extremum Atom bombs fall and wipe out the world. At the pearly gates there are two queues of the dead, one of hawks and one of doves, both of them blaming each other for what has happened.

Household chores and worries (1)

Possibly the once about the Bivouac shopping trip fits in here as well.

  • DIY A parody in which the Greek gods of the household oversee George and Wendy’s frustrated attempts at spring cleaning.

Thoughts

This detailed enumeration of the strips makes it crystal clear that it contains little or no politics but is overwhelmingly concerned with the cosy mundanities, and stroppy grievances and petty frustrations, of domestic and personal life. Feminism, or the role of women, and in particular a) harassed mothers and b) even more harassed working mums, are the most recurrent subjects.

On the plus side is young Belinda Weber, the glamorous teenager/young woman, strong, independent-minded, who rejects all her mother’s pussy-footing, soft soap liberalism and just wants to marry a millionaire. It’s odd how, having root and branch rejected old-style feminism, Belinda is consistently shown as a well-adjusted, happy winner.

One other thing is striking to the modern reader, which is that all the characters are white and straight.

There are no black, Asian, Muslim or ethnic minority characters, whether in the street, in shops, in the various offices or at the poly, in the schools or at any of the parties, lunches and get-togethers. Race appears as an issue once or twice, for example in the strip when Wendy says she smiles at the new Pakistani woman who’s moved into the street, and says the one person she doesn’t smile at is the appallingly racist woman across the road. When Edmund Heep irritates the men sitting behind him on the bus, one of them is black. That appears to be it.

Similarly, there are no gay or lesbian characters anywhere. The rights and wrongs endured by middle-class white women women women women are proclaimed from the hilltops. The experiences of black, Asian, immigrant or lesbian and gay people are invisible. The Posy cartoon strips are a strictly white, middle-class and heterosexual affair. This, I think, goes a long way to explaining why they have such a cosy, reassuring feel. Nothing threatening or strange ever happens in them.

cf Celeb

Surfing cartoons on the internet I stumbled across the ‘Celeb’ strip drawn by ‘Ligger’, which has been appearing in Private Eye for 30 years or so, describing the sardonic attitudes of an ageing rock star named Gary Bloke. Every one of these Celeb cartoons made me laugh out loud.

Celeb by Ligger

I found more laughs in one Celeb cartoon than the entire 488-page Posy collection but then laughs are not really what she’s after.

Credit

All Posy Simmonds cartoons are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images are freely available on the internet.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Pick of Posy by Posy Simmonds (1982)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian newspaper gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious, drunk whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Pick of Posy is the second in the series of collections, given that True Love was a one-off ‘graphic novel’, loosely based on the schoolgirl crush of one of the characters, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright. The most obvious aspects of the book are:

– it is twice the length of Mrs Weber’s Diary, at getting on for 90 pages

– the diary format which dominated the first book has been dropped, allowing the strips to stand on their own

– the drawing has changed and improved; the earliest cartoons from the previous book were sometimes drawn with a very heavy, thick outline; in Pick of Posy the lines are thinner, more subtle

– and accompanying this there is a noticable increase in the amount of background detail in the frames. Some cartoonists leave the frames almost empty except for the human characters. Simmonds’s frames are stuffed with detail of an almost photographic realism.

Compare and contrast the almost children-book simplicity of a very early cartoon, most of the frames having a simple white background:

With the style of only a few years later, which is stuffed with minutely catalogued and realistic details, designed to reinforce the mood and meaning of the text.

Class distinctions

Surfing the net around Simmonds I came across an American blogger who said that for a long time he didn’t understand Posy Simmonds cartoons at all. He didn’t get what they were about, they just seemed so British, with no real humour in them. Then one particular strip gave him a Eureka moment and made him realise that Simmonds’s cartoons are predominantly about class, about the thousand tiny subtle markers of class and class distinctions which the British obsess about and which are so opaque or invisible to outsiders. That was the key, and from that point onwards he was able to understand and appreciate them.

I think this is a massive insight. It explains why the strips are almost all talk or thought bubbles, rather than actions or events. Because it is via thoughts and dialogue and words and concepts that the subtle distinctions of class which are Simmonds’s meat and drink are expressed.

But I think you can extend the insight. Her cartoons are not only about class. Age and gender are also dominant themes:

  • Gender in the form of the familiar sex war in which countless women feel they are the hard-done-by, downtrodden, stay-at-home-mums, or harassed working mums, or young women wolf-whistled in the street, or leered over at work by lecherous middle-aged men.
  • Age in the obvious way that the concerned liberal Weber couple have a teenage daughter, Belinda, who has become a punk, goes out with leather-clad bikers, and generally rebels against everything her parents held sacred, as do the two punk sons of alcoholic whiskey salesman Edmund Heep. The presence of these two types of teenage rebellion (one female, the other male) allows Simmonds to make countless jokey observations about the gap between the idealistic 60s generation and the nihilistic 70s generation.

This line of thinking helps explain why the strips are not about broad humour, or puns or boom-boom punchlines, but are concerned with a thousand subtle, acute observations on the differences of class and age and gender which permeate British society and, in particular, which divide the so-called middle classes into scores of sub-tribes or groups.

Mundane subject matter

It explains why so much of the subject matter – what is happening in the strips – is extremely mundane and everyday: it is not the events which are interesting, it is the way they spark divergent responses in this or that middle class tribe, divides men’s responses from women’s, the overly-concerned liberal parents from their spotty stroppy kids.

The wry smile of recognition

It explains why even her strongest fans tend to use words like ‘wry’ and ‘dry’ about her humour, which are code for something which is obviously not serious but also is not trying to prompt laughter. Instead I think the central aim or effect of her cartoons is to trigger recognition: her readers read a strip and nod their heads and think – ‘Yes, I know that sort of angry mum, or leery businessman, or stroppy teenager’. They give you a wry smile of recognition.

It’s the same kind of wry smile that is prompted by her clever-clever references to famous paintings, or use of pastiche elements like suddenly accompanying the strip with the worlds of an Elizabethan song, or slipping into the style of 1950s True Romance magazines.

All the elements – recognition of social types, recognition of their precise class position, recognition of clever cultural references – are designed to make you nod and think, ‘Yes, I get it; very clever’.

Humour

Where there is humour in the strips, beyond the wry smile of recognition, it is most often expressed in ironic reversals – when an exasperated mother, or concerned parents, or adulterous man, set out with one intention and then find themselves ironically frustrated, or (very often) outsmarted by their children or rivals or would-be targets.

A good example is Peaceful twilight years where George’s Aunt Weber comes to stay and is sitting comfortably in front of the television when she starts saying ’89’, repeatedly. George and Wendy look at each other and then have a sotto voce conversation about how the old lady’s going gaga, and Wendy very patronisingly asks if that’s her age. To which Winny shocks her and the reader by replying that, No, 89 is the number of violent TV deaths she’s seen so far this month. ‘They say today’s children see over 10,000 TV murders by the time they’re 15… I’ve seen over 120,000.’ Now that is quite funny.

Or Happy families where Paul and Emma Standish have come round to George and Wendy’s for Sunday lunch and afterwards one of their little kids starts drawing on Wendy’s wall and then on the sofa so Wendy gives her a light smack which leads to an enormous argument and debate about the rights and wrongs of smacking – the comic punchline comes as the strip cuts away to the other kids playing quietly on the floor, one of whom says: ‘It always ends in tears.’

Themes

I tried to do a one-sentence summary of some of the strips just to record what they’re actually about:

  • Spotlight on beauty Wendy buys new wall lights, fits them herself but is then horrified when they spotlight the mess, damp and chaos in her kitchen
  • Happy ever after George and Wendy take the mickey out of all the merchandising surrounding the Royal Wedding, which prompts their teenage daughter Belinda to complain that they’re always belittling things and mocking romance, at which point George and Wendy say they’re just as much in love as ever, which prompts Belinda and the other kids to go ‘Eurgh, GROSS!
  • Sunday TV Wendy, her mum and the little kids are watching a TV documentary about lions in Africa which includes scenes of them mating, which prompts her mum to whisper, in French so the kids don’t understand, that they ought to turn it off – so they turn it off and draw the kids’ attention to their two pet rabbits in their cage, but when the adults have left, the kids notice that the rabbits are also mating and -m in an ironic payoff – one of the older kids parodies their grandma by saying ‘Ooh la la, Keith! Pas devant les enfants!’ because, of course, being good middle-class children they do of course understand French.
  • Mea culpa Wendy is in the basement kitchen of the Weber household when she sees a man walking a dog which is doing a poo right outside. She rushes up and out the door to berate him, but he tells her a long shaggy dog story about how the dog was foisted on him by his ailing mother-in-law and he thinks its behaviour is awful, but what can you do? On and on, until it is Wendy who feels abashed and ashamed of herself.
  • Hawks and doves Dominic’s parents are giving a dinner party but the little so-and-so, in his pyajamas, runs around the dinner table shouting and making a fuss and tugging his mums’ skirt: in their minds the guests divide neatly into hawks, who would give him a good smack, and doves, who thinks he is just over-tired and needs attention. The strip ends with his father picking him up at which point he becomes calm and docile, and his long-suffering mother looking daggers at her husband who seems able to mollify their son so effortlessly.

  • Piggy bank George joins everyone else staring at a man who is walking through the street effing and blinding, George goes in to see his bank manager who gives him a hard time about bank security and needing to verify his identity, until George emerges onto the street doing exactly the same kind of effing and blinding as the man the strip started with.
  • Higher education In the Polytechnic canteen on the first day of the new academic year, we see all the staff moaning and worrying.
  • Exchange of views The Dean of the Polytechnic where George works needs to shed some staff and so is shown soft-soaping George and several other old-timers, telling them now is the time to take early retirement, write that book they’ve always wanted to, pick up work as a consultant and so on…

Exchange of views by Posy Simmonds (1980)

  • Identity parade A visiting lecturer at the Poly is introduced to George who recognises him and takes a moment to review where they’ve met – was it at the Uni of Essex in the 60s, at hippy rallies in Hyde Park, at fashionable beatnik cafés, or attending R.D. Laing’s fashionable lectures on psychiatry. Then the penny drops. God, no, it was when they were both in the army doing their national service at Oswestry and the visitor was corporal to George’s private.
  • Clouds of glory A split-screen strip in which George visits the GP because of something up with his poo – on one side the doctor tells him he only weeks to live, all his relatives tearfully come and see him and after his death his magnum opus is published and given a rave review in the Time Literary Supplement; on the other side exactly the same sequence of events leads up to the doctor telling George that, from the state of a sample of faeces he’s given him, George has been eating too much beetroot!
  • Urbs and rus Stanhope and wife Trisha are at their second home in the country and Stanhope pontificates about how his knowledge of country matters and nature is infinitely superior to their neighbour, farmer Pearcey, who is not a real farmer and just makes a mint renting his and to a caravan park. All of which Mr Pearce unfortunately overhears, putting Stanhope in his place with the witty riposte: ‘As the man said, we must all cultivay notre jardin, eh?’
  • THE DENTIST A couple of surreal strips in which Trish Stanhope visits an Australian Marxist dentist who, in effect, hears her embarrassed confession about  how she’s not as left-wing and right-on as she ought to be, what with the second home and the cleaner and the private school for the little ones…
  • Rustic blues Stanhope takes a country neighbour of his, another Londoner who bought up a disused railway station and has renovated it and moans about how he can’t ingratiate himself with the locals to the local pub where – they discover it is packed to the rafters with Londoners down for the weekend and treating the locals to fancy tipples and fags.
  • Home is where the heart is Stanhope drives the family down to his lovely country cottage, singing the praises of the countryside all the way – until he opens a letter waiting for him to discover it is a summons to jury service, at which point he explodes that he’s going to be stuck in this ‘one-eyed dump’ for weeks! (The insult ‘one-eyed’ applied to a remote village will recur in the graphic novels Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe.)
  • Angles and Saxons Stanhope and Trisha Wright are enjoying a picnic in the country with their step-daughter Jocasta, who has brought along her middle-aged boyfriend, an expert in graphs. When a motorbike roaring by sputters to a halt, the boyfriend shows Jocasta a series of graphs based on the likelihood of Stanhope giving the rider a bollocking. But to everyone’s surprise Stanhope is intimidated by the biker, and ends up wishing him well. Much to the chagrin of Stefan the graph-expert. And Jocasta’s punchline to the strip is: ‘Stefan has always believed that British middle class behaviour goes out of its way to defy rational explanation.’ Not that funny.

  • Always welcome Typically English middle-class, envenomed restraint, when Trish and Stanhope welcome Jocasta home to say, and then find themselves lumbered with putting up middle-aged Stefan – going out of their way to make a nice diner for im, and making up the sofa bed with pillows and a duvet – and then retiring to their own bedroom to fret and criticise and disapprove.
  • A room of one’s own Jocasta in her freezing, scruffy student flat at Christmas.
  • Christmas Christmas is a recurrent theme in all the books. Simmonds hates Christmas, all the fol-de-rol and pretending. So the Christmas strip in this book kicks off with Wendy and Trish traipsing through the West End past gaudily decorated shops lamenting which pack of ghoulish relatives are coming to stay this year – but then both notice little Benji cooing over the shop window decorations and Wendy ends up thinking: ‘It’s all a terrible expense… but still… it is Christmas… & one has to do it for the children, after all…’
  • Wish you were here The Christmas Day cartoon is one big picture of Jocasta in bed in her filthy flat, smoking and reading a book surrounded by dirty dishes and fag packets and food wrappers, imagining the polite family Christmas Stanhope and Trish are having with some in-laws who they politely loathe and how everyone is getting on each other’s nerves in that repressed, English way.
  • Lonely heart The thoughts of an Action Man doll who is horrified when his owner’s big sister starts dressing her Barbie doll in the Action Man clothes and putting her in his tank etc.
  • Wendy’s mum comes to stay and insists on doing all the washing up and chores and dusting and cleaning the loo and Wendy is hugely relieved when she finally leaves!
  • Consumers In post-Christmas mode George and Wendy watch ads on TV and George way over-analyse them in terms of ‘reification’ and ‘heuristics’.
  • Perpetuum immobile One big clever cartoon showing alcoholic Edmund Heep propping up the bar at his local and buying drinks for everyone, with his tiresomely cheerful banter.
  • All systems go showing the brand new regional office of International Brewhouse Inc empty, as the designers designed it, and then full of boozy male middle-managers after work, with harassed secretaries having to cover for them. Men, eh!
  • The silent 3 introducing Edmund Heep’s two sons who are safety-pinned, spiky-haired punks, and their mate arguing and swearing at each other all the time.

  • The silent 3: Gather ye rosebuds shows the three punks hanging out, threatening passersby and ogling passing birds, only to reveal at the end that young Jules, occasionally, in the privacy of his own home… can be quite sweet to his old parents, buying his mum a gardening book and his dad a tie.
  • Settlers Quite a funny strip in which George and Wendy are round the house of a friend who’s done up a house in a remote and derelict area, all the language leading you to believe they’re talking about the remote countryside until… they step outside and you realise the house is in n area of abandoned urban wasteland.
  • Happy families Paul and Emma Standish have come round to George and Wendy’s for Sunday lunch and afterwards one of their little kids starts drawing on Wendy’s wall and then on the sofa so Wendy gives her a light smack which leads to an enormous argument and debate about the rights and wrongs of smacking – the comic punchline comes as the strip cuts away to the other kids playing quietly on the floor, one of whom says: ‘It always ends in tears.’
  • An unnamed strip which ironically takes tropes to do with spring, and singing birds and buds breaking through to…. show that these daffodils are blooming in the foetid flat of Jocasta Wright where they start coughing and choking.
  • True confessions Stanhope and his wife Trish are weekending at their cottage, but when Stanhope beings tentatively to tell his wife about his latest fling (they have an open marriage) she gets cross and shouts that she’s not his Mother Confessor. She decides to invite ‘the Dixons’ over although this requires a complex set of instructions as they’re two hours from London. In counterpoint to Trish’s directions Stanhope draws an imaginary maze which would lead Trish to discovering him, Stanhope, in bed with his latest floozy.
  • Angles of incidence Stanhope is in the lift with his mother when he starts making eyes at a pretty young thing who makes eyes back at him. Stanhope’s mother spots it and treads in his feet interrupting the flow of sexual enticement, saying as she helps him limp from the lift: ‘I thought we’d had quite enough of ETERNAL TRIANGLES, Stanhope.’
  • The conversation piece Jocasta and her dad, Stanhope, are hanging out in the airport departure lounge because the plane to take them on their skiing holiday is delayed. Stanhope, as is his wont, starts chatting up another middle-aged woman, which Jocasta listens to for a bit and then suddenly stands up and announces to the entire lounge that she is his mistress which leads to a massive picture showing all the passengers in the lounge commenting on this revelation in a rich mix of European languages.
  • Bitter sweets Trish is shopping at the supermarket when little Willy spots sweets at the checkout counter and starts wailing, crying, screaming for them. The mum she’s with sympathises and a chorus of other women all give their opinions about how to manage – when Trish just smacks Willy, he stops crying in surprise, and she buys him the sweets anyway.
  • Peaceful twilight years George’s Aunt Weber comes to stay and is sitting comfortably in front of the television when she starts saying ’89’, repeatedly. George and Wendy look at each other and then have a sotto voce conversation about how the old lady’s going gaga, and Wendy very patronisingly asks if that’s her age. To which Winny shocks her and the reader by replying that, No, 89 is the number of violent TV deaths she’s seen so far this month. ‘They say today’s children see over 10,000 TV murders by the time they’re 15… I’ve seen over 120,000.’ Now that is quite funny.
  • Perspectives Over dinner George, Wendy and a beardy socialist friend discuss the issues of the day – the arms race, collapse of detente, nuclear war, the economy, nationalism, pollution, destruction of the ozone layer, unemployment… Later than night George has a nightmare but, in ironic counterpoint to all these big weighty subjects, his subconscious is harassed by worries that his library books are three weeks overdue, he might be getting Wendy’s cold, and that something’s dropped off the car.
  • A dog’s life A split screen narrative in which a colleague of George’s at the Poly – Pierce – goes through a typical day, nicking George’s parking space, trying it on with a secretary, criticising George and the other lefties for being so soft, nicking the office projector and so on. In the parallel set of pictures we see the adventures of Pierce’s dog during the day, the doggy equivalent of all Pierce’s actions. Except that at the end of the day Pierce gets home late to a chilly reception from his wife, while the dog gets home to be embraced and rewarded.
  • Sharing George gets home from a draining day to find that Wendy has done all the chores even though it’s ‘his’ turn .He gets quite cross, explaining that he wanted to do the shopping, cooking, cleaning and washing up and her having done it has left him feeling deprived. ‘It was MY TURN to feel really OPPRESSED.’
  • No smoking George takes the train and is driven mad by the loud sounds all the other passengers make, listening to the radio, eating an apple, slurping a cup of tea etc.
  • Bon brush George is cleaning the toilet while Wendy goes out to night class, but his cleaning  conjures up a genii, a middle-aged woman of a genii who proceeds to be shocked that he’s doing the housework and insists a woman’s place is in the home and a load of other sexist cant, so that George pushes her back into the toilet, rams the lid down and flushes it.
  • Il Fondo George and Wendy go to the cinema to see an Italian movie. George drifts off and is thinking about new sheets for the bed, when the characters proceed to strip off and (presumably) have sex, at which George goes all red in the face and… notices Wendy looking at him. Oops, quick, time to hide that male sex drive. So he readjusts his thoughts until he is condemning the film as ‘appalling, horribly sexist, revolting and exploitative.’ When he hurriedly tells Wendy all this as they leave the cinema she smiles and agrees. Phew.
  • Cheers In a pub some leery businessman spends the entire strip chatting up the young woman they’ve promoted to management, patronising and insulting her about how pretty she is, until the woman throws her drink over the guy and storms out, leaving him spluttering: ‘There! See! What have I always said – they’re IRRATIONAL… EMOTIONAL… & completely UNPREDICTABLE.’
  • Uneasy riders George and Wendy’s daughter is a stunningly sexy teenager who wears tight clothes, low tops and is going out with a motorcycle courier. Off she zooms and George and Wendy tut tut and reminisce about their heady days in the 1950s, going by scooter to a cool coffee bar and onto the Royal Court theatre.
  • The natural order Wendy drops little Benji off with one of her neighbours and is appalled to hear the mum telling her boy that he has to be a doctor and the daughters that they have to be nurses. Sexist stereotyping! In fact as soon as the adults have gone this is exactly what the little girls do, playing with their dolly and not letting Benji get a look in. But when they hear the grown-ups returning, the girls give the doll to Benji and tell the admiring Wendy that he’s been a nurse while one of the girls has been acting a mother and brain surgeon. In other words, they know how to play Wendy’s politically correct prejudices. And this is 1979, 40 years ago!
  • Well known facts Another split strip concept, where the children are walking back from school telling each other things their mums have told them like, if you step on the cracks a bear will get you, or if you swallow apple pips a tree will grow in your tummy. This is ironically counterpointed by the mums’ conversations which are all about ‘my mum says’ and ‘my doctor told me’ and ‘my architect friend said’ and so on. Moral: we never really grow up.
  • Art gallery George takes his kids to an art gallery and delivers long high-falutin lectures about the politico-historical realities behind each painting, while the kids yawn and want to leave. I think the joke is that their regular Sunday morning visits, complete with lecture, are identical in format to the kind of preachy sermonising George and Wendy hated about the church their parents took them to.
  • Temptation’s way Belinda Weber goes into town on the tube wearing an extraordinarily sexy black leather figure-hugging outfit and thinks she’s being touched up in the tube carriage. Instead it is a feminist who has covered her with stickers saying ‘This garment exploits women’.
  • Daily dose Jocasta Wright catches the tube and looks at all the images and stories about women in the papers and magazines the commuters are reading, leading to a large cartoon of ‘the Seven Ages of Media Women’
  • A Messy Business Jocasta is walking down the street when she steps in some dog poo, then catches up with a dog on a leash and stares daggers at it, imagines killing it, imagines it dead, imagines the newspaper headlines about herself being a dog killer, and so walks past the dog, smiling cheesily at it. The dog says ‘Chicken’ to her.
  • Promises, promises A female friend insists on showing Wendy the photos from Sue’s wedding. Every single one involves someone who is divorced or splitting up or remarrying. By the time they get to the photo of the happy bride, and her friend comments that they’re getting married rather young, Wendy sardonically comments, don’t worry: ‘It’s just a PHASE she’s going through.’
  • L’après-midi d’une divorcée A divorced mum is waiting for her husband to come and collect the kids. The delay allows her to work herself into a frenzy of anger and frustration at him so that when he finally knocks on the door, she opens it holding her child dressed as a cowboy who demands, ‘Your money or your life, Daddy.’
  • Theory and practice is another split screen, on one side the successive stages of a happy and equable divorce, on the other side a set of mathematical equations depicting an extremely fractious and rancorous divorce.
  • How the other half lives A divorced woman phones her ex-husband imagining him snug in a big bed with his dishy new girlfriend. In fact he is living in a sad bedsit surrounded by rubbish, and is imagining her living in domestic bliss with happy kids stroking the pet labrador. They’re both angry and deluded.
  • Company loves misery At a smart house party a group of women bill and coo over a male friend of theirs who’s recently got divorced. But when he turns up in the company of the stunning young fox, Belinda Weber, their giggly fondness turns to bitterness and spite.
  • Going solo Wendy phones a friend of hers who’s recently got divorced, Ellen, a creator of hand-crafted wooden house signs. Ellen goes to great lengths to tell Wendy how happy she is to be single, to be living by herself, to be free, not to be dominated by some man. But after Wendy hangs up. Ellen bursts into bitter tears.
  • Putting the bootee in At a nice house party Nigel, married with two kids, deduces that single Avril earns three times what he does, and start chatting her up, without realising how patronising and sexist he is being. Finally, his heavily pregnant wife comes to collect him and he manages to really anger her by thoughtlessly remarking: ‘Y’know… I really admire women like that, who make something of their lives’, implying that his wife, by ‘merely having babies, has wasted hers.
  • Rich desserts Tow mums are visiting. Christine has a small baby. the other mums bills and coos and makes an enormous fuss over baby, talking horrible baby talk and putting her up on her shoulder where… the baby proceeds to be copiously sick, much to the first mums’ amusement.
  • Mother knows best Trish is taken out for tea by her mother-in-law, Stanhope’s mother, who proceeds to lecture her about how a mother ought to be at the beck and call of her children, nothing is too good for them… until she spies a mother across the restaurant breast-feeding her baby, at which point she is overcome with disgust and disapproval… much to Trish’s ill-concealed glee.
  • The shape of things to come A joke reveal strip – in which we meet George, Wendy and other parents in the kitchen catering to a raucous party, complaining about the guests, the gatecrashers, throwing up behind the flowers, dancing lasciviously and then… the final big picture reveals that they’re supervising a party not of adults but of 11-year-olds making themselves sick on fizzy drinks and chocolate and gyrating to pop music whose sexy lyrics they can’t possibly understand.
  • At Tobit’s fourth birthday party the well-dressed hostess explains that she simply couldn’t do without her wonderful au pair, Lizzie, who looks after the kids, arranges everything, makes it possible for swish mum to have a jet-setting career. But then she says wonderful Lizzie is leaving her to go and study in America at which all the other mums say, How awful, How dreadful, Oh poor you etc. And then, a second later, realise that they’re saying that the academic success of this woman Lizzie is dreadful… at which point they all rush to correct themselves, How simply wonderful for her etc.
  • Tres snub George and Wendy attend a party of appalling snobs and social climbers at Mrs Brinsley Bowe’s bijou residence, which George regards as excellent field work into ‘a discourse of totemic bricolage’.
  • An acid experience Old friend of George and Wendy’s, American ethno-botanist is staying and is thrilled to meet ferociously sexy Belinda and her cool, shaded boyfriend. Hair-banded, hairy old hippy Frisbee tries to co-opt them into his memories of rebellion and the summer of love, giving them a big bear hug and proclaiming Love, man – while the two youngsters have thought bubbles with KILL in big letters.
  • Sex’n’drugs Wendy worries that Belinda is going out in a very low-cut top which reveals her boobs, but Belinda tells her to calm down, she’s not having sex or taking drugs, like her old hippy parents did at her age.

  • Pupa power Wendy is round a fellow mum’s who begins criticising some fiml or TV programme for being sexist and her teenage kids start taking the mickey out of her: ‘Sexism! sexism! That’s all you talk about’ which sets the mum off ranting about how she’d hoped to bring up two kids to share her liberal values but appears to have raised ‘two SLUGS who lie about chewing holes in everything I stand for.’
  • The joke strip where Jocasta and another girl have gone for a day’s sketching in the countryside accompanied by two of their male tutors. When the old tutors criticise the cynicism of the t-shirts the girls are wearing Jocasta spontaneously takes hers off, and then her jeans (made in South Africa) and then her trainers (made in a Latin American dictatorship) and then her panties (made from multi-national man-made fibre) – until she is sitting naked next to the two clothed men in a pastiche of the famous Manet painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

 

  • Manners Friends go and stay at Stanhope and Trisha’s country cottage and at the end of the weekend tell him what a divine time they had, slept like logs, simply the best… then spend the entire drive back to London complaining how ghastly it was.
  • Loss and profit Benji steals George’s car keys and hides them in the garden. George gets angry with him at which point Wendy intervenes to coax Benji and offer him sweets. At which point Benji confesses where he hid them and is rewarded. So that he learns that crime really does pay.
  • L’Étranger George and Wendy are on the beach in the south of France, very white and pasty among the bronzed foreign bodies. Wendy begins to take her bikini off but then is overcome with doubts, prompting George to explain to the other beach occupiers, in his bad French, that they are not embarrassed about going naked, it’s just that the day before they got sunburn on their naughty bits.
  • A little turbulence The insufferably good-humoured drunk Edmund Heep is on a holiday flight which runs into really bad turbulence during which all the passengers beg God that they’ll mend their ways if only the plane survives.
  • Jocasta and friends are hitch-hiking through France and are eating at a seafood restaurant when they can’t helping the noisy Germans and (as usual) the braying confident upper middle class Brits telling their kids how to crack and eat lobster claws, leading Jocasta to bubble-think a parody of the poster for Jaws called Claws in which a giant lobster reaches upto munch the all-unwary swimmer.
  • Edmund and Jo Heep have gone on holiday to a hotel in England where they are embarrassed by their obnoxious punk teenage sons until… Julian gets the letter with his O-level results proclaiming that he’s got all nine, and his parents, the waitress and even the other guests are all full of approval and admiration.
  • All good gifts around us As the time of the Harvest Festival approaches the curate has been canvassing goods to display at the church and tells the vicar the middle classes have been most generous of all… but then reveals all the gifts are pies and cakes and quiches which come from their freezers. Quite why this is funny or satirical or has point eludes me.
  • The last days of peace A broad satirical strip which appears to take the Conservative Party election victory as the pretext for thinking that The Great War Against Inflation is coming in which creches and daycare centres and hostels for the old and so on will all close down, women will be forced back into the kitchen and men will go to the front to fight inflation. It seemed an arch, strained and unfunny allegory which ends with a pastiche of the famous poster with a child sitting on her father’s knee asking, ‘Daddy what did you do during the war?’
  • Zuppa Inglese George takes his two eldest daughters out for an Italian meal and grows increasingly irritated as the waiters hover round the two nubile glamour pusses like flies on poo, until he snaps and tells them to leave them alone. The comedy derives from the fact that George tries to explain that his daughters are not sex objects to be objectified, while the Italian maitre d’ entirely misinterprets him, rereading George’s anger as being like traditional Italian protectiveness towards his womenfolks’ ‘honour’ – and the more worked up George becomes, the more the Italian staff respect his machismo and old-fashioned sense of honour.
  • Facts of life At a summer dinner in the garden the kids innocently ask their parents where babies come from and George gives a factually accurate account of wombs and sperm while Wendy talks about love and romance – and then all the adults overhear the kids repeating this garbled version of misinformation.
  • Sweet sorrow Her mother is taking little Katya to nursery school for the first time and the little girl cries with apprehension while the mum reassures her about all the good things and games and friends she’ll meet. Having left her little girl there, the mum comes away upset and crying and Wendy repeats to her all the advantages and pluses which we have just heard the mum reassuring Katya with.
  • Listen with mother Wendy takes her smallest children to the local art gallery where she is in the middle of explaining what the Camden Town School of artists was trying to achieve when she looks up and realises she’s attracted quite a crowd of adult listeners.
  • A divided self At the offices of Beazeley and Buffin Jocasta shows Stanhope the artwork for a new beauty product which features an impossibly dishy model and, while Stanhope describes in words the numerous ‘feminine’ qualities the product is meant to symbolise, Jocasta does ironic dances and pirouettes round the office, ending up tied up in knots, almost as if… a sexist, patriarchal society places impossible demands on women.
  • Vigilance Jocasta is visting a friend and when it comes time to leave, the friend says she’ll accompany her to the busstop and on the way they discuss how ten years after Liberation women are still not safe to walk the streets at night, all the time aware that a sinister figure is following them through the dark alleys and slowly gaining on them who is… eventually revealed to be the friend’s dad who was concerned and has been following all the time to make sure they’re OK.
  • This sporting life Relatives pop in to visit the Heep family who, we learn, live in a semi under the motorway flyover. The relatives try to make the most of Edmund’s two unprepossessing punk sons who cadge a fiver off them on the pretext that they’re going on a sponsored run. Five minutes later the punks walk back in and when the surprised relative asks why it was such a short run, the punks take off their leather jackets to reveal t-shirts with the slogan ‘Sponsored Motorway Dash’ – they run from one side to the other dodging the traffic.
  • Breath of a salesman TV reporter Gareth french pops into the castle and Ball for a quick one but is accosted by the unbearable Edmund Heep who proceeds to breathe foul pickled onion and scotch egg fumes all over him.
  • Piggy in the middle Benji has a cold so Belinda is reading him a storybook about rich pigs and poor pigs, but Wendy interrupts and criticises the book for having such appalling stereotypes in it such as the mummy pig being in the kitchen cooking all the time and – this being a cartoon – the piggy character start arguing back against Wendy’s political correctness during all of which bickering… Benji has happily fallen asleep.
  • A la recherche du temps perdu Rummaging in the attic Belinda uncovers a pair of fading hippy jeans which revolt her but Wendy explains how it was hand patched and festooned with logos and peace signs and so on, and lectures Belinda that they were the generation who cared… Yeah, and who ‘ROTTED the FABRIC of SOCIETY’ thinks Belinda, with her Lady Di haircut and Thatcherite values.
  • Sheep and goats Sitting on a crowded bus Wendy and a load of other passengers are forced to put up with the ranting of a scuzzy old bigot raving against immigrants, and reds, and long-haired scroungers, and bloody feminists taking our jobs… until the conductor tells him there’s no standing room and he’ll have to get off. At which point Wendy nervously says ‘what a horrible old man’ and then, in the dead silence, realises that everyone else on the bus agreed with him.
  • They’re never ever satisfied Wendy is buying presents for all the kids in a toyshop ad when she gets to the till the middle-aged teller is at first all sweetness and light about watching their little faces light up until… she suddenly lets her guard down and reveals how much she loathes Christmas and thinks modern children are spoiled, after all she never had a paint box, she was never given a brand new bike at Christmas, she
  • Showing off Wendy is off studying while George looks after the kids who beg him to make robin costumes for the school’s Christmas play or they’ll be the only ones without a costume. George piously thinks that going that extra mile, doing those little extra tasks, is what true equality is all about and so dutifully runs up two beautiful robin costumes. Only to attend the performance and realise that his two kids are the only ones with robin outfits and overhear other mums in the audience tut-tutting that some parents really do have too much time on their hands.
  • Perquisites Jocasta goes to the office of her dad, Stanhope, hoping to cadge some Christmas money but instead marvelling at the array of luxury goods he’s been sent by various clients, which are listed in special folksy Christmas font as in the song the twelve days of Christmas. Jocasta points out how fattening or toxic (cigars) they are and ironically wishes her dad ‘a Merry Cholesterol’.
  • Jocasta gives us her view of Christmas, a jaded cynical view which appears to be Simmonds’s since it appears in all her books, a time of boozy pub goers, and cash till ringing up phenomenal sales, and she wishes all of her relatives captious or spiteful presents, for example a lizard-skin belt for her trendy stepmother, but a size too small… etc.
  • In the last strip George and Wendy are in bed when they’re woken by their youngest, Benji, who has a tummy ache and wants a story. Wendy dozes listening to George’s voice reading the story but… which suddenly gives a jolt, becomes very adult, and starts talking George’s characteristic pseudo-intellectual twaddle. Sneaking downstairs Wendy is astonished to find that Father Christmas is in the front room sharing a drink with her husband.

A lot of information, isn’t it, a lot of stories? Not many are funny, most spark. at most, a wry smile of recognition. Some puzzled me with their curious lack of purpose. But there is no doubt that having read all of them carefully, you do build up quite a deep sense of the Weber family and their children and friends and circle and a slightly mocking affection for their well-intentioned foibles.

I think little Benji is my favourite character. All things considered, I think I’d like a piece of chocolate cake, a balloon and a carry home.

Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images used are freely available on the internet.


Related links

Other Posy reviews

Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

In May 1977 young Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds MBE (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’ as 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 focus on the stories of three girls in particular, showing how they had grown into middle-class, middle aged adults. They were:

  • 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, mum to two rebellious teenagers
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

The strip soon dropped the St Botolph’s title and used ad hoc titles for specific strips or episodes, eventually becoming known simply as ‘Posy’. In the end the strip ran for ten years, until 1987, and was periodically collected into books. Mrs Weber’s Diary was the first of these 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 the original cartoon strips into mock-ups of Wendy Weber’s diary entries. These consist of 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 George Weber would have a field day discussing the hypertextuality and interplay of discourses thus created, but I found 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 cartoons.

And like Bridget Jones’s Diary (which started in 1995) the diary format, apart from anything else, fills up space. It is an easily repeatable filler idea. (This diary format is dropped in the succeeding books, but is revived big time in the 1993 collection, Mustn’t Grumble, which collects the large-format calendar pages made for the years 1988 and 1989, each month represented by a full-length profile of a representative figure of the day.)

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 children), and these have to be expressed in order to be lampooned.

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wordiest of all is George Weber who struggles to maintain his earnest feminist, environmentalist and socialist views in a world which obviously doesn’t give a damn. He 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 which 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 keeps the household together. In an early strip, Wendy changing the kitchen curtains triggers a characteristic outburst of Georgian rhetoric: ‘the blind translates the window into a mirror of attitudes totalisantes.’

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 words are in bold, symbols are used to replace swearwords, a lot of dots indicating pauses, there’s the alternation of sentence case with capitalised words – generally 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. (In its way a typographic satire on bien-pensant liberals’ concerns with what people say, to the complete neglect of what people actually do.)

The most common variation is to use bold and/or capitals to bring out the simply adorable emphases which the unbearably twee and posh middle-classes give to words, to make everything sound so simply super and marvellous. Thus the exchanges in this picture: ‘Wendy! You DIDN’T make ALL those!’ ‘Yes, I did… but QUICHES are MARVELLOUS! They’re all out of my freezer.’

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds

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, say, just two 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 spend 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 all in the name of keeping it as simple and ‘authentic’ as possible – with the 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.

But the picture contains another joke, for 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)

This is learnèd and witty, but not what you’d call funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny. 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.

Although the strip satirises a certain type of 1970s pretentious intellectuality (almost all the thinkers and film-makers referred to are, of course, French) you have to be pretty familiar with the subject matter to ‘get’ the references. Later in the series she plays the same joke, where Jocasta the art student and several other young women go out to the country for the day with their tutors who criticise something they’re wearing prompting 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. Aha, the cultivated reader is meant to nod sagely to themselves. ‘Of course. Very funny.’ I am reminded of the comic tag which dates from around this period, where some preening clever clogs is meant to exclaim: ‘Pretentious?? Moi???’

Thus 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, intellectuals.

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, if humour it is, comes from the familiarity, from recognising the situations, from thinking, ‘Oh God, yes, that happened to me.’

Sexism and feminism

Two consistent threads 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 accurately 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)

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 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)

Cartooning

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 unconscious or preconscious feelings and impressions. Of changing your mood and, maybe, perceptions.

Same here: each strip has an ostensible subject – children’s parties, old drunks down the pub, meeting an architect to discuss an extension, 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, surprise, which triggers laughter – is more like a confirmation of everything about the situation which you had already noticed.

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.

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

%d bloggers like this: