Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2005)

Tamara Drewe was a weekly comic strip serial by Posy Simmonds, which ran for 13 months in The Guardian newspaper from 24 September 2005. At the end of the run it was published as a stand-alone graphic novel in November 2007.

The strip is based on a modern reworking of Thomas Hardy’s nineteenth century novel Far from the Madding Crowd, in that it focuses on a very attractive young woman who is pursued by three very different lovers – Nick Hardiman the successful novelist, Andy Cobb the local handyman, and Ben Sergeant the former rock star.

There’s not much subtlety about the reference since the frontispiece to the entire book features an ad torn from a fictional newspaper’s small ads column advertising the writers’ retreat at the centre of the novel, and given a big bold capitalised title – FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.

In its deep structure Tamara is not that different from its predecessor, Gemma Bovery, which was also about a very attractive, sexy young woman and her three lovers (Patrick the restaurant critic, Charlie the furniture restorer and Hervé the aristocratic law student).

Two books in a row about impossibly foxy babes who surround themselves with male lovers. Hmmm.

The picture on the front cover of Tamara immediately conveys the stereotypical babeliciousness of the central figure – a tall, leggy, lithe, sexy fox, with massive come-hither eyes and pert red lips, a babe who likes to flirt with all the men in range, gives men the eye, likes to draw attention by dressing provocatively (in shorts so tight the other women characters comment on them), who likes being eyed and ogled in shops and to walk arm-in-arm with a rock star down the local high street, drawing everyone’s eyes.

Here’s the impression she makes on American novelist and critic Glen Larson:

Of course I fall in love with Tamara, along with everyone else… As she moves round the gathering I watch people succumb. It’s as if she’s picking us off one by one, each of us receiving the full force of her radiance, her smile, her warmth, her interest, all of it seemingly genuine and unforced. She’s Princess Charming…

And here is Tamara’s first appearance as she wanders into a gaggle of writers at a writers’ retreat in the country, instantly drawing all eyes. She is wearing the crotch-displaying shorts which – in case we hadn’t noticed them ourselves – Nick the writer will later fantasise about, and his long-suffering wife, Beth, will disapprove of, at length.

Tamara makes an entrance, joining the group of writers enjoying a pre-dinner drink

The setting

The story is set in Stonefield, a writer’s retreat run by Beth and Nicholas Hardiman, where the American novelist Glen Larson is staying to find inspiration for his latest novel. All the gardening and maintenance around Stonefield is done by Andy Cobb.

Andy’s family used to own a nearby farm, Winnards Farmhouse, but his Dad ran into financial difficulties, as small dairy farmers will, and it was sold to the Drewe family. They had two posh daughters, now grown up, one is a successful lawyer (natch), while the younger, Tamara, has gone to London and become a fashionable gossip columnist.

Tamara makes her first appearance when she sets off the burglar alarm at her family farm by accident and tough, man-of-the-soil Andy goes to investigate, eventually finding her, long-limbed and oblivious of his presence, astride a rocking horse in the old nursery on the phone to her mum.

Andy the handyman discovers leggy Tamara astride a rocking horse in the attic

It is later that day that she makes her casual appearance among the gaggle of writers gathered for pre-dinner drinks in the garden of Stonefield. Wherever she goes she draws all eyes towards her, towards her and her own enormous doe-like eyes, looking up flirtatiously from under her fringe.

Writers writing about writing

Having waded through Literary Life, the volume collecting Simmonds’s cartoons and strips about all aspects of the writers’ life (sitting alone in a room with a computer, sad book-signings, packed paranoid literary parties, jealousy envy and back-stabbing abounding) I was initially down-hearted to confront yet another seventy pages chronicling the comfortable, secure and bourgeois lifestyles, smug cultural superiority and attitudes of yet another bunch of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow white writers. And I’m not alone. Most of the writers are ambivalent about their trade, and Beth describes literary festivals as:

rutting grounds of viciousness, jealousy, vanity, disgusting displays of male ego – well, and female – ‘My queue’s longer than your queue’, etc. Loathsome.

So the setting – writers writing about writing, and snoopily watching each other out of jealousy or in order to pinch pieces of each other’s lives for their books – tired and repelled me. But I forced myself to persevere and quickly came to appreciate that the complexity of the intertwining relationships among all the characters in the book soon builds up to something greater than the sum of their parts. Although I cordially despised the clichéd setting and bourgeois self-centredness of the characters, their interplay soon becomes absorbing.

Colour

The book is immediately more interesting than Gemma Bovery because it is in colour. Sounds trivial but colour adds a whole new dimension of interest for the reader, and of expressive possibility for the artist.

Maybe it’s because the use of colour gives the pictures more depth, but there are a number of pages in this book which are almost wordless, which allow a sequence of pictures to tell the story without text – like the succession of frames in a movie. This is particularly true of the climax of the novel, which features the death of one of the main characters, a fact introduced wordlessly, solely by means of changing visual framing.

Saturday 6.30 pm

Wordiness

But the complete absence of words on some pages contrasts with the extreme wordiness of others.

Some pages consist are more than half made up of densely-printed text. The page below portrays the American Glen Larson remembering back to an argument he had with his lover Maggie, who has abruptly told him their relationship is over and that she wants him to leave.

Note how the two time zones are indicated by colouring (and maybe, more subtly, by positioning) – the present day where Glen is doing the remembering, is coloured brown, while his memory of the scene is coloured blue and white, a form of grisaille. Note how neatly the past is sandwiched between the ‘present’ scenes at the top and bottom. Note how the text – and there is a lot of text – still feels neatly balanced by the pictures, elegantly integrated into the overall design.

Glen Larson remembers arguing with his partner, Maggie, back in London

Arguably the quality of the drawing has not progressed that much since the end of her Posy strip days in 1987 (look at the face of tearful Maggie in the centre of the page, many of the faces, particularly in group scenes, are surprisingly rough).

What feel so much more mature and powerful in this book are:

  • the use of colour to indicate mood and situation
  • the subtle placing of the pictures around the page, to the same effect and
  • the interaction between pictures and the really extensive text, which gives the reader huge amounts of information about the characters and their backstories.

The overall design and layout feel more mature and integrated than Bovery.

Narrators

Tamara is also more interesting because it has a number of narrators who all interweave their perspectives and stories.

Gemma Bovery‘s narrator was a middle-aged man, Raymond Joubert, who overlooked – or overheard – key bits of plot, and pieced the story together from what he’d seen and heard, combined with what he read in Gemma’s posthumous diaries – and he was also in love with the central figure – which made for a complex stew of perspectives and feelings.

Tamara also features a fat, middle-aged man who lusts after the babelicious doll at the centre of the story, but doesn’t stand a chance – the observant, self-aware, overweight American critic and novelist Glen Larson. (In case you think I’m being fattist, Larson makes a point of telling us that he is so overweight he [and the retreat’s owner, Beth] are worried he might break the designer toilet in his writer’s apartment – so he’s allowed to come down into the main farmhouse and use the more robust toilets there – which is also how, rather neatly, Glen gets to overhear various revealing conversations.)

But Glen is joined by a number of other voices telling their version of events, notably Beth, the middle-aged and plump wife of philandering Nick the novelist. Her suspicions of Nick, her dislike of his roving eye, is combined with her sense of the endless duties and work required to keep the writers’ retreat going (she does all the cooking, for example), as well as the way she slavishly manages all his business matters for him – taking his hand-written manuscripts at the end of the day and typing them up, liaising with his publishers and PR people, arranging his social calendar and so on.

I found Beth’s character immediately attractive, in the sense of believable and sympathetic. I’ve met lots of capable, bustling, large-sized mums – and also a number who were caught in the bind of loving, serving and acting as doormats for men they know aren’t worth it.

I also strongly like her for the way she wasn’t a babelicious sexpot like Tamara or Gemma Bovery.

Tamara herself is sort of another narrator, because the text is punctuated by examples of her ‘column’, like so many thousands of columns in popular newspapers and magazines, an only lightly touched-up version of her own life and experiences. Thus it is that we see her newspaper column, reporting the latest exciting developments in her life, inserted into the text, providing another – highly stylised – perspective on events.

And there are also newspaper cuttings and clips from the celebrity mags Casey and Jody read. I think this type of multi-textuality is not uncommon in graphic novels, which often include newspaper headlines or clips from letters or diaries – but nonetheless, it gives variety and interest to Tamara Drewe.

Affair world

As with my initial dismay at realising we are in the world of writerly writers writing about writing, I had a powerful sense of déjà vu and claustrophobia when I also realised we are back in middle-class Affair World, a world where everyone is having affairs, or struggling with ‘relationships’ which snap like twigs at the first pressure, and where everyone is spying on everyone else’s affairs, sneaking and eavesdropping on their illicit goings on. On one level it felt as cloying and claustrophobic as the supermarket magazines which obsess about the love affairs of the rich and glamorous.

God, do these people really have nothing better to do? Short answer: No. They’re ‘writers’. Their first duty appears to be to snoop on everyone around them, while themselves trying to sneak off unseen to clandestine shags. Thus:

  • Glen is splitting up with his lover Maggie who, at 36, tearfully insists the clock is ticking and she needs to find a man to have babies with
  • Nick was having an affair with a pretty young Asian babe up in London (Nadia Patel), until his wife Beth twigs to it – and also the ungrateful little thing dumps Nick
  • later Nick has a fling with Tamara
  • Tamara has a prolonged relationship with Ben Sergeant, but he has only recently broken up with his girlfriend, Fran, and not got over it
  • while man-of-the-soil Andy carries a torch for Tamara throughout the novel, repeatedly asking her out or trying to help, only to be snubbed
  • the dads of both the working class girls in the story had affairs and abandoned their mothers, to their abiding bitterness
  • and both the girls obsessively read celebrity gossip mags and use the rhetoric and clichés of that world to describe their own activities and situations

This girly obsession with relationships at the expense of anything else in the world prompted me to look up chick lit, which is defined as ‘heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists’. Sounds about right.

At its onset, chick lit’s protagonists tended to be ‘single, white, heterosexual, British and American women in their late twenties and early thirties, living in metropolitan areas’. (Wikipedia)

Well, that describes Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe to a t. Apparently American critic Alex Kuczynski criticised Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones as ‘a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness.’ That’s a handy description to bear in mind as we follow Tamara’s adventures.

Working class

Another element which makes Tamara more interesting than it might initially seem is the presence in the background of the disaffected, bored teenage yobs from the nearby village, Ewedown. These lads liven up their boring existences by nicking stuff from Stonefield and throwing eggs at the swanky cars of the writers on their way to and from the retreat.

It’s sooo boring, this village. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Nothing happening, except when Gary Pound and his mates nearly set fire to the Coronation Tree on the green. (Casey)

They provide a pleasing background hum of disaffection and revolt, I say ‘pleasing’ because that’s my class, the youths who hung around vandalising bus shelters and throwing supermarket trolleys in lakes because there was nothing else to do – and chucking things at the passing cars of the posh, white, affluent, middle-classes who liked to isolate themselves in ‘writers’ retreats’ so they can cultivate their oh-so-finer feelings while, in reality, ceaselessly leching and snooping on each other.

The working class girls Casey and Jody get off the local bus and discover some of their male mates kicking and vandalising Nick the writer’s car

Anyway, it soon becomes more than a background hum because two figures who slowly emerge to play a central role in events are the teenage schoolgirls and best mates, Judy and Casey. Casey emerges as the third of the novel’s narrators, her version of events written in a different typeface from the other two narrators (Beth and Glen).

Through Casey’s eyes we enter the world of teenage girls in a remote provincial village, Ewedown, who read gossip magazines, fantasise about their pop star heroes, and try to avoid the greasy clutches of the local boys their own age. Here they are hanging out in one of the village’s few public spaces, the much-vandalised village bus stop.

Casey and Jody, the two working class teenage girls who lust after rock star Ben Sergeant

The plot

August

Beth collects American author Glen Larson from the station and drives him to Stonefield, the writers’ retreat which she runs. We learn her husband, Nick, the successful crime writer, is having an affair with an Indian girl up in London. Nick tries to deter Beth from coming with him to attend a writer’s party in London but she smells a rat and gets Nick to admit he’s having an affair. The argument spills out into the courtyard of the retreat where she tells Nick to fuck off loud enough for all the writers to hear.

Andy the handyman comes into the kitchen to comfort Beth, ‘he’s not worth it’ etc. Meanwhile, Glen remembers the tearful argument he had with his lover in London (as show above).

Later Glen is using the main house loo when he overhears Nick returning, telling Beth a pack of lies about how he’s dumped Nadia, then giving Beth a big hug. She goes to recycle some bottles and Glen hears Nick on his mobile phone extremely cross with Nadia for dumping him. Glen is resentful of Nick for his easy success, and how he always mockingly refers to him at dinner or in the garden as ‘our resident academic.’

That night, in bed, Beth quizzes Nick about Nadia but he reassures her it meant nothing and it’s all over and she lets him shag her, but then lies awake feeling used and wondering why she is so good to him.

Next morning Andy and Beth are out in the vegetable garden when the alarm goes off from the nearby Winnards Farm, which used to belong to Andy’s parents till his dad went bankrupt and was forced to sell it to rich Londoners. Glen accompanies Andy over to the farm to see why the alarm is ringing, but leaves Andy to go into the building, wander round then go upstairs, where he discovers leggy Tamara on a rocking horse phoning her mum about the alarm. Andy tiptoes back out.

Walking the long way back to Stonefield through the village, Andy tells Glen about the Drewe family, the two sisters, how Tamara has a newspaper column for which she write a piece about having a nose job to reduce her big hooter to the pert little nosette it subsequently became.

At drinks in the garden that evening Tamara makes an entrance wearing only tight denim shorts and a white vest. All eyes are on her. Tamara works her way round each of the writers and Beth, casting her spell, batting those wonderful eyes. People drift off for dinner and Glen volunteers to walk Tamara back to her farm, but on the way makes a pass at her, for a blissful moment touching her wonderful body till she shrieks and tells him to piss off.

Next morning Beth is cooking and chatting to Nick, who wanders into a reverie, remembering five years previously when he met Tamara when she was assigned to him by his publishers as the publicity girl for a tour of bookshops and festivals he was doing. He made a pass (what else do male writers do in Simmonds World except make passes at every pretty girl who crosses their path) but she irritatedly told him to get lost. We see all this in grisaille flashback.

Sunday evening and Glen strolls past Andy’s cottage and stops for a chat which turns to the subject of Tamara. Glen tells Andy that a young fit man like him, he should make a pass at her.

Glen telling Andy to try his luck with Tamara

Later Andy is working in the garden remembering Tamara, remembering how he knew her before the nose job – sweet girl – and met her subsequently and disapproved of her new glamorous identity – as the girl herself walks in, and asks if he would kindly come and help her set up a vegetable garden at Winnard’s Farm. Well, OK, I suppose so, he says, noticing her laying her hands on his shoulders.

Autumn

Out walking, Glen reflects on Tamara and her ‘charm’. Having tried it on and been rejected, he is biased, but he thinks he sees through her now.

It’s weird talking to her. You think she’s coming on to you: she aims this scorching look and you’re transfixed with lust, I’m not kidding. But she’s kidding. It’s as if she has an erotic stun gun and you’re just target practice. Just her bit of fun…

Glen also gives a jaundiced description of Nick during the retreat’s evening meals, holding court while he brandishes an electric carving knife, gently deprecating his own (sizeable) success, a gaggle of female writers hanging on his every word.

Beth thinks the nanny goat Astrid is in heat and looks everywhere for Andy, looking after situations like this is his job. She discovers him giving Tamara’s garden a major overhaul and gets cross. Beth pays his wages: if he’s going to do all this work for Tamara, she’ll let him go and get another handyman. Beth knows Andy can’t afford that.

Later that day Tamara persuades Andy to let him accompany her to a nearby farm so the nanny goat can be mounted by a billy goat. She learns all about it, films it on her phone and then writes a sarcastic metropolitan magazine column about it. On the way back Andy blurts out his feelings for her. Tamara takes it as her due – isn’t every man in love with her? Lets him down gently and asks if he’ll still do her garden. Then gives him one of those infuriatingly chaste pecks on the cheek which pretty girls use to control foolish men. Cut to Andy standing on a hillside looking moonily into the distance…

Cut to Tamara a few days later in a stylish London cocktail bar, noticing a celebrity at the bar, Ben Sergeant, ex-drummer of rock group, Swipe. She approaches him, gets chatting, says she’s a journalist but only for a silly gossip column, everything will be off the record, shall they go somewhere more intimate and… they end up snogging then shagging.

Tamara approaches Ben Sergeant at a swanky London club

Cut to Andy telling Glen he’s just going over to Winnards’ Farm to pick up some kit he left there, but as he approaches he sees a yellow Porsche parked outside, and an unknown dog, a boxer left outside and then, the ground floor window opens and a hairy bloke, bollock naked, asks if he’s Andy and would he kindly let the dog in. So. Tamara’s got a boyfriend. And walks away unhappy.

Next thing Beth gets a text telling her a strange dog is running wild and scaring the cows in a field they own but rent to a neighbour. The neighbour, Penny is livid, the dog might have frightened her pregnant cows into miscarrying. Beth apologises (even though it’s not her dog) and phones Tamara – is this bloody boxer dog here? Tamara, naked in bed with Ben, picks up and apologises profusely.

Ben turns up half an hour later roaring his yellow Porsche into the forecourt and disturbing all the writers. Beth shows him round but he is surly and then gets angry at the fact his boxer is chained up. When Nick says he ought to be grateful, next time he worries livestock a farmer might shoot him, Ben sinisterly replies well, then, he’d shoot the shooter.

Ben drives off with his dog but not before dropping a broad hint that Tamara’s told him all about Nick – as if they have a past. Beth confronts Nick about it. Nick furiously denies it. Beth laments to the reader:

We’ve always had an open sort of marriage. Affairs are OK, up to a point. Lying about them is not. Which sounds sensible and realistic, but in practice Nick needs the flings and I don’t. He always admits them – in so many words – and I absolve them. I just hate it.

Back at Winnards’ Farm Ben paws Tamara and says he hated the retreat, bunch of self-satisfied wankers. A few days later Beth sees Tamara in the local town, Hadditon, arm in arm with leather-jacketed Ben, both looking like movie stars and turning heads.

Ben and Tamara putting on the style in Hadditon High Street

Tamara announces she’s going to marry Ben. They have regular weekends for all their posh thirty-something London friends, staying up all night and throwing frisbees around next day. The teenagers from the village hang around hoping to catch a sight of the Londoners, especially Ben who the teenage girls fancy.

Ben gives Tamara an expensive ring which a chance remark reveals he actually bought for his former lover, Fran, but Ben hastens to reassure Tamara that it’s her he loves now.

A week in the life of Tamara as the deadline for her weekly piece hangs over her and saps all pleasures (going for drinks, socialising).

Tamara stresses over the deadline for her next column

Contrasted with Nick working away in his writing shed, at the end of the day loyal Beth collecting his papers to type and telling him about invitations and work.

Nick benefiting from Beth’s care and concern as she collects up his manuscript and informs him of the week’s messages

A two-page spread devoted to a book-signing Nick does at the Hadditon bookshop. Having read Simmonds’s collection Literary Life I feel I’ve read and seen enough cartoons about dismal book-signings to last me a lifetime.

Next day Andy overhears Ben arguing with Tamara. He’s sick of living in the farm and the nearby village, it’s all so boring, why not sell it go to LA or France? But Tamara refuses to think of leaving. This is where she grew up. Ben then collects the Christmas goose from Andy who explains how they’re shot and gutted which revolts Ben, who is also antsy with Andy because the latter so obviously hangs around the place solely to get a look at Tamara.

Winter

Introducing the two pissed-off local teenage girls, Casey Shaw and Jody Long. Casey narrates their adventures, Jody is the more rebellious, experimental, out-there of the two. Jody’s got a mega crush on Ben so they spend a lot of time huddling in the village bus shelter on the off-chance of seeing him drive by.

Simmonds builds up a very persuasive picture of how awful and stifling the two girls home lives are, with Jody’s mum working long shifts at Tesco, and Casey hating being at home because of her step-father.

It’s Jody who persuades Casey to break in to Winnards farm when Tamara and Ben are away – more precisely, she knows where the latchkey is hidden for Andy. Thus they let themselves in and wander round the bedroom where Jody fantasises about Ben being naked and ‘doing it’. Second time they go back (Boxing Day) Jody nicks one of Ben’s t-shirts and forces Casey to take away Tamara’s Chloë bag. Their parents don’t notice. The local lads on their BMX bikes yell rude things at them.

Jody is determined, She scores blow and E in the local town and smokes dope. She describes in great detail losing her virginity (‘losing her V plates’) to Ben and how romantic it will be. On Valentine’s Day Casey chat to local youth Ryan (19, drives a Vauxhall Nova) who she really fancies but knows he’s only talking to her because he wants to get to Jody.

Casey meets Jody at the farmhouse and discovers she’s dressed entirely in Tamara’s clothes, including a dazzling leopard-skin coat. And she’s pissed. She’s found Tamara’s laptop and hacked straight into it without needing a password. She’s discovered that Tamara’s writing a novel (titled Tick Tock – a title which reminds us of a cartoon strip from back in Simmonds’s ‘Posy’ strip period [1977-87] featuring Stanhope Wright and his wife Trisha).

Jody opens up Tamara’s email and – drunk – addresses an email to Ben, Nick and Andy, subject: ‘Love’, text: ‘I want to give you the biggest shagging of your life’. And before petrified Casey can stop her, Jody presses send. Because she cc-ed the others, all three can see the message was sent to the other two as well as themselves.

Andy receives the email and is understandably confused. He’s having a drink down the local pub (The Rick) and asks the barmaid what she thinks the email means. Barmaid says it sounds like they’re kinky. Or Tamara was pissed. Yes, probably pissed.

Arriving on Ben’s laptop in London, the email prompts a fight between Tamara and Ben, she accusing him of always having his ex, Fran, in the back of his mind, he saying she’s going to leave sooner or later.

Meanwhile Beth tells us she read and deleted the email, puzzled by it but doesn’t want to cloud Nick’s concentration as he heads towards completion of his current novel. Doesn’t stop Andy bumping into Nick in the snow-covered fields and asking Nick what he made of it. Nick, accurately, says he knows nothing.

Tamara writes a column about it, gets a call from Andy and says the email was nothing to do with her, and asks Andy to go and have a snoop round the farmhouse, see if anyone’s broken in. At which point Ben staggers into their stylish London loft, badly beaten up and bleeding.

Casey and Jody are in the bus stop, reading gossip mags while Jody explains why and what it’s like to have most your pubic hair shaved off, when they see a paparazzi photo of Ben beaten up and gripped by bouncers, after a fracas with his ex-girlfriend Fran. It’s clever of Simmonds to set up Ben coming through the door bleeding on one page, and then have the explanation given a hundred miles away in the countryside, and via the medium of a cheap gossip mag.

As you might expect, the evidence that he’s prepared to fight for his ex, leads Tamara to have a furious row with Ben, pack her bags and return to Winnards’ Farm.

At the end of another day, Beth picks up the papers from Nicks’ desk and, back in her study, starts to go through them sorting out which ones to type up and sometimes having ideas of her own. Till she comes to a scrap of paper which isn’t part of the novel and not for her eyes, which describes in graphic detail how bored he is, how flat and dull and empty his life seems. How he hurts her!

Casey fields loads of calls from Jody who is gutted that Tamara and Ben have broken up because now he won’t be coming down to Winnards. Part of the pleasure of reading Casey’s narrative is how everything is expressed in teenage girl magazines: thus Casey thinks Ben has been a Total Love Rat. When they spy Tamara walking round she has the look of someone who has been Betrayed. When they feel sorry for Beth they related it to Brad and Angelina breaking up.

Nick lies his head off on his mobile phone to Beth, telling her he’s at the London Library whereas in fact he drives (in his swank Range Rover) round to Tamara’s house where he finds her sitting in the gloom, alone and depressed. He is tall and successful. She can’t exist without a man in her life. She takes his glasses off. They snog.

Nick pays a visit on Tamara. Note the look in her eyes

They go to bed. There’s realistic lovers’ chat, him saying he’s not just a rebound shag, is he, her saying no, no she likes him, both telling each other to be careful.

Nick arrives home, some hours later, into Beth’s waiting arms and gives her a gift of tea from Fortnum and Mason’s. She falls for it, thinks he is much invigorated after his trip to London, he should go more often, and Nick heartily agrees!

Spring

The American novelist Glen is back at Stonefield after a break in Paris (hard life, eh?). He tells us he’s ripping through his novel, and how cosy and companionable he finds Beth. Beth for her part feels in her bones that Nick is having an affair but can’t prove it. She hates getting into this mood where she ends up checking every aspect of his life for tell-tale signs: such a waste of effort. Glen is helping a lot round the kitchen and she finds his company soothing. (Hmmm so is a Beth-and-Glen thing on the cards?)

Casey is pissed off with Jody who’s bored and drinking a lot. They see Andy’s car pull up outside Winnards and watch him go to the door, ring the bell, and wait for Tamara. She opens up a little sheepishly, Andy asks if she fancies a drink and she says no, and he walks off cursing his stupidity. Only minutes later the same door opens and Tamara lets Nick out with a kiss.

The girls see this and spend days reflecting on it, Jody in particular grossed out that Nick is so old. It also reflects on their own lives, in which both their dads ran off with younger women, so they feel badly for Nick’s wife, Beth. When Beth walks through the village Casey and Jody can’t bring themselves to look at her or reply to her ‘Hi’.

In bed Beth reads one of Nick’s old novels to about adultery to remind herself of all the tricks the male character uses. But when she phones up the friends Nick says he’s going for a drink with, dammit! He actually is going from a drink with them. Try as she might, she can’t catch him out.

Tamara goes for a walk with a girlfriend through the countryside and tells her all about her affair with Nick. Note: Tamara avoids the field with the big cows in it, they scare her. Reminds me that Glen, at an earlier stage, refused to go through the cow field, insisted on going the long way round.

The girls get the bus back from Hadditon, though it’s a pain because the bus no longer goes all the way to Ewedown and it’s full of teenage boys i.e. vandals with spray paint. They come across Nick Hardiman’s car, empty, and the lads let the tyres down.

Jody and Casey hang around, hiding in the bushes, waiting for Nick to come back to his car. When he does and discovers the tyres have been let down, he angrily phones Tamara asking if she’s got a foot pump and if so can she bring it out to meet him at his car. Ten minutes later she turns up and they pump up the tyres. Then they have a great snog. And Casey takes a great close-up photo of it on her new mobile phone.

On another day, Casey and Jody break into Winnards Farm, again, Jody wandering round touching everything as if it will put her in touch with Ben. She picks up various bottles of booze and then a tin of compressed computer cleaner gas, Does Casey know it gives you a nice little buzz? Casey say. Don’t be so silly, she knows Casey has asthma and can’t even smoke.

They break into Tamara’s laptop again, and read emails from Ben asking them to meet again and, when Tamara says No she needs her space, asking if she would babysit the boxer dog (Boss), while Ben goes to LA for three months, but again Tamara replies No. Now Casey sends an email claiming to be from Tamara saying she knows a good dog-sitter in the village, and giving her – Jody’s – mobile phone number!

Cut to Beth walking through the village, stared at by all the kids as if they know something, herself deeply suspicious of Nick but unable to prove anything. He is off to a literary festival. Beth organises his travel, accommodation and timings of his interviews, and he gives her a big hug and pats her on the head like a good dog, before leaving Beth, fuming. It’s at that moment that her phone chirps and she receives the mobile phone photo Casey took of Nick and Tamara having a snog!

She is gutted. Later Tamara drops round to Andy’s to pick up some fresh eggs and he quizzes her about her affair with Nick, she says it’s none of his business, he says he hates to see Beth getting hurt and goes on to mock how cheap and easy and convenient it is for old Nick. Tamara phones Nick (in London en route to the literary festival) as she trudges along a country lane in her wellies and tells him Andy Cobb knows about them. Nick curses but then says maybe it’s for the best, this means she and he can start making plans for their life together. ‘What?’ Tamara exclaims – ‘You’d leave your wife for me’ – but at that moment Nick’s daughter (who he’s staying with) comes in and he has to ring off.

Meanwhile Beth is still furious. She quizzes the local girls she sees hanging round the bus stop if it was they who sent her the photo and they of course deny it. Now Beth realises why all the youths look at her. It’s pity. She decides not to make a scene with Nick, let him tell her in his own sweet time. But later on, she passes Tamara’s car in town and on impulse crumbles a fish stock cube into the air intake. And she can’t help replying to some innocent letters sent to Nick in a fiery rage.

Nick is with Tamara at the Monksted Literary Festival – but she is not happy. Nick tells her he is sick with his cosy life and the cosy farm and his cosy wife and churning out a book a year like clockwork – he wants to drop all that and live, feel again, be with Tamara and be young again. She can’t hide her dismay; this is not at all what she planned.

But Beth has followed him to the festival and sees him hanging round smooching with Tamara before his on-stage interviews. At one of these he announces he’ll never write another Dr Inchcombe novel, to general gasps, since that is the character which made his fortune. The fact that he does so without even consulting Beth makes her see red and determine to go straight home and find a good divorce lawyer.

Cut to Casey who is well pissed-off with her friend Jody. 1. Ben rang, Ben phoned her, right in the middle of helping Casey with her maths revision, and Jody told all kinds of lies about having dog baskets and bowls and so on when she has none! 2. That night at a party, Casey was chatting to Ryan, who she fancies, when Jody came along in a flimsy stop ‘flashing her teapot lids’ with the result that it’s Jody who ends up snogging Ryan later. God! She hates Jody!

Next day the sheepdip hits the fan when Jody tells her mum she’s agreed to babysit someone else’s dog. Her mum flat out refuses. And Ben’s driving all the way down just to hand Boss over. She gets all stressed and tries on different outfits and perfumes but in the event Ben doesn’t show up and she is gutted. Nothing ever happens in their crap village and she storms off.

Jody breaks into Winnards farm again and starts to try on some of Tamara’s clothes in the bedroom when she hears a voice. It is Ben!

Jody sneaks into Winnards Farm and tries on a dress of Tamara’s

When he asked Tamara about the message Tamara had supposedly sent, giving Jody’s name and number as a dog minder, and Tamara denied it, Ben realised it was a con. But Jody is so pathetic, so apologetic, tells Ben she loves him. She at least gets him to listen to her when she says she’s always loved him, ever since she saw him drumming in the band on Top of the Pops. ‘How old are you?’ Ben asks her. ’16’, she says. ‘Liar’, he replies.

At this moment Casey rings up and says Ben’s dog is running around outside her house. Yes, can she catch it for him, Jody replies. Ben’s really come down just to collect some of his stuff and he’s just kissed me!!! and given her an early Swipe CD and agreed to give them advance notice of gigs etc.

Saturday Cut to Tamara parked by the side of a road and on her mobile to her friend Cate. She brings us up to date with events at the literary festival, namely that Beth was there and texted him the photos of Nick and Tamara snogging. Nick was in Tamara’s bedroom and appalled at his own behaviour and decides there and then to tell Beth the truth when he gets home, split up with Beth and move in with Tamara. Who, we know, is terrified at the thought.

‘I didn’t want this to happen.’

He tells her he’ll come to her house tomorrow evening.

Saturday afternoon in Beth’s kitchen and plump, amiable Glen Larson is there. Glen has done all the menial chores and is now telling Beth how well his book is going, while she chops vegetables. Beth isn’t hearing a word because she is seething inside and speculating what will happen if Nick wants a child with Tamara. Then the little so-and-so will find out what a selfish brute he is! (This reminds me of the Posy cartoon strip which radiated the Anger of the Mothers against their lazy do-nothing husbands.)

Glen notices Ben’s dog, the boxer named Boss, crapping on Beth’s lawn. Beth says that’s Ben’s dog, he’s probably come her to beat up Nick. Glen is puzzled, so Beth explains that Nick is having an affair with Tamara, so she’s going to divorce him and sell Stonefield. Glen is appalled – what about his book!? He needs the peace and quiet of Stonefield to finish it. He tries to calm Beth down and assure her they can get back together, and before he knows it spills the beans that Nick’s last lover, Nadia, chucked Nick, not the other way round as Nick told Beth. In other words Nick only went back to Beth once he’d been jilted. This makes Beth insensate with anger, not only against Nick but against Glen who’s know all this time and not told her.

Saturday afternoon 5.30pm The change of font alone tells us that this is now being narrated by Casey. She sees some mindless teenagers chucking clods at the big cows. She also hears Ben’s dog barking. She sees that Beth’s caught it and tethered it to a post. At this moment Nick appears up from his writing shed in the field and begins to apologise to Beth but she’s had it up to hear and roars her grief and anger at him. ‘Go. Go away. Go now. Go to her,’ she shouts.

Casey had started to take long distance pap shots of this funny couple but it became too upsetting and she goes off in tears. The bloody dog is still yapping so Beth lets it off its leash and tell it to bugger off, too.

6.30pm This is the famous page with no text on it, just seven colour panes, which I included earlier int he review. Successive frames show Tamara at her window waiting for Nick, the cows around the water trough, then they walk past the trough, it gets darker, we see a body lying by the trough, close up on the body, then a big wide shot of the sun setting over the distant hills.

10pm Tamara on the phone to her friend Cate. She’s furious because Nick stood her up, obviously gone back to his wife BLOODY MEN!!! Tamara goes down the pub where she sharply rebuffs Andy’s offer of a drink.

10pm Casey is at a loud house party. She lost her phone in the woods so can’t ring Jody to ask why she’s not there. Last thing she heard was Jody talking to her all loved-up, insisting talking to Ben was the best thing ever. (Simmonds drops in some frames parodying love-bird, valentine’s day scenes amid flowery bowers and swags of love hearts – something she’s amused herself parodying from at least as long ago as 1981’s True Love.)

Now Ryan comes up to her and, mirabile dictu, actually wants to talk to her. They go outside and start having a snog when an ambulance screams by. An ambulance! In Ewedown! That never happens. Then she realises it’s stopped outside number six – Jody’s house!

Cut to another silent wordless page, with panels showing the rain pouring down on Stonefield, Beth looking out her bedroom window, Beth in the big double bed looking at the empty space where Nick should be, and cutting to a light on in one of the writer’s flats, and then a close-up of Glen Larson looking out the window into the rain looking worried.

Sunday morning Casey is the narrator and tells us that the night before, her mum took her back to her house and explained that Jody had been found dead! Her mum went upstairs wondering why she wasn’t going to the party and found her in a pretty party dress, dead on the floor holding in her hand an aerosol spray of Air Dust, a kind of computer cleaner. Casey knew that Jody sucked up lungfuls of the stuff from time to get a little buzz. This time it simply stopped her heart.

Now the change of typeface tells us we are reading Beth’s narration. Some of her writers found Nick’s body the next morning. He had been trampled to death by the cows (remember all those little references to the cows being scary and people going out of their way to avoid them which have been threaded through the book?).

Beth calls the police. When they start questioning her she immediately blurts out that she must have killed him by letting the bloody dog loose which stampeded the cows. The detective is certainly suspicious why she didn’t report it when Nick didn’t come back last night. Beth is forced to admit that they’d had a row and she expected he was sleeping at a neighbour’s. The police motor over and tell Tamara. She is in floods of tears.

Another font tells us we are now reading Glen’s narration. He tells the police a sanitised version of the events (leaving out the fact that Beth and Nick had rowed).He timidly goes down to the kitchen to find Beth and begins to apologise but she poo-poos that and asks if he will stay, to lend a hand, there are some things she and her daughter (who’s come straight down from London) can’t face. Like the reporters at the gate.

Through Casey’s eyes we read all the reports in the papers. Mum finds girl dead. Dr Inchcombe author Found Dead in Field Author’s Sex Tryst Led To Tragedy. Pop Star Ben last To see Tragic Jody. Nothing like this has ever happened in Ewedown before: two tragic deaths on the same night!

Casey explains how she kept schtum about their breaking into the farm, but it was Jody’s mum found a post-it note from Ben, and Ben’s number was on her mobile, and the media quickly put two and two together and joined Ben to Jody and Tamara and Nick! A festival of sex and death, ‘telly crews everywhere!’

Andy walks past the press camped out at Tamara’s drive and asks if there’s anything he can do for her. Tamara’s quite rude, telling him he’s always Mr bloody perfect, but then relents, says thanks but no thanks.

Andy calls on Tamara to see if she’s alright

Glen watches the comings and goings, describes how the finger pointed at Ben, the jealous rival for a while till CCTV footage showed he was a service station miles away. Forensics say cause of death was being trampled by cows after a collision with the water trough.

And only now does he reveal what really happened. After telling Beth about Nadia he didn’t go to his apartment but went for a walk through the fields. It was here that Nick spotted him and called him over, called him a fucking bastard for telling Beth all about Nadia, accuses him of trying to suck up to Beth and take his (Nick’s) place. On and on Nick goes, telling him he’ll never have the income or success he (Nick) enjoys, capping it all with ‘Mine’s bigger than yours!’

Right. That was it. Glen snaps and punches Nick. Nick stumbles backwards and hits his head against one of the concrete pillars of the cattle trough. He gets up again, groggy and dazed, Glen goes to help but Nick tells him to fuck off and, at that moment, the famous herd of big pregnant cows comes barging into the field running after that bloody boxer dog, Boss. Terrified of animals, Glen runs off as fast as he can, not looking back, assuming Nick, younger and fitter than him, can look after himself. But turns out he couldn’t. Somehow he got stuck against the trough and trampled.

Glen is sitting on the trough weeping for what happened when Tamara comes up and gently puts her hand on  his shoulder and tries to reassure him but suddenly… it feels like an interview and Glen – who has babbled too many times in the story – gets to his feet without telling the truth, and sets off back to Stonefield.

Here he finds Beth in the garden drinking tea and reading the paper. She looks happy and relieved as she tells him the police have closed the investigation and now officially consider it an accident. Glen looks at her and considers telling her the truth about what happened i.e. his responsibility in punching Nick, making him hit his head against the trough, making him too dazed to escape the rampaging cows — but she has found closure, why ruin it?

Cut to Casey’s point of view. Ryan, the boy she fancies, has spent a lot of time with her, talking things through. Casey tells Ryan everything, about breaking into Winnards, hacking Tamara’s computer, sending the shag email, Jody’s obsession with Ben, her taking the pap shots of Nick snogging Tamara then sending them to Beth. What should she do? ‘Keep quiet’, advises Ryan. After all, what would their sort do for her if she was in trouble? Nothing.

Beth’s narrative. She cuts Tamara when they bump into her. But then she receives an email from Casey explaining that it was her and Jody who sent the shag email, for a joke, and she who texted Beth the photos of Tamara and Nick snogging. She’s really sorry for all the hurt she’s caused. This prompts Beth to make a pilgrimage over to Winnards to confront Tamara, where she’s surprised to discover Casey is present, having also gone to apologise to Tamara.

The other two stand in the kitchen while Beth gives them a bollocking but then explains life’s too short, she might as well forgive them, we’ve all got to live here together etc. Beth realises she feels like a cigarette, Tamara too, but they’ve both given up. Luckily Casey has one and the three women, now reconciled, pass a fag of closure among themselves.

The cigarette of closure

Late that night Tamara is mooning over her laptop. Suddenly she shuts it, leaves the farm, sets off at a run across the fields, arrives at Andy’s cottage, knocks, looks stunning and helpless – Help me, I’m a poor helpless vulnerable woman! – And Andy takes her in his arms – big stwong man pwotect helpless woman!!! They kiss.

Tamara must have gone all of two, maybe three days, without a man in her life! Is she, to quote American critic Alex Kuczynski, ‘a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness’? Tempting to think so…

A few days later Beth describes her trip to the local church for the funeral of Jody Long. She realises it’s an event for the real locals – in other words, the working class inhabitants of Ewedown, not the posh, down-from-London writers and second home-owners. But there’s Tamara on Andy’s arm – she is, after all, always on some man’s arm, not complete unless she has a man to cling onto – then hugging Casey, and working the crowd.

Then Tamara spots Beth and makes an operatic gesture to do a Big Hug of Closure, but Beth turns and melts away. Not ready to forgive, not yet.

One year later

Beth gives a summing up. She’s still at Stonefield. They launched a young writers’ prize in Nick’s honour. Beth handed over Nick’s shed to Casey and the other yoof as a meeting place. Andy moved in with Tamara and she had a baby in January. And her novel comes out in September.

The last page has a couple of images of Glen Larson. Beth has written him a letter congratulating him on the success of his novel, Excess, and telling him that Tamara’s novel is due out in September. But when Glen reads that it is about a writer’s retreat, he clutches his head, ‘Oh no!’

All in all, Tamara may be the titular centre of the story, but I think Beth is the heroine.


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

Posy Simmonds: A Retrospective @ the House of Illustration

‘The humour tends towards the wry rather than laugh-out-loud’

I hadn’t realised she was so posh. Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds (MBE) was born in 1945 in the Royal County of Berkshire and educated at the independent, fee-paying Queen Anne’s School in Caversham before going on to study art at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then returning to London to attend the Central School of Art & Design.

In the video interview included in the exhibition, she remembers growing up in a house full of books which included leather-bound volumes of Punch magazine, which she loved looking through from a very early age.

The exhibition includes a display case of some of the earliest sketches and drawings she did, while still a child, spoofs of 1950s glamour magazines and so on.

In 1969 Simmonds began her first daily cartoon feature, Bear, in the Sun newspaper, and she also contributed to The Times and Cosmopolitan magazine. But it was her move to the Guardian in 1972 that fully established her as an artist and social commentator.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Simmonds entertained readers and won critical acclaim with her low-key but bitingly satirical comic strips, commenting on the changing face of the English middle classes. She has worked on other newspapers and magazines, but it was her Guardian work that made Simmonds’s name.

The Silent Three

After years of contributing ad hoc and topical cartoons, in May 1977 Simmonds started drawing a weekly comic strip for The Guardian. It was initially titled ‘The Silent Three of St Botolph’s’ as a tribute to the 1950s comic strip ‘The Silent Three’ by Evelyn Flinders, and parodied the tradition of the harmless adventures of girls at precisely the kind of jolly hockey-sticks private school which she had herself attended.

The strip quickly focused on three girls in particular and contrasted their school adventures with the ongoing tribulations of their grown-up, adult selves, set in the contemporary world of the late 70s. They were:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber and struggling to look after a large brood of children
  • Jo Heep, married to alcoholic whisky salesman Edmund Heep, with two rebellious teenage sons who form a punk band
  • Trish Wright, in an ‘open marriage’ with philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and their small baby

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds

Posy

The strip eventually dropped the references to ‘St Botolphs’ and became known simply as ‘Posy’. It ran for ten years, from 1977 to 1987. During that period the cast of characters was expanded, as the children grew up and developed characters of their own. The strips don’t tell a consecutive narrative: each one focuses on an issue or event or slyly comic theme, and Simmonds gave herself the freedom to depart from the well-known cast altogether, as well as experiment with format and layout.

Periodically, the strip was collected into a number of books, namely:

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

The three families are distinct middle-class ‘types’; they each occupy a specific niche within the broad sprawling category we English refer to as the middle classes and the humour, such as it is, comes from the precision of Simmonds’s depiction of all the aspects of each group and their ‘set’ of friends.

But although the strip sometimes left all the known characters behind to experiment with purely political or satirical commentary, at its core were the couple of Wendy and her husband George – epitomes of the popular conception of the Guardian reader – intellectual, ex-hippie, bookish, left-wing, vegetarian and wracked by a whole raft of liberal causes – anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-nuclear and so on.

The point is that the humour is often at their expense, Simmonds gently satirising ‘the furrowed brow of liberal guilt’, showing the thousand and one ways in which they fall short of their own high ideals. In particular, many of the strips mock the high-falutin’ modishly French intellectual ideas George is liable to bring to completely inappropriate situations, such as the choice of new kitchen blinds dinner party chat.

Consumers, a George and Wendy Weber comic strip by Posy Simmonds

The five books listed above were eventually brought together into hefty omnibus hardback edition comprising some 480 pages (Mrs Weber’s Omnibus) which makes up a fascinating and revealing social history of the bien-pensant liberals of its time.

Feminism

Alongside the regular Posy strip, Simmonds produced topical cartoons and illustrations for other publications and for one-off occasions. According to the wall label:

In her newspaper strips and graphic novels, Simmonds returns regularly to the experience of women. An affirmed feminist, she has been advocating for women’s rights since the 1970s, challenging the injustices of male privilege and sexism in the home, at work and in wider society. Simmonds’ regular contributions to The Guardian newspaper’s women’s page have enabled her to make comment on issues ranging from the judgement women face when breastfeeding to the portrayal of ‘femininity’ in advertising.

So the exhibition includes a wall of narrative cartoons satirising women’s experiences of being harassed in pubs, or walking down the street, or by leery bosses, and so on. Take this satire on the way women only ever appear in the cartoon genre as foxes, babes and sex dolls, with all other periods of women’s lives completely ignored by the genre.

Seven Ages of Woman by Posy Simmonds

Children’s books

Also during the 1980s, Simmonds turned her hand to writing, and in particular to writing children’s stories. Thus began the sequence of illustrated children’s books including:

  • Bouncing Buffalo (1984)
  • Fred (1987)
  • Lulu and the Flying Babies (1988)
  • The Chocolate Wedding (1990)
  • Matilda: Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death (1991)
  • F-Freezing ABC (1996)
  • Cautionary Tales And Other Verses (1997)
  • Mr Frost (2001)
  • Lavender (2003)
  • Baker Cat (2004)

The exhibition includes original artwork from most of these children’s books. The illustrations to Hilaire Belloc’s classic cautionary tales show a sketchy, washed-out style a little like Edward Lear. But it was the intensely coloured illustrations of a book like Fred which I liked most.

Illustration from Fred by Posy Simmonds (1987)

Text heavy

Comparing Simmonds’s children’s illustrations with the adult ones revealed one single, central, massive difference – the amount of text.

The children’s books have almost no text and, as a result, feel light and airy. The adult strips, on the other hand, are packed with text. I thought it revealing that, at the start of the Mrs Weber Omnibus there is an extensive cast list which gives not only names but information about each of the characters’ lives, careers and interests, right down to the number of A-Levels the older children are taking.

I think this may explain why I found hardly any of the hundred of more strips on show here very funny. Certainly none of them made me laugh out loud, it’s not that kind of humour. A few of them made me smile. And it wasn’t just me: there was no audible response from any of the other visitors who shuffled around the rooms in respectful silence. The humour, as another online reviewer points out, ‘tends towards the wry rather than laugh-out-loud’.

More than that, I’d say you have to pay a lot of attention and read the text very carefully, in order to ‘get’ many of the strips – in order to notice the very slight nuances, and digs and satirical swipes at the affluent middle-class types who she so likes mocking.

The graphic novels

This becomes evident in Simmonds’s graphic novels. In 1981 she published True Love, which is an extended parody of sensational romance comics. In it the plain and mousy young Janice Brady – who we first met in the Weber strips – is working in a male-dominated publishers office and mistakenly imagines that tall blonde handsome Stanhope Wright is in love with her. In reality he is juggling at least two other love affairs which he is trying to keep hidden from his wife – but in her naive innocence Janice dreams that, if she applies enough make-up and wears the right glamour clothes – Mr Wright can be hers!

True Love by Posy Simmonds (1981)

True Love is now generally acknowledged to be Britain’s first ‘graphic novel’, although I’m not sure the genre really existed when it was written and it’s certainly not what you associate with the walls of graphic novels you can find in any bookshop nowadays.

In fact the narrative is pleasingly ‘unstable’ in the sense that it is still made up of self-contained ‘strips’ and some of them wander away from the central plot altogether to show characters from the main strip, e.g. the ever-agonising liberal George and Wendy at the cinema, and the tiresomely cheery Edmund Heep also makes some appearances.

There is a central event of sorts, which is an advertising shoot out in the country which requires the hiring of some sheep to make it look more scenic. Janice overhears Stanhope on the phone to what she thinks is his mistress, and his mention of ‘sheep’ sets off a broadly comic misunderstanding in which Janice wonders if they’re into perversion and bestiality.

On the day of the filming, Janice is sent by the crew filming the ad to find Stanhope and discovers him having a little ‘picnic’ with his pretty mistress. From her hiding place in a copse of trees Janice rolls down downhill towards the spooning couple the tin of cheese which Stanhope gave her at the firm’s Christmas party (and which has become a sort of comic totem of their love). Unfortunately the tin bounces off a tree root and hits Stanhope on the head, giving him concussion and forcing a trip to the local hospital, which he then struggles to explain to his long-suffering wife Trisha.

Anyway, from a visual point of view, Simmonds enjoys counterpointing the freckly, bong-nosed young heroine with impossibly glamorous images of gorgeous pouting dollybirds from 1950s and 60s romance comics, and the entire book mimics the genre’s exaggerated glamour, overblown prose, capital letter fonts, and the liberal use of glamour magazines’ tell-tale colour – hot pink.

It is without doubt clever, and full of subtle references (like this copying of the form’s visual style), but I rarely really found it funny. It all seemed too predictable to me. It is exactly the kind of rather obvious satire you’d expect an exasperated feminist to make. And mocking 1950s glamour magazines for being unrealistic… it’s not a difficult or novel target for satire, is it? By the 1980s.

Gemma Bovery (1999)

In the late 1990s Simmonds returned to the The Guardian with the first of what has turned into a series of graphic novels, Gemma Bovery.

Gemma Bovery is a modern, comic-strip reworking of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary. In Simmonds’s hands this becomes a satirical tale of English expatriates in France, enmeshed in divorces, whining exes, needy children and ghastly rich banker neighbours. It was published as a graphic novel in 1999 and was made into a feature film in 2014.

Given that the wall labels emphasise what a feminist Simmonds is, and how she has spent her life campaigning against sexist stereotypes, I was surprised that this long graphic novel is devoted to a fabulously slender, attractive and sexy young woman who has numerous ‘affairs’ (i.e. super-idealised, glamorous sex) with a succession of tall, handsome, slender young men. Here she is, getting it on with the tall, slender, good-looking aristocrat Hervé de Bressigny.

A lot has happened in the 18 years since True Love. Simmonds’s drawing style is infinitely more sophisticated: she can draw anything now, and the arrangement of pictures and text on the page is far more professional and effective. True Love felt like an extension of the weekly comic strip consisting, in effect, of a series of gags and comic scenes – Gemma Bovery really feels like a graphic novel.

Nonetheless, moving a few yards along the exhibition wall from one to the other, I couldn’t help being puzzled by the apparent contradiction. In 1981 true romance was despicable, unrealistic, sexist stereotyping – in 1999 it deserves a long, intensely imagined novel.

Tamara Drewe (2006)

This apparent contradiction was emphasised by the frames on display from Simmonds’s next graphic novel, Tamara Drewe. It also depicts a wide range of middle class characters who are, as usual, skewered for being pretentious, rich, snobbish, hypocritical and so on and yet, once again, the story focuses on a strikingly tall, statuesque, slender, shapely, nubile young babe, the eponymous Tamara.

The homely clunkiness of the Webers and of freckly, dumpy Janice Brady seem light years ago. The fusty little world of George and Wendy fussing about lentil soup or fretting about the introduction of business studies at the polytechnic where he teaches, have been replaced in both these graphic novels by tall, streamlined young sex goddesses living wonderful lives of affluence and foreign travel.

Tamara Drew makes her first appearance in the revised graphic novel, 2007 by Posy Simmonds

Both these novels features sexy heroines and they are about love affairs and sex and emotions. The women in them have careers, of sorts – Gemma is an interior decorator – but seem to define themselves by their relationships with men. For all the feminist rhetoric of Simmonds’s own cartoons, and of the curators’ wall labels, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed, as if earlier thoughts and beliefs had been abandoned.

Tamara Drewe debuted in the Guardian’s Review section on 17 September 2005 and ended, with episode 109 and an epilogue, on 2 December 2006. It was published as a book in 2007 and was also made into a film, starring tall, nubile young actress Gemma Arterton.

On the upside, both these graphic novels really do read like novels. I borrowed Gemma Bovery from the library, read it in one sitting and was slowly entranced. The characterisation initially felt thin and the satire of ghastly rich Brits abroad was irritating, but slowly, something deeper and more tragic genuinely emerged, and by the book’s last few pages I was absolutely gripped.

Cassandra Darke (2018)

Most recently – and in a relief from this succession of nubile young heroines – Simmonds has produced a much darker graphic novel, about a disgraced art dealer, Cassandra Darke. She’s caught selling dodgy fakes to the rich clients she despises, sentenced to community service, and then emerges almost penniless into a dark, gritty London just at Christmastime which is when the genuinely threatening sub-plot kicks in, concerning the young daughter of a friend who she lets her basement room to and who’s gotten involved with some seriously violent people, guns and drugs.

There are only three exhibition rooms in the main gallery of the House of Illustration and the entire third room was devoted to Cassandra Darke, with a book-size strip running continuously right around the wall and a set of display cases showing original artwork for the book, including early sketches of the characters, the initial paste-up sheets showing rectangles of paper with the text printed on them, glued onto the drawings – all this giving insights into how the book progressed from conception to completion.

What interested me was how distinctly darker and more pessimistic the story and the images are than anything else Simmonds has done. The Webers, back in the late 1970s, inhabited a safe and cosy world, cosy in the sense that they felt confident that good people everywhere shared their values. They were at home in what felt like a relatively benign society, everyone turned out for the annual street party or went on CND marches.

Now, forty years of feminism, identity politics, mass immigration, and neo-liberal right-wing economics later, the world feels a lot, lot, lot less friendly. It feels dark, rundown and dangerous, with vandalism, graffiti and the threat of violence on every corner.

Cassandra Darke goes to the rundown East End of London looking for clues as to the identity of the murdered young woman at the centre of the plot

What an immense distance we have travelled from the jolly hockey-sticks girls of St Botolphs. And it feels like Simmonds’s laser-sharp satirisation of changing middle-class mores has reflected every step of those socio-economic changes.

Social history

All in all, then, there are a few smiles but no laughs – I found this more of a thought-provoking exhibition than I expected.

The feminist stuff from the 70s and 80s reminds you what a horrible hairy, drunken, lecherous world it was back then. The Weber strips remind you of a whole type of knit-your-own yoghurt, ‘concerned’ and caring moustachioed polytechnic lecturers blabbing on about the nouveau roman and structuralism, who don’t seem to exist any more.

In fact the first half of the exhibition reeks of a world which is long gone. When True Love satirises the glamour images of the 1950s you can see Simmonds taking revenge on the sexist bilge she was fed as a girl, but, as a parent struggling to bring up my own teenage girl in 2019, not only the 1950s originals but also Simmonds’s 1980s satires on them, have a massively dated feel. The Weber strips feel like they could contain the threat. Satirise her characters as she did, you still had the sense their values were good, were the right ones, and would triumph.

But they didn’t. They were squashed and obliterated. Thatcherism confronted organised militant left-wing politics but what really killed that entire world of earnest, moustachioed left wingers was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s. The demise of actual socialism around the world left a huge intellectual, ideological and imaginative hole. Suddenly the underpinning for everyone on the soft or hard left just disappeared. Into this vacuum rushed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Third Way, slowly acclimatising all of us to the soft form of neo-conservative capitalist economics and consumer culture which we have inhabited ever since.

Thus it is that the graphic novels seem to come from a completely different world from tut-tutting George and Wendy Weber. You can see that Simmonds ceased drawing them not only because she was bored of doing the same old thing, but because their world was fading into insignificance compared to the bright and brash, shiny consumerist paradise which the 1990s promised everyone.

Gemma and Tamara – as the names suggest – come from the heart of the shiny, comfortably-off 1990s when old-style Labour politics had been obliterated and people were now making immense amounts of money ‘in the City’ or in advertising or in TV or in publishing – where the rich were buying up holiday homes around Britain and in France (where Gemma and Tamara are set) and beyond.

Certainly all of the characters in the graphic novels are comfortably off and well-heeled in a way the make-do-and-mend Weber family never was. They inhabit different imaginative universes.

So that’s why I liked the Cassandra Darke section of the exhibition most – because it is fascinating to see posh 1950s public schoolgirl Simmonds’s take on the world most of us now live in – not slender sexy heroines bonking in French chateaux – but the grisly streets of modern British cities, filled with closed-down shops, odd-looking people from all around the world speaking a babel of languages, the sense of public decay and dereliction, all contrasted with the comfortably-off art world which Cassandra inhabits and which gives her a window onto yet another world, that of the really genuinely super-rich international art collectors, the American and Russian and Arab billionaires who buy up art like they buy London properties, to add to their investment portfolios. And lurking beneath all this glitter, in the main plot of the novel, the threat of serious violence from white working class hard men.

It is a modern world where everyone is on their mobiles phones all day long, locked into their own little Facebook universes, consuming music, TV, movies and American culture like there’s no tomorrow, utterly heedless of the careful, caring values which George and Wendy devoted their lives to.

George and Wendy worried about their children showing the tiniest signs of becoming a bit materialist, and quoted French cultural critics to make snide, knowing criticisms of ‘consumer culture’. Their world has been obliterated, buried, drowned in an unprecedented global tide of mass consumption, and it is the unbridled greed and heartlessness of the modern world which Cassandra Darke conveys so well.

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

So reading about the everyday trivial hypocrisies of the 1980s lower middle-classes, of competitive gossip in the playground – the difficulty of telling your childminder what to do without offending her, or the frustrations of stay-at-home mums or the even worse frustrations of mums who go out to work – all this was mildly entertaining. But as my cruel teenage kids would say, ‘Yeah, so what, grandad?’ They don’t give a monkeys what happened ten, twenty or thirty years before they were even born.

So I think the curators were right to devote the last room entirely to Simmonds’s most recent book. Satire, or observational cartooning like this, is at its most powerful when it is about the now. And I found the rich colouring and the depth of texture of the illustrations to Cassandra Darke as interesting, as new, and as up-to-date, as its gritty, violent storyline.

And lastly, what a relief that the central character, Cassandra, is a grumpy, frumpy, older woman, well into her 60s, maybe 70-something, what a relief and a pleasure. After the nubile heroines Gemma and Tamara, it felt good to see Simmonds being true to the critique she herself made all those years ago in that ‘Seven Ages of Women’ cartoon, and depicting a woman who is not young and lithe and sexy and obsessed with bonking, but is nonetheless just as interesting and rewarding a character and easily meriting a book of her own.

Hooray for frumpy, grumpy Cassandra Darke, and hooray for Simmonds’s detailed, deep and discomfiting cartoons!

Preparatory character studies for Cassandra Darke (2014) by Posy Simmonds


Related links

Reviews of Posy Simmonds’ books

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

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