28 August 2009

Time Out

The Low & I Holiday Book
by F. W. Thomas and Low (of the "Star") 1926

This is a comic-format book but with perfect binding instead of the usual saddle stitch. The paper covers are nicked and frayed around the edges but they are still attached, even though the spine strip is almost completely missing. A nice pictorial cover designed in fine style by David Low shows the joint authors under a radiant Art Deco sun about to be engulfed by a wave that might have been drawn by Hokusai. The colour may have faded, but this must once have been a tasty morsel on the station news stands as the crowds bustled their way to beach, pier and promenade.

First thing on a random opening is a full-page, cartoon-based jest in which a group of prim young ladies at Brighton are driven to mad depravity by a bit of chintz and a few balloons - Like this:

The front bits show that this is a genuine product of Fleet Street, or at least of its tabloid tributary Bouverie Street. It's published by The Daily News, a popular rag which counted Charles Dickens as one of its first editors, and Low was working for the Star when he drew the cartoons that appear in the book. A boxed note on the reverse of the title page makes it clear that this is a compilation of stories and cartoons previously published in both of those papers.

Leafthrough. This is a lucky dip of jolly caricatures scattered among assorted paragraphs of wit and little boxes containing spoof verses. There's a strong whiff of the great unwashed of a bygone age being let off the leash from the unimaginable drudge of their daily lives and going slightly (but not subversively) mad as a consequence.
There are people who despise second-hand books precisely on the basis that they have been used by other people. While I'm no more keen than anyone else on dried bogies, unaccountable stains or flattened insects as markers of a book's intimacy with its previous owners, I am a big fan of old bus tickets, shop receipts, doodles and the like that often reveal themselves between well-thumbed pages. This copy of The Holiday Book has several pencil doodles in the margins that are passing imitations of Low's style. It would be nice to think they were the idle beachtime sketches of a factory worker from Preston with a bit of talent and a hankering for the life of a newspaper cartoonist.

Looking into it.
There's nothing I would like to do
So much as lie and shirk,
And think of all the rest of you
Perspiring at your work.
If life were only loafing,
In idle, sweet content,
It would be very nice indeed -
But who would pay the rent?
This book was published in the year of the General Strike. The TUC's call for action in May 1926 was provoked by the attrocious pay and working conditions of Britain's miners, but the strike might have been avoided if negotiations between the unions and the Government hadn't been brought to an abrupt end at the very last minute. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin walked out of the talks on learning that printers at the Daily Mail were refusing to produce the next day's edition because it contained an editorial describing the strike as a "revolutionary move". Baldwin puffed himself up into a righteous bluster about freedom of the press, but it seems to me he should have been reassured by the printers' action.

Much to the disgust of their continental counterparts, British working people have never, en masse, been revolutionary. Instead there's a conservative love of continuity, a mistrust of political extremists and intellectuals, and a cheerful resignation under the dead weight of life's realities. That's been enough over the centuries to form the TUC and set up the NHS, but the Queen is still on her throne and a loathsome class of charlatans and robbers is still slurping at the trough.

So are humour and holidays tools of the oppressor, keeping the masses in their place by allowing a little steam to be let off every now and then? It's true that innuendo, for example, is a way of acknowledging the magnificent filthiness of our urges without letting them upset society by rudely exposing themselves; and that the ruling classes could go on having their snouts tweaked by the little man all day without giving up a single privilege.

But humour is all about frames of reference and you get the feeling in this book that Low, Thomas and the proprietors of the Daily News are reflecting the lives of their readers. The pictures and tales of charabang trips, bawling children, lobster sunbathers and people falling off boats must have chimed with the experiences of the crowds turning up to Brighton or Blackpool for their annual two weeks off. And, just like on a real holiday, the workaday world that occupied the other 50 weeks of the year is never far away in the book, either being mocked for having been left behind or being dreaded for its inevitable return.

It's arguable that this working class worldview has shaped some of the best strands of British humour, from music hall to Hancock to Morecambe by way of Ealing and Merton. It is by turns cosy, surreal, tragic and very funny.

David Low was in fact a New Zealander who moved to London at the age of 28 to take up an offer to work on the moderately left-leaning Star. With a mixture of the outsider's fresh perspective and the caricaturist's sharp eye, he seems to have quickly got a handle on the essential elements of British life. There's a lot of keen observation in these sketchy drawings, many of which seem to be peopled with characters from Donald McGill's saucy seaside postcards, although Low's faces are much more individual.

At the time of this book's publication, Low was already on his way to becoming one of the great political caricaturists. The initial invitation to join the
Star had come about because of the success of his 1918 book of cartoons of then Prime Minister of Australia, William Hughes. And the year after publication of the Holiday Book, he agreed to join the conservative London Evening Standard on the understanding that his work would not be subject to any editorial interference.

Unlike the workers who would have chuckled along with this as they lounged by the sea, Low could live with the kind of self-determination that might have been the envy of our doodler from Preston. But as Europe moved ever closer to another war, even Low had to compromise. Beaverbrook, his employer at the
Standard, was inclined to appeasement and began to get the jitters as Low's savage belittling of Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy started to draw increasingly virulent complaints from the Germans. The final straw was a strip cartoon entitled 'Hit and Muss' that enraged Hitler so much that Low was ordered to tone down or stop his lampooning of the fuehrer and Mussolini. With a nicely insubordinate bit of quick thinking, he agreed to stop the strip and promptly replaced it with one about a new, composite dictator called Muzzler. It was never going to bring the fascists to their knees, but it ensured that he remained an effective irritant. So much so that he was high on the Gestapo's official list of people they would do away with if they ever managed to occupy this soggy isle.