How the Georgians invented nightlife

Modern nightlife was invented in London around 1700. So argued the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who traced this revolution in city life to its origins in court culture. Medieval and Renaissance courts held their festivities while it was still light outside, but by the late 17th century, aristocrats preferred to party after dark. The trend was rapidly commercialised: a new kind of conspicuous consumer descended on pleasure gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh, to eat, drink, stroll and listen to music by the many-coloured light of thousands of oil lamps. Before the 1700s, night was a fearful all-consuming presence, and the main challenge was to get through it Or you can give

How should cartoonists respond to war?

Laughter has always been a coping mechanism for dealing with war. Some of this country’s most memorable cartoons have been born out of conflict. Think of Gillray’s ‘Plumb-Pudding in Danger’, Bairnsfather’s ‘Well, if you knows of a better ’ole, go to it’ or Low’s ‘Very well, alone’ – they are the quintessential images that defined the Napoleonic, first and second world wars. War didn’t stop cartoonists in the thick of the action from making light of their circumstances. Bruce Bairnsfather, a young officer who began sending jokes to the Bystander in 1915, was invalided out of Belgium suffering from shell-shock, but continued to draw. His work was initially dubbed ‘vulgar

Can cartoons be both funny – and diverse?

Of the many challenges cartoonists face — rejection, money, drink, or lack of — one of the trickiest is the growing pressure to depict diversity. Nowadays readers often write to publications complaining about the dearth of ethnic minorities in our drawings and demand for cartoons to be more inclusive. It’s like being trapped in a bad political cartoon, walking a tightrope above a minefield. A quick survey of my colleagues in the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation highlighted the following: Cartoons involve laughing at someone. If that person is black, you risk appearing racist; even including a BAME character in the background of drawing can lead to accusations of tokenism (‘background box-tickers’).

Why will nobody publish my religious cartoons?

I am having very little success in getting my collection of cartoons of great religious founders published. Perhaps it is because I am not known as a draughtsman and publications are notoriously conservative in hiring new talent. It is all very dispiriting. My drawings are, I think, puckish and yet respectful. For example, there is one of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, the man somehow regarded as divine by Rastafarians. He is depicted in a game of ten-pin bowling with Benito Mussolini, the controversial former leader of Italy. Both men seem to be enjoying themselves — Benito is holding a pint of lager while Selassie is biting into an almond

The peerless social satire of Pont of Punch

Eighty years ago this month, the cartoonist Graham Laidler — better known as Pont — died of polio. He contracted the disease while evacuating refugees from London in his car. He was only 32. In 1940, thousands of people were dying in the war, but Pont’s death was marked by an appreciation from J.B. Priestley in the Times, and an outpouring of grief in readers’ letters to the magazine with which he had become synonymous: Punch. Pont, the son of a successful painter and decorator, originally trained as an architect. But after he caught TB, doctors advised him to abandon his work and travel to Austria to recover. There he

Sick, puerile, inappropriate and delicious: Amazon Prime’s The Boys reviewed

There’s a delicious scene in the new season of Amazon’s superheroes-gone-bad series The Boys. The chief superhero Homelander (Antony Starr) is introduced by a minion to a potential new member of his elite superhero group, the Seven. Homelander watches this bright new talent performing wonders in a gym-style training zone: the young man is agile, eager, skilled with weaponry; but perhaps his most valuable features, the minion suggests, are that he is disabled and belongs to an ethnic minority. This could play really well with the youth demographic, who are into that kind of woke stuff, the aide suggests. The potential recruit approaches Homelander, sweet, modest and starstruck. Even though

Why does no one want to be a cartoonist any more?

‘Nightmare!’ is how The Spectator’s cartoon editor Michael Heath has been describing cartooning for at least 30 years, but it’s truer now than ever. Eighty years ago, cartoonists were so celebrated that waxworks of Low, Strube and Poy were displayed in Madame Tussauds. Today, all that remains of Low is a pair of waxy hands in Kent University’s British Cartoon Archive. We are a vanishing species. There is a lack of new blood in the industry that doesn’t bode well for the future. When I was a student, getting published in Punch and Private Eye was seen as the pinnacle of a career in humour. Many tried —and succeeded —

Letters: Why coronavirus is so hard to investigate

Corona mysteries Sir: John Lee highlights the issue of dying of seasonal flu vs dying of coronavirus when assessing attributable deaths (‘The corona puzzle’, 28 March). The obvious solution would be a high autopsy rate. However, autopsies on known or suspected coronavirus deaths are not being done in case they lead to mortuary technologists and pathologists becoming infected. (Tuberculosis, HIV and even rabies infections are easier to prevent in mortuary work than coronavirus.) This contributes to a lack of information about how coronavirus affects people. In the long term, it also seems unlikely that anatomical examination of the dead will revert to its pre-coronavirus autopsy rate of 17 per cent

My quest for a universal cartoon

A cartoon caption is a work of art. It is a sitcom in miniature — but whereas a situation comedy might take half an hour to reach its punchline, a cartoon caption has to do so in seconds. Cartoonists toil endlessly, revising and rephrasing, to perfect a caption. There are rules. The funniest word has to appear at the end. The caption has to be a balance between anticipation and delivery. The line has to be succinct and the rhythm has to be right — clumsy phrasing can ruin an otherwise strong comic idea. In 2006 a blogger called Charles Lavoie wrote that every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned

Australia notebook

I went to Australia with my constant companion Hilary, the only woman in England I’m not paying alimony to. She is also my spirit guide, and can get me through airports by simply waving her phone at various machines. I’m ashamed to say I still expect my ticket to be punched by a ticket collector, and my suitcase marked with a chalk cross by a cheerful customs officer. ‘No smutty arts books from Paris I hope, sir?’ We start the day (I have no idea what day it is, owing to jet lag) having breakfast at the Bathers’ Pavilion on Balmoral beach. It could be California in 1935, so charming is it.

From cartoons to stage design: the genius of Osbert Lancaster

‘Bigger,’ said Sir Osbert Lancaster when asked the difference between his work for the page and for the stage. ‘Definitely bigger.’ For almost 40 years Lancaster was the ‘pocket cartoonist’ for the Daily Express. He had remarked to the features editor that no English newspaper had anything to match the little column-width cartoons of the French papers. ‘Go on,’ said the editor, ‘give us some.’ On 1 January 1939, Lancaster gave them the first of around 10,000 line-drawn cartoons. His subjects were the war, the Blitz, the weather, Stalin, Hitler and Dr Spock, the Swinging Sixties, the Common Market, the test tube baby and the topless swimsuit. His heroine, his

Serial genius

‘It’s no use at all,’ says Posy Simmonds in mock despair, holding up her hands. ‘I can’t tell my left from my right.’ She is ambidextrous. ‘This hand [her right] writes and draws; and this hand [her left] cuts out, sharpens pencils, throws balls, plays tennis… I can’t drive. I’ve never taken a test. I’m always on the wrong side of the road.’ Looking at these wonderful hands, elegant and almost limp, one would never suppose they had created, over the past 50 years, such a large volume of intensely enjoyable and astute drawings. Reliably funny and wise, her work ranges from Fred (1988), about the secret rock-star life of

Object lesson | 6 September 2018

‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,’ wrote George Orwell in his preface to Animal Farm. It is a line that has gone down as one of the great capsule defences of dissent, made all the more prescient by the fact that the preface, an attack on the self-censorship of the British media during the second world war, wasn’t published until the 1970s. But the lines that follow it are too often overlooked. ‘The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it,’ Orwell goes on, ‘it is the liberals who fear liberty and

Dark side of the Moomins

Tove Jansson, according to her niece’s husband, was a squirt in size and could rarely be persuaded to eat, preferring instead to smoke fags and drink whisky. And when she did eat, it was usually salted cucumbers — to go with the drink. You know, this late in life, I may have encountered my role model. We were at the launch of an excellent edition of four books in her Moomin series at the Finnish embassy. London is in the grip of a kind of Moomin madness right now, what with the books, a Moomin event at the South Bank and a new exhibition of Tove Jansson’s artwork at the

American psyche

The latest exhibition at the Royal Academy is entitled America after the Fall. It deals with painting in the United States during the 1930s: that is, the decade before the tidal surge of abstract expressionism. So this show is a sort of prequel to the RA’s great ab ex blockbuster of last autumn. It might have been called, ‘Before Jackson Began Dripping’. Not much in this selection, though, can compare to the power of the abstract expressionists at their peak in the Forties and Fifties — not even an early work by Pollock himself. But it does include a couple of masterpieces by Edward Hopper, plus several pictures so brashly

Funny is dangerous

‘I’m off now,’ says Michael Heath, signing off from his selection of Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, ‘to go and do a gag about God knows what. I haven’t the foggiest idea.’ You’d think at 80 he might want to stop, or have to give up because he’d somehow lost his touch. But not the cartoon editor of this magazine, and chief creator of wicked skits on the idiocies and affectations of contemporary life. What’s it like working as a cartoonist after the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo? asked Kirsty Young. ‘It adds a certain frisson to your drawing,’ Michael replies. ‘But I never wanted to be

Picture books for grown-ups

Art Spiegelman, the American cartoonist behind Maus, the celebrated Holocaust cartoon, dreamt up a good definition of graphic novels: comics you need a bookmark for. This jolly show about the British graphic novel takes an even broader approach. It begins with Hogarth’s 1731 series, ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, the tale of an ingénue in London who becomes a prostitute and dies of syphilis. You’d need an awfully big bookmark for the six original paintings in Hogarth’s series. But the point is well made — the idea of telling stories through a series of pictures has been around for a long time in Britain. Perhaps that’s why we’ve often denigrated cartoons and

Osbert Lancaster: a national treasure rediscovered

True to his saw that ours is ‘a land of rugged individualists’, Osbert Lancaster, in his self-appointed role of popular architectural historian, presented the 1,000-year history of Britain’s built environment from a resolutely personal perspective. Like the majority of his generation — Lancaster was born in 1908 and published Pillar to Post in 1938, following it with Homes Sweet Homes a year later — he cultivated a vigorous dislike of all things Victorian. Again and again he demolished the earnest conceits of 19th-century orthodoxy: ‘the antiquarian heresy’; ‘the great dreary moth of Victorian revivalism’; ‘the jackdaw strain inherent in every true Victorian’. Lancaster’s skill lay in the accuracy and apparent

Hiding in Moominland: the conflicted life of Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson’s father was a sculptor specialising in war memorials to the heroes of the White Guard of the Finnish civil war. He did not like women. They were too noisy, wore large hats at the cinema and would not obey orders in wartime. Tove used to hide to spy on his all-male parties, where everybody got astoundingly drunk and attacked chairs with bayonets. ‘All men are chums who will never leave each other in the lurch,’ she concluded. ‘A chum doesn’t forgive, he just forgets — women forgive everything but never forget. Being forgiven is very unpleasant.’ Father and daughter had such a strained relationship that she sometimes had

The 10 best loo books of 2014: why we sing so much better in the shower and what became of Queen Victoria’s children’s milk teeth

Nancy Mitford would not call them ‘toilet books’, that’s for certain. Loo books? Lavatory books? One or two people I know favour ‘bog books’. And having written one or two books myself that teeter on the edge of frivolity, I know that for your book to be kept in what Americans call the ‘bathroom’ is essentially a compliment. As long as it’s there to be read, of course. Oddly enough, the two best loo books of the year I have already and separately reviewed in these pages. The Most of Nora Ephron (Doubleday, £20, Spectator Bookshop, £16.50) is an immaculately chosen compilation of the late American humorist’s journalism, blogs, meditations