Telling strokes

Next time you happen to be asked why some people are subjected to caricature more than others, give a shrug and quote Henry James: “When faces are reducible to a few telling strokes their wearers are overwhelmed with the honors of publicity”. Such a phizog, irresistibly attractive to the political caricaturist, lay in the possession of Winston Churchill, as is likewise the case with the travesty-Churchill of our own times who is temporarily installed as prime minister.

Gary L. Stiles’s impressively exhaustive book Churchill in “Punch” (Unicorn, £50) runs to over 500 pages; for some reason, that distinctive face kept pushing itself into the news. According to Stiles, Churchill popped up in Punch more than 600 times between 1899 and 1988 – an honor he mostly appreciated, as a long-time admirer of the magazine (which didn’t long outlive its last Churchillian caricature). Studying the latest issues at school on Sundays was, he recalled, “a very good way of learning history, or at any rate of learning something”.

Literary characters figure prominently in the art of satire. Over the course of a single year, 1911, Churchill stood in as Caliban, Catesby and Henry V. He became Winnie-the-Pooh during the debate over Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, surrounded by a swarm of angry bees. Punch readers of the 1920s could be counted on to recognize him as both Fagin and Micawber. And as well as the teapot at the Mad Hatter’s tea party and Tweedledum (to Ronald McNeill’s Tweedledee), he was depicted in 1941 as the Duchess from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as reproduced above. Essentially true to Lewis Carroll’s original, the caption to this cartoon has the Duchess crying out “Here, you may nurse it a bit if you like!” – the howling baby in question being the Ministry of Information (“MOI”), which Churchill had just given over to the care of his friend Brendan Bracken/Alice. This drawing is the work of that Punch mainstay EH Shepard (who was not, however, responsible for the aforementioned Pooh Bear cartoon).

Punch is not as funny as it used to be – but then it never was”, ran the old joke (that was never very funny in the first place). But maybe we could all learn something from its pages, as Churchill himself did – even if it isn’t exactly history.

Meanwhile – and elsewhere – there was no shortage of Churchill-caricature in words as well as images. Kipling’s recollection of his appearance at the coronation of George V and Mary, in June 1911, may do as an example: “all the Winstonism of Churchill simply blazed up against that background of decent ritual. He looked like an obscene paper backed French novel in the Bodleian”. We can’t think why such a comparison should stick in the mind when it comes to contemplating the current political scene.

Never likely to be accused of being less funny than it once was, we suspect, is the hefty quarterly Liberties. Fresh-ish out of Washington DC, this “nonpartisan” journal – smartly jacketed and adorned with an insignia “derived from details in Botticelli’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy– is devoted to “educating the general public about the history, current trends and possibilities of culture and politics.” All seven issues published to date landed on our desk several weeks ago; we are still working our way through them.

The first issue begins with Michael Ignatieff writing about “Liberalism in the Anthropocene” (“In the more innocent time before the pandemic, we already knew that we were living in an era with a new name”) and ends with the reflections of the journal’s editor, the not wholly uncontroversial Leon Wieseltier, on dissent, upheaval, etc. In between lie some compelling contributions from Hannah Sullivan, Helen Vendler and Ramachandra Guha, among others.

Skip ahead to the equally involving issue of this spring and you will find Laura Kipnis having some fun at the expense of “gender-critical” types (“Why is gender such a mêlée? Can’t it be a comedy instead of a tragedy?”), Ingrid Rowland taking the long view (“Whenever sabers begin to rattle somewhere in the world, I am irresistibly drawn back to Thucydides.”) and Morten Høi Jensen reflecting on the unfortunate lot of the literary biographer (“There are few writers less appreciated, there are none more despised”). We can say little more than this, having skipped ahead. But maybe we’ll go back and see what we’ve missed out on so far. Annual subscriptions start, via, from $50.

Good news from Hebden Bridge: a Sylvia Plath literary festival is to take place there over one weekend this autumn (between October 21 and 23), for the first time. This event coincides with the ninetieth anniversary of the poet’s birth and the publication of an anthology, After Sylvia: Poems and essays in celebration of Sylvia Plath, edited by Sarah Corbett (who lives in Hebden Bridge, and is the festival’s director) and Ian Humphreys. Expect talks, readings and the like, from Plath biographers Gail Crowther and Heather Clark, among others (poets, we fear). Corbett is also threatening a poetry brunch and a poetry séance. Tickets go on sale this month, and may be obtained through the customary online methods.

More immediately, there are still a couple of weeks to drop into Christie’s and cast a connoisseurial eye over First Editions, Second Thoughts: An auction in support of English PEN. Running until July 12, this exhibition consists of eighty-nine modern first editions, “each of which have been uniquely annotated or illustrated by their authors”. Anne Enright has added “almost 1,000 words of playingful, illuminating commentary” to a copy of her sixth novel, The Green Road (estimate £1,500-£2,000). Edna O’Brien is more succinct when it comes to her first, The Country Girls (also £1,500-£2,000). “I wrote this book in 3 weeks. I was in my twenties and am now in my nineties. Were I to write it now – which is impossible – it would be a very different work.”

Also representing Irish fiction is John Banville, who cannot bear to mark Shroud (£1,000-£1,500), beyond a terse inscription on the front endpaper. “I cannot bear to read one”, Mr Banville confesses of his own books,

And the very thought of them makes me feel queasy … When I am compelled to glance back at something I have written, for reference or to verify something, all I see are the slips, the flaws, the failures of nerve, the missed opportunities – in other words, the imperfections.

So do we, we were going to cry out, cruelly; but there is no denying how painful this particular kind of re-reading experience must be for a perfectionist. Shroud may even be the wrong title, Banville notes. When told what the novel was going to be called, a friend joked that “to ensure popular success, I should go the whole way and call it Coffin. Maybe she was right.”

The post telling strokes appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment