AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVE BELL AND MARTIN ROWSON
"There’s a journalist, Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly admire. Generally because the gaudiness of his prose matches his subject matter which is what we do as cartoonist. It’s very visceral. Very immediate. There’s a wonderful line which I take as my guiding star a wonderful line of overblown journalism which he wrote in his biography of Henry Kissinger ‘ One can never eat enough to vomit enough when one thinks about Henry Kissinger.’ I met Hitchens once and went over to him and said ‘let me shake your hand for that line.’ It’s that visceral response that as a cartoonist is what I am looking for. It’s what we should do. We have to go the extra leap. The extra five yards or whatever. Say the unacceptable."
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3am: What’s the relationship between the satire and the politics you are satirising? Is there affection for the targets or not? You seem to be far more biting and hostile to your targets than many other cartoonists and satirists. There seems to be little room for respect or affection? John Major wearing his underpants over his trousers is a cruel, brilliant image but it’s hard to see how he could enjoy it.
SB: Trouble is we’ve been doing it for so long we do get feeling a little bit affectionate. But you’re right, most of what we do is thoroughly rude and scurrilous. But you do get the situation where the politicians do want the cartoons you draw. They just love to be noticed and recognised and they like the fact that you’re spending energy drawing caricatures of them.
MR: The archetype for this was the relationship between the great James Gilray and George Canning in the early 1790s. Canning’s mates spent years trying to get Gilray to put Canning into one of his cartoons because they recognised that this was the major mass medium for public recognition. They knew that if you were in a cartoon you were really important. So we take care about who we choose as our list of major characters. For example, Alan Millburn, I’ve never drawn because I don’t know what he looks like and I don’t know if my readers know what he looks like and I suspect he doesn’t know what he looks like. I’d have to draw him with the words ‘Alan Milburn’ across his chest, or something like that. So the whole symbiosis is rather strange. Politicians pretend they don’t mind whilst we pretend that we matter. You know, sometimes you slog away at a drawing and you look at it when its finished and you say ‘Ah, I’ve really got the
bastard this time, they’ll have to resign because I’ve just exposed them to such public ridicule’ and nothing happens and you think well, what’s the point?
Political satire. It’s also very primitive. You’re out to damage somebody at a distance with a sharp object which is the pen.
3AM: Do you think you can still cause damage?
MR: I think you can. I think Steve destabilised John Major.
SB: Yes, he didn’t like it. Having said that, he wanted to buy the originals. The thing is, you aim to get under their skin, you want to prize open the carapace of their image. That’s our job. The get under it and pack it up. And with Major, he was quite sensitive about his media image generally, which was probably a mistake really. He didn’t like it, putting his underpants over his trousers. But you try and make sense of things as they’re going on. It’s a view of the world if you like.
3AM: So where’s that view of the world coming from?
SB: Just being alive and being on the left and left of the Labour party. And the labour party has moved much too far to the right – I used to be a member of the labour party years ago – but I gave it up a long time ago.
MR: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the labour Party.
SB: Yes, well, I was a dewy eyed idealist maybe. I mean, in days gone by, twenty years or so ago, I would have shuddered at the idea of a politician actually liking me. I would have had palpitations and been deeply embarrassed. But now you accept it.
3AM: You’ve mentioned Gillray and there is a tradition of satire and cartoonists working in your field. Do you see yourselves as artists or as something else?
SB: Well, I studied art for many more years than I care to remember. I think the idea of an artist is ridiculous. The idea of art for arts sake makes me throw up, vomit, makes me laugh.
3AM: In a kind of projectile sort of way at the same time?
SB: Yes, at the same time. I believe in what I do and I try and do it the best I can. I think its just as valid an art form as any other going on at the Tate or wherever.
3AM:Do you ever resent that your work isn't in the Tate?
SB: Not really. Its not an exalted art form. It’s lonely, low, scurrilous and rude. Its supposed to be. But I think you can be serious at the same time as the piss taking. There is a serious point buried in there, somewhere. But the point is also to make people laugh and the best ones are when you do both , when you hit the spot and make people laugh.
I have no art training at all. I don’t think of myself as any type of artist. I’m an artisan. I get crosser that we’re not taken seriously as journalists than I do that we’re not taken seriously as artists. I know that the work, say, Steve does, squatting on top of an article in the guardian by Hugo Young says more than the actual column does, more viscerally, more immediately and more effectively than that column does. But I’m sure that the idea of the great journalists sitting there with glasses of sherry with great gravitas is true and we’d be shoved away to the kitchens.
3AM: You mind that?
MR: I do mind that. I object strongly because in the hierarchy of newspapers that’s where we are seen. Because although editors recognise the importance of the cartoon in the topography of newspaper design quite a few editors have no understanding of what a cartoon is. We’re lucky to work with the Guardian where Rushbridger is cartoon literate but most aren’t. they just bung it in there. We’re just above topographers. Bottom feeders but just above the slime. Topographers are really treated like shit right down at the bottom.
3AM: Paradoxically, of all the people working for the Guardian, you are very well known. If someone was to ask who worked for the Guardian they’d probably say Steve bell. You’ve a certain star quality above the kind of writers knocking out the columns.
SB: Well, for one thing, the cartoons are quick to read.
3AM: Yes, but its got to be good though.
SB: Oh yes, it goes without saying. It’s got to be good.
MR: There’s a cartoon by the late great Bernard Klyburn of this man walking down the road with these two semi naked women on his arm and the line ‘make way, here comes a cartoonist!’ It doesn’t tend to happen!
3AM: We’re in a serious situation now what with the war in Afghanistan and so on. Does that change what you can do and what you want to do?
SB: Well, when its all happening, like, we were all watching it at the Guardian on the screen it was all really quite devastating but unfortunately you do have to do something about it. Resorting to symbolic stuff and humour goes out of the window but taking the long view, which is about a day later, George Bush is still George Bush, and Tony Blair still looks like an aspiring megalomaniac, a crazed sort of character, so it hasn’t really changed a great deal. It has changed attitudes towards you doing it…
3AM: Have you had objections?
SB: Oh yeah, both ways.
SB: Well yes, you.
MR: I objected unfortunately on ‘Front Row’ to a cartoon Steve did a couple of days after the September the 11th bombings which I shouldn’t have done. It was a sort of shitting in ones own nest I suppose. I work on the basis that the use of humour and laughter is an integral part of being human and alive and everything is inherently hilariously funny but some things take longer for that to be acceptable and also where you tell that joke. Now I know some fantastic jokes about the holocaust that were told to me by some Jews that I would never ever repeat on radio for instance. And I thought Steve’s cartoon two days after was too soon. I found myself in a very strange position where I illustrate Tony Parsons column in the Mirror for my sins and I illustrated his rather bullish column with a picture of the statue of liberty crying and Steve quite rightly upbraided me for this extraordinary
hackneyed image. So I found myself being attacked by Steve on one side and then I found myself doing a cartoon for the Guardian on Monday where I drew Uncle Sam taking some missiles as fast-acting pain relief and I found myself being criticised in a phone conversation by Peter Brook of the Times of being hideously insensitive and callous. Whereas I thought that by that time, if you look at the original atrocity, you have to react within a fundamental human level whereas all the following political action that follows the consequence is fair game. And I have been surprised by the level of my and the depth of my reaction to what is happening in Afghanistan. I am so appalled by it and by Blair’s speech which Steve and I were sitting at the base of his podium and I thought it was one of the most dishonest political performances I have ever witnessed.
SB: I mean we have to see these things at a distance. We’re three thousand miles away. If we were living in New York our response would probably be different. It does make a difference being there. You’re not there when you’re watching it on TV. It’s a terrible thing. A horrible thing. Six thousand people being bumped off in a single moment. But then you start looking at the thing and putting it in some sort of a context. The problem is that having been covering American foreign policy since the early eighties you have these small wars taking place abroad at a great distance where people are getting bombed and its reported for home consumption, all the images are controlled, you’re not actually getting the truth, you’re not wanted to empathise with the people there who are being hammered. No matter who they are, being blown up is not a pleasant thing. It no way justifies what happened in New York which was a monstrous crime against humanity but there’s
an ongoing crime against humanity, say in Iraq, with bombings and the whole thing against the Gulf, lobbing in bombs and sorting out your relations that way is monstrous. And what’s going on in Afghanistan in monstrous. Like Martin said, the Americans now have abandoned the moral high ground they had and now what – just because it’s a long way away we can’t empathise? It’s a dust bowl or whatever? A load of rag-heads? Goats?
MR: Its interesting that there’s a great march backwards that Blair and Bush are both avowed Christians and in common with Osama bin-Laden believe in an after life which makes life cheap – other people’s lives cheap that is! I was talking to my seven year old son who is terrified that there’s going to be a third world war and that he’s going to be dead by Christmas. I said ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if these avowed Christians actually said, well, I believe in the teaching of Christ laid out in the New testament and turn the other cheek. That we’re not going to do anything about it but rather turn the other cheek and forgive the people who did it. ‘ Well, that’s not going to happen because we’re all Old Testament now and into vengeance. But also , I was talking to someone the other day and wondered if we are now going to look back at the last forty or so years after the Second world war as a kind of golden Age of International stability and peace where
the idea of mutually assured destruction, where everyone was convinced they were going to die but we’ve got through that so we can go back to the sort of nineteenth century imperialist adventures abroad. So you have a sort of Palmerstonian foreign policy of diplomacy abroad where, in the words of Belloc, ‘we have got a Gatling gun and they have not.’ There are two literary parallels keep coming back to me again and again. One from ‘1984’ about the ten minute hate against this vague enemy so there’s a constant state of war just to define the domestic agendas and keep everyone on their toes and everyone’s focusing outside on this anonymous enemy and I think in 1984 its suggested that the government is bombing its own people just to keep them on their toes. But the other thing is from Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’ where Marlow’s ship goes to the Congo and they pass this frigate that’s just squirting shells into the jungle. They don’t know who they’re hitting its just the idea that they are this
overweening Imperialist power. What’s happening to Afghanistan is exactly that. We’re reducing their rubble to finer rubble. I neither condone nor forgive Osama bin-Laden for what he did if he did them – it was an unspeakably evil act – but this is not going to make it any better.
3AM: Now there’s an enormous moral dimension to what you’re doing. And it’s quite brave. There was a recent thing in the London Review Of Books where they published a number of well known people’s responses to the September 11th atrocity and in the letters page in the following edition…
MR: Yes, someone writing that next time they’re in London they’ll come and rub their loony left faces in the dog shit.
3AM: Exactly. So who do you have as your heroes and backup. What tradition would you want to line up with as lefty iconoclasts?
MR: I’d go first of all with Gillray. That sort of ‘fuck-you’ response to things.
3AM:He ended up mad didn’t he?
MR: Well yes. I’ll see where I end up. Lowe is an extremely brave cartoonist. There was one cartoon he did after visiting the death camps where he had this Everyman character saying ‘Every German must pay for this crime against humanity’ and one of the starving figures behind the barbed wire says ‘ You forget, my friend, most of us are German.’. Appearing when it did at the end of the second world war it was an extremely brave thing to do.
SB: I don’t feel particularly brave. There’s always a network of support. There are always people writing in saying ‘thanks for saying that.’ Of course, I get a few psychos but most of the letters I get reinforce the view that I’m saying what they want someone to say.
3AM:So who do you admire now?
SB: Anyone who takes a stand against it really. I’ve got pretty catholic taste from John Pilger to Matthew Paris of the Times. He’s a right winger who has taken a stand against it which is good. These things need to be discussed. We both have had a ferocious response in the comment pages of the Telegraph.
MR: “Useful idiots!”
SB: Yes, we were called ‘useful idiots’. I’ve been done twice and we were both done in one leader column. I wrote in a reasoned response . But there was this feeling that we had to stop thinking and get behind our boys because that’s what’s right in the face of such a crime. We must do what’s necessary and doing what’s necessary doesn’t seem to care who gets pulverised. Its true idiocy. Idiocy without qualification. Insane. A newspaper is an organ of communication. People write in and you fire stuff back.
MR: There’s a journalist, Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly admire. Generally because the gaudiness of his prose matches his subject matter which is what we do as cartoonist. It’s very visceral. Very immediate. There’s a wonderful line which I take as my guiding star a wonderful line of overblown journalism which he wrote in his biography of Henry Kissinger ‘ One can never eat enough to vomit enough when one thinks about Henry Kissinger.’ I met Hitchens once and went over to him and said ‘let me shake your hand for that line.’ It’s that visceral response that as a cartoonist is what I am looking for. It’s what we should do. We have to go the extra leap. The extra five yards or whatever. Say the unacceptable.
SB: He’s not with us at the moment.
MR: No he’s not. Whereas his right-wing brother Peter Hitchens is very dove-like.
3AM: Yes. Did you see Christopher on Newsnight. He was having a right go at Tony Benn.
SB: Yes. He was chomping away. There you go. The weird and wonderful thing about politics.
MR: Well, Steve and I fundamentally disagreed over Kosovo. I thought that Kosovo was a justified military action. It was done incredibly incompetently but I thought basically you had a racist fascist government expelling people and you had to stop them doing it. And it worked. The trouble with this military action is that I don’t know what they are trying to achieve apart from the buzz of feel good for a domestic audience.