This time, not children's books, though. I'm going
to mention four books that consist mainly of pictures of one sort
The first is All in
Line by Steinberg. This book was on Dad's shelves
as far back as I can remember. It contains no preface or
explanatory notes of any kind, so you can't tell which of the
works were previously published, and where or when. A good deal
of Steinberg's work, though, was published in The New
Yorker. I spent plenty of time looking at these drawings
as a young teen. The first half of the book has a decidedly
whimsical air. There are a few of the 'paradox' type drawings -
a figure drawing itself, or drawing a figure that's drawing a
figure that's drawing a figure... There are cute little dogs
and tiny, tiny children. Steinberg liked to exaggerate size
There follow some sections on World War II,
where the theme is grimmer, but still satirical, with
caricatures of Hitler and a little tiny Mussolini. Finally
there are sections depicting American troops in places like
China and India. These pictures have more of an 'artist's
A Century of Punch,
edited by R.E. Williams, was published in 1956 and given to Dad
by Mum at Christmas that year. It contains a selection of
cartoons from the magazine Punch, published over the
preceding hundred years. In the oldest examples, the drawings
themselves are almost incidental. The 'caption' was penned by a
writer, and was often quite long, containing several lines of
dialogue. An artist would then illustrate the story. The captions
of some of these old cartoons have passed into common usage,
often by way of the music hall, so that many people would be
unaware of their origins as Punch cartoons.
Take, for example, this old chestnut, to which the
rather odd illustration adds nothing at all. It dates from 1931.
Two male acquaintances meet in the street.
"WHERE ARE YOU OFF
DOCTOR'S. I DON'T LIKE THE LOOK OF MY WIFE."
"I'LL COME WITH
YOU. I CAN'T STAND THE SIGHT OF MINE."
Everyone knows about the curate's egg. But how
many know it derives from a Punch cartoon? Again, the
picture really isn't needed. It dates from 1895:
Host: "I'M AFRAID YOU'VE GOT A
BAD EGG, MR.
"OH NO, MY LORD, I ASSURE YOU! PARTS OF IT ARE EXCELLENT!"
Many of the topics would seem almost equally
On strikes (1889):
"HULLO, JEM, NOT AT
WORK? WHAT'S UP?"
"OH, WE'RE OUT ON
"AW DIVEN' KNAW, BUT WE'LL
NOT GIVE IN TILL WE GET IT!"
On the cost of hiring skilled tradesmen
Working Man sitting on the
steps of a big house in, say, Russell Square, smoking pipe. A
mate passes by with plumbing tools, etc.
Man with tools:
"HULLO, JIM! WOT ARE YER DOIN'
Man on steps:
"NO, I'M THE HOWNER,
Man with tools:
Man on steps:
"WHY, I DID A BIT O' PLUMBING
IN THE 'OUSE, AN' I TOOK THE PLACE IN PART PAYMENT FOR THE
On rising hemlines (1925):
Kindly Old Soul:
"LOST YOUR MOTHER, HAVE
YOU? WHY DIDN'T YOU HANG ON TO HER
"I COULDN'T REACH
In 1910, we have an anxious young man fronting up
to his beloved's very formidable father:
"I - ER - WISH TO MARRY YOUR
"WELL, MY BOY, HADN'T YOU
BETTER SEE HER MOTHER FIRST?"
"I HAVE, SIR, AND - ER - ER
- I STILL WISH TO MARRY YOUR DAUGHTER."
Another one that became a bit of a cliché dates
from 1937. Irate stationmaster confronts porter:
"WHERE YOU BEEN?"
"'AVIN' ME 'AIR CUT."
"YOU KNOW YOU CAN'T 'AVE YER 'AIR CUT IN THE
"WELL, IT GREW IN THE COMPANY'S TIME, DIDN'T
"NOT ALL OF IT."
"WELL, I AIN'T HAD IT ALL CUT OFF."
Here's a nice one from 1933:
Little daughter (thrilled by
the Customs-officer's search):
"OO-O! HE'S GETTING WARM, ISN'T HE, MUMMY?"
As the years went by, artists began to produce
cartoons to which they wrote their own captions. The drawings
themselves became more important. One that acquired some fame
shows two hippos in a pool somewhere in the wilderness. The sun
blazes down and they are almost submerged. This is a place,
clearly, where nothing much ever happens. Says one hippo to the
other: "I keep thinking it's Tuesday."
In 1952 it would seem there was a rash of jokes
about information counters in department stores. On a single
page, the book reproduces three of them. The first has a woman
laden with parcels going up and asking: "How shall I break all
these to my husband?". In the second, two children in school
uniform - a girl in pigtails and her younger brother - are
bravely standing their ground as the man behind the counter, who
has beetling brows and a long dark beard, glares at them and
growls: "Because I dislike shaving." In the third, a customer
goes up to the desk and asks: "How many more of these Information
jokes are we going to see?"
Sometimes there were no captions at all.
Giovanetti's strip cartoons of his little animal (hamster? guinea
pig?) are enchanting, but can't be described in words.
In 1970, when I was in America, I bought
The New Yorker Album of Art and Artists
as a Christmas present for Dad. This is a book of cartoons that
were published in The New Yorker. As you'd expect, most
of them rely heavily on visual effect; there's no way I can
describe those ones. But here are three examples where a
description might just be possible, to give you the flavour of
A struggling bearded artist and a female
companion are sitting in a gallery in front of a portrait by a
famous artist (something by Holbein, perhaps). The angry artist
turns indignantly to the woman and complains: "If I'd
painted that, people would say it stank."
A second struggling artist, a sculptor, has
taken a few moments off to peer into a saucepan to see what his
wife's cooking for supper. The harassed young woman directs him
back to the studio and commands: "Sculpt!"
· Then there's
this one by R. Taylor:
The Graphic Work of M.C.
Escher is another book I bought in America.
Escher, born in 1898, was a Dutch graphic artist, most
recognised for spatial illusions, impossible buildings,
repeating geometric patterns (tessellations), and his
incredible techniques in woodcutting and lithography. There is
a lot to see in these works, and the contradictory perspectives
in many of them are the sort of thing to make your head go
round and round. His work is incredibly painstaking both in
concept and execution. Descriptions would be woefully
inadequate - you'll have to take a look for yourself if you're
not familiar with his work.
Three later works
I'll close with mention of three books that I
didn't encounter until after I came to Australia in 1973. They
all fall, though, within the 33⅓-year ambit of these
Dibs: In Search of Self
by Virginia Axline is a slender Pelican book that I bought from
the Cairnmillar Institute when I was attending a Human Relations
course there (see Drama and HR). It is a beautiful,
enchanting, and moving story. I read it in a single day - Sunday
10 August 1975. I started reading it on the platform at Wodonga
station while waiting for the train to Melbourne at the end of my
Nordic skiing course with the National Fitness Council (see
Golf, Skiing, Gym). I read most of the rest of it on the
train, and finished it at home that night.
It's the true story of 'Dibs', a very intelligent
five to six year old boy in play therapy. At first he was so
uncommunicative it was even thought he might be mentally
retarded. He scarcely ever spoke to anyone, yet he had acquired a
tremendous command of language simply through listening. After a
number of session with 'Miss A.' he was coming out with things
Independence Day is the soldiers'
and the sailors' day. The drums go boom, boom, boom. And the
flags are out. It is a gay day. Independence Day! And they are
all staggered by their joy. The soldiers are unloading freedom
and unlocking all the doors!
Yet even at this stage he was still not saying a
word to his parents and was acting quite stupid at school. It's
very interesting to see how he progresses. He builds a model
...Hedges and trees. Lots of
trees. All in a row down the avenue. All these trees with leaves
on them. A city in the summertime. The lovely, leafy summer-time!
... And this aeroplane is flying off up in the sky. Look! Over
the city, over the city it goes. The big aeroplane cutting Pepsi
Cola holes in the sky so the white heaven shines
About half the book is Dibs verbatim, and he is
very, very expressive. When they eventually measured Dibs' IQ, it
Published in 1975, Robert M. Pirsig's
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance was something of a cult book of the
'70s. It's an autobiographical novel, essentially the story of
the narrator's trip across America by motorcycle in the company
of his son, aged twelve or thereabouts. But this journey is
really a search for a previous self, whom he refers to as
Phaedrus. This earlier version of himself is now dead, killed by
court order, after he went mad in the search for understanding of
that elusive thing we know as Quality. By 'killed' he means
subjected to compulsory electric shock therapy, which totally
altered his personality. Of the old Phaedrus, little remained.
The book is frankly quite hard to come to grips with, for
Phaedrus is elusive. The description of the motorbike journey is
interrupted by a series of 'chautauquas' named after the
travelling tent-shows that moved across America, mainly in the
1920s, to provide edification and entertainment to those living
away from the major cities. In these chautauquas, Pirsig delves
deeply into philosophical issues and seems to come very close to
an understanding of exactly what Quality is, without ever quite
getting there. This seems to be essentially what drove Phaedrus
To understand the book fully one would need to
have studied Plato and Aristotle and Socrates and Kant and Hegel
and Hume, but Pirsig tells you enough about them all to let you
get the gist of what he is saying. In fact the book wouldn't be a
bad introduction to the study of these philosophers.
In an attempt to come to grips with it, I wrote
for myself a summary of the basic themes and ideas and found that
it ran to three pages. I then found that these three pages I'd
written were quite incomprehensible. I found myself summarising
whole chapters with phrases like:
F.S.C. Northrop's philosophy of the
In a world without Quality everything would
be different except rationality;
Quality as an event which creates
subject and object;
The most important tool in motorcycle
repair is a large supply of gumption;
How to paint a perfect painting: it's easy
- just make yourself perfect and then paint naturally;
Phaedrus becomes furious at Aristotelian
dissection of rhetoric;
Socrates using the dialectic to destroy
Phaedrus goes insane - committed to
Phaedrus destroyed by court order -
I mention the book here because to me reading it
was such a tantalising experience. It was like one of those
dreams where you feel you are on the verge of understanding
absolutely everything; then you wake up. I felt so sure that with
just a little further reading and thinking about it all, I would
finally understand what Quality was, and all the other mysteries
of life would fall into place. But of course I didn't, and
neither did Pirsig/Phaedrus.
I mentioned we'd get back to Kurt Vonnegut again.
In 1975, his book of miscellaneous writings,
Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons was
published. I read it in the second half of 1976. The three
invented words in the title all come from an earlier work of
fiction by Vonnegut: Cat's
Cradle. He explains in the preface:
A wampeter is an object
around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may
revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma
are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An
example: 'Prosperity is just around the corner'. A
granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of
human beings. Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella
as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I
have written, and some of the speeches I have made.
Vonnegut's writing is powerful, but do not read it
if you want to be cheered up. Here's an excerpt from the book,
from an address he gave to a graduating class at Bennington
College in 1970:
How pessimistic am I, really? I
was a teacher at the University of Iowa three years ago. I had
hundreds of students. As nearly as I am able to determine, not
one of my ex-students has seen fit to reproduce. The only other
demonstration of such a widespread disinclination to reproduce
took place in Tasmania in about 1800. Native Tasmanians gave up
on babies and the love thing and all that when white colonists,
who were criminals from England, hunted them for sport.
I used to be an optimist. This was
during my boyhood in Indianapolis. Those of you who have seen
Indianapolis will understand that it was no easy thing to be an
optimist there. It was the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364
days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race
My brother Bernard, who was nine
years older, was on his way to becoming an important scientist.
He would later discover that silver iodide particles could
precipitate certain kinds of clouds as snow or rain. He made me
very enthusiastic about science for a while. I thought scientists
were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then
make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was
twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a
color photograph of God Almighty - and sold it to Popular
Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and
What actually happened when I was
twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima. We
killed everybody there. And I had just come home from being a
prisoner of war in Dresden, which I'd seen burned to the ground.
And the world was just then learning how ghastly the German
extermination camps had been. So I had a heart-to-heart talk with
'Hey, Corporal Vonnegut,' I said
to myself, 'maybe you were wrong to be an optimist. Maybe
pessimism is the thing.'
I have been a consistent pessimist
ever since, with a few exceptions. In order to persuade my wife
to marry me, of course, I had to promise her that the future
would be heavenly. And then I had to lie about the future again
every time I thought she should have a baby. And then I had to
lie to her again every time she threatened to leave me because I
was too pessimistic.
I saved our marriage many times by
exclaiming, 'Wait! Wait! I see light at the end of the tunnel at
last !' And I wish I could bring light to your tunnels today. My
wife begged me to bring you light, but there is no light.
Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get
better again. If I lied to you about that, you would sense that
I'd lied to you, and that would be another cause for gloom. We
have enough causes for gloom.
Not all of the essays reflect quite such a dark
outlook. Many of them are simply interesting. He describes a trip
on the Intracoastal Waterway of the eastern USA on a yacht
belonging to the Kennedys. There are items about Hermann Hesse,
the mysterious Madame Blavatsky, and going to the Moon. However,
there was one essay in this book that affected me more than
anything else I'd ever read as an adult. It's entitled
Biafra: A People Betrayed. Perhaps it won't be long
before the name Biafra no longer means anything to anyone. It was
a predominantly Christian part of Nigeria, whose people were
hated elsewhere in Nigeria because they were well-educated and
intelligent and got all the best jobs in consequence. Biafra
attempted to secede in 1967, calling itself The Republic of
Biafra. It surrendered unconditionally in 1970. Vonnegut arrived
there ten days before the self-declared republic collapsed. The
Soviet Union and the United Kingdom provided Nigeria with arms to
crush the fledgling nation, while the USA remained neutral. The
hospitals were periodically attacked by Soviet MiG aircraft, but
the guns and bombs seemed to play only a minor part in the
downfall of Biafra. This was achieved, rather, by the British and
Russians imposing a blockade which caused the people to starve to
death. The resulting protein deficiency caused a disease called
kwashiorkor, which affected mainly the children. Two
paragraphs will suffice:
The child's hair turned red. His
skin split like the skin of a ripe tomato. His rectum protruded.
His arms were like lollipop sticks.
Vance and Miriam and I waded
through shoals of children like those at Awa-Omama. We discovered
that if we let our hands dangle down among the children, a child
would grasp each finger or thumb - five children to a hand. A
finger from a stranger, miraculously, would allow a child to stop
crying for a while.
I cried when I read this at age 32. I cried to
think that anyone could do this to children. And I cried because
it was the British who did it, and I was British.
Time, I think, to read Dibs again.