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September 21, 2007

Christie Davies appreciates a neglected cartoonist: From Hot War to Cold War: George Butterworth of the Daily Dispatch at the Political Cartoon Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

From Hot War to Cold War: George Butterworth of the Daily Dispatch
Political Cartoon Gallery
32 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BS
5th September - 20th October 2007
Monday - Friday 9.30am - 5.30pm, Saturday 11.30am - 5.30pm
Free Admission

The Political Cartoons of George Butterworth, 1938-1953
by Timothy S. Benson
London: The Political Cartoon Society and English Heritage, 2007
Hardback, £14.99

Britain has grievously neglected those of its political cartoonists who worked for its provincial newspapers. Everyone knows of Low, Vicki, Illingworth, Strube who worked on the nationals but who is familiar with the work of George Butterworth of the Manchester Daily Dispatch?

Now - thanks to the Political Cartoon Gallery and English Heritage - Butterworth is revisited, celebrated and preserved. The Widow Butterworth has given several hundred of her husband's original cartoons to English Heritage (better known as the Ministry of Works) and they are to be found in Pendennis Castle in Falmouth. How much better that they are there in somewhere pleasant to visit, rather than sitting neglected to rot in a dismal polluted Lancashire where nobody goes. They ought to move Wigan pier to Brighton.

Butterworth began as a sports cartoonist and indeed drew cartoons for the football programmes of the then well-known Roman Catholic soccer team Manchester United. Whatever became of them? Since soccer lost the dignity and seriousness given to it by sectarian bigotry, it has become trivial but in those days it meant something. City vs. United was as good as Liverpool vs. Everton or Rangers vs. Celtic or Hearts vs. Hibs, all part of the Irish contribution to the history of this very British sport. Even today most north Dubliners support Manchester United, rather than following Gaelic Football at home.

In 1939 Butterworth became the Dispatch's political cartoonist and retained the position until 1953. His cartoons annoyed Hitler so much that he was put on a list of people to be disposed of after the invasion. The British government appreciated him to the point of exempting him from war service and dropping his cartoons into occupied Poland and the Czech lands.

Butterworth, a working class Tory, didn't mess about. His cartoon Boomtown of 5th August, 1941 shows Berlin exploding into ruins as the RAF pummelled it each night. It is a kind of gloating humour that was utterly forbidden by the refined upper-middle class progressives at the BBC. Butterworth's Japanese enemy are delightful racist stereotypes, all specs and teeth beneath a forage cap. Perhaps his best is Creeping like Snail Unwillingly to School, 28th August, 1945 with the Jap as a brutal-faced, slit not horned eyed snail with a samurai sword tied to its shell, crawling slowly towards the final surrender, leaving behind it a trail of slime marked "Insolence, delay, swagger". War, I'm afraid, is war. If you concede the creating of firestorms in Tokyo by incendiary bombing by the USAF or unrestricted submarine warfare (because of it US Admiral Chester Nimitz was willing to be a defence witness for the German Admiral Karl Doenitz accused of war-crimes at Nuremburg) against Japanese merchant vessels, then you can hardly baulk at a slit-eyed snail. No doubt some snivelling western social historian will say Butterworth demonised the Japanese but you will not find such a view expressed in Korea or China.

Butterworth was equally harsh towards Gandhi and de Valera who in World War II were "objectively" pro-fascist. Had they not been, they might well have gained the united India or the united Ireland that obsessed them. Butterworth captures de Valera's rigidity and obtuseness better than any other cartoonist I have seen. Here indeed is the man who was reluctant to let Jewish refuges come to Ireland, yet who at the end of the war provided the papers that allowed Flemish and Breton Nazi-collaborators to escape justice by fleeing to Ireland as guests of the Irish-language movement. The two Spaniards Franco and de Valera provided all manner of scoundrels with a haven, not because they were evil men but because their minds were trapped in a primitive dislike of modernity. They were both holding back the future. Apart from Finland's president, Urho Kekkonen, the good Eamon had the strangest shaped head of any modern politician - a gift to cartoonists. In exploiting the Dev-Head, Butterworth was up there with Professor Kari Suomalainen, who gave Kekkonen a hexagonal head topped by a crown. How the handsome Mícheál Seán Ó Coileáin would have enjoyed Butterworth's portrayal of the ugly feller who killed him in an ambush.

If Butterworth did have a fault it was that he believed in official optimism. In He Huffed and he Puffed, 21st February, 1941 he shows a Japanese wolf impotently trying to blow down fortress-Singapore, recently strengthened by Australian reinforcements. A year later the house was blown down with ease and the commanding pig cravenly surrendered. It was Britain's time of greatest humiliation.

Equally unrealistic was Butterworth's cartoon Bon Santé, 23rd October, 1940 after Churchill had broadcast to the French people (in his dreadful French) urging them to resist. It shows Marianne fully clothed in bed raising a glass of "Churchill tonic" to a badly drawn Hitler and Mussolini who have come into the room dressed as undertakers to take away the corpse of the French Republic. Hence the caption "Good health". But France did die and Petain took the service at the funeral. Veni, vidi, Vichy. It is why the French have hated Britain ever since and attached themselves to a powerful post-war Germany, much as a hostage can come to love a terrorist and resent the rescuer.

Curiously these two cartoons are not only the most misleading but also the worst drawn. Perhaps it is just coincidence. At his best Butterworth was a master of images and indeed on occasion of the use of colour.

At the war's end Butterworth saw much faster than most that his country was faced with a new socialist totalitarian enemy, the Soviet Union, as evil as the National Socialists who had just been defeated. He had a particular gift for mocking Stalin, though curiously his most telling comment Operating Theatre is not well drawn. It shows Stalin on stage accompanied by sundry dancing Soviet soldiers, all of them firing pistols in the air, while the audience runs away. Stalin demands of the fleeing ones "Is there a Jewish doctor in the House?" It refers, of course, to the state sponsored anti-Semitic persecution of 1948-1953, culminating in the Doctors Plot when Jewish doctors were arrested and forced to confess to murdering leading party officials. The idea of a Harold Shipman for commissars is attractive but it did not happen; it was mere Soviet paranoia and a hatred of the Jews. In the Soviet Union most doctors were female, under-paid, under-trained and under-qualified but the leaders of the profession and especially the surgeons were male and Jewish and thus a target for Stalin.

Butterworth's best Stalin is in colour, the masterly composition Shamlet. Stalin stands holding a skull in a cemetery at the time of the Berlin crisis declaiming "Alas poor UNO!" Ernie Bevin leans on his spade, looks round and gibes "You didn't know him well enough". In the rubbly ground beneath the bleak winter trees are leaning tombstones marked "Potsdam Agreement", "4 power Berlin control" Charter…..

Equally well drawn and coloured is his Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough, a flask of wine, a book of verse and thou beside me singing in the wilderness from Omar Khayyam. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps (whose hobby was knitting) sits beneath a dead tree marked "County Council Results" and sings, "Oh what a Beautiful Morning". To his side sits Attlee dressed as a Persian and with Persian features reading Cripp's budget and looking irritable. A flask of cheap Algerian wine and a cottage loaf with a dismal face marked TUC completes the picture. Behind stretches the wilderness, a flat endless desert littered with the bones of animals that had died of thirst. It sums up the harsh austerity of Attlee's Britain.

The Butterworth exhibition at the Cartoon Gallery was opened by Sir Gerald Kaufman (for some reason pronounced Corfman) a surprisingly witty Mancunian candidate. Kaufman confessed to a love of Garland's cartoons -

it is worth buying the Daily Telegraph for him alone - and when I say alone I mean alone.
For some reason, perhaps good nature, Kenneth Clarke (an avid collector of cartoons and the only other MP there) laughed at this joke in appalling taste. Kaufman, whose head-shape is up there in the de Valera-Kekkonen league, went on to tell of how he had sued a cartoonist for libel. But that is another story.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations and of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, which analyse respectively Scotland's splendid sense of humour and Britain and Ireland's moral decline.

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