Cartoonist David Haldane on Blyth library, Private Eye and the North
Some children respond to the question “what would you like to be when you grow up?” in outlandish ways.
“I want to be an astronaut,” they reply, ignoring their ingrained fear of heights; “a ballerina” say others, not blessed with natural grace. Other times our childhood dreams are more in tune with our natural abilities and interests. Sorting through some old boxes of papers at my parents’ house a few days ago, I came across a scribbled piece of schoolwork. A comedy cartoon drawing – of what I know to be my face only because I have written my name underneath it – was followed by the assertion “When I grow up I want to be: a author” (excuse my poor grammar: I was, after all, five-years-old).
It’s an eerily prescient forecast of my future personality and, were I to be given a sheet of paper today and asked to draw myself and write underneath my ideal job, I think I’d probably still say that I wanted to be an author. Hopefully my cartoon portrait wouldn’t be quite so unflattering – indeed, I might have more than one hair on my head – but the fact remains that my ideal job has not changed in 20 years.
Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, The Times cartoonist David Haldane says he thinks the ambition to one day become a cartoonist was rooted in his childhood, during which he spent his time in Blyth library, looking at the pictures in the Punch annuals.
“I think I must have had this subliminal idea that I would like to be a cartoonist,” he says. “But I was living in Blyth in Northumberland, and social mobility wasn’t a term then. I thought ‘I’m never going to do that’.”
Happily, Haldane’s early insecurities were proved wrong and, over the years, his work has appeared in Punch, Private Eye, The Sun, The Mirror, The Guardian, Oink!, The Spectator and The Times, among many others. The route to a career as a cartoonist was not a straightforward one, and Haldane initially considered a career in animation. With a tendency to see the humorous side of things, however, Haldane’s early advertising work leant itself more to the satirical style of his later cartoons. Given an advertising brief while at university, for example, he devised the character ‘Festival Fred’, something that will be, he says humorously, “carved on his gravestone.”
“It was just a guy with a straw hat and a cane. It just was everywhere. It was on buses, everywhere. It got to the stage where people at university were calling me ‘Festival Fred’. It was worse than being bombarded on Twitter.”
In his early 20s and looking for a job in the height of a recession – a situation all too familiar for myself and my peers – he found himself in a phone box in London speaking to Bob Godfrey. Godfrey was a highly respected animator, best known for Roobarb and Kama Sutra Rides Again, and Haldane was galvanized when Godfrey himself answered the phone.
“I was expecting to speak to a PA,” he says. After building up the nerve to ask for a job, Godfrey told Haldane that when he himself found a job, he would let him know. “That’s when I realised that the world of freelance was never going to be easy, if you get someone who has just won an Oscar who isn’t working.” Godfrey recommended that Haldane speak to Richard Williams studios. Having been introduced to the animator behind the Pink Panther title sequences, “he looked at my portfolio and he said ‘you don’t want to be an animator. Animation is 90 per cent boredom and 10 per cent creativity.’” Inspired by his belief that Haldane would “make a rubbish animator but a decent cartoonist”, and with funds running low, he returned to the North, got a job at the art department of the Shields Gazette, “lived cheaply in Felling” and started to send cartoons to Punch.
Having had a few cartoons accepted by Punch, Haldane was invited down to it offices in London. At 23, he was the youngest cartoonist they’d ever had. He was asked to sit down for coffees at “quite a famous table”.
“They said, ‘writers and illustrators and artists have come from all over the world since the 1800s and they’ve carved their names into the table.’ The guy that showed me in said ‘you’re not quite ready for that yet’. I said, ‘oh no, I haven’t got a pen knife…’” All joking aside, I can’t imagine how exciting (and intimidating) this must have been for, as Haldane puts it himself, “a 23-year-old guy down from Blyth”. Taking his seat at the table, Haldane looked down and saw, scratched into the wood, like the initials scribbled onto a school desk, the name ‘Mark Twain’. “If I wasn’t nervous before then I was then,” he laughs.
Reading about Haldane online before meeting him in the Tyneside Cinema’s plush Coffee Rooms on a wet Thursday morning, a quote from a friend of the cartoonist caught my eye. “He works entirely from home in Northumberland. He steers clear of computers. He says that they would slow him down.” My mind boggled. Yes, the quote was from 1998, but even still I was intrigued as to how a self-professed technophobe could work for a London-based newspaper in Morpeth without embracing the technology allowing him to do so. I asked him to explain.
“I’ve died by that sword many a time,” he says. “That quote came about when I taught part time, when I first went freelance. My parents told me I had to have a steady job, and so I thought I’d do a day and a half a week of teaching. I ended up thoroughly enjoying it, incidentally. Anyway, it was then, just at the point when computers were coming into colleges. The students were using computers for the project they were doing. Instead of coming up with ideas on the pad, the students would go onto the computer and find stuff that was already there and would mess around with it. I said I didn’t like computers because they were robbing the students of their creativity.”
Does he still hold this viewpoint? “No, not at all! This was purely to do with the college. And suddenly the quote was everywhere. I’m on the computer all the time. I don’t design or draw on the computer but it’s vital to my working day. I tried to draw on an iPad and I hated it. I’ve tried it a few times, and it works for some people. It’s just a preference thing. I’m not one to knock new technology at all, I think it’s great.”
Haldane chats about the resurgence of vinyl, laughing at me when I say that I prefer listening to music on vinyl than digitally or on CDs. I say that I like listening to the cracks and pops on vinyl records. “The young people I work with at agencies say the same thing,” he says. “You haven’t lived through listening to your favourite music as if you’re frying an egg in a frying pan.”
As a writer who lives and works in Newcastle myself, I’m always very interested in people who choose to remain living up North. Haldane has lived in the North East for most of his working life, save for the brief spell in London, after finishing his studies. How does living in Northumberland impact upon his work? The answer, for Haldane is that it quite simply doesn’t.
“As I say, when I first left college I was going to live in London. At the time that was what you did, there was nothing in the North East. But there were no jobs in London, so I came home and thought I’d get a job even in a furniture shop and just do this on the side. Luckily I got a job at a newspaper because the Gazette were recruiting for a new art department. It just got to the point where it was cheaper to live here. I thought ‘why move to London, when I can live here and work with London companies?’ I was working with Saatchi at one point. And then I got married in the North. We actually thought of living in New York too. But then we thought ‘no, we’ll live in Morpeth and send my work all over the world’. It wasn’t planned to stay in the North. It wasn’t like The Prisoner where you try to leave the North and a big balloon chases you and drags you back.”
Laughing at the idea of Haldane as ‘Number 6’, being dragged back to the ‘Village’ of Morpeth whenever he tried to escape, I ask him whether he thinks that living in the North has given him a certain angle on things and impacted on the way that he draws. Surely being so far removed from the capital has given him a different perspective?
“I don’t think it has. There are a lot of people who have worked only in and around the North East. They’re very much locally based and do little work outside of the North. That’s fine for them, but I don’t view my work as being North Eastern at all. I don’t do gags about Stotties, and very rarely about Newcastle. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn the Tyne Bridge in my life. If I lived in London or America or anywhere I would be doing the same stuff I’d be doing now. God forbid that I would do a caption in Geordie dialect. But just because I don’t want to do that doesn’t mean that I’m knocking people who do. Once upon a time people used to say you should only do stuff about Newcastle. Not only that but only stuff about the Jarrow March. Some 20 years ago people would be really vitriolic about the fact that you’d sold out because you weren’t doing local stuff.”
From offending locals, including, he tells me, a Labour MP who told him he should only contribute to working class periodicals that supported the Labour party, to satirising celebrities on the front of The Times, cartooning seems, to me, to be a tricky business, and I wonder how he copes with the reality of designing cartoons that are always, to an extent, going to offend someone, somewhere. “You often tread the line with cartoons, particularly with doing news stuff, where you’re going to offend somebody. You don’t do it gratuitously…. Some people you want to offend, if you have a dictator or somebody like that.”
What is the most controversial cartoon he’s ever worked on?
“This is quite a well-known one. I did a cartoon for Private Eye and it was misconstrued – although a job came from it, somehow. It was the very start of the AIDS crisis. At the time there was a big thing in the news and on television about right wing American evangelists going on about AIDS being a plague from God. There was a whole bunch of people, like the Ku Klux Klan banging on about redemption from God. So, I was making a satirical point about that, and I did a cartoon for Private Eye, of God sitting on a cloud with a list of plagues. He’s talking to St Peter and God says ‘Right that’s gotten rid of the homosexuals, now let’s have a go at the Estate Agents’. It was a cartoon about how blinkered religion was. In context, it went on a page in Private Eye that was all about that, and so it made sense. Years later I was reading some article and I saw that somebody from the Terrence Higgins trust had accused Private Eye of being homophobic and had said that they remembered a terrible AIDS cartoon that they had run. They had read the cartoon as being homophobic, and it wasn’t. But you can’t help history, and since the cartoon was printed a lot of people died. And when a lot of people have died, and you look back at that cartoon, it doesn’t look good. If it comes up on Google without the context, it was as if the cartoon had just been done, and I was laughing at that, when I wasn’t. But because of that I ended up talking to the Terrence Higgins trust, and I eventually illustrated a book for schools for them about contraception and understanding and how to prevent AIDS.”
It’s a cartoon that still possesses the power to disturb and unsettle. “Oddly enough Private Eye did an anniversary special and had an exhibition at the V&A and they used a cartoon from every decade. From the 80s they chose that cartoon of mine. But even then the V&A were a bit iffy about putting it up. Once you got it in your mind that the cartoon was homophobic, I suppose you read it that way. But that was never my intent, and so I don’t apologise for it.”
While on the subject of cartoons causing offence, I feel that I have to ask him about the terrible events in January of this year in Paris. “The night that Charlie Hebdo happened, I was told that The Times would not be using a cartoon that day. Something terrible had happened, and they wanted to use photographs of the police. I thought ‘they are cartoonists who have been killed. If anything, if a cartoon ever needs to be on the front, then it’s today’. Just as I was thinking that, a sub-editor rang and said ‘I’ve been thinking and I think that we should have the cartoon on the front after all’. That was hard, very hard. I did what I was feeling at the time. The cartoon that I did was a guy sitting at a drawing board and he had a pen and was drawing a black armband on his arm.
“The days following that, you had to comment on what was happening. Literally had to put yourself in the firing line. You couldn’t ignore it. It felt as though I was there but for the grace of God. I’ve never drawn Muhammad, but I’ve done drawings about Islam and about ISIS. Because you have to, as a topical cartoonist, you can’t ignore it. I’ve done things about the Catholic Church, for example. I would never gratuitously insult someone’s faith. But you can’t ignore that these things are happening.”
With this reminder of the gravitas of satire and the ability of a simple image to unsettle and provoke, we start to wrap up our conversation. But there’s one last question I want to put to him. What is the one thing he wants people to take away from his cartoons?
“Number one, I’d like them to think that they’re funny. I’m not one for pretentiousness. If it happens to say something as well, that’s great. But I started as a gag cartoonist, and I don’t think you can part with that. The cartoon is there for a specific reason. It’s supposed to be funny, and it adds something to the article. I want them to have a laugh.”
With a long career behind him and cartoons still appearing daily in The Times, Haldane has had, and continues to have, many more opportunities to make people do just that. When I go into an off-licence afterwards, I spot The Times on the newspaper rack. Sure enough, there, in the bottom right hand corner, is a cartoon by David Haldane, and the sight of it makes me smile.
By Lyndsey Skinner, North East Correspondent
Cartoons by David Haldane
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