Did national treasure Giles have a secret mistress?
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Giles ? who gave us tetchy Grandma, grim-faced teacher Chalkie and other characters ? was a complex man, according to a new book. Steven Russell reports
What would happen if Carl Giles, one of Suffolk’s famous adopted sons, were still alive today? Would he snarl and bop Dr Tim Benson on the nose, or smile wryly and mutter “Fair cop, guv”? For Tim reckons he’s effectively “outed” the master cartoonist for his infidelity and nailed one or two fallacies. Giles apparently had a mistress he’d meet in the Savoy hotel on his rare trips to London. And it seems he also wasn’t averse to spinning the truth to suit his own ends.
Gosh. So tell us about the mistress, Tim. He laughs. “That came from two sources. I didn’t quite track down who she was. I don’t think I had the resources for that!” Colleagues had known, but had largely kept schtum, he says.
Giles, born in London in 1916, detested going to the capital once he’d moved up to Suffolk and established himself at Hillbrow Farm, and its 80 acres, at Witnesham, not far from Ipswich. He’d married first-cousin Joan Clarke in the spring of 1942 and they’d been devoted to each other.
“Joan did everything. She was a nurse-maid, chauffeur, cleaner, secretary – did everything for him,” says Tim. “I don’t think he treated her particularly well” – quite – “but, in a way, you have to get into the mindset of the very different times.”
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While the London political cartoon gallery owner is a great fan of Giles’s work, he accepts human frailties were the flip side of genius.
Take the fog Giles allowed to build when he moved to Express Newspapers – some philosophical leap for a man, who’d once considered joining the Communist Party, to defect to the empire of Lord Beaverbook. The cartoonist, who’d later accept he was a Bentley-driving socialist, more than tripled his pay when he joined the Express at just shy of £1,000 a year in the autumn of 1943. Within 12 months, as political cartoonists became stars during the war years, it had soared to £3,900.
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Giles, says Tim, put it about that he’d been headhunted by the Tory-supporting Express, wooed by offers he couldn’t refuse. Truth was, he’d initiated a move from the left-leaning Reynold’s News where he’d worked since late 1937.
Tim says Giles had grown to detest news editor Arnold Russell (describing him in very unflattering terms) and would blame Russell for his decision to jump ship. He also felt he’d outgrown the small Sunday paper, and was eyeing a bigger stage, more space for his work, and more dosh.
The cartoonist approached the Daily Herald and almost clinched a deal. Then in July, 1943 – Tim says – Giles sounded out the Beaverbrook empire and struck lucky. He was taken on to draw two cartoons a week for the Daily Express and one for its Sunday stablemate. And he could work from Suffolk, sending his work to London by public transport.
Thing was, he either felt guilty at leaving his pals at Reynold’s, and its left-wing philosophy, or was made to feel bad about it. He defended himself against claims he’d been seduced by Beaverbrook’s “pieces of silver”.
Trouble was, the correspondence Giles left behind was enough to hoist him by his own petard. “I was able to find out he’d spun the story, and others helped on his behalf. Truth was, he made contact with the Express,” insists Tim. “Giles spun his own narrative. It’s not actually ‘as it happened’; it’s how they want other people to see how they wanted it to happen.”
In trying to create a smokescreen, Giles also “fed a rumour that the Reynold’s news editor, Arnold Russell, had repeatedly cut down his cartoons”. Not true. “I went through all the material from Reynold’s News and couldn’t find any evidence.”
Despite all this, don’t go thinking that Tim has a downer on Giles. He’s a fan, and describes him as “one of Britain’s greatest ever cartoonists”.
The former history teacher, who became an authority on political cartoons after studying for a PhD, has produced Giles’s War – a book of Giles’s cartoons from the Second World War brought together for the first time.
There are more than 150 examples of Giles’s earliest drawings for Reynold’s News, most of which have not seen the light of day since the 1940s.
Tim didn’t ever think such a book would be possible.
The old British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale was bombed during the war. But, just last autumn, a chance chat with a friend revealed the JB Priestley Library at the University of Bradford had a full set of Reynold’s News. “The light-bulb above my head went off. I never thought I’d get to do a Giles book.”
Co-operative News (which owns the copyright) and the university were more than happy for Tim to spend three days in Yorkshire, gleaning information from the bound copies and taking pictures.
He says Giles wasn’t a political cartoonist – famously not great at caricature, he rarely tackled accurate portrayals of figures such as Hitler or Mussolini – but produced wonderful topical gags that developed the style we’d come to love during the following decades of peacetime.
“No artist captured Britain’s indomitable wartime spirit quite like Carl Giles,” begins the essay at the front of Tim’s book.
“After the outbreak of the Second World War… he became known for his charming and irreverent cartoons about life on the Home Front – and his remarkable ability to distil the trials of life during wartime into amusing snapshots of Britain’s stiff upper lip.”
But he didn’t just drip satire from the relative safety of Suffolk. In the autumn of 1944 he got a war correspondent’s licence, went to Europe and followed the 2nd Army as it fought towards Germany, sending back sketches for Express readers and pointing out that, when the bullets were flying, the last thing that came naturally was to set up his easel and get out his pencils.
(At this time, too, he came up with the characters we’d take to our hearts as the “Giles family”.)
The following April, he was with the Coldstream Guards when they liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hanover. The cartoonist didn’t want to go in, but a colleague persuaded him it was their duty to witness the truth.
“The Express had asked him to draw in full what he witnessed there, but Giles could not bring himself to,” writes Tim. “Instead, he drew the various rooms and cells – and not the thousands of dead bodies that littered the ground.”
Giles worked for Express Newspapers for more than 45 years. He died in 1995, but annuals of his work are still popular.
Tim points out that his trademark style was forged in the struggles, hardship, horror and also humour of the conflict.
“The features that made Giles’s characters distinctive – the bemusement at people in positions of power; the sense of humour in the most trying situations; the stoicism in the face of adversity – were characteristics that Giles had seen, and drawn, during the war.”
Giles’s War: Cartoons 1939-45 is published by Random House Books at £12.99