Why is John Field such a big fan of Suffolk cartoonist Giles?
If Suffolk cartoonist Carl Giles were alive today, it’s odds-on he’d have Grandma giving her acerbic judgement on the absurdity of selfies and unreality TV
He was born in London, growing up in Islington and Edgware, but Ronald Giles had a soul and sense of humour that could have been forged in Suffolk, the county he made his home.
His cartoons showed the daftness of national life – the flawed institutions, such as British Rail, and the constraints of our class system.
It was invariably a down-to-earth “Everyman” who uttered the truth in the drawings – hitting the nail on the head in a few succinct words. But never cruelly.
It is, agrees John Field, a very Suffolk humour, “wry and to the point, but not nasty. I’m Ipswich born and bred. I don’t want to upset someone. I’ll make a point, strongly if I have to, but I don’t want someone to feel belittled or humiliated”.
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“Carl” Giles (he’s said to have got the nickname because he looked like horror-film actor Boris Karloff) died 20 years ago last month. John is almost certainly the person doing the most to keep the cartoonist’s magic in the public eye.
He’s compiled about 10 annual collections of cartoons – a new one’s in the shops now – along with three other titles: Giles’s London, Giles’s Fighting Forces and Giles’s History of the World.
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And it seems there’s a definite appetite. “I’m told by the publishers they’re selling more in recent years than seven or eight years ago.”
John has been a fan since he was a schoolboy. His parents took the Daily Express, which with its Sunday stablemate carried a Giles two or three times a week.
John, who would later meet the cartoonist perhaps a dozen times in connection with his work, enjoyed his knack of capturing body language and facial expression. There was more: the drawings were packed with amusing things going on in the background – the dog sneaking off with a string of sausages, for instance, or the gang of tiny children embarking on some madcap enterprise bound to end in disaster.
The theme for the 2016 annual is six British institutions: the monarchy, the BBC, the Church, pubs, football and bobbies on the beat.
In his introduction, John says Giles produced a number of cartoons portraying members of the Royal family.
“He obviously enjoyed Prince Philip’s penchant for occasionally being a bit outspoken and once portrayed the Queen taking part in a demonstration, as a racehorse owner, threatening to go on strike against a new betting tax.
“However, their inclusion in a Giles cartoon seems to have been accepted quite happily by the Royal family. A journalist colleague, Peter Tory, reported in his various books that a member of the Royal family would frequently ask for a copy of a cartoon in which they appeared, resulting in over 30 being in Royal ownership.”
Cartoons often included references to BBC programmes such as Match of the Day. “One special character, Alf Garnett, the star of Til Death Us Do Part, appeared in his own right in at least two cartoons.
“Presumably through his cartoon work, Giles became good friends with many in the entertainment world and there are photographs of him in his home at Hillbrow Farm, in Suffolk, with some of them, including Tommy Cooper, Eric Sykes and Johnny Speight – the writer of Til Death Us Do Part.”
The pub was also close to Giles’s heart. He could often be found at the Witnesham Barley Mow, about half a mile from his farm just outside Ipswich, or at the Tuddenham Fountain. He belonged to its darts team.”
John says: “I think he would have had a lot of fun in portraying how our pubs have changed from being primarily for beer-swilling blokes to being for families – which actually I find good, as long as we keep a few of the traditional pubs somewhere.
“I think he would have a few comments about that – and the fact people are on their phones all the time. Normal communication is dying, isn’t it?” he laughs.
Soccer? “Although Giles sometimes showed his strong disapproval of football hooliganism in his cartoons, he was a great supporter of the sport and, of course, was delighted when his home team, Ipswich, won the FA Cup in 1978.
“He marked this win with Grandma, an ardent local supporter, ready to go up to Wembley on the Saturday morning of the match and the following day showed her returning home with Butch, the dog, carrying the Cup in his mouth.”
Vicars and bobbies were staple characters in a Giles cartoon, points out John, who worked as principal planning officer for Ipswich council and later as the town centre manager.
“His ‘police’ cartoons often centred upon what we expect of the force – the officers’ reliability when faced with a crisis, their sense of quiet authority and unflappability, and the general air that they had ‘seen it all’.
“Their witty asides, sometimes laced with sarcasm, when faced with a situation only Giles could have dreamt up, is a major feature of these cartoons.”
John continues: “Giles was well-known (in the nicest sense) to the local police force and in many of his ‘police’ cartoons it was not unusual for a particular officer to be recognisable as an actual bobby on the beat.
“Sometimes when this happened he would send a copy of the cartoon to the bobby involved.”
One of John’s major tasks is adding an explanatory caption when required, to put the cartoons in context. It means many trips to the Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich to comb through old EADTs and summarise what was in the news.
My big worry is that Giles will himself fade into history, even though his work is essentially timeless. Most of it celebrates how we rub along together and cope with a world that’s often ridiculous. Will his star fade?
“I hope it doesn’t but I suspect it might. But we’re always taken by surprise, aren’t we? He’s almost a historian-chronicler. In 10 years’ time, there might be people who appreciate the historical element of his work from the ’50s and ’60s.”
When John went to university in Manchester, in 1953, meat was still rationed. He had to give his ration book to his landlady.
“I’d forgotten that rationing went on to 1954. It could be that his cartoons shine a light on something which, 10 years from now, people find important. It perhaps might not be a broad appreciation of his work; it might be more selective.
“With three cartoons a week, on average, he chronicled British life for 50 years. That really does cover everything – from the big things in our national life to the smaller.
“I give talks and I usually make the point that with our television we’re now used to a very slick, smart and sophisticated humour. I have to admit that, in comparison, the humour he produced was really quite simple and open. And it’s quite nice: refreshing, in a way – very much of the times and perhaps of the character of the man.
“He struck a chord with the man in the street. He managed to capture the ordinary British person. He put into his drawings a little sense of humour that struck at the heart of something straight away, and in a simple way people could understand.”
Giles: The Collection 2016 is published by Octopus/Hamlyn at £8.99.
Giles: a pen portrait
Ronald Giles, born London, September, 1916
His family hailed from Newmarket
His grandfather had been a jockey who rode for King Edward VII
Giles grew up in Islington and Edgware
Left school at 14 and worked as office boy in a Charing Cross Road advertising agency
At 18 went to Elstree to work for film-maker Alexander Korda
Took an animation job at Roland Davies’s studio in Museum Street, Ipswich, in the mid 1930s
On the eve of the war, became a cartoonist with Sunday paper Reynolds News in London
Married Joan in 1942
Home became a rented cottage at Tuddenham St Martin, near Ipswich
1943: joined the Express Group
1946: Giles and his wife moved to Hillbrow Farm, Witnesham – just outside Ipswich
His cartoons would be sent to the Express from Suffolk by train or taxi
1959: awarded the OBE
Died in August, 1995 – seven months after Joan
They’re buried at Tuddenham
John is already working on the next collection of Giles cartoons – and this one will feature his most famous character: grumpy Grandma.
The first appearance of Grandma and the Giles clan (“they are an Ipswich family!”) came 70 years ago – on August 5, 1945.
“I think she’s based on him, and she probably allowed him to express some of his innermost thoughts.” The slightly cantankerous ones!
Next year is important, as it marks the centenary of the cartoonist’s birth on September 29, 1916. Hopefully, Suffolk won’t let it pass without some fanfare.