Dave Widgery

Foreword to The Joke Works


From Steve Irons (ed.) The Joke Works: The political cartoons of Phil Evans (London: Socialist Worker 1981), pp. 5–7.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT IS recorded that when the young Evans was given his first book, he threw it with extraordinary velocity at the head of the nearest class enemy. The book went THWAK! the head went BOINK! and there, at the very point of impact, an idea was born. Instead of words, pictures. Especially pictures of our betters being discomforted. Matching the analytic acumen of Bugs Bunny with the zany iconoclasm of Walter Benjamin, the scrawler began to experiment with flying objects, political fisticuffs, conceptual prat-falls and other arsey-versies. After a few years he had achieved sufficient graphic skill to identify the flying objects with such telling titles as ‘Prod Deal’ and ‘Rule Book’.

Slowly the Class Enemy began to take discernible forms; Mr Nice Guy-Crawler, Robin-Hood-with-Clipboard, Failed-Hitler-Youth-Foreman and Full-Time-Official-with-a-Weight-Problem. And so did the army of rude mechanicals who take the strain, get the blame and suffer the pain. ‘Turner’ he told anyone who would listen in the playground of Leeds Art School ‘is about white light and its reflection in water. The TUC is about fluorescent light and its reflection off a thousand bald heads’. Leeds at this time was renowned for the ferocity of its political argument, and the stripling draughtsman would often have to steal a skipping rope off a Surrealist to tie up the nearest Degenerated Workers State supporter before he could safely hurry off to sketch a brick wall or two. (The cul-de-sac concerned is immortalised in Evans’ famous lapse into Socialist Realism: Terrorism; A Blind Alley for Socialists, contained, for some reason, in this volume.) To those critics who, having paid tribute to the fluency of line and visual dash of this period, complain of a certain oafishness, one can only answer ‘When did they last read The Beano?’ Coarseness is often the refuge of those who are hurt by the nature of the world. And as the cartoonist used to say ‘The only line I’m interested in is the straightest one between here and socialism’.

The scene now switches to a gloomy printshop in downtown Tottenham in the late Sixties. The enigmatic Glaswegian master-printer is sorting through the Socialist Worker Out-Tray in search of luncheon vouchers and expulsion orders, and discovers some cartoons submitted to that august journal. He raises his left nostril somewhat, a sign that he is mildly amused. ‘Gosh Jim, these are jolly good’ he drawls in an incomprehensible dialect to his apprentice, a Newcastle bus conductor down on his luck. Over at the Editor’s desk, a face looks up quizzically. Roger Protz has a column to break. A career is born.

There followed what is known to most critics as The Prolific Phase. The fireworks of the May Events had inaugurated the steady upward curve in the level of industrial activity which was to culminate in the 1974 Miners Strike. As hospital workers boycotted NHS paybeds, dockers flailed at the gate of Pentonville prison and building workers fought their notoriously unscrupulous employers, Evans was there alongside them. He caught the political essence of that remarkable upsurge and urged it on with an economy and pungency of image unmatched by the best of journalists.

Piles of adjectives about the iniquities of private medicine will never have the impact of Evans’s queue jumper who, literally, jumps over a queue. The most eloquent leaflet on the inbuilt bias of a wage freeze pales besides Evans’s manager melting effortlessly out of his ice cube while the worker remains held in icy paralysis. Phrases like ‘Wage freeze’ and ‘Queue Jumper’ have the sharpness of their meaning blunted by over use. Evans makes us see their meaning freshly again with an entrancing mixture of low humour and high seriousness. In his world the globe does shrink, the systems do fail, the sell-outs do stink—and there is an empty ballroom at the Works Dance.

That hard truth at the centre of the cartoons which is the reason they are reproduced and re-reproduced on roneoed factory bulletins, pinned on office notice-boards, re-drawn on toilet walls and turned into Christmas cards (his first paid job for the SWP), his Socialist Worker cartoon strip, translated (Our Norman transmogrified into a Norwegian) and turned into beermats (the ultimate tribute).

No task was too little (notice the exquisite draftsmanship on his infamous How to Write a Letter strip). No assignment was too hazardous (he was an editor of The Jolly Roger, the journal of rank and file mutineers where his monthly cartoon Walking the Plank was highly regarded). In the Senior Common Room of the College of Applied Caricature there were mutterings about ‘tastelessness’ and going ‘too far’. And it is true that Evans’ asbestos workers don’t just get lung cancer but land up in a hospital ward with asbestos flaking off the wall. And his kids who go out to play near a nuclear reactor do tend to return with extra limbs. But then hospitals are full of asbestos lagging and the children of Sizewell do go swimming in the reactor’s sea effluent because ‘the water’s warmer’. In such a world tastelessness is an obligation and half-measures an evasion.

The slow motion catastrophe which was the Labour Government 1974–79 and the confusion, demoralisation and plain exhaustion which overcame the Left during those dismal years affected Evans. He was heartbroken when Our Norman finally joined his cousin’s double-glazing firm as a salesman. And Norm’s well-meant parting shot, that he was going to enrol for an Open University Sociology Degree, only added insult to injury. And when Brenda and the kids finally saved the fare to that feminist commune in New South Wales and left without even a forwarding address, Evans, with some justice, blamed himself.

In public the cartoonist fought centrism, opportunism and baldness but his work was showing unmistakable signs of demoralisation. There were outbreaks of tone, cross hatching and, in the moments of despair, ink wash. Invited to engrave his name on the Punch dining table alongside his heroes, Low and Tidy, he announced he would only do so with a chain saw. This incident gave rise to the epigram ‘Punch Reassures: Evans Insecures’ which is now carved on the underside of the Socialist Worker’s oak editorial conference table.

And there were the famous outbreaks of Evanspout. At one SWP AgitProp Conference in Manchester (in what has become known to Marxist aestheticians as the Headingley Paralogism) he intervened to denounce a tendency which had claimed that the digging up of the Leeds Test wicket by supporters of the Free George Davis Campaign was ‘a surrealist act’ to, equally incorrectly, claim it was a perfectly normal East End response to police harassment. Relatively small giggles in his presence were greeted with a baleful stare from behind his parallel motion and the mordant question ‘What’s so bloody funny then?’

But friends knew that the figure hunched in the corner of the Dalston Trades and Labour Club relentlessly fingering his illustrated French dictionary was racked with doubt. Was the down-turn in the class struggle due to insufficiently witty captions? Could the disastrous ascendancy of Sir John Boyd in the Engineers Union have been prevented if the Charter cartoons had been that bit sharper? Were Trots humourless after all? The ominous refrain ‘But I can’t read’ was now to appear for the first time in his work and the fist that had once clenched to hurl its missiles with such deadly accuracy was to be found scratching its own head.

But those long sessions with Larousse in the Norfolk and the Trades and Labour bore fruit. And what had sometimes seemed a certain hackishness was revealed as simply patience, that cardinal virtue of the revolutionary. His illustrations for Trotsky for Beginners showed a widening of visual reference, making deranged borrowings from Hogarth, Grosz, Tenniel, Magritte and Florrie Capp.

The gift of visual explanation had deepened too. The theory of Permanent Revolution, so widely misunderstood on the Left, was explained by means of a Maudie Littlehampton creature as the vacillating bourgeoisie and a proletarian Eddie Kidd zooming on his motor bike over trussed up mensheviks. Parvus would have loved it. And Old Nick Bukharin (the cartooning Bolshevik Central Committeeman) would have appreciated the comradely caricatures Evans would knock off during the boring bits (and they were not infrequent) in Socialist Worker editorial meetings. Quite what Marx would have made of Evans’ illustrated Das Kapital and the major movie and book of the film that is at present in production, I am not, however, entirely sure.

Evans and the future? Critics are divided. His forthcoming blank verse trilogy on the Life and Times of Caspar Weinburger suggests new directions. All one can say with certainty is that it will be intimately linked to the state of the working class movement and the fate of the Socialist Workers Party. In his attic garret, austerely furnished with unfinished self-portraits in oils, Fuzzy Felt Farms and paperbacks on ‘Home Brewed Beers and Stouts’, there are few clues. Leafing through the 20,000 cartoons he has drawn over the last decade and managed to smuggle past the patrols which frisk the Art Department late shift for ‘borrowed’ scalpel blades and buckshee Letraset, one is struck by the political consistency and visual unpredictability.

Cartoonists who aren’t rank Tories are usually some species of anarchist. Evans is virtually unique as a practising Marxist who had managed to remain funny, surprising, direct and relatively sane with the considerable pressures of weak socialist journalism and membership of a small and demanding political party. But it is because of his politics rather than despite them that he has been able to make so many people laugh so deeply. And, after the mirth, make them think and act. The system is not funny, although it helps if you can laugh at it. But the joke only works when we make them laugh on the other side of their faces.

Last updated on 3 May 2014