British smiles

 

In a flurry of self-congratulation built on Carnaby Street and the Beatles, Britain christened itself home of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. This old civilisation became a modish place for sociological study then as well, notably with Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain. There were few dissenting voices in this season of optimism, save the resonant ‘non’ from the president of France across the Channel.

Neither the American journalist and aficionado of arcane rock groups, Joe Queenan, nor the cartoonist and inventor of the Spitting Image puppets, Roger Law, has too solemn an ambition in his account of Britain (and in Law’s case Australia, where he seems to have settled). Queenan Country—an irresistible pun that his surname gifted him, is cumbersomely subtitled A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country. Long married to an English wife, Queenan has often been to Britain, but not for decades on his own. Now, indulging whim and disdaining duties to relatives, he charts an eccentric, private course.
Roger Law’s Still Spitting at Sixty is more concerned to chart a journey in time. His subtitle explains: From the ’60s to My Sixties, a Sort of Autobiography. Both books are stories of long marriages and tolerant spouses. Each is written with a keen eye for the idiosyncrasies of British society, but also with a sympathy for how people accommodate to, and flourish within, them. Queenan, for example, confesses that on first reading Lewis Carroll he encountered ‘a phantasmagoric society populated by lunatics’, only gradually realising that the author was describing Britain rather than Wonderland. Law reflects ruefully of his Spitting Image puppets that he had at least cornered ‘the international market in grotesques’.

His book begins in a similar tone, with the reflection that ‘Eternal Youth simply buckled under the weight of my expectations’. Soon he is back at the beginning, with his birth in 1941 in the secluded Fen country of eastern England. Law found his way to Art School in Cambridge at the time of the flamboyant entries into public life of Peter Cook and David Frost. By the 1960s he was in the capital, though of the contrary opinion that ‘Swinging London, so revered in retrospect, was very slow getting into its stride’. Employed as a cartoonist by The Observer, Law found plentiful freelance work as well. Moving to the Sunday Times led him to judge that its mid-sixties period ‘was the most creative phase in newspapers since the war’. It remained to mark when the decline began.

Law is informative and incisive about journalism in London at this time, not least of the contributions of so many expatriate Australians. Eventually he and Peter Fluck (hence Luck and Flaw) hit on the idea of Spitting Image, which ran from 1984–86. The technical difficulties of modelling are intriguingly described, as are the financial anxieties of the enterprise. Perhaps the series went too long. Law concedes that when Thatcher and Reagan ‘departed high office a bright light of motivation went out of our lives’. Spitting Image, despite its longevity, never translated as happily to Australia as some other British comedies, although Law faced a worldwide demand for puppets for spin-off shows in Russia, Portugal and elsewhere.

The last third of this genial memoir is set in Australia, but happy as he pronounces himself to be, this seems the latest site of Law’s restlessness. Certainly the commitment has not sapped his powers as a draftsman, which Still Spitting at Sixty amply illustrates. It has also summoned the book that he had in him, the good-humoured but serious survey of a working life.

Setting off on a journey that will take him to Liverpool and a taxi-driver for whom John Lennon may have acted as best man, to Wales for a week, to the castle where Edward II met the red-hot poker, Queenan thinks of his project as ‘a cross between a valentine and a writ of execution, an affectionate jeremiad’. Confessing that ‘the Brits have always puzzled me’, Queenan is in good company. As Barry McKenzie put it more demotically, ‘I’ll never get to the bottom of the Poms.’

For one thing, Britain has ‘entirely too much history’. And pseudo-history: Glastonbury teems with ‘hippies, warlocks, neo-Druids, and people looking for Merlin so they can  buy drugs off him’. Travelling to a place of recent historical importance, the home of the Beatles, Queenan promises ‘No Mersey’. London is much less manageable, ‘a tourist’s Golgotha’ (better to be spectator than participant), ‘intractable, insuperable, inexhaustible’.

Queenan visits Madame Tussaud’s, which he finds insufficiently absurd, and mentally reviews English literature. Of the modern variety he prefers books where nobody has been to Cambridge. His musical adventures range from a private performance in Oxford of Bach played on Handel’s harpsichord, to an Eagles tribute band concert in Stroud. Listing ten, ‘make that twenty’, things he hates about Britain, Queenan begins with ‘the twit’, not only invented, ‘but reluctantly beatified’ in that country. He disparages the Pre-Raphaelites—‘those self-absorbed poltroons had the nerve to demean the Renaissance’—along with bad hair and ‘rehearsed civility’.

Queenan Country is jovially enraged, delighting in being presented with so many targets for the author’s ebullient scorn. The book is often very funny, but Queenan overstays his welcome. At times, too, the mask slips to reveal genuine contempt for some of what he observes. In the end, perhaps, this amusing and perceptive work is unavoidably captive to Queenan’s ambivalence. 

Queenan Country, Joe Queenan. Picador, 2005.ISBN  0 330 43943 X, RRP $30
Still Spitting at Sixty, Roger Law. HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN 0 007 18166 3, RRP 49.95

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian literature at James Cook University, Cairns.

 

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