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Scoop: Chartist beats the Guardian

Martin Rowson on a long marriage and lampooning government

So far as I can tell, the first cartoon I drew for Chartist was for the issue for January/February 1987, getting on for a quarter of a century ago. There may have been something earlier than that, though I can't now remember what it could have been. I do, however, remember receiving a phone call around that time from a friend - or more correctly a comrade in North Westminster CLP - of an old school friend of mine, then going through his Labour Activist phase, having already passed through other rites of passage as Rich Young Computer Whizz and Peace Studies Student. (For the record, he went on to sell export carpets and other artefacts from India , be a peace monitor in Sri Lanka and is now, I think, an actor in Ireland .) Anyway, it transpired that Dave had recommended my services to Chartist, and thus began a relationship that's lasted longer than most marriages and far longer than what anyone apart from a cop-killing paedo gets for murder these days.

Back in those now unimaginable, pre-lapsarian, pre-digital days we did things differently. For a start, every cartoon I drew for Chartist needed to be delivered physically for scanning, prior to printing. I remember in our first phone conversation Mike Davis reassured me that this didn't present a problem, as the artwork could be picked up by “a comrade with a car in Camberwell”. This turned out to be the late and much lamented Martin Cook, who I seem to recall was wearing bicycle clips, although I may have embellished the memory. However, what this physical interface meant, along with all the subsequent ones prior to me finally getting teched up about twelve years later, was that money would regularly change hands. It wasn't much, but it had the major advantage of being something.

These days, of course, we live in a globalised, digitalised world. The cartoon is delivered in the bat of an eyelid as an email attachment. I don't see anyone from the Chartist EB from one year's end to the next. And, naturally, I haven't had a penny for over a decade.

Not that I'm complaining. I like Chartist. I support its editorial line and its values. Moreover, working for Chartist (along with Tribune and the Morning Star, who don't pay me either) allows me to launder my soul after the day job, working in the mainstream media. And Chartist can claim to be my longest lasting continuous outlet, beating The Guardian by about six months. (Again for the record, my time on The Graun has suffered lacunae: my first stint, illustrating the personal finance pages of the Saturday edition, ended when I was dropped in the great Neville Brody redesign of 1988, to be replaced by a creative use of white space - quite literally; a year or so later I had a regular slot in the Weekend Magazine until I had a row with Roger Alton and resigned; then in 1994 I became Steve Bell's Number 2, thematically enough because he was indisposed for a week after digging latrines at a Woodcraft Folk camp.)

Far more interesting than all that, however, is to look back over nearly twenty-five years and see how things have changed - apart from my style, which is less Scarfean than once it was, but I hope no less rebarbative. And what's truly depressing is to see how little things have changed.

When I said the pre-digital world was pre-lapsarian, I wasn't quite right. You have to go further back, to eight years before I started working for Chartist, to back when I was still a student, to see the moment of our Fall. The further we get away from it, the clearer the signs of it grows, that moment when the old post-war consensus was trashed and Thatcher both bought and brought in the New Covenant of Markets and Greed. It's why there's a qualitative difference, for people of a certain age, between the nostalgic thrill to be won from watching ‘Life on Mars' and what you get from ‘Ashes to Ashes'. For me, ‘Ashes to Ashes' came after the Fall; more to the point, apart from the music and the haircuts - and then only marginally - practically nothing has changed. So while everything changed in 1979, since then we've been in suspended animation, hit by wave after wave of Capitalist crises, but never seeming to be able to learn anything from the latest deluge. 

So, there's my first Chartist cartoon. It shows Nicholas Ridley, now long dead of lung cancer, though no one ever acted on my satirical suggestion from the late 80s that a stretch of memorial motorway be built from the tar in his lungs - as a former Thatcherite Transport Secretary, it's surely what he would have wanted. More precisely, it shows Ridley trying to flog off local public services to any passing spiv, while in the background a teddy boy tells an old woman he's not selling dodgy videos, he's come to empty her bins.

Plus ca change, eh? From around the same time, I remember a nice picture of Peter Mandelson (still with moustache - those were the days) rebranding Neil Kinnock with invisible new clothes. Again, plus ca change, or at least from then on for the next twenty-three years during the rise, pomp and eventual collapse of the New Labour Project. Indeed, over half the time I've been contributing to Chartist has been during Labour Governments, but little they did made me consider hanging up my pen, having concluded that satire's job was done. 

In many ways, the wholesale surrender to neo-liberalism, mingled with a healthy dose of Stalinism with the Labour Party itself, made me even angrier. From memory (believe me, I need an archivist), my favourite images from the whole period are of Blair peering through the eye of a huge Labour Party Mask saying “Who says I've hollowed out the Labour Party?” and, more pleasingly vindictive, of Blair just after his heart attack, with him posing as Christ in the iconography of The Sacred Heart, but with Tony's heart falling out with a loud “Splat!”.

And along the way I've drawn John Smith and Bryan Gould and John Major and Bill Clinton and George Bush and Gordon Brown and Ariel Sharon and fat cats, and on it goes. And on, without doubt, it will carry on going, without much hope of improvement. Particularly with this current government, without doubt the most odious of my lifetime, beating even Thatcher and Blair at their worst in its combination of incompetence and spite. Although I hope I continue to bring comfort, if not joy, to Chartist's readers, who can also take some pride in the fact that the Chartist cartoon I drew of John Major, as a maggot, crawling out of the nose of the deposed Thatcher, now hangs in the permanent collection of The Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, saved for the nation forever. That's heritage, folks, and we're all in it together!