Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Yet Trouble Came: David Low & "Very Well Alone"


Things were bad, and then they got worse. I had no idea of how they could ever get better. It was so tough that I read the Book Of Job for comfort. I thought that if I could stare into that bleakness without Job's faith in God, I'd toughen myself up for the days and days and days to come.

But The Book Of Job is no text to test a lack of faith against.

"I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came."

And it did.


It was so cold that Christmas that I couldn't hold my palm flat against the window pane of my attic flat.

Why was I trying to keep my palm flat against that freezing glass?

Who knows?


The days stayed that way for longer than I could tell you, and of course it felt like it lasted forever.

I started to consider charms. Icons. Symbols which, if they couldn't inspire me, could remind me that there was such a thing as inspiration.

I taped a C-90 of my very favourite records. I stacked my most beloved dozen books on the nesting table beside my bed. I spent money that I should have spent on food on photo-copying the 25 most moving panels from the comic books that had affected me most. I bought little Corinthian football figures of my favourite players from that season of 1995/6 and set them out in a 4-4-2 formation on the old dressing table. I picked the happiest, friendliest action figures I had packed away and set them out to smile their Super-Friends' smiles at me from the window sill.

And I took my ancient copy of David Low's magisterial cartoon "Very Well Alone", drawn for The Evening Standard in the most hopeless days of World War Two, and I placed it in a rickety little brass picture frame that I'd swapped in an Oxfam charity shop for some old academic text-books. And wherever I was, I'd quietly slip it from the plastic carrier bag I kept it in, and I'd stare at it.

And it would stare back.


There's no hope in "Very Well Alone", but there is defiance. The odds are impossible, the enemy irresistible. The sea will wash the soldier away even before the swarms of bombers arrive. But my God that Tommy there is going to fight until he dies.


Low drew the cartoon in June 1940, when the continent had fallen to the armies of Nazi Germany, when the invasion of Britain was considered by many to be imminent and inevitable and - perhaps - irresistible. The majority of the British Army had been successfully evacuated from mainland Europe, but it had been forced to leave pretty much all of its equipment behind. "I tingled when I drew it." Low would recall in his "Autobiography" of the cartoon, and it's easy to see why, for the cartoon is brilliantly audacious in its lack of consolation. It transmuted the spirit of Churchill's immortal speech to the House Of Parliament on June 4th 1940, though in the two weeks between that and the publication of "Very Well Alone", France had surrendered and the situation seemed immeasurably worse;

"We shall go on to the end ... we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender .... "

And as time passed, I realised that what moved me so in Low's wonderful cartoon was the conviction that life wasn't about winning. It wasn't about survival. It wasn't about comfort or promise or boy-loses-girl or boy's-lost-friends or anything that I'd previously considered important.

It was all about defiance.


I have no idea how things got better. Years had to pass, but they did. I never found what Camus called his "invincible summer", but eventually I got by.


One year ago, my wife and I visited the Cartoon Museum in London's Little Russell Street. And there, to my surprise and amazement, I found the original of my other favourite cartoon of Low's from 1940, "All Behind You, Winston". I laughed out loud, and then I kept on laughing. It was so unexpected, and so inexpressibly precious. It was impossible to believe that this was the paper he'd worked on, the white paint and India ink he'd so skillfully applied, the finished work he'd have delivered to the Evening Standard's offices on May 13th 1940. And it was similarly impossible to drag myself away. I admire no artist, let alone no cartoonist, as I do David Low.

My wife took several pictures of me standing before "All Behind You, Winston". The flash caught in the glass front of the cabinet, but that's OK. I have a photograph of me and an original masterpiece by Low, the cartoonist so brilliant, so wonderfully offensive to the ignorant and the homicidal of all and any nations, so funny and bright.

And defiant.


And then we left for our hotel, and packed, and caught the train home, where our cats were waiting with all the howling complaints that cats are compelled to make when their pets return.

To my mind, David Low is the greatest political and social cartoonist that there's ever been. It's shameful that there's only the excellent "Low & The Dictators" by Timothy Benson that's still in print. Low's "Autobiography" can still be bought for a few pounds second-hand. But if you can, I urge you to acquire Colin Seymour-Ure & Jom Schoff's "David Low" from 1985. It is the knees of the bee.



  1. This blog is brilliant.

  2. This might be my favorite post. Not as informational or academic, if you will, as some of the others, but far more personal.

    "I started to consider charms. Icons. Symbols which, if they couldn't inspire me, could remind me that there was such a thing as inspiration."


  3. Hello Robert - thank you for speaking well of what is indeed, as you rightly say, a more "personal" piece. I still find it hard to know what I think about it or indeed whether I should even have published it, but then, I'm sure most bloggers feel that about pretty much everything they write. I certainly do! But I'm heartened that you found something of passing worth in it. My best to you.