It’s the anticlimax talking…

Dear Diary.

This bad mood of mine isn’t blowing over. It’s just getting worse.

I might have to do that rare thing and turn the computer off and disappear for the rest of the day and perhaps tomorrow as well. Everything is winding me up wrong today, not least Twitter which seems to consist mainly of people crowing about their wonderful successes in the world of publishing, cartooning, and pretty much everything I’ve ever turned my hand to. I then noticed somebody talking about “defunding the arts” because of the monstrosity that now sits on top of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Every one of these I’ve despised. I understand the reasoning for these temporary installations. They’re saving the space for a statue of the Queen. I just don’t understand why they need to make “art” the object of everybody’s derision… But, deep breath. This is one thread I’m not going to pull on today.

None of this is helped by a PC that struggles to even do the simple things quickly. I’m probably repeating myself but right clicking on a spelling mistake in Word takes fifteen seconds before the correct word presents itself. It’s easier to fix it by hand but my muscle memory has too long become accustomed to reaching for the right click, which then locks the PC for as long as it takes for the dialog box to appear. Saving anything is the same: a thirty second wait for a dialog box to open…

I’ve also been trying to edit the new podcast but Audacity hates the files. Because of mic issues, one of the tracks was in the dreaded M4A format, which is a swine to use. First, it’s non-native to Windows. I had to convert it to MP3 first but now there’s a problem with the sync so it means constant hand edits, which my PC likes even less than I enjoy making them. It has resulted in two blue screens of death, requiring full reboots.

Yes, I’m frustrated. This is supposed to be fun. It’s something I do out of the goodness of my heart and because I enjoy the creative process. But it’s meant to be quick and most weeks it takes just three or four hours, with audio that syncs perfectly, which I can line up at the beginning and just tweak as I go through it. Editing every exchange is proper work. To coin a phrase: fuck that.

Part of me wants to press on, knowing that thousands of people will enjoy to the podcast. The other part of me thinks it’s not worth the grief. Yet I feel that way about the blog, about the cartoons, about nearly everything at the moment. So much of what I do feels like a cry in the dark or, most likely, a cry for help. An example of how things rub me wrong… Somebody has kindly put together a film of all the entries to the latest cartoon competition run by Martin Rowson. The video runs eight minutes and eighteen seconds and each cartoon gets three seconds… Yep, that means there’s over 160 cartoons, which speaks to the number of people in this racket and the chances of success.

I suppose that’s a bad way of viewing anything but the notion that everything is a competition is one that has taken over the world. Everything is reduced to the Darwinian level: only the best survive, the worst fail. Or that’s the logic. I’m not sure that’s every really true. See the current Fourth Plinth installation for proof of that…

To continue this unexpected turn towards cheap self-psychoanalysis, I don’t think my mood has been right since I accidentally watched a video on Youtube yesterday. It was Stephen Fry discussing the Dunning-Kruger Effect ( I already knew what the Effect was – I’ve suffered this many times before – but the video explained it such a simple way I found it arresting. I suddenly saw myself as “the least proficient student who dramatically overestimated their own ability”. That, I guess, is what I’m suffering right now. Huge nasty pangs of self-doubt. My confidence is shot.  My ability to say one thing undercut by the nagging feeling I should say something else.

It’s especially debilitating today given I’ve just self-published three books via Amazon. This is a problem with self-publishing that nobody warns you about. Once you get a publisher, you get somebody who will gush over your work. They say “aye” or “nay” and generally do everything to keep you happy. I’ve never needed much editorial help in my books because I’m so used to doing everything myself. When my first novel was accepted by a publisher, their proof-reader sent a note back to me to say she’d never seen such a “finished” manuscript. I liked that, though it was largely down to my having worked as a proof-reader and copyeditor, putting together a few academic books and journals. Since I had that experience, I’ve always tried to pride myself on being a low maintenance writer. When the publisher of my Stan book couldn’t get a cover they liked, I jumped on my bike, cycled to the nearest postbox, took a photo and turned it into a cover. Ditto the Monks book which I drew myself. Yet as much as I like doing things myself, I always appreciated that the publisher was there. They give you confidence and it really can’t be overstated how important that is, because without a publisher, without an agent, without the team of people helping you to put the book together, there’s just you and that’s never enough.

I also find it a little scary because so many people have sent me their self-published work over the years. That mainly happened when I wrote the Richard Madeley parody blog. It attracted dozens of writers who thought emailing “me” via “my” blog was the quickest way to get into the Richard & Judy book club. It was the worst part of that blog, explaining to people as gently as I could that I wasn’t Richard and, even if I had been, going from complete unknown to bestselling author was going to be trickier than sending him a free ebook. There was something charming about their naivety, especially emails that went:

“Hi Richard, just thought I’d send you my new novel, which came out last week. I know you and Judy will love it and I’d be more than happy to pop along and chat to you on the show. Sincerely. Annette Newbee, author of The Spatula Murders”.

How can you be hard of people as optimistic as that? What was even worse, their books tended to be terrible, but it wasn’t my place to tell them. Instead, like I mug I was (and still am), I’d try to help them. I’d teach them about English, sentence structure, tense, and the rest… I even helped one poor kid do their English homework, and, naturally, they didn’t understand, no matter how many times I explained, that I wasn’t Richard. No, Richard got the credit…

Sadder still was the occasional book that showed real promise. Those people I couldn’t help beyond telling them how good it was, wishing them luck, and underscoring that I wasn’t Richard.

I suppose that’s the darkest thought of all. I listen to seriously underrated songwriters (Mathias Kom of The Burning Hell, immediately springs to mind) who can’t break into the bigtime, yet the world gushes over utterly banal nonsense. What makes certain cultural objects “fit to succeed” isn’t necessarily their inherent quality but something else entirely. I guess this is why scientists reckon that cockroaches are most likely to inherit the world after the mammals have blown their chance… David Walliams is far from the best children’s author but good luck finding many others stocking the shelves in your local Tesco. He really is the cockroach of children’s fiction…

But I digress and I can sense my heading into even more self-indulgent twaddle. I meant to just write a piece to say I’m disappearing for the rest of the day and I might take tomorrow off.

Deep down, I’m deeply gratified that though I don’t have many people reading my blog, I know I’ve succeeded (at least until now) of maintaining the interest of people who are themselves interesting and engaged with the world. So to anybody reaching this bit of this long dull post: thank you. Much of what I’m feeling is the exhaustion I typically feel after weeks of constant work. This mood is normal given I’ve effectively just finished a book containing 165 cartoons. I had this after Monks. Had it after The Snoot. The sense of anticlimax is awful. I think I probably wanted a party and some cake to celebrate.

Since I mentioned the man, here’s a cartoon I never really finished, knew how to finish, or particularly cared to finish. This seems like a suitable place to leave it…

8 thoughts on “It’s the anticlimax talking…”

  1. Yes, best to take a break when you become fed up, you wouldn’t poke an open wound, the principle isn’t so very different. You will end up doing the podcast if I know you, my view would be though, “they ain’t paying for it, so fuck em!”

    There is very little rhyme or reason as to why people make it in the media and entertainment industry. Luck, talent, desire, hard work, connections. You have a matrix of success in the arts and media right there I suppose, the most important factors probably change slightly every decade. Plenty of people have had to die before their work was appreciated, no luck. Others have soldiered on only to achieve success in their latter years, plenty of desire. It took Pulp fourteen years before they had a hit, how many bands have given up after a couple of years?. Perhaps after fourteen years those bands could have made it too. Funny thing about Pulp was that when they achieved their ambition they didn’t really like the fame after all. Music especially seems a very tough business, even with a record company behind you, glossy videos and a fair bit of talent, sustained success seems very hard to come by.

    As it’s a subjective form I’m not sure the Dunning-Kruger effect applies, what would be deemed talent in one era or territory would be considered garbage in another. Hence you have local bands, local comedians, local artists. Tommy Trinder, funny to one generation, couldn’t raise a smile from another. Sam Browne, most popular singer in 1930’s Britain, who’s even heard of him?. Fashions change so quickly. I think Bruno Mars is tripe, millions disagree. I like the Matt cartoons more than Martin Rowson, (I can hear you groaning from here). I prefer your cartoons to his too (so stop groaning). His stuff is technically good but just way too miserable and cynical for me. If I was running a newspaper he wouldn’t get a job with me. Imagine if my family owned all the left wing papers, he’d be stuffed.

    1. Ah, thanks for the reply! Thanks for the human contact! In the words of Tom from Reggie Perrin: “I’m a people person”. Knowing my stuff gets read matters to me, especially when I’m trapped in a more prolonged lockdown than most people.

      The problem with the podcast is that our connection went after half an hour, so I’d have to record myself talking to fill in some gaps. Before that, I however, I have to fix two badly out of sync tracks which my ancient PC can’t handle. Or, it can handle it, but not without so many crashes to make me get very angry…

      No groaning. I totally understand what you say about Rowson. He’s rarely funny but that’s because he’s not in the same school as Matt. Cartoonists operate along two axes. One is artistry and the other is humour. Some, like Rowson, aren’t always in it for the gags. Others, like Matt, are all about the gags and don’t care much about the artistry. Chris Riddell, for example, has beautiful lines but terrible jokes. Peter Brookes is the master of the gag and the talents to convey that. Morten Morland also has both. Yet neither are as artistic nor as angry as Rowson whose has pure poison dripping from his pen.

      Rowson is closer in that sense to Scarfe, Steadman, and the later Searle, all of whom create beautiful/terrifying illustrations with little to laugh at. I guess when you’re working to create this stuff, it’s easier to appreciate Rowson or (another favourite) Kliban. What Matt does is funny but pretty ordinary.

      Probably linked to what you say about changing tastes. Rowson’s work probably has more longevity/value that Matt’s, which are rooted in events of the day. Rowson captures the milieu.

      As for success. You’re right. It’s like videos of people missing getting hit by a bus by millimetres: we only see the winners because we’d be appalled if were expected to watch all the people getting hit. We are surrounded by famous people. We’d never get out of bed if we saw all the people who tried and failed…

      1. Always difficult to know whether to comment or not to be honest. I actually started by talking about the success in East Africa of the Swahili edition of Spatula Murders, “Spatula Mauaji”, which was later banned after a spate of copycat killings but then deleted it. People often just don’t know what to say, which I know you know.

        I probably picked a poor comparison using Matt but was just writing off the top of my head. “Pure poison dripping from his pen”, is spot on actually. It’s just too much for me, it’s not the subject matter, it’s the whole package which I think goes beyond Scarfe and Searle, it’s just SO grim, everything is SO ugly, even the colour palette he uses is depressing. I suppose the point I was trying to make was that with even half a dozen editors in my mould on fleet street he would have been the cartoonist that never was.

          1. That is *such* a good question. I’d answer supremely talented but directing their talents towards pastiche. Kinkade, especially, has zero artistic content. Vettriano far more interesting but more of a rehash of Hopper and the film noir. Very hard not to look at his work and think “oh, it’s the scene from…” Have none of those thoughts looking at, say, Lucian Freud’s work or Francis Bacon, or limiting this to living artists, somebody like Jenny Saville.

        1. Ah, I welcome all comments, whether I’m going to agree with them or not. I like my views challenged in an honest but friendly way.

          I think Rowson’s palette is what often astonishes me. It’s like he’s taken raw effluent and mixed it with boiled piss, which sounds terrible but I think it’s psychologically honest, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. It’s definitely a throwback to a pre-Victorian world, especially that of Hogarth and the eighteenth-century satirists, which I particularly love (hence the title of this blog). Swift wrote some awful stuff about his beautiful nymph preparing herself for bed, pulling out her teeth and with sores running down her legs. I think Rowson would probably be the first to admit his inspiration lies in that direction. To get even more pretentious about it than I am already: he’s one of the few Juvenalian satirists working in an age which is more attuned to Horatian satire, which privileges wit over vulgarity. Think Spitting Image instead of Have I Got News For You; satire as revolutionary anger rather than establishment safety vent.

          I sometimes try pushing my own work in that direction but it’s really hard to break through the wall of Victorian prudishness. It’s also hard to do it well. As is really noticeable with the cartoon competitions he runs, there’s only so many ways to draw a politician as a penis before it gets boring.

  2. Well, that was enlightening. I hadn’t really thought about the artistry/humour divide re cartoonists although it’s obvious once it’s been pointed out to you. In which case, I’m more humour than artistry – although I do really like Hogarth. What I find interesting as well in 18th C cartoons is the hidden references ( a bit like the skulls in old portraits as a reminder of one’s mortality). Which has got me thinking, are such hidden references there in cartoons nowadays? As in, is there a “language” of them as there was in the past? I think I need to do some research but not this minute because my brain is full (which is another cartoon I liked, incidentally).

    1. Oh, there are probably lots of examples, though from memory I can think of only two really obvious. Rowson has his fur cups (say it fast and it becomes f*** ups) and Al Hirschfeld used to hide the name of his daughter, Nina, in his drawings after her birth. Became a bit of a cult hobby for people, finding them. In fact, he started to include a small number next to his signature so people knew how many to look for. 40 of them in this one, though mostly in Whoopi’s curls at the top-> Al

      I’m sure there must be others I’m forgetting since it’s such an obvious thing to do…

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It’s a cool domain name and it was available. Yes, I know. Available. Crazy, isn’t it?


Yes. It also helps that it’s also my favourite satire written by Alexander Pope, one of the most metrically pure English poets who also knew his way around a crude insult or two. If you’ve not read it, you should give it a try.

So this is satire, right?

Can’t deny it. There will be some. But it’s also an experiment in writing and drawing, giving work away for free in order to see how many people are willing to support a writer doing his thing. It’s the weird stuff that I wouldn’t get published elsewhere in this word of diminishing demands and cookie-cutter tastes.