Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Daily Mail

Sea, sun and fascism

Having just tried it, I’m not sure I’d wholeheartedly recommend a cruise holiday. (Unless, of course, you like the idea of being imprisoned in a floating holiday camp with a couple of thousand Daily Mail readers.) But at least it took us to Athens, Crete and Rhodes, including the remarkable Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes aka of St John, aka Hospitallers. In the thirties under the Italian occupation, the palace was heavily repaired; the resulting mediaeval-deco “restoration” came across to me as highly staged – vast, uninterrupted, checked stone walls, baroque angels looted out of their context and isolated in bare niches, huge Japanese vases (gifts from an Axis ally), all punctuated by wrought iron chandeliers that only emphasised the empty hardness of the surfaces. With its gratuitously surplus uninhabited spaces, its alien aesthetic of impersonal, almost anti-human, tastefulness and order – anti-human both in scale and in texture – the whole interior felt still drenched in fascism, as if we were wandering through a set for some lost scene from Bertolucci’s Il Conformista.

 

Had the Greeks not seen fit to deconstruct and reclaim all this? How was the fascist period of the Italian occupation regarded now? We’d just been to the monastery at Filerimos, built likewise in the thirties with its Italian Way of the Cross, but also home to an ancient, inexpressibly dolorous and affecting icon of Mary; so how far had the occupation tolerated the Greek Orthodox church? I asked our tour guide.

 

I couldn’t actually make out her eyes behind her sunglasses, but I could tell that they hardened instantly. Her previously modulated voice became intense and emotional. It had been horrible for the people of Rhodes. Horrible. In 1922 they had replaced the old governor with a fascist. Most of the churches had been closed. Children had been forced to learn Italian in school. All opposition had been eliminated. Her mother, as a child, had seen people executed in the street. It had been a dreadful time for Rhodes. She gestured behind her to a large plaque in Italian, still prominent on an outside wall, crediting the palace restoration to Il Duce. My fellow Brits appeared bemused or indifferent.

 

High on one vast checked wall inside we saw carved between roses “Fert”, the motto of the House of Savoy. No one translated; looking it up now, I see that various unlikely acronyms have been suggested, but in simple Latin it can be read as “S/he suffers”. That seems appropriate enough. The next day we found ourselves at Arkadi monastery in Crete, besieged by the Ottoman army in the Cretan revolt of 1866, where a few hundred women and children, barricaded into the powder room, had blown themselves to pulp rather than be taken alive. The attached museum displayed a long hank of human hair, retrieved later from a roof top.

Back on the boat, having finished W G Sebald’s excellent but distressing Rings of Saturn (more journeys, more atrocities), I found myself in need of fresh reading material; the only half decent book on offer in the little shop turned out to be Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, a fascinatingly repellent account of the forged Hitler diaries scandal of 1983. Following the revelation that Goering’s yacht was appropriated by the British royal family and rechristened the Prince Charles, I read that Hitler’s paintings are technically so poor as to be a doddle for the amateur forger, and so boring that in the final analysis no collector of them really cares whether what they have is faked or real. That evening the ship’s tannoy announced a poolside Last Night of the Proms-themed singalong, to “celebrate all that makes Britain great”. The holiday was not turning out quite as I’d expected.

There are plenty of images of the Grand Master’s Palace online but those above are mine. Click for enlarged slides. I haven’t linked to any image of the icon at Filerimos, as no reproduction or copy really looks like what we saw, nor gives any sense of the experience of being in its physical presence. For the first time, I’m prepared to credit an icon as being an effective and transmitting thing-in-itself. As being in some sense “alive”.

Set that against the deadening art of fascism!

Trog, John Minton and ‘Flook’

I was a childhood victim of my parents’ choice of newspaper, the unspeakable Daily Mail, in which Rothermere had once proclaimed “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” Only one thing was worth reading in the Mail: Flook, the snappy, satirical and beautifully drawn comic strip created in April 1949, a month before my birth. Flook was always drawn by Wally Fawkes as “Trog”; it was written by Fawkes’s fellow jazzmen Humphrey Lyttelton (from 1953) and George Melly (from 1956). Its only rival in the Mail was the hopelessly suburban and unfunny Fred Bassett.

Launched as a strip for children, Flook soon turned savvy and adult, with a great line in social commentary. Flook, the oddly snouted companion of young Rufus, the other central character, became less “magical” and more of an innocent satirical eye, and in the process used far less his ability to metamorphose into objects of his choice.

John Minton’s biographer, Frances Spaulding, mentions in passing that Fawkes took drawing lessons from Minton. This makes a lot of sense when you take a close look at Trog’s style. In the earlier years, as demonstrated in the Flook cache online in the British Cartoon Archive, the line was loose, fluid, almost erratic and amateurish at times, though soon showing the Minton influence. But by the mid ‘fifties it had tightened up wonderfully, and Fawkes became a master at enclosing finer lines of detail within heavier outlines, at hatching and small texture, at an alternating use of white line on black, at integrating silhouettes, and at stacking layers of figures within the enclosed perspective of the individual panel.

His work showed a fondness for pattern reminiscent of Edward Bawden, and he also developed a splendid virtuosity in stylised foliage in the Minton manner, though given the confines of the format, trees and leaves usually had to be tucked into corners. Even Fawkes’s children’s heads took on the distinctive horizontal elongation first seen, for example, in Minton’s Children by the Sea. The only faintly regrettable intrusion was the standard printer’s mechanical dotted grey tone, but Fawkes was cleverly restrained and appropriate in his use of it.

Not too much survives from the mid to late ‘fifties high era of Flook. In 1958 Faber and Faber put out a selection of three recent strips – “Roman in the Gloamin’”, “The Great Battersea Safari” and “S.S. Tapioca Cruise” – in a Giles book type format, titled simply Flook, but sadly the Mail never repeated the experiment. “Roman in the Gloamin’” has been scanned in its entirety here, so I’ll just pick out a few frames from my favourite, “The Great Battersea Safari”.

In this adventure, the permanently adolescent establishment mandarin, Sir Montague ffolly, persuades Flook, as a practical joke, to pose as a rare wild animal in Battersea Park, within the gun sights of the Blimpish big game hunter Buffie Cordite-Smith (“Col. [Retd.] The Bluffs”). The ensuing safari winds through London from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square, then heads west to cross the river for its Battersea Park denouement, via a rowdy Chelsea party thrown by Caroline Toppe-Draw, Sir Montague’s niece. “Safari” is 20th century British illustration at its best, soaked through with the cultural flavour of the time and place, all beautifully observed.

Here the safari makes a stop at the Fetish coffee bar in the King’s Road. Notice Fawkes’s clever use of silhouette and white line, and the opening up of the perspective of heads, potted plants and paraphernalia inside the coffee bar. Over fifty years on, the bar and its inhabitants seem remarkably modern – only the spelling of “cappuccino” has changed.

The Toppe-Draw party gets completely out of hand. The musical context is nicely sketched in these scenes: at the Fetish coffee bar the musicians play skiffle (“It takes a worried man …”), while at the Cheyne Walk party the hired band play modern jazz, read Kafka during their break, and say things like “She’s a jazz-type chick, the one in the pink. She wants to know like mad too.”

In the black and white counter-changing and the stylised detailing of the bed post, the Blue Room at Toppe-Draw House shows the clear legacy of Braque, maybe via the still lives of Robert MacBryde and other ‘forties and ‘fifties painters.

The Battersea Park setting of the final scene gives Fawkes an opportunity to indulge in Mintonesque leaves and branches, for which he clearly had a considerable affection.