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Carl Giles | Friendship in a Time of War | @lesleyblanch @davidmarkcain

In these unsettled, divided times in which segregation and racism are making an unwelcome comeback, positive historical reminders of tolerance and kindness are to be celebrated and shared.

The exhibition, Giles: Friendship in a time of war, curated by social historian David Cain, tells of the British cartoonist’s all-but-forgotten friendship with two African-American GIs, Butch and Ike, based near his Suffolk home during World War Two.

In the early 1940s, Giles lived with his wife, Joan, in Badger’s Cottage in Tuddenham St. Martin. He befriended several men serving with 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment based at nearby RAF Debach. He often welcomed Butch and  Ike at his home for drinks. Giles loved Jazz and their musical evenings frequently spilled over into the local village pub.

When the Fountain Pub was taken over by White GI’s, Giles’ pictures of Butch and Ike were forcibly removed – an act which Giles called ‘a bloody disgrace’. Segregation was common practice in many Southern US states and the US Air Force remained divided, even whilst serving in the UK. So Black GI’s could not mix with White GI’s. They were barred from visiting the same bars, cinemas and villages as their white colleagues, reminiscent of South Carolina, but not the norm in Suffolk.

Over half a century later, the images were discovered in the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent.

Lee Miller and Lesley Blanch visited Giles in August 1944 to photograph and write up the feature published in British Vogue about Giles’ contribution to the war effort. Lesley’ Blanch’s article, below, is followed by a short film of the exhibition, Giles: Friendship in a time of war.

The Name is Giles by Lesley Blanch (British Vogue, August, 1944)

When I said I was going to do a profile of Giles, the cartoonist who was first seen in Reynolds Weekly and now works for the Sunday Express and the Daily Express, the reaction was lively. Some people said, “Oh, do! Do tell us all about him. Is he funny in himself? Does he think up his own gags, look like his own drawings?” and so forth.

Others looked dank and said, “Oh, really? Why?”I have observed a sharp dividing line between the pro-and-anti-Gilesites. People either gloat over each successive cartoon, cutting it out and walking about with it, till the next surpasses it, or else they say they can’t for the life of them see what the chap’s getting at, and there’s a lot of mutter about bad taste, waste of valuable space, etc., etc.

To me, Giles is an outstanding comic draughtsman; and probably the most significant cartoonist of the war. We are told this is a people’s war. Giles, more than anyone else, knows and represents the people – the little man, everywhere. All his proselytising powers (and of course he crusades from his paper pulpit, like all his kind – Gubbins, for example, who is his prototype in print) are lavished on the little man. I won’t say the underdog, for that has a sour sound alien to Giles’ good-tempered, waggish wit.

To me, he is the wag of his age, just as Cruikshank was of his. Now, I am not comparing them. There could not be two more dissimilar artists, either in draughtsmanship or approach. But each, in his own way, epitomises the essential humour of his age. Cruikshank’s best work was as a comic draughtsman, and as an illustrator of books: where many of his plates, such as Fagin in the condemned cell, are unsurpassed for their macabre strength. Giles has not this dark aspect. He is entirely comic.

He is not even a political cartoonist in the same sense as Low. But just as Cruikshank knew, and reflected better than anyone else, the little pinched, snuffling weasel-faced Cockney of the 1850s, so Giles knows and reflects the debunking idiom of today. He senses that indefinable, casual Cockney glee which is wholly national, as fruity and unsophisticated as the little man himself.

It is this national figure which Giles has made his own, as unmistakable as his signature. It is a stumpy little tough: a truncated, troglodytic creature, squat, good-natured, impudent, and long suffering, too. He may grin out from under a tin hat, or a factory worker’s cap. Or he may be a she: a jolly, pram-pushing Mum; or even a saucy brat. But basically it’s always the same creature, expressing the same spirit: that of the people, here and now.

And what about Giles himself? Carl Giles is the name, though some people call him Ernie, on account of his Young Ernie comic strip. He often identifies himself with Ernie. Telling you of some droll mishap, some personal misfortune, he laughs uproariously at the poor-sap side of his nature, the Ernie side. “That’s Ernie all over,” he says, and makes a note. Later, you may see it switched to comic-strip idiom.

But don’t think he looks like Ernie, or, indeed, any of the people he draws. Anything but. He is a pale, straw-haired, frail looking man, with the ravaged face of someone who thinks and feels. His battered felt hat droops on his professorially high brow. His large, dreamy blue eyes swim out kindly from behind dark-rimmed glasses, and are suddenly screwed up till the tears run down, as he lets himself go in gales of laughter, slapping the table, gesticulating, grimacing, acting out the anecdote he is telling-telling in that curious broad Cockney-Suffolk accent.

Giles is not afraid to laugh at his own jokes. I like that. I like to watch him going through a portfolio of stuff, reconstructing this scene or that. What Hitler is saying to Musso, whom he usually depicts as a monkey-like little object-fleeing from disaster on a fairy cycle, perhaps, or chattering and grimacing on the end of a leash, like some abject pet.

He will tell you the history of any one person in a crowded cartoon, inventing, as he goes, the saga of what happens when the policeman turns round and sees the tank in the pram-park: about the snarky old Beefeaters who are on spam now, same as everybody else: all the teeming detail of the safe hotel-perfect setting for Gubbins’ wretched Muriel, where a dressy busybody is asking, “And what is Agnes going to do when the Russians reach the French coast?”

Or my favourite – I wish I had space to reproduce it – of a clot of angry Generals, blood pressure mounting madly, as they watch the little man, cap on head, fag in mouth, a croupy brat hanging over his shoulder, as he stumps along the parade ground past lines of troops, rigid to attention. The caption says, “His argument is that as a taxpayer he has as much right to inspect things as anybody else.”

Giles lives and works in Suffolk, his county. He has a businesslike studio, tucked away among the old roofs of Ipswich. It is run by the serene, gentle charmer who is his wife. Two or three assistants work there, animating the cartoon films he makes for the Ministry of Information.

There are propaganda subjects, from one on pre-natal care (and Giles’ wit even triumphs over obstetric dogma) to an entrancing narrative called The Grenade, all about an eager, humble little hand-grenade (the little man again), who was hopping mad to get to the front to do his bit, and how he was sneered at by the big shells, cut by the bombs, patronised by the torpedos – a whole oligarchy of mechanised warfare is exposed, before the dear little thing manages to get himself thrown on Goering, to ricochet off on to Goebbels, and so on, to exploding the whole Hitler myth. It would take me too long to tell you how entrancing this film is – how perfectly it expresses the humour of Giles, his invention, and his grasp of basic psychological truth. It is already going the rounds of the war factories, and may, later, be shown to the public.

Cartoon films are no new medium to Giles. He began that way, and worked up, from carrying cups of tea for the technical staff, sharpening the pencils, and at last being allowed to trace some of the more insignificant details of the hundreds and thousands of drawings that go to make up one sequence. In odd moments he tried his hand at his own ideas, and so, gradually, with out schooling but with the training that such work gives, he began to turn out drawings which, line by line, won him the fame he now enjoys.

His mastery of architectural detail, and his perfect sense of composition seem to have been as much part of his natural equipment as his sense of character. They are apparent in his first, unsure efforts. When writing this sort of profile, one is always looking for that unpredictable, yet inevitable twist which is so interesting to trace to its unsuspected source. No one is really true to type. No one is all of a piece. But how the pieces differ hat’s the pattern which goes to make up the individual.

In Giles’ case, his absolute simplicity and his rural background (with brief spells of vagrant life, spent playing his way round the countryside with a concertina as livelihood) all shatter apart suddenly, disclosing a strange ruling passion for luxury cars. A car was his first indulgence when he began to be in the big money. “After the war …” he says voluptuously, and dwells on the super-charging, the gadgetry and general Rolls-Royceishness he would like to have. And, his gumboots squelching through the mud of the farmyard, he pads off to the local.

His welcome is unrestrained. He’s one of them. He may go up to Fleet Street and do those drawings, but he likes his pint, and a bit of poaching of a Sunday morning, like the rest. And like them, he’s partial to the coloured troops who are stationed round about. Saturday night they hold a jam-session at the local. The soft Southern drawl merges with the Suffolk tones.

The negro boy from Texas, with his flash cowboy boots and silver jewellery superimposed on his regulation khaki, stands by the piano. His woolly head brushes the Tudor plasterwork ceiling. He sings The Vaarmer’s Boy as well as Pistol Packin’ Momma; yes, they’re in the groove, now. The local yokel sings Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar. Giles whacks away at the piano. “It’s Time, gentlemen” – and away they all go, out into the narrow dark Suffolk lanes, and up to Giles’ cottage, to continue the sing-song-to talk politics, to hear the midnight news from France – to cook a snack, to mend old fishing tackle, or talk horses with the stable boys who are Giles’ special buddies.

It’s a prim looking little home, with suburban clumps of pampas grass confounding the adjoining farmyard. There’s a lovely blue and white and copper batterie de cuisine in the kitchen, and books everywhere. Stern-looking books: Elements of Geology; Cellular Respiration; Malthus on Principles of Population; much Soviet literature; Damon Runyon and Voltaire’s Candide, too; British Beetles; Insect Pests; a book on earthworms …” Books like that help you to understand people,” says Giles, succinctly, downing a cup of strong tea, by way of chaser to the mild and bitter.

Some of the best Giles drawings are to be found in The Journalist, a paper comparatively unknown to the general public. The old slogan, “Good enough for Punch,” doesn’t apply to him, as he has never worked for that almost national emblem. Much of his work is reproduced in Russian newspapers where it is always rapturously received.

I do not know if Giles’ cartoons are circularised abroad regularly or not; but I can’t think of a better method of presenting the English people to the other peoples of the world. He should be our official comic, an official unofficial war reporter. And if he did not reconstruct the whole historic drama, he would, I know, immortalise the human comedy. That’s why I say he’s so significant as a cartoonist. There’s a whole ideology behind all his slap-stick. And it’s the ideology of this country today.

In his own way, he is one of the men of the hour.

Lesley Blanch / British Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd, Vogue House, Hanover Square, London W1S 1JU. Lesley Blanch’s articles can be viewed by appointment at: The Vogue Archive, National Art Library, first floor, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL

The Eighth in the East is a three year Heritage Lottery Fund project, exploring the social and landscape history of the 8th US Army Air Force and their time in England during World War
Two.

Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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