I went to Australia with my constant companion Hilary, the only woman in England I’m not paying alimony to. She is also my spirit guide, and can get me through airports by simply waving her phone at various machines. I’m ashamed to say I still expect my ticket to be punched by a ticket collector, and my suitcase marked with a chalk cross by a cheerful customs officer. ‘No smutty arts books from Paris I hope, sir?’
We start the day (I have no idea what day it is, owing to jet lag) having breakfast at the Bathers’ Pavilion on Balmoral beach. It could be California in 1935, so charming is it. Opposite us is a tranny dressed as a second world war nurse: white everything, stocking, shoes, uniform and cap. Australia is very gender-friendly. You can be whatever you like here, which is just great.
Australia has many wonderful beaches but the humdinger of them all is Bondi. I had quite a scuffle on Bondi beach, being mistaken for David Hasselhoff, with the lifeguards demanding I sign their surfboards. To calm them down, I had to explain that I was in fact a clapped-out British cartoonist, here to promote my book of Battle of Britain strips.
Barry Humphries tells me that being funny is now a dangerous business. I was asked to talk to some students about being a cartoonist. Little did I know that they thought my cartoons ‘confrontational’. I sometimes take the mickey out of women, and as a man this was not my prerogative, they told me. Thinking on my feet, I recanted, saying that I was not quite myself and had recently had a sex change. Oddly, they were happy with this answer. They seemed to take it quite seriously and allowed me to carry on talking about how trying to be funny tears your guts out.
Among the wonderful places we went to was Wylie’s Baths on Coogee beach, a turn-of-the-century outdoor swimming heaven surrounded by wooden decks. There we met one of Australia’s most famous cartoonists, Matthew Martin. Like all cartoonists, he is charm personified and showed no animosity when I showed him my medal for being the most fearless surfer on Bondi. He also does great cartoons of the regular skinny-dippers at this terrific pool.
At an event, surrounded by terrific wimmin, I expressed my admiration for Radclyffe Hall and the other brave women who survived that oh so straight society in the 1920s. I loved the tweed suits, brown brogues and monocles. Whatever happened to Hilda Tablet, that wonderful creation of Henry Reed in the 1950s, on the BBC Third Programme? There were also Arthur Marshall’s wonderful monologues about plucky girls at boarding school. ‘Come along, Philippa, don’t be a silly sausage! Moping about because your ex-chum Olivia has cut you dead and is now nuzzling Gillian Custard of the upper sixth!’ I suppose Reed and Marshal would now be ostracised by those who take offence at anything funny, but in fact they played an important part in making us all more tolerant.
As for wit — what happened to that? Shot in the back up a dark alley. I really think that cartooning is in dire trouble, given the subjects you daren’t touch these days. Punch magazine was jeered at by the satirists for being a middle-class (dread word) bore. But it had great cartoons — Larry, Sprod, Ffolkes — and if you didn’t find the joke amusing, you always envied the drawing. At least the political cartoon is still flourishing, thank God. But not too many laughs there, I fear, though the drawings are often brilliant.
Of course, Punch had an audience which read the magazine. Now — and it’s too late to do anything about it (except to buy The Spectator) — everyone is glued to their mobiles. We should be frightened, very frightened for the mobileholics who don’t even notice the changing of the seasons, so lost are they in their screens.
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