Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Art of Cheating At Caricature

Really too tired tonight to make this a polished blog post full of clean prose. Besides, the following was an experiment; the kind of dumb exercise I often find myself attempting over a bank holiday weekend.

It began on Saturday afternoon. I'd been browsing the web and I followed a link that took me to the webpage of a fairly well-known illustrator. I had a look through his celebrated caricatures, which were all truly brilliant, yet I'd also noticed something strange about them. I though I recognised a few of the faces.

Now, that shouldn't be odd. He was drawing famous people so I would obviously know the faces. Yet it's wasn't that I knew the faces as much as I recognised the faces as they'd been originally photographed. A few minutes of googling later and I'd confirmed my suspicion. They might have been pulled and squeezed a little but they were exactly the same as the original photos. I was pretty sure that the bugger cheats!*

I couldn't be certain, of course,  and I'm still not certain. However, having spent a little time looking into the work of other digital caricaturists, I realised that cheating might not be as uncommon as I first suspected. There are dozens of the little buggers out there making a nice little fortune by using this technique. I therefore set myself a challenge. Not having done anything like this before, I set out to cheat.

I began by spending Saturday afternoon painting a caricature of Michael Gove. After a couple of hours, I had this... And believe me when I say that I hand painted every single detail. Click the image to see it bigger. You can see my brush stokes and the places I missed.

Now, I didn't have time to finish the tie and, frankly, wasn't sure what to do with it at this point. So I thought I'd try another, this time of Syria's Assad, which I finished sitting in a hospital cafe this morning. Yes, it really is that basic a technique. There's really no skill involved. With the Assad picture, I was much less careful about colouring in the patches. I rushed it with no concern for the 'art'. I just wanted to test the method. This is the result:

Normally I don't really care too much about using technology to help the process of creating something. I use spell checkers when writing and (much to the disgust of Stu), I use tippex when drawing cartoons in ink. Yet these two paintings genuinely make me feel so ashamed that I haven't (and won't) even bother signing them.

But let me explain the method, though it's so obvious and straightforward that you've probably figured it out already. I found two high quality images on the web and loaded them into Photoshop. I then applied the Liquify filter and followed the usual rules of caricature to distort the faces. In the case of the second, I then created a standard mock up of Assad with a noose around his neck and lifted the hand from Austin Powers (no more than ten minutes work). I then load it into a painting program and use the colour picker to pick the colour of an area which I then painted over with not much care. Rinse and repeat for a couple of hours and bingo. You get results like the above. In the case of the Assad, I used a blending tool to smooth out the patches. I also added the background myself after the original proved too difficult to copy. It accounts for the fact that it's the most amateur bit of the painting.

Now, some people would say this isn't cheating but I beg to differ. Is my effort of a few hours that much different to my simply applying a Photoshop paint-effect filter to my original composition which took about ten seconds?

Yet I guess people will say that I'm being harsh and perhaps I am. A few of the people who I suspect of using this technique do so as a start and their finished results can look spectacular to the point that they can take your breath away. And perhaps that's all that matters. Teller & Penn (the director should get the first credit, I think) made a brilliant documentary last year called 'Tim's Vermeer' which detailed how a non-artist could create 'great art' using a relatively simply mechanical process. Do people say Vermeer was any less talented an artist simply because he copied directly from nature?

Having said that, I personally don't like it. I know I could improve the technique if I invested more time into it. I could adapt it to produce more 'painterly' or stylized effects. Yet I can't help but feel that whilst they look impressive, they're somehow hollow once you know how they're done. In future, I think I'll stick to drawing my caricatures the way I've been learning for the past few years. I'd rather fail trying to learn the techniques of Gerald Scarfe or Al Hirschfeld than succeed by turning myself into a copying machine. I prefer my results won by hard work, trial and error, and plenty of mistakes. I just know that the next time I see one of those amazing caricatures you often see on the cover of magazine and newspapers, I'll be a little more suspicious about how they came into existence.

* 'Cheating' is, I know, a strong word. Perhaps you feel like it's also the wrong word but, for me, I think it's correct. Unless you admit to painting over a photograph, you are giving people the belief that you've achieved your results through your own skills. That's not to say none of the finished product is without skill but the 'likeness' is the caricaturist's most prized 'skill'. Getting a likeness is the hardest part of the artist's craft, especially when  pulling the face into contorted shapes. Gerald Scarfe is a genius because he can do that more than any other artist. If you're achieving the same through a mechanical process,** then I think it's correct to call it 'cheating'. If you're not cheating but producing amazing results, then congratulations: you really are a true artist.

** Of course, there's a second question. What constitutes a mechanical process? Does beginning with a grid count as mechanical? Well, I guess it does but this is about scale. All art is (or should be) about the craft and a craft is a mechanical process. A grid can still go wrong. It takes skill to make it work. Even a lightbox takes some effort to produce reasonable results. However, simply painting over a painting, using a colour picker to ensure exact colours is something else entirely. A machine could do it and often does it when applying filter effects. The only difference between that and a person doing it is that the human brings a degree of incompetence to the copying,  producing a more random effect, which makes it look hand drawn. It's our human inexactitude that makes the deception all the greater.

Electric Trains Hit The North

I’m on the first of two days of having to sit in a hospital coffee shop waiting for those closest to me have scans of one sort of another. However, today, once the scan was complete, we could escape and decided to head into Manchester. Nothing notable about that. It’s on the same train line and it has the best restaurant and bookshop in the form of Waterstones on Deansgate where I’m typing this, rather blissfully, if the truth be told.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the day was my first voyage on an electric train. Well, perhaps not my first if the Tube trains are electric and I suspect they are. However, for the North West, electric trains have been a long time coming. For years we’ve been putting up with engineering work on our main line between Liverpool and Manchester, all in the promise of a better service.

The better service arrived this morning and it felt largely horrible. Not that there wasn’t plenty of room because there was. As a taller than average bloke, I appreciated the legroom. The seats seemed oddly low but that’s a minor thing. Yet the train stank like an old radio that had overheated. It’s hard to describe except as ‘ cooked electrics’. What was worse was the noise. Jesus on a moped! It was like having your ears drilled by the Highland regiment of bagpipes and cat stranglers. I suppose the positives were more acceleration out of every station and once the speed was up, the horrible whine disappeared. But was it worth the years of waiting? Was it really work being unable to get into or out of the cities at night except by a slow plodding replacement coach service?

Well, I suppose it was. It’s cleaner and it felt quicker. Yet it also felt refurbished. I believe these new trains are refurbished, with ‘new’ for the North meaning what was too old for the south. London always seems to get new trains. We get something that looks a bit bolted together. In our carriage, there was an ugly post stuck right in the centre of the carriage. I guess it was conducting something (perhaps the juice from the overead lines) down into the undercarriage but really not that good on the eye. The whole thing felt second rate.

On a better note, Manchester Victoria station looks amazing. It’s long been considered one of the worst stations in the country but it’s had an almost complete rebuild and it’s breaktaking. Open, light, elegant. Just a shame about the bloody trains...

[Update: Too knackered to write anything polished but thought I should add that the train home changed my opinion somewhat. This time there was no smell of burnt radios. The new electric trains seem to be much longer and therefore have many more seats. Made for a pleasant change from the usual cattle trucks I've been used to in the past. They're also *fast*. The acceleration is a bit of a punch in the kidneys and once they get going they seem to really fly. However, there's still that 'whine'. Perhaps I'll get use to it.

The bad part is still the interiors which are pretty shoddy for 'new' trains. They're not a patch on the supposedly 'old' trains being run by Arriva on the North Wales line. Given a choice, I'd probably choose Arriva but it's tighter than it used to be. I like the new Victoria station (I think it will be genuinely spectacular when finished) and I might be tempted to take the electric line simply to get there quicker and to be closer to Waterstones when I arrive. Yet I still think that after years of promises, the new electric trains are a bit of a disappointment.]


Friday, 22 May 2015

Dolly Mixtures

So, I was researching something I was thinking of writing and my fruitless search for information had come up with bugger all. However, I did come across the name of a band called 'Dolly Mixture', which struck me as being a particularly bad name for a band, especially one that's labeled post-punk/new wave. It's a name that's overloaded with meaning and, for me, is a bit off putting. I mean dolly mixtures were a bag of toffees you'd be bought as a child and the name evokes too many memories good, bad, but mostly sweet. They were basically an the more sugary alternative to licorice allsorts but without the promise of a good bowel movement.

And then I started to listen to the band of the same name and I began to wonder again how talent can so easily go missed and unrecognised. Somebody has posted their entire Demo Tapes on Youtube and I think they're worth a listen.


Maybe I just don't know good music but I wonder if they'd had a better name and had been American, they'd have been bigger and I'd have already heard of them. Dolly Mixture feels like a name plucked from the 1960s, when female bands had to have clever quirky names like The Liverbirds and The Debutantes. Call them the 'Razor Blades' and you'd have had a different perception of the band going into your first listening.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Does anybody know the weight of the average duck?

I need to know but my duck research hasn't gone well.

New ink!

Well, I have a day of deep nozzle cleaning ahead of me, which sounds like the sort of thing a man should either enjoy or fear. The reality is much more banal. New ink arrived for my printer which has not tasted ink in a very long time. I used to use the printer daily but, for various reasons, the old beast has been slowly gathering dust on the end of my desk.

I am now in the process of trying to wake it up. Initial print test patterns look good but I'm having trouble with the nozzles on my cyan.

There is a chance that none of my efforts will get the old printer working again but the alternative is to buy a new printer and that way madness lies.

Printers come in two types: cheap and expensive. If you buy a cheap printer, you will usually end up paying a fortune for ink over the course of its lifetime. Not sure if printer ink is still as expensive as gold but it still comes in at ridiculous prices for small amounts. Yet if you buy an expensive printer, then the ink will usually be cheap, which says to me that printer ink is essentially a scam. The trick, I think, is to buy cheap ink unless you really want your documents to be 'archive quality'. I've never bought original ink for any of my printers and I've generally not had much trouble. This Canon MP620 has been running years on the kind of ink that the manufacture would tell you would bring it to its knees. (Apropos of nothing: electric shavers. I bought a shaver years ago and the instructions told me to change the blades every few months. That was years ago and it's still cutting the stubble every day or two. So what game where they playing, expecting me to fork out £20+ every few months? So much in the world seems to be a scam.)

Back to printers: Epson have a new 'tank' system which looks clever as hell but is also expensive as hell up front. [Dear Epson. Any chance of a test model to review?] It claims to come with two years of ink which, when I get printing in heavy duty mode, would save me about £100 (though that's buying really cheap non-OEM ink from Inkredible). Yet £100 off the £250 still makes it an expensive printer to buy.

But as I type that, another sheet emerges from the old Canon MP620. Colours seem to be clean and solid. Cyan is working! I can proceed with my plan. That machine is a beast!

New ink in my printer is only part of the reason I have a new 'private' blog, which is now alive and open to regular readers. Not that this now becomes my 'old' blog. This is still my main blog, where I'll continue to post the occasional bit of work. However, maybe not as many cartoons. Day to day, I want to live over there where things will be grubby and disorganised and, more importantly, 'unpublished'. Only a crazy fool gives all his best work away for nothing and I'm tired of being a crazy fool. So, if you do read regularly and want to come look in, send me an email or leave comment. You are most welcome.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Going Dark

I have a secret private blog which I've not updated since Friday, 17th June 2011 and I hadn't looked at since... Well, possibly, Friday the 17th June, 2011. Tonight I opened it and started to read.

It's really strange going back to a blog you had largely forgotten about. Yet, at the same time, it's my favourite blog. I had more fun writing that one blog than any of my blogs. I guess it's because it was more of a real blog, I was completely myself among friends and it dealt with an interesting period. I wrote the blog for about two years and there are nearly 1,400 posts, most of which contain a cartoon or graphic. It covered the writing of about three or four projects and most of the work there I'd simply forgotten about.

Not all of it was particularly good. The blog is really as much a catalogue of my failure as it is my success. I can see now that I was desperate for success. I was also learning to draw and I was jumping between book ideas too rapidly and my energy wasn't matched by my skill with the pen. I was drawing too much too quickly and there's more failure there than there is success.

Yet, oddly, not all of my ideas were crap. It's just that I seemed to latch onto my worst ideas and see them through to the end.

Anyway, this is one of the oddities I found. A reader of the blog went on holiday and took this picture.

I'm as embarrassed today as I was the moment I saw it.

Good times...

Which brings me to the reason for looking at the blog. I'm seriously thinking about 'going dark'. I gain nothing by putting all my work on show. I'm thinking about retiring back into a private realm where I can work and post things which I might later try to get published. I have two ideas that I'd like to try out but, obviously, not for public eyes. Yet I like getting feedback and, hopefully, some of you might enjoy watching me stumble about in the dark.

I'm not entirely sure if I'll do this (or how I'll do this) but should you be a regular reader and think you could stomach becoming a little closer to the daft things I do, then email me. If I have a few readers willing to follow me, I might consider giving this a try. I might just turn on this blog's registered users section. I might create a new blog here. I might simply invite you to the old private blog and let you see the 1,400 posts. Yet, part of me just wants to start afresh.

Anyway, that's my thought. Might or might not happen. I just feel that I need to change my routine.


Last week is now a strange blur. I built the new website for 'The What and the Why' in a record time of about three days, including transferring over all the posts and comments from the old site, and getting a new server up and running. It was hard work and very long hours but all utterly pleasurable. It's strange now looking at it, since unlike any of my own websites, it's a website that actually gets traffic.

I have a zero success when it comes to traffic. I have never written a site or blog that generated much in the way of regular readers. My sister ran a news website for a few years and it had huge readership. It was back when the internet seemed new and exciting. However, she ran afoul of her own good conscience. She actually paid for every photograph she published on the site and supported it with a small subscription model. Another site stole all the photos and pretty much put her out of business.

I know my lack of success lies with me and I'm just about coming to terms with that. This week, I want to reboot myself and think more carefully about what I'm doing. A certain person has also reappeared in my life. All I'll say is that I've been writing letters...

I also want to keep drawing more cartoons for myself. So, if you find that you don't like my daily cartoons, please try to remember it's because they're drawn to my own warped tastes and not because I hope they'll ever be published in a magazine.

A Sensual Cartoon

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Where Prince Harry can stick his National Service...

Bleary eyed, I read the morning headlines and saw that Prince Harry believes we should bring back National Service. Even half asleep, I could immediately spot the problem with this bleary brained nonsense.

His argument is based on the fact that he believes he would have 'gone off the rails' if it hadn't been for the army. Let's assume that it's true and that youthful Harry would have become even more synonymous with having a good time than he's already become. Yet isn't it a bit of an overreaction and just a mite selfish to force the entire nation into conscription just to keep him off the front pages of the tabloids?

And since when should the rest of us measure our worth on the slightly bent would-be ruler that is Prince Harry? I never went off the rails. I imagine quite a few of you who read this blog didn't go off the rails. In fact, I'd guess that most people didn't come even close to going off the rails in their youth. So why the hell should we be stuck doing laps on a parade ground simply to save the skin of some thick necked Palace dodo?

What worries me more is what National Service would have done to me. Oh, I like to think that I'd have taken to it like the proverbial water-bound duck. Inside a month I'd have been leaping from aircraft with a dagger between my teeth and a backpack full of fury. The reality, I think, is that it would have broken me. If I hadn't become 'Private Pyle' in Full Metal Jacket, complete with the 1000 yard stare, I'd have just gone off the rails, which is precisely what the experience of army life was supposed to save me from. I'd have rebelled and caused myself all kinds of grief. So, whilst Prince Harry would be enjoying rugby (a game I detest) with the lads, I'd have been trying to climb the electrified fence or caught trying to flee into Belgium or some much more enlightened country where I could just go sit in a corner with a coffee and a good book.

Not that there's any chance of National Service coming back but we do have a government led by a leader who has repeatedly proven that he's not immune to dumb ideas thrown casually into the public domain by celebrities. Given that the government have a problem with the size of the army and that they're never above forcing people into cheap labour, I'd be slightly worried if you are young and the thought of living in barracks appals you. Or perhaps they'll just make it a condition of entry into the UK. You can come in but you have to do three years in the military. Inside a couple of years, we'd have armed the entire youth of Eastern Europe who would turn on us and take the country by force...

These are crazy days filled with stupid ideas. National Service begins to look sensible compared to the breakup of the Union, petitions for the North of England to join with Scotland, and Britain leaving the EU.

There's just too much madness about today and I've not even finished having my breakfast.


Saturday, 16 May 2015



* Yes, I release that's a bit short for a blog post but what's a man to write when he's completely lacking in energy. It's been a mad four days since I agreed to build the website late on Tuesday evening. However, it's been damn fun. Intend to get back to proper blogging tomorrow, perhaps even draw something tonight.

Of course, if I had the energy, I'd make this footnote long enough to prove that I do have the energy to blog. But I don't. I'm knackered.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Sorry sorry sorry...

Been working. Constructing a new website (not mine) so I've been burning the oil around both midnight and dawn.

I'm glad to be busy and too busy to draw or write. Pretty depressing reading the day's papers. Not much of a fan of Chuka Umanna (a bit too slick for my tastes) but Labour seem to be going into meltdown at the moment. This isn't helped by the media who seem to enjoy the sight of the Labour Party going into meltdown. What I find shocking, though, is the extent to which the news and political news is dominated by people wanting to stick the boot into Labour.

Since when was news media meant to attack the opposition party mercilessly and leave the government alone? I intend to write more about this in the coming days but last night's Question Time was a perfect example. Jeremy Hunt spent the entire show looking slightly smug and barely saying a word, whilst the audience attacked Nigel Farage and Tristram Hunt. Both, incidentally, acquitted themselves well and all the nonsense spoke about Farage's leadership status seems ridiculously overblown. Not a UKIP supporter by any means but, damn it, they hold quite valid political positions, which aren't breaking any laws. Seems like they have the right to express themselves just like everybody else and these attempts to shout them down only aid their cause.

Urgh. Need to get cracking. Deadlines to meet.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Hurray! Harry Shearer is leaving The Simpsons

No cartoon today. Last night I was putting in some long hours on a website. However, time this morning to quickly write about the news that Harry Shearer is leaving The Simpsons.

Normally I’d greet such news like I’d trapped my thumb in the dentist's door. I was and still am a big fan of The Simpsons but, truth be told, I’ve not been a regular viewer in a long time. It’s easy to say that The Simpsons isn’t what it once was yet I don’t necessarily think that’s true. The times I have seen it recently, the show has still been strong. What it is, perhaps, is too familiar. I watch so very little TV these days that it takes something special to make me move outside of my usual routine. There are lots of shows I love but I don’t get around to seeing. I’ve not seen the new series of Mythbusters, Veep, or even the new Vic and Bob comedy for the BBC. I’ve guess I suffer a bit from the increased fragmentation of TV in the UK. I don’t have the time to study the thousand channels to spot when my favourite shows are being broadcast.

However, one thing that did make me move out of my usual routine and search the channels was last year’s Nixon’s The One. Nixon’s The One is the main reason I’m not too upset that Shearer is leaving The Simpsons. Shearer is better than The Simpsons and has always been better than The Simpsons.

Of course, people usually nod when you say something like this and say ‘Spinal Tap’ but Spinal Tap isn’t my favourite Shearer moment. My favourite Shearer moment is the close of The Mighty Wind, a film I prefer over Spinal Tap simply because the songs are so damn catchy. He’s great too in the other Christopher Guest movies he’s been in but it was the Nixon show last year that made me hope for more from him. Nixon’s The One might well have been my favourite show of last year. It was a very odd little drama but so compelling. Shearer was astonishing it it too and seemed to have channeled the spirit of Nixon.

Leaving The Simpsons might be the sign that it could happen. He must be as wealthy as Elon Musk’s nanny’s butler and able to afford to make anything happen. It’s bad news for fans of The Simpsons but Harry Shearer fans should probably be happy today.


Monday, 11 May 2015

The Spine Podcast - Episode 11: Clive James and the Art of Bad TV

From Priti Patel to Katie Hopkins: A Nation of PR Harridans

I confess that I'm mentally and emotionally having a bit of hard time at the moment. I'm trying hard to hold it together, to keep on working, but life has suddenly got very difficult. I simply can't get my mind around the Tory win.

Oh, you might scoff and I can't reasonably explain why I'm feeling so utterly dejected and why I'm finding it hard to find much purpose in life. The passion has gone from my work. Yet I'm not some rabid left winger who hates Tories for ideological reasons. I'm fairly apolitical but I do believe in certain things which are suddenly anathema to the new Tory government. It's like my belief system has been entirely invalidated by the nation. Everywhere I look, I feel like I have dead eyes looking back at me. Dead eyes that see through me. Dead eyes and dead minds which cannot comprehend why a man should feel this low.

If there's one thing that sums up this dejection I'm feeling, that one thing is the appointment of the new employment minister, Priti Patel.

Patel has constantly been on TV over the election campaign. She caught my eye because she was one of those polished performers that the Tories produce so well and Andrew Neil does so well in embarrassing. They have the fixed-distance stare of a trained killer, so certain are they that their policies are right. In a few performances on the Daily Politics, Patel revealed herself to be immensely dim and though I hesitate to call somebody stupid, frankly, yes, she was stupid. She is stupid in the very same way that Katie Hopkins is stupid. They are stupid because they both lack humility. They are incapable of understanding that their belief in their own intelligence limits their intelligence.

There can be no surprise that both of them come from the vacuous world of PR. They are similar in temperament, attitude, and fierceness when it comes to their own twisted morality. I keep finding myself reaching for the term 'Loose Women' but that's what strikes me about both. They have the mid-afternoon ITV rage of the small business owning woman who would sooner slice you open with a razor blade than they would look on you kindly. It's the sense that to compete in a male world, they've had to adopt male attitudes but take them to a new blazing level of cruelty. Oddly, it's an attitude that Thatcher never had. Thatcher's strength was more of an intellectual strength. Love her or hate her, Thatcher occasionally engaged her brain. It was intellect that taught her that to be powerful, you lowered your voice and spoke more slowly. Patel and Hopkins are not thinkers. They are dilettantes who have retained their femininity but you get the sense that when they come out fighting, they do so with fingernails raking the eyes and heels spiked into shins. Their politics are a shriek. They would sooner seek out the extreme than spend time thinking hard about an issue.

Patel is a strong conservative, by which I mean, on the Tebbit wing of the party. She believes in hanging, which says everything you need to know about a person. Think about that deeply and consider what kind of person believes in a practice that was already considered barbaric in the 1950s. Think about how dumb a person needs to be to fail to understand why civilized nations turned their backs on hanging. Think about the psychology of a nation that carries out hangings; about the people who would have to carry out state sanctioned killings. Think about fault lines in the legal system, where mistakes can happen. Think about the simple morality of hanging a person until they're dead.

No issue cuts so deeply to the heart of who we are as a people. No issue is quite so complicated or require such a broad range of expertise to fully understand in terms of the biology, the psychology, the ethics, jurisprudence, government, and even theology. To believe in it shows how little humility they have but, moreover, how little humanity.

That shouldn't surprise anybody who has done a little reading up on Patel. Before she became an MP, she helped tobacco companies communicate with the Tories and then she went to work for an alcohol company. In other words: she was the kind of mercenary gun-for-hire who cares nothing about the harm her work does but is happy to do it so long as it's well paying.

And now she's in charge of the benefits for people who are sick, disabled, low paid and vulnerable.

Just writing that line does nothing to alleviate my pain. I can feel myself slipping into a deeper despair.

Sunday, 10 May 2015


I'm in a screw-the-world mood today, which is always the case when I work particularly hard on something and then the blog traffic dries up. Sometimes I wonder if I could deliberately create anything that could prove less popular. I doubt if I could.

Other than write and record the podcast, I spent yesterday turning my attention to things other than politics and current affairs. I drew three cartoons, two of which go straight into the folder labelled 'things only I find funny'. It was a strange day in that respect. I'd fired up my Gag Machine for the first time in a few weeks and the ideas began to flow like they've not flowed in a while. I wrote until I had a full page of cartoon ideas and thereby proved to myself that sometimes the imagination does indeed run flat and needs time away to recharge.

Of course, I look at the list today and wonder what the hell I was thinking. A few of the ideas towards the bottom are indistinguishable from madness. As I write the ideas, I always sort them according to their strength. Some are fully fleshed out ideas and others are just strange phrases that I like to keep in the chance that on a future day I'll look again and see the cartoon that was previous only peeping out.

I then start drawing them, working my way down the list, hoping that by the time I reach those at the bottom, I'll have sat down and written a new list, which I incorporate into the old. Over weeks, the list will reach hundreds of ideas, the best of them drawn and the remainder undrawable. When the undrawables gets too long, I usually abandon the list and start again. Yesterday was one of those new starts.

Today I intend to spend drawing more cartoons for myself. I've missed them. There's something to be said about trying to draw standard 'mainstream' cartoons on topical affairs but it can get wearying. I started to cartoon all those years ago because I like to draw the sort of surreal cartoons that I find funny but I so rarely see published anywhere. When I say cartons for myself, I mean that my absolute favourite cartoons lie in a very hard to define region between the lucid and insane. I mean this sort of thing:

The fact I have so few of this kind of cartoons over the past few months is a bad sign. I've been chasing the kinds of non-surreal cartoon ideas I see elsewhere which I don't find quite as funny but stand a reasonable chance of getting published.

That's one of my chief frustrations. My favourite cartoons would never get published. They appeal to such a very small minority of people who share my sense of humour and 'get' them. It means I end up trying to restrict my natural instincts towards the 'crazy' and draw ideas like 'Issac Newton under tree. Apple logo falls on his head'. That was on my list yesterday and I thought it so weak that I even uttered an 'urgh!' as I wrote it down. I also knew it must have been done before, not only once but a thousand times. And frankly, I wouldn't find it funny if I saw it. So I changed it and had 'Isaac Newton under tree. Apple Mac falls on his head'. Now that's a bit funnier but I also guessed it would have been done and so it has.

That is the kind of cartooning I hate. It probably explains why I don't get published and get so dejected when my best work is rejected. The market forces you towards the mainstream and to copy the cartoons you see getting published. You end up worn out by the struggle to be derivative and 'middle class'. I'm going to see if I can hold that back for a while and try to just enjoy cartooning for a few days.

For that reason, I'm glad that politics will now ease off. The politicians are now heading deep into 'screw you' territory where it becomes dispiriting to follow.

Tom Watson is a fine MP and, despite my earlier reservations about him, I think he's worked tirelessly around the business of Westminster pedophiles and other forms of systemic corruption. He's now running for deputy leader but I had a jaw-crushing-my-toes moment when I saw how he's trying to crowd-fund his campaign and will probably succeed.

I clearly go about things the wrong way. I can't raise enough money to buy myself a new pair of boots and after a few hours Watson is already two grand up towards his £25,000 target to fund his campaign. Scratch that. In the time it's taken me to write all of the above, it's gone up another £1000.

Twenty five thousand pounds! And that's only to become deputy leader. It seems such an odd thing to do only days after winning your seat and another five years on a Christ-only-knows-but-I-can-only-dream-about salary. The donations are already in crazy donation territory. Plenty of people throwing £50 at him but also many over £100. If politics engages people that much, how come the things I've done with a political slant have the lowest traffic? It baffles me. In ten years of blogging, my biggest donation remains less that £10.

I should start offering to sell my original inked cartoons for a stinking fortune. I should stop writing a blog which actually costs me money to give away the entire creative output of my brain. It's madness. I need to learn from these socialists about how to make money. I've been going about it the wrong way. I'll never afford boots that don't leak water at toes at this rate.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Spine Podcast: Why Tristram Hunt should be the next Labour Leader

Well, this for me is a big decision. I've made a non-election podcast. I'll be making more and not all of them will be about politics. However, I'm still in a political frame of mind and today I wanted to argue why I think Tristram Hunt should be the next Labour leader. I know real Labour folk will disagree but real Labour folk are possibly the reason why they keep failing. Idealism gets in the way of common sense. Anyway, give it a listen and if you enjoy it, have any suggestions, or just want to give me encouragement to do more, please leave a comment or email me at thespineblog@gmail.com. I'm still not sure what I'm doing but I'm having fun doing it. [Apologies for the vulgar 'coke' joke at the beginning. Once written, I couldn't resist leaving it in.]

The Mysterious Folder of Blatteryness

I've been going through my old work directories, sorting out my cartoons, when I came across this folder of mysterious Photoshopped pictures. I have no idea why I created them, only that it was way back in 2011. I don't know what to do with them other than post them here. Perhaps somebody will find a use for them...

Friday, 8 May 2015

Why Politics Matters

The Old FE College

'I voted Labour,' said the woman at the bus stop. I was riding past and despite the weeping rain  encouraging me to hurry home, I squeezed the brakes a touch so I might catch what she said next. 'I always vote Labour. We all vote Labour but we rarely get Labour.'

'Locally we do,' piped up another.

'Oh, yes, locally... But we never voted for Tories and look what they do.'

Momentum was my enemy. Even with my brakes slowing me down, I was soon beyond earshot.  Yet I didn't need to know the rest. I know what 'they do'. Everybody knows what they do. They take away hope.

Hope used to exist in the form of the town's further education college. Nearly all of the locals had passed through its doors at one time or another. It was a much loved building and reassuringly solid, crafted from red brick and the local sandstone artfully arranged in a style of the late nineteenth century. Buildings of the same kind dot the North West, the last reminder of the patronage of industrialists who lived among their workers rather than across the globe. The buildings usually have impressively old dates and reassuringly down-to-earth names inscribed on various slabs. Ours was the kind of old municipal building that was built when people took pride in their town. I'd never studied there but I'd used its library often. It was full of the kind of technical books missing from the local library next door. It also had the only quiet study room in miles.

The college had been there over a century before cuts turned it into a smashed derelict. Developers then arrived and offered to turn it into flats and they assured locals that they'd respect the much loved facade. Protests were started but the council allowed the sale to go through. Then there was an announcement that the much loved facade was providing difficult to respect. It wouldn't fit into designs. There was a request to demolish it but then the protests turned more serious. People amassed outside our much loved college. It was something they cared about.

I can't emphasise that enough. The town has never had that many buildings to help distinguish from any other. We had a beautiful art deco cinema which (handily) succumbed to fire after developers couldn't get permission to demolish it. We have a town hall that stands empty and I have no doubt will eventually go the same way, despite it being the town's chief landmark and one of the venues where the Beatles played before they became famous.

Yet no building felt quite as important as the college. It was the place where many relationships and marriages began, careers were formed, and opportunities taken. It was the place where new mothers went to learn the skills of motherhood. My own mother went there to learn dressmaking, which accounted for all the home made trousers I wore as a child back when 'austerity' wasn't a political catchphrase but a grim reality. Fathers went there to learn skills such as plumbing or plastering. It even had a small sense of academic credibility. You could study for 'O' levels at night in subjects such as French and Maths. After it closed, it was replaced by a local community centre where you can study subjects ranging from 'crystal reading' to 'Zumba' or whatever weird new fitness craze is currently popular. If I weren't so depressed, I'd have written that line better. It would have been funny.

The old college was part of what made this sad little working class town different to all the other sad little working class towns. Then, one morning, not so long ago, the town woke up to discover that the old college had been completely flattened overnight. It's now a bloody big hole in the ground. There were protests but nobody really fights too much about a pile of rubble. I don't know why I care or I choose to write about it on this wet pleading Friday at the barrel end of another five year Tory government. Around here, very few people voted for the government and the government will know it. I guess things will get worse before they get better. And complaining about it does so very little.

Like everything I write on this blog, this post enters the void of internet banalities which all ultimately mean so little. Read this or look at a cat meme. It all means nothing. Is there even any meaning behind a load of red bricks piled up a certain sensible way a hundred or so years ago? The Tories would probably say there isn't. The bricks of the old college have now been sold on to provide the authentic Northern working class look to some town houses in one of the more fashionable middle class zones in Manchester, Liverpool or beyond where the bankers and footballers live.

Those of us who used to cherish having a local college now just have a hole in the ground and, coming soon, some bland jumble of the modish and the mod con.

And I don't really know what I'm trying to say other than it was very grey in town this morning and I got very wet.

The Spine Election Podcast - Episode 9

Wrapping things up with (definitely) my last election podcast.

North Korean Nuke Cartoon

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Grim Night

But I forecast this back in November. My system maintains its 100% record. It was the only statistic you needed to guess the outcome.

Macramé is my passion

Well, that's me finished with politics. Washed my hands of the stinking business. I've learned one important lesson from this election and it's that no bugger cares. I've done some pretty unpopular things in my day (held a Twitter yoga class, wrote a book as Richard Madeley's number one lookalike, pretended to be Steven Martin's gogo dancers, tried to pass myself off as London's only midget gigolo, wrote a book of pornographic short stories, drew 101 cartoons about why I hate Man United, wrote an Android shuffleboard game including the best version of Dutch shuffleboard on the market, built a Gag Machine for Windows)* but nothing comes quite as close to an unmitigated disaster as my election podcasts. I recorded eight in total and they've probably not had that number of listeners. Perhaps the majority of people are just completely shut off from politics. Perhaps they're just shut off to me, for whatever reason: my voice, my words, my thoughts, my attitude. The point is: I need to move on. Find something else to fill the blog.

I keep getting hits from an arts and crafts website, which makes me wonder if that's the route I should take. I have no idea how to do macramé but I think I should be talking about it, perhaps in the form of a 30 minute weekly podcast given a modern twist involving a beard I'll grow or possibly fashion using my developing macramé skills. Hipster Macramé? You might laugh (but more likely won't) but I think there's money in knotted string. I'll Kickstart it for ten grand and become the nation's macramé  uncle. I'd have five good years on ITV and then become involved in one highly publicised sex scandal involving a rubberised  Great Dane and a copy of Wisden. I'll have to appear on the Philip Schofield sofa and sob a little bit into his lilac scented lap but eventually the nation would forgive me and I'd go on to host a popular travel series on BBC1 in which I ride Claire Balding around the Baltic. Don't tell me you wouldn't watch that because I know damn well that it would be compulsive viewing.

By the way, if you were wondering... Yes, I'm in a slightly ticked off mood and you probably think: when is he ever not in a slightly ticked off mood? However, that's not always the case. Blogging usually puts me in a ticked off mood and my total inability to connect with the British people frustrates the hell out of me. It's why macramé is my passion or it will be once I can get the knot out of this piece of string I'll be fashioning this afternoon into a nut sling, a stylish cradle to suspend a few cashews or brazils over my desk and within easy reach. Some of you with filthier minds than mine will have imagined something different when I mentioned 'nut sling' but, there again, I don't connect with the current zeitgeist. However, that ends right now. This blog is either going to attack the shortage of serious macramé websites or it will join the back of the queue of websites offering free pornography and since I have more string in the shed that I have rutting Russians, macramé is the way to go.

It's a shame it's come to this. I thought my recent cartoons had been good but it feels like they're among the least popular that I've ever drawn. I'd hoped that colouring in my cartoons might have made them more popular but the reverse has been the case. I suspect if I went back to black and white and then completely omitted the black, they'd be even more popular. I tried that last night and here's my first attempt.

Oh, some people might say that it's a bit obscene but don't tell me that you've never fantasised about using a stick of licorice like that. Let me also point out how much skill was involved in drawing licorice with white ink.

However, I've digressed when I was intending on explaining the basics of macramé and I haven't even got to the stage of telling you about how much string you'll need in order to follow me as I work on our first project together: a macramé  Gillian Anderson, five foot two inches of sexy woven goodness, upper lip mole a cunningly deployed larks head knot sure to melt the heart.

However, we'll have to cover that in the next lesson. I've got into a slight tangle here and every time I cross my legs I manage to hoist the cat up the curtains.

Until anon, macramé fans.

* All things I actually did.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Spine Election Podcast - Episode 8

A last minute change of mind and I have 28 minutes to post this before it's officially polling day.

This one isn't about the election as much as I wanted to write and say something about the role of the media. Not sure it helps. Not sure anybody listens. Yet it helped me to clarify a few thoughts, have a moment of hissing at certain pundits, and filled a rainy afternoon. Enjoy or don't enjoy. I'm weary with the effort of giving a damn. When will I ever learn?

The Cut

Well, I made the cut.

Now back to sitting in a darkened room trying to wrestle words into the shape of Carole Malone.

Iranian Haircut Cartoon

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Spine Election Podcast - Episode 7

And the Youtube version...

So long suckers!

Well, this is it. I've finally landed in the BIG TIME. Notice how I kept my caps lock on for those two words? That's because I'm officially now A PLAYER. Oh, I won't need to hang around with any of you losers now that I'm 'in the money'. And not a bit of money, either. I'm talking about $9.3 million in my account. I assume the tax man will want to come for a bit of that and I'll be sending out some little gifts to those of you who have supported me over the years with donations and/or comments. I'm not a greedy man. I'm happy to spread a bit of my good fortune with those of you who have proved yourself a cut above the norm. I figure £10,000 for each of you should make your week.* Oh, no need to say a word. It's a mere token of my gratitude. As for the rest of you: you won't see me for dust. And I'm talking gold dust.

In case you're wondering how I became so wealthy overnight, I'm sad to report that my relative Jay V Waywell has just died. I don't remember much about Jay, to be fair. I dimly recall having an distant uncle called Jay who used to walk with a limp after catching a grenade fragment in World War 2. He didn't fight in World War 2, of course. He just liked to play with explosives. Strange man. I believe he went on to invent disposable wear-once underpants. Once claimed to have worn a pair once for twenty two days before they began to rot. I knew he'd strike it rich one day but $9.3 million! That's a lot of wear-once underpants, especially if you wear a pair for twenty two days.

For the records, I learned the news from this email, which, I think you'll agree, looks legit. Oh, there's nothing about this that could raise suspicions and I say that as a man who has raised more than one suspicion in my time.

Dear Waywell,

Please do accept my apologies I do not wish to invade into your privacy, I had written an earlier mail to you but without response,In my first mail I mentioned to you about my late client Jay V Waywell,who bears the same surname with you,Since his death I have received several letters from his Bank where he made a deposit of $9.3MIllion before his death, the bank has asked me provide his next of kin or any of his relatives who can make claim to his funds or it will be confiscated by the bank,as i could not locate any of his relative hence i contacted you for this claim since you have the same surname with him. Upon your response I will give you the details and procedures of the transaction,waiting for your reply.. please reply to (sheky.martin123@gmail.com)

Sheky Martin.

* Payable only when the $9.3 million clears my account.

A cartoon about Texas

This weekend I tried new software and a slightly different workflow. This is the result. Looks slightly different but I'm happier with the new system. Hopefully the cartoons will begin to improve. Click the image to reveal all the terrible technique

Monday, 4 May 2015

A cheerful cartoon about Philip Hammond in Bahrain

The Tent

It’s the May Day bank holiday, the first really warm sunny bank holiday of the year, and I was woken, naturally, about 8am by the neighbours screaming at each other in the garden.

‘I can’t hit it! It’s made of rubber!’

It hasn’t stopped all day.

‘You’ve put it upside down, stupid woman!’

They’ve been putting up a tent.

‘It won’t go in!’ screams the Her.

‘Well bloody push it!’ shouts the He.

There have also been grand children complimenting the tableau. The kids have been sceaming at them and they have been screaming at the kids. They’re one of those strange families who never seem to have been anything other than ‘grandparents’, even though they’re relatively young. Give it ten years and they’ll be great grandparents and won’t have been long past sixty years. Another fourteen to sixteen years, they’ll be great great grandparents. If you ever wonder why our species is doomed, you need only look over our garden fence. The planet will be destroyed by copulating lovers of ornamental wind chimes.

The row was expected. In fact, the whole thing is so predicatble that I haven’t the energy to throw my verbal weight into another 1000 anti-spring bank holiday piece so I’ll merely direct you to the one I wrote earlier. Besides, I don’t think I could write a better one. While I'm about it, here's a very old cartoon.

Listening to Mrs and Mrs Homebase arging amid their cherubs and native American dreamcatchers, I began to contemplate the looming election. I fail to wonder why people don’t seem to hate Cameron as much as I do and then I think of the neighbours. I’ve just stormed out the room because DC was standing on another building site in his luminous yellows and hard hat. I think perhaps that people see that as being engaged with the ‘project’. I just see it as another example of how to avoid meeting people. Yesterday he pulled out of the Citizen UK debate, apparently the first PM to do so in living memory.

The sad reality about this is that too few people really care. Mr and Mrs Homebase have their tent to erect. If they vote (and I assume that they do) it’s probably out of some latent sense of duty. Most people are like them and I can never be entirely sure that it’s a bad thing. It’s the same argument as I keep making about ‘hardworking people’. People are motivated by things which are personal to them and rightly so. Without some selfishness in our lives, we would have a bee mentality, working for the hive.

Hell. Is this beginning to sound almost Ayn Randian? Is this proto-Tory thinking at its slackest? Have I just argued myself into believing that I have enlightened neighbours, who express everything you could wish to express about personal liberty each and every time they have a screaming row about tent flaps?

I need to go lie down.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Miliband Makes Pledge

Ajockalypse Now

I'm being treated to a day away from my keyboard so I only have about fifteen minutes to unwrap this morning's news before I have to head for the train.

I've just read Boris Johnson talking about Milband in The Sunday Times and I'm not sure which part of the argument I liked the least. We have more baiting of Scotland with the headline phrase 'Ajockalypse Now', which might make a few people smile but I just frowned. It's more of that tactic we've seen at this election of deliberately winding up Scottish voters so they're even more pissed with the established Westminster parties. The more Tories wind up the Scottish, the stronger the SNP's hold is Scotland becomes and the weaker Ed Miliband's position in Westminster. I'm not Scottish, though my grandmother was, but I still find it shabby and insulting. I have no doubt that Boris would be making similar jokes if the election was going to be decided by voters in the north or the south west, or any area other than the great South East who seem to be the only people that really matter in this and every election.

Secondly, Boris came out with this gem. "Ed Miliband fundamentally doesn’t believe in the market. I don’t believe there’s any aspect of capitalism that he seems to relish or approve of."

Ignore what Miliband might or might no believe. Think instead about the thing that Boris seems to hold as an unquestionable truth. His faith in capitalism sounds almost religious. Why should anybody 'believe' in the market as though the market were some omnipotent being? I don't believe in the market but I can see that it exists. I can see also, in certain contexts, that it works extremely well. However, I can also see that the market is often deeply flawed and that's my problem with the current Tories: they seem to believe that society should be entirely aligned to the market.

Working on something else the other day, I came across Simon Mainwaring's book We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Renew Capitalism and Build a Better World. From the parts I had chance to read, it was pretty gushing about social media but, from my point of view, quite chilling in the way that social media was going to make people's lives indistinguishable from the patterns of consumerism. I'm probably not doing the book justice but I think the argument went that companies should aim to organically intertwine their business with people's every patterns of life. It was depressing but goes to what I think is the root of this election. It goes back to that phrase the Tories keep using and I find so troublesome: hardworking people.

It implies everything that the Mainwaring book pinpointed: that we are merely fodder for the consumerist meat grinder. Tories celebrate 'hardworking people' though rarely does anybody point out how many of the buggers earn in excess of £30,000 or £40,000 a year for just a couple of hours consultancy work each week. Hardworking or 'on a good thing'? I suppose only you can decide. Yet what do they really mean? That we should be happy because they give us mobile phones, Twitter, and a couple of hours a week to do something other than stick doorhandles on a car?

But that's my 15 minutes and here I have to end it. If you want more, I suggest you watch this excellent exchange between Kenneth Williams and Michael Parkinson, in which the subject of sticking doorhandles on a car in central to the argument (begins about the 7 minute mark). In case you're wondering, I think Parkinson is absolutely right.






Saturday, 2 May 2015

Baghdadi Injury Update


Strange business. The first time I ever posted something that was really opposed to our government and for the next 12 hours, my server starts to act crazy. I've had to reboot it three times and I'm still not sure it's going to stay up. A more paranoid man than me would say that I'm under attack from dark forces. I'm assuming it's just one of those tricks of the light.

In the meantime, there's a new royal baby and my plans to accede to the thrown are made that bit more complicated. Not sure what any of this means for the election except I've already seen my least favourite PM grinning in that shiny way he has... But I shouldn't say that in case the men in the black government van are listening and decide to make my server go wobbly again. I mean, of course, my favourite PM has been sharing his job with the happy nation.

But look at me writing a blog post from within the blog window... This is far too spontaneous. I'll be back later with a cartoon I'v nearly finished. I think it's a funny one. Hope the men in the GCHQ van agree.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Why I'm So Sick of David Cameron

[Apologies for the following. Call it election fever. Call it spin sickness. Call it: I just needed to get this off my chest. I try so hard to be apolitical but sometimes things become too much.]

I'm so sick of Cameron. I'm really bloody sick of that smirking salivating charlatan. I'm sick of the way he keeps licking his lips like some gecko so greedy that he won't disgorge one worm before eating another. I'm sick of the way he talks about the NHS as though he really understands how pitiful the health service has become under his indifferent care. Does he really understand what it's like being in pain and living appointment to appointment when they're six months apart and often fruitless because the system has lost the previous lot of blood tests for the second time running?

The death of his son was tragic. I cannot begin to understand how painful it was. My heart goes out to both him and his wife because they are human beings and such tragedy deserves our compassion. But, unlike him, I could never use such a personal tragedy to close down debate when debate is essential. The fact he can do that reveals a malign side to his character. There really are worse things that weaponising the NHS. He'll do anything to win because he doesn't believe in anything other than winning.

Does he really believe that people should be severely punished when they don't turn up to a job interview? What happens when the person not attending the job interview is the Prime Minister, who refuses to debate properly with the other party leaders? Who takes his benefits away from him?

Does he really understand what a 'hardworking person' looks like? Most hard working people don't want to be reminded that they're hardworking because that's to remind them that the majority of their life will be spent in servitude to others who see them as minimum wage fodder. People do not live to be hard working. Only people who are rich enough to work for pleasure believe such lies. People work to survive and, beyond that hope, for pleasure and the occasional blue sky.

Does he really think that Eton, Oxford, a brief dalliance with 'the City', and then straight into Tory Party HQ gives him the right to talk about the our work ethic? It's almost as insulting as seeing George Osborne in hard hat and luminous jacket trying to look like he's actually dirtied his hands on something other than used hundred pound notes.

I'm so sick of the pretence and the media spin. I'm sick of the games they play with important things. I'm sick of them wanting we English to resent our families in Scotland and those in Scotland to resent the English. I'm sick of them wanting to divide all of us and make us look on every stranger as though they're somehow the enemy simply because they're poor or disabled or don't share our accent.

I'm sick of being ruled by people whose biographies are filled with holes and lies and not a hint of morality. I'm sick of the media spin, the dirty tricks, the orchestrated campaigns to misinform, mislead and disenchant a public who are politically naive.

I'm also sick of seeing holes in the roads and having holes in my boots because they've weakened the institutions of this country. They claim that they're the party for rich professionals but no party has ever done so much to destroy the professional classes. They want to deprofessionalise teaching, medicine, the law simply so they can hire cheaper workers. It's all about market forces whose basic drive is to kill or be killed.

I'm sick of them talking about austerity as though it's a real thing. There is no austerity. There is just the same old Tory ideological obsession with competition. And this is the key thing to remember. These aren't even Conservatives and I wish true Conservatives would realise that and vote them out. Old One Nation Tories should be ashamed to wear the party blue. They were people you could talk to. They had a rational distrust of ideology and a belief in helping the entire nation. They believed in something greater than these dead-eyed dolts still enchanted by the Thatcherite spell which clear-sighted people now realise was a curse put on all of us.

I'm sick of paying for everything that used to make life fun. Simple things like watching cricket in the afternoon without paying through the nose for a comprehensive sports service you neither want nor need.

I am sick of what this country has become: a nation of thick-necked heavily tattooed testosterone soaked Neanderthals who are the only ones who will succeed because Darwinian forces care nothing for compassion, kindness, politeness, or generosity.

Most of all, I'm sick of feeling ashamed to be British because to be British is to be either selfish, crass, and cruel, or it means to be trod down. I remember the days when it meant so much more than that.

A Cartoon about Our Glorious Leader, Kim Jong Un