Toryland, anger and the political cartoonist: A review of Lorna Miller

The Posh Boy, The Pants and The Pandemic, Lorna Miller, The Drouth £12.99, available here. Reviewed by Terry Anderson.

See all of Lorna’s Bella cartoons HERE.

Pity the poor cartoonist obliged to cast their eye across British politics. The morning’s most evident crisis supplanted by another before the ink on the day’s cartoon is dry. A new prime minister before having ever figured out how the nose of the last really looks. Back to the drawing board, again and again, hoping that the readership’s collective memory can stretch back over hours that feel like weeks and days that feel like years.

In her first published collection of political cartoons, Lorna Miller focuses on an event – the COVID-19 pandemic – and a figure – Boris Johnson – that we can safely assume have not yet faded from the consciousness. But it is astonishing when looking back at commentary that is barely more than two and half years old to see how some of the peripheral details now feel like ancient history. “God, remember when Dominic Cummings was someone we had to give brain space to?” Then turning our thoughts to Priti Patel. “Who’s that again? Oh yes, the most objectionable Home Secretary in the modern history of these islands… until the next worst.”

But this is a study of Johnson and his galling, perennially inadequate figure dominates. Here he is in all his dubious glory. Flatulent, jizz-stained, constantly open-mouthed, lounging around unethically refurbished apartments and gorging on cake at illegal parties, presiding over nested disasters when not on holiday, pretending he’s Churchill while the rest of us long for the light relief that a world war would bring.

The work is taken from Miller’s period as a weekly contributor at Bella Caledonia as well as an occasional guest in The Guardian. It is not unusual for a cartoonist’s take on a particular leader to evolve and simplify into a shorthand over time. With Johnson, we can see Miller starting with a fairly grounded approach (although from the outset there is evidence of a barely restrained madness in the facial expression) before arriving at a layering of multiple cyphers for the various aspects of his persona.

The sexual incontinence is transmitted with a motif of knickers instead of a facemask, but masks being anathema to caricature these migrate upwards soon after their debut. Pyjamas evoke his spell in hospital, but also his slovenly laziness in general. The distinctive tousled hair becomes increasingly outlandish, eventually resembling a bursting firework. Visual metaphors see him recast as a broken-down bus or a carnivorous plant.

Recent events make some of the cartoons seem utterly prophetic. The last cartoon in the book – with Johnson riding backwards on a donkey as Nadine Dorries looks on – could be a blueprint for his doomed attempt at a return to front-line politics in October. Who could have known he would try to pass himself off as the “spirit of Glasgow” at this month’s COP27, that spirit here rendered as a clownish jack-in-box emerging from a pothole. And back in the middle of 2020 Miller’s cartoons were speaking to the economic crisis to come.

Her medium is normally pen and ink (she styles herself Mistress of Line) but there is one whimsical diversion into Fuzzy Felt and occasional use of digital enhancement as the need arises. Allusions abound, even within this relatively short run: seaside postcards, classic children’s TV, Salvator Rosa, Claude Monet and Hieronymus Bosch.

Miller often fills in during Martin Rowson’s absences and, like him, is unafraid of deploying viscera and effluvia. Certain cartoons might be considered bad taste by some. I think that in times such as these civility – arch or wry comment alone – does not suffice. The UK Government was and is disgusting. We sat for three years, largely in our homes, unable to think of little else while a person signally, pathologically unsuited to the task “led” us through a once-in-a-century disaster only to discover he could not observe the simple rules he insisted would spare us the worst. We have been wounded, many of us physically, most of us psychologically.

We are entitled to feel revulsion and anger, and to share it. And there can be beauty in that expression as well as comfort and a sense of solidarity. If there is a grand purpose to political cartooning then surely it lies there, in that tension and the relief that comes from expression. An important person and the complex matters they command, distilled into a cartoon character and condensed for instant consumption in a matter of seconds. A dose of impudence and healthy scepticism, a quietly rebellious act.

Certainly, no dictator has ever been toppled by a cartoonist. But around the world multiple political cartoonists have been abused, criminalised and displaced for their temerity. At the time of writing (a necessary caveat these days) the Prime Minister is a person who has expressed a desire to lump in those who “vilify the UK” i.e. those who speak plainly about its history and legacy, alongside extremists.  The last time Canada’s Tories wrote anti-terror law, they included “visual representations” that “run counter [to] the government’s economic agenda” in the mix. Our lot yearn to tear up human rights law as they move to curtail industrial action and criminalise protest. Enjoy the cartoons while you may, folks.

Impossible to ignore when looking at this themed collection is Miller’s status as a sufferer of long-COVID, having fallen ill in the very earliest weeks of the pandemic. She describes the experience unflinchingly in her foreword – chronic pain, cognitive impairment, paralysis and more. Many questions remain unanswered about long-COVID, but Miller says she has also been given some hope as the infection forced a focus on her health that led to a greater understanding of other long-term conditions.

That is not to say she succumbed to monomania, nor the bitterness that might be expected in the circumstances. In her own words: “[…] in spite of the pain I disappeared into a world of fantasy, silliness and humour […] I decided ‘It’s a breakthrough, not a breakdown.”

There are shockingly few political cartoonists in evidence in Scottish media and, across the UK, those who still enjoy regular gigs are overwhelmingly male and uniformly white. The medium desperately needs revitalised and must involve and retain a plurality of voices. For these reasons, but above all for her unfailing good humour and imaginative cartooning, Miller’s contribution is to be cherished and thanks given that she came through these pandemic years unbowed.



Comments (2)

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  1. Alice says:

    Always loved Lorna’s work …beautifully drawn and very funny …Johnson is despicable our own wee Donald Dumpty …..will be buying the book as a very acceptable pressie for my politically minded sister and myself.

  2. Martin Eric Rodgers says:

    I have bought this for my daughter, also a long-term long Covid sufferer, hoping it will cheer her up.

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