For whom Bell tolls

Nick Smurthwaite flicks his way through political cartoonist Steve Bell’s book, Bell’s Eye, and finds an irreverent world of boggled eyes and underpants

The man who portrayed Mrs Thatcher as a power-crazed, mad-eyed despot for the ten years of her reign is celebrated in a new book, Bell’s Eye: Twenty Years of Drawing Blood, and an exhibition at the Barbican Centre, London.

Cartoonist Steve Bell, whose subversive strips in The Guardian have been winding up Westminster for two decades, is the first to admit that he’s a lifelong “pathological pinko” (he even boasts of being left-handed) for whom “stiffing a Tory” is one of his greatest pleasures in life.

An old-fashioned, un-reconstructed Labour man, Bell appears to be as contemptuous of Blair’s new broom as he was of Thatcher’s broomstick. “Thatcher’s triumph is complete,” he writes. “Her legacy safe in the hands of… a Labour government.”

As a young art student Steve Bell didn’t take long to discover that he wasn’t cut out to be a fine artist. Painting was pointless, he decided, since Cezanne had done it all. Sculpture was “an unmitigated pain in the arse”, and cartooning came under the heading illustration, so didn’t count as proper art at all.

In his spare time he began drawing a cartoon strip for a small magazine in Birmingham, for which he was not paid. It developed into the Cul de Sac Motel, based on the old TV soap Crossroads, with Mrs Thatcher as the imperious motel manager. He tried to combine the “sordid, realist style” of the controversial American cartoonist Robert Crumb, a hero from his teens, with the convivial spirit of the Beano’s Leo Baxendale (Minnie the Minx, The Bash Street Kids, Little Plum and so on).

“Style is generally the name I give to my mistakes,” says Bell. “It’s also a reaction against life drawing and a celebration of anatomical incorrectness. Some start with the eyes, some with the mouth. I start with the nose. The nose for me is the heart of the cartoon.”

What eventually inspired Bell to new heights was the advent of The Iron Lady, although his quite flattering early drawings show little of the wild-eyed creature that was to emerge later.

He moved on to create a benign, but ineffectual John Major, chiefly notable for wearing his underpants outside his trousers, and most recently, an ever-grinning, flappy-eared Tony Blair, accompanied by his faithful bulldog, Market, who’d rather be called John Prescott.

Bell is without question the funniest and most outrageous political cartoonist at work today. He has his off days, like anyone else, but I don’t ever recall seeing anything bland, either aesthetically or in terms of its sentiment.

As Bell says: “The thing I’ve always liked best about cartoons is that you can conduct arguments through them. You can get your own back on the whimsical psychopaths who run your life out there in the alleged real world.”

Bell’s Eye is in the Foyer Gallery of the Barbican Centre, London EC2, until 31 October. The book is published by Methuen, priced £12.99

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