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Pont’s Cartoons: Lampooning “The British Character”

December 29, 2009
The British, with their tidy minds
Divide themselves up into kinds.
The common kind they call the masses,
The better kind — the upper classes.
In either case it’s really not
A specially inspiring lot.
The common ones play darts in pubs,
The others slowly die in clubs.

These clever lines by Graham Laidler are an extension of his famous cartoons. Laidler, calling himself Pont, is perhaps most famous for a series called “The English Character,” which he produced in the 1930s for the noted humor magazine Punch (which published from 1841-1992 and again from 1996-2002). His caricatures appeared above captions like “Love of Fresh Air,” “Inability to Learn Foreign Languages” and “Hatred of Throwing Things Away.” “Adaptability to Foreign Conditions” portrayed a foursome elegantly clad in gowns and black tie, decorously playing cards at a folding table under a camping lantern in the African bush as a half-dressed black servant comes runing with a tray of cocktails.

For the British, like any nation, characterizing themselves can be an entertaining hobby. (One of my favorite, and most academic, recent attempts, is anthropologist Kate Fox’s Watching the English.) Explained the London Times in 2006:

The English middle classes have always loved Pont’s depictions of them. Most identify qualities in ourselves that we ought to blush about, but are rather proud of, such as our reluctance to treat anything entirely seriously. A Pont cartoon of 1940 showed an outraged housewife confronting a German stormtrooper in her garden, saying: “How dare you come in here!” Britain’s reluctance to get serious about Hitler nearly sunk us [sic], of course, likewise our resistance to industrial change, languages, collaboration with Europe, etc. Yet until recently, most of us have been pretty smug about what we think we are — more cultured than the Americans, nicer than the French, prettier than the Germans, funnier than almost everyone, and pretty good at fighting once we get going.

Even the government gets in on the act, as in this footnote on that “resistance to industrial change” noted b by the Times as a pronounced trait on the sceptered isles — apparently, the British military concurs: In 1954, The U.S. Department of Defense produced tiny booklet that could have been called, “How Not to Be a Loud, Overpaid Ugly American in Britain. Its actual title was far more prosaic — A Pocket Guide to Great Britain — and it advised against crowing that “we” won the war, obsessing about “the biggest” this and that (Britons give more deference to age and heritage), and starting arguments. “The British Are Reserved,” advised another section. A glossary “translated” terms like parcel, braces and draughts (“package,” “suspenders” and “checkers”). Other helpful “tips on getting along” including not mocking the local accents, badmouthing the royal family, or referring to U.K. currency as “funny money.” In a sign of the times, the booklet also advised against judging the English for dressing poorly, given that post-war rationing was still in effect.

In its final chapter, “Mutual Respect,” the Pentagon publication quoted extensively from a similar brochure, Meet the Americans, produced in England for British servicemen: No matter how oddly they talk or dress, “respect for American achievement is one of the ways by which we shall discover the Americans. Look, for example, what they’ve done to refrigerators and combustion engines and acknowledge them as the world’s inventive wizards.”

They may be brash and annoying, in other words, but those Yanks know their way around a machine.

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