Secrets of much-loved wartime cartoonist Giles revealed in new book
Carl Giles’s work in the Daily Express did much for morale in the second world war and his spirit of fantasy extended to the stories he told about his own life.
In September 1943, when the readers of the leftwing Sunday newspaper Reynolds News badly needed cheering up – with a long, cold, dark winter ahead and years of war and rationing to come – the paper lost its star cartoonist, Carl Giles. The shock was greater because the lifelong socialist had decamped to the Tory peer Lord Beaverbrook’s Express.
More than 100 of the cartoons that had kept the Reynolds News readers laughing, including many of heroic Russians such as an amiable Joseph Stalin propping up a bar, or a doughty little peasant woman bringing in a clump of roped-up captured German soldiers – have been collected for the first time in Giles’s War, edited by Tim Benson, an expert on the history of the British political cartoon.
He has also discovered that Giles’s repeated insistence that he had been headhunted by the Express was a lie: it was the cartoonist who had touted his skills around Fleet Street.
“He obviously felt guilty about it, particularly leaving the paper which had given him his break as a national cartoonist for a paper like the Express,” Benson said. “He referred to it himself as ‘a Judas act’ – but he repeated the claim that he had eventually been unable to resist the offers from the Express, and he got colleagues to back up that version of events. But the truth was all there in his archive. It’s amazing that he kept the correspondence.”
“Roof Spotting. The 2am feeling.” 29 December 1940. Illustration: Giles
Giles, who described himself as “a Bentley-driving socialist” even wrote that “a multiplying of salaries did not interest me greatly”, but multiply them he did. He started at the Express at just under £1,000 a year, almost four times his Reynolds salary, and within a year that would be multiplied fourfold again, to £3,900.
Much of the story was missing from his official biography by Peter Tory, commissioned for the Express. The two men loathed one another and Tory, who died in 2012, described it as his “worst and most boring assignment”. For obvious reasons he left out another of Giles’s job perks. The cartoonist was very happily married to his first cousin Joan Clarke, but also had a mistress – and, according to Benson’s research, it was the Express that paid for the room they regularly took at the Savoy.
Giles would work for the Sunday and Daily Express for more than 45 years, regularly voted the nation’s favourite cartoonist. The annuals, still being published 22 years after his death, repeatedly topped the bestseller lists.
The wartime cartoons for both Reynolds and the Express are among his most political. Benson says he was a hopeless caricaturist, who got by with Hitler with a small moustache, Stalin with a huge moustache, and Mussolini as a blob, but his genius was as a draughtsman, and for portraying the war from the viewpoint of the little man or woman, often an authority-loathing but heroic bumbler, making tea while shells whistled past.
Within a year there was an extraordinary development in his career. Turned down for army service because a motorbike accident in his teens had left him blind in one eye, he managed to get sent to the front as a war correspondent cartoonist. He was present at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and said the memories haunted him every day for the rest of his life – including a disconcerting encounter with the camp commander, Josef Kramer, who turned out to be a great admirer.
Benson, who runs a political cartoon gallery in west London, almost abandoned the project when he discovered that although Giles’s own archive was safe in the British cartoon archive at the University of Kent, transferred from the V&A, most of the war years Reynolds News was missing from the British Library newspaper archives. He then found a complete set in the JB Priestley archive at the University of Bradford, and the book, published this month by Random House, was on again. The archive revealed another Giles lie: his cartoons had never been cut down to make way for more editorial in the early war years, as he had claimed.
Some Giles stock jokes vanished when he moved to the Express, said Benson, as the cracks about bloated capitalists making a handsome profit out of the war were dropped.
Reynolds News readers were heartbroken to lose him, and the archive contains their letters and even a poem: “Laski and Driberg, Brailsford and Bullett/Excellent writers with differing styles/ We read them with profit, enjoyment and fervour/But tell me oh why have you robbed us of Giles?”
Giles’s War: Cartoons 1939-1945 is published by Random House on 13 July 2017.