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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
Farewell blues
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Magazine

For 60 years, the cartoons of Wally Fawkes have been familiar parts of newspapers and magazines. Now failing eyesight has forced him to put down his pen. The show, however, will go on...

In a society increasingly categorised by lists of the Top 10 Greatests, perhaps one day everyone might be the best in the world at something.

It will always, however, take something special to be Number One in two quite separate categories.

Depending who you talk to, Wally Fawkes is either Britain's greatest living cartoonist or one of its greatest living jazzmen.

What you do visually, you do aurally
Wally Fawkes, on the similarity between cartoons and clarinets
Drawing under his pen-name, Trog, Fawkes's cartoons have, until a few weeks ago, appeared in newspapers and magazines without a break for the past 60 years. His distinctive style is one of the most widely admired and is recognisable by millions of readers - even many not aware of Trog by name.

But now, aged 81, Fawkes has had to give up drawing. Declining eyesight has meant that, while he can still see peripheral trees and grass when walking on Parliament Hill near his home, the fine detail of drawings - and particularly his trademark cross-hatching - completely eludes him.

"I was sad to give up... yes," he says. "Of course I was. But it was becoming harder and harder to draw, and to be honest, there was a degree of relief in stopping. I will miss the process of coming up with ideas, though. The buzz is what I loved - putting two wires together and getting light! 'Ahh! there's the idea, there it is'. "

Some of Trog's memorable work, 1973-2003

There was no shortage of pressure to come up with ideas. Over the years, Trog had slots to fill in publications too numerous to list. It wasn't a one-size-fits-all solution he found either. From the small "pocket" cartoons typically found on newspapers' front pages, through the pointed political comments next to the opinion columns, to masterful full-page colour portraits. And then there was the cartoon strip Flook, perhaps what Trog will be best remembered for.

Flook began life as a children's strip in 1949, but over the years, and with the help of Humphrey Lyttleton, George Melly, Barry Norman, Barry Took and Keith Waterhouse, among others, it became a social and political satire very much for the adults.

Post-war record

Despite its following - which included Baroness Thatcher who said it was "quite the best commentary of the politics of the day" - the Daily Mail decided in 1984 it no longer wanted Flook. The only warning its readers got was a strip in which a blue plaque appeared on the wall: "Flook lived here 1949-1984." Robert Maxwell saved the strip for the Mirror at his wife's behest, but only briefly, and with that, a unique record of post-War Britain ended.

The best way of jumping on a target is to appear to be walking past it
Trog - to George Melly
But Trog's political commentary went on for another 20 years. The skill, he says, was finding a truth about a person and communicating that in a drawing: "What you want is a picture, no words at all, maximum contrast, BANG!"

Dr Nick Hiley, of the Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricatures at the University of Kent, says that Fawkes's influence is greater than people might imagine - not least that he was the first cartoonist to include royalty, even the Queen, as cartoon figures.

Though Fawkes is not one to be rude - always wanting to find more to say about a target than pointing out large ears or a big nose - neither is he deferential.

Wally Fawkes at home in his studio
Fawkes's studio is now being cleared out
Born in Vancouver, he came to the UK aged seven. He made himself learn to speak Cockney so as not to stand out. But he still felt patronised by those he describes as having "rude aristocratic accents - so condescending to someone from the New World".

"I've always had a problem of trying to demolish the superior. I remember when Lady Rothermere [wife of the Mail's owner] was introduced to me, the person who drew Flook, and she said: 'Oh how marvellous! How is your furry little curly thing?' Without thinking, I said: 'Fine thanks. How's yours?' I've never been able to stop doing things like that."

For a satirist, this is probably not a bad skill to have.

Harmony

His reaction against the Establishment should have included people like Humphrey Lyttleton, he says: "Etonian, son of an Eton house-master, an officer in the Guards". And yet through their love for jazz - Fawkes on clarinet and Lyttleton on trumpet - and particularly in the 50s when jazz was at its most popular, they both became well-known figures. It is an irony that Lyttleton's cult following, as the host of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, owes nothing to his jazz.

TROG'S PUBLICATIONS
Clockwise from top left - George Melly, Humphrey Lyttleton, Barry Took, Barry Norman
Most significant work in
Daily Mail - Flook, (with collaborators, above), politics
Observer - 'pocket', politics
Punch - colour portraits
Sunday Telegraph - 'pocket', politics
But the music transcended the differences between them, says Fawkes. "We were equal in every respect because of the music. It doesn't matter who you are - if you can play, you're in."

And Fawkes can certainly play. If jazz had not given way to rock and roll, figures like Fawkes and Lyttleton might have become the megastars. As it turned out, both jazz and cartooning remained what he calls "minority pursuits". Jazz fans knew Fawkes as the cartoonist; cartoon fans knew him as the jazzman.

It would be wrong to think of the two as entirely separate disciplines, though. "If I'm playing Lady Be Good," he says, "I know the chord sequence and that's what you're improvising on.

"And if I'm drawing somebody, I know the structure of their head and I improvise on that. What you do visually you do aurally. You keep the identity there, so that however far out you go, you're always playing Lady be Good. It can be traced back."

There is also a more practical parallel. "The clarinet reed and the nib of a pen are very closely related," he says. "Very often it takes a long time to find a good one. In both cases, you're looking for one of just the right strength. And sometimes, just when you've found a good reed or nib, you break it somehow."

Improvisation

But now, unable even to see clearly where he is signing his name, it is time for Fawkes to move on. His studio of 35 years, where his pens and brushes jostle alongside his clarinets, is being cleared out as he and his wife downsize.

Fawkes the clarinettist
'The reed and the nib are closely related'
And while the drawing has stopped, the music will go on because mercifully, improvised jazz is one form of music not requiring good eyesight. Fawkes plays every Tuesday night in the corner of the White Hart pub on Drury Lane with some old chums. Some of the pub audience evidently know the significance of what they are hearing.

"I was playing the other night, when a middle-aged chap came in and produced a photograph of the old Lyttleton band from 1949 or 50. I recognised them all. And there was a young girl sitting with the band, it was obviously between numbers because we were all sipping and smoking. And I said 'God I remember her! She was a right raver!'.

"This chap just looked at me and said: 'That's my mother...'"

For Fawkes himself, though, it's not about past glories. It's just the joy of playing which motivates him, as he refers to the blackboard outside the pub: "Ahh just what I've always wanted - my name up in chalk."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

When the new Access cards went 'live' at the end of 1972, I was one of about 50 NatWest bank staff drafted in to Fenchurch Street offices in London to help handle the 10,000 applications being received daily. In the Daily Mail, Flook's brilliant satire on the 'Excess' card was compulsory reading at the time, and took the edge off what was a very dull job.
Rob Davis, Telford, Shropshire

Although it is a great pity about Mr. Fawkes' failing eyesight and his decision to retire from cartoonery your article does celebrate his remarkable talents in both in commentary and also music.I hope that he will receive further recognition in the coming months and enjoy further celebrations of his special skills .
Geoff Dodd, Warrington Cheshire

Enjoy your retirement. Through your jazz and cartoons you have given us years of pleasure.
Rob, Liverpool

It's great that Mr F. has more than one string to his bow. If only Beethoven had also been an ace watercolourist (for example) he might not have minded going deaf so much.
Tom Donald, Dumfries

Trog featured in an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris a few years ago. The exhibition was called "Masters of European Strip Cartoons" and it brought home to me what a neglected national treasure Wally Fawkes is. Because he is clearly better at playing the clarinet than blowing his own trumpet, his great contribution to one of the most popular of art forms tends to be overlooked in his homeland. He is up there with the all-time 'stars' like Hergé and Schulz, while Trog's Flook is as brilliant a creation as Tintin or Charlie Brown, and just as enduring.
Steven Joseph, Brussels, Belgium

What a brilliant man! Thanks for the pleasure you have brought us all, over the years. Please don't throw out your studio equipment, though. Future generations will need to know how REAL art was created.
Neil Adams, Edinburgh

I had just learnt to read in 1949 and can remember the very first cartoon of what became the Flook series. I think it was first named after the boy (Rufus???) but his "pet" Flook soon took over as the star. I probably read almost every cartoon until I left home to go to university!!
Peter James, Botwnnog, Wales

I've been a fan of Trog for years and am lucky enough to own a few originals. One of which is included in your collection of his more memorable work: Denis Thatcher, during the Spycatcher row. Underneath the caption, "Denis, I'm back" there is clearly a previous caption. I've spent years trying to work out what it is!
Stig, London, UK

I hadn't rememebered Flook for years until I saw this article. I'm 33 and can remember clearly laying on the lounge floor in the late 70's copying Flook cartoons from the Daily Mail on to notepads. My dad stopped getting the Mail so up until now I'd forgotten about the strange black pig-like creature!
Ian Doherty, Erith, Kent

SO sad to see this incredibly gifted man put down his pen, but, with luck, there will be plenty of other good times for him still. Now that I have read the news of his retirement I'll find my way to the ancient collection of Flook strips that have been a great source of fun over the 40 years I have had them. All the very best to you, sir!
Peter Smith, Buffalo, NY, United States

"Flook by Trog" is a phrase I have branded in my conciousness much like "bread and butter" or "Tea and Biscuits". Flook was my entry, as it were, into the world of Political Satire. I didn't understand much of the mocking I have to admit as a small boy, but it didn't stop me hunting out the strip everyday. Thank you Mr. Fawkes.
James, Oxford

The pen was indeed mightier that the sword; Norman St John Stevas never really recovered from his portrayal as Norman Steven Singeass...
Jel, Brussels

My father cut out the daily Flook cartoon and pasted them into a scrap book for my aunt in Eire. Every summer my brother & I spent many happy hours reading them over & over again, it became a holiday ritual. I would love to see the early strips again, when Rufus & Flook were opposing the evil Moses Maggot. Are there any books available? Have a wonderful retirement Trog but you will be greatly missed!!
Caroline Horsley, Grantham UK

It's a sad day when a great cartoonist has to retire, especially for these reasons. Cartoonists are underappreciated for what they do and to know that there will be one less genius like Trog drawing is to lose one more chance to laugh.
Richard O'Hagan, East Molesey

I will never forget the hilarious Trog cartoon about "...Ken f...g Tynan opening his f...g mouth and coming out with this four letter word meaning sexual intercourse" What a genius. He will be sorely missed.
John Kelly, Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

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