Remona Aly
Saturday 01 April 2006 emel

Table Talk: Cartoonist Steve Bell

“I’m sorry about the mess,” Steve Bell apologises as he tidies up an area in his studio to uncover piles of last week’s newspapers. We are surrounded with tabloids, broadsheets and photographic print outs of politicians. Steve has to trawl through hundreds of news stories and images in order to get inspiration for his satirical cartoons, though he says he never takes paper for granted, still valuing it as a precious commodity since childhood. “I remember never having paper to draw on, so I used to scribble on the inside of some old Victorian books that we had in our house. Now of course I’ve got stacks of it!”

After starting out drawing cartoons of the teacher in the back of the classroom, Steve went on to study Art at university and even tried being a teacher himself, although admits he was “hopeless at it”. After his big break in Time Out magazine, Steve has been a professional cartoonist for over 25 years.

Steve has always had an avid interest in politics, involving himself in different campaigns at university, surrounding himself with friends who were either Marxists or anarchists – “People were more leftie then” – but his passion for politics really started during the Falklands war. “The whole war reportage during the Falklands was nonsense. It was stitched up imperialist claptrap and that has really been my abiding theme ever since.”

Steve joined the Labour Party in 1981, but became disillusioned with it in the 90s for being so “right-wing”. So what does he think of the state of British politics now? “British politics is all so depressing. I can’t say I’m disappointed with Blair because I never saw him as anything but right-wing, which is why I left the Labour Party in 1995.” Steve’s comical creations of Blair as a “mad-eyed loony” he says brings out what the camera can miss. “You get flashes of his mad eye sometimes and it’s something you can only capture in a drawing but not in a photograph. I draw him with a symbolic and umbilical connection to my cartoons of Thatcher. Even though Blair becomes increasingly contemptible especially over the war, it’s not visceral hatred for him as it was for Thatcher.” So no love lost there then. Yet, Steve defends his right to be offensive as he sees a cartoonist’s work as necessarily offensive. With the Danish cartoon controversy still a heated topic, does he think these particular cartoons went too far? “In a Danish context where there is a nasty under-swell of xenophobia and racism, they were being mischievous. The twelve cartoons are pretty innocuous in themselves. Over history there have been villainous depictions of Muhammad by Christians and even good depictions in the Muslim world, so all this isn’t really news, but it’s a situation that’s easy to inflame. It was calculated to be as offensive as possible, but it was not a regimented attack – it’s stupider than that. The real crime of it is whipping it up into a frenzy.”

I ask if it’s dangerous to be a cartoonist in the current political climate, and Steve certainly finds it bizarre to hear the term ‘cartoon riots’, a phrase he never thought would be coined. He expressed his own attitude towards the entire affair with this cartoon of a cantankerous ‘Muslim’ camel walking past a group of pigs with the Danish flag printed on their behind who exclaim “God save us all! Mo’s got the hump.” Protests from within some parts of the Muslims world about the Danish cartoons, however, do not surprise him. “Muslims have a darn good reason to feel depressed about the West. You have ridiculous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the likes of Bush throwing explosives everywhere, so I think Muslims have strongly valid reasons for feeling under threat and to protest. But it’s not about religion, it isn’t about an attack on the faith, it’s not about a clash of civilisations – I hate that phrase. It’s all about injustice. That is what motivates people to protest.”

With censorship laws slowly edging in on Britain as a major extension of existing blasphemy laws, Steve is concerned about an effective choking of anything comical, especially with his cartoons where sensitivity is thrown out of the window. “The whole point of cartoons is they are brutal and ludicrous, and above all about wit. Humour is a weapon and is a key to unlocking ideas and these ideas reflect my personal views. I would never attempt to assess the public mood by some sort of Olympian detachment looking down on the masses, booming ‘This is my View!'”

On the topic of censorship and sensitivity, we broach the ethics of news reporting, in particular the condemning of war reportage by Arab news channel, Al Jazeera, which filled screens with the horrific realities of war, rather than sanitised versions seen on British news programmes. “I understand the outrage it caused, but it should be shown to people what happens if we throw explosives around. War is not freedom, it’s not nice, it’s not heroic. Al Jazeera shows the reality of war which for its message is a good thing. The US made a systematic targeting of al Jazeera newsrooms. They took them out in Kabul, in Baghdad, they wanted to take them out in London and New York, but I don’t think they quite had the cheek!”

Steve’s cartoons have earned him a fair number of backlashing emails, mainly from across the Pond for his irreverent and relentless depiction of their president as an idiotic monkey. “Most of the negative responses are from the US and they are also the funniest and most ridiculous ones I ever get. One guy told me, ‘We saved your ass two world wars, you limey fools!’ That’s a strangely warped view of history there..” Along with criticism, Steve also finds praise and support in the strangest of places, with an unlikely patronage for the recently opened ‘Museum of Cartoons’, which celebrates the 250 years of British cartoons. Steve is a trustee. “Along with Ken Livingstone and the Duke of Edinburgh, one of the patrons of the museum is an ex-Tory politician who has a massive collection of cartoons and someone who I personally attempted to destroy metaphorically with my cartoons!”

Steve feels strongly that should be placed on the syllabus to keep history and politics alive, as they provide insight and a way to getting to the truth, “I think cartoons are a great way of encapsulating ideas, though in this job you will inevitably tread on sensibilities, but I don’t do it for love. There are too many sub-fascist creeps in the political world who should be exposed.” Cynical? Steve replies, “With corrupt politicians like these, cynicism is the only healthy response.”

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in April 2006, Issue 19.