Private Eye magazine held a party on a boat on the River Thames last week, setting off from Westminster Pier promptly at 12.30pm.
As is always the case at Private Eye parties, the atmosphere was very merry. When the editor, Ian Hislop, made a speech, he told us that the only person who hadn’t made it in time was the cartoonist Tony Husband, as his train from Manchester had been delayed.
Everyone groaned and chuckled at one and the same time: we groaned because Tony was so well-liked and chuckled because the British sense of humour always tends to revolve around bad luck.
One of Tony’s cartoon collections is called ‘I Nearly Died Laughing’.
It features on its cover a GP at his desk, dressed in a hazmat suit, saying to a bewildered-looking man: ‘OK, Mr Noble, your results are back.’
It was only the following morning that I heard the awful news. Hurrying from Westminster Tube station to Westminster Pier, Tony had suffered a heart attack.
‘It is with a torn apart heart that I must announce the passing of my dad,’ came the sad tweet from his son Paul. Tony was 73.
With his death goes a great talent. Cartoonists will always be expelled to the fringes of the art world because, unlike wealthier, more lauded artists, they refuse to be solemn or pompous.
In one of his cartoons, two men are talking in a pub. ‘My wife thinks I’m totally insane,’ says one. ‘She’s right,’ says the other. ‘You don’t have a wife.’
It’s a bleak joke, but also very funny. Had it appeared in a heavy play by Samuel Beckett, it would have been smothered in praise by critics and academics.
But, by making it look so effortless, the cartoonist’s fate — or is it his salvation? — is to be ignored by the arts establishment.
Many of Tony’s cartoons were purely absurd. Over a garden fence, a man complains to a neighbour: ‘Your cat keeps doing its business in my garden’; in the foreground, the cat sits behind an office desk, talking on the phone.
In an aeroplane, a man is sitting on a loo in full public view. ‘I sometimes think these no-frills airlines go too far,’ observes one passenger to another.
A farmer complains to a couple in the countryside: ‘Your dog is worrying my sheep!’ In the foreground, the dog is telling a flock of gloomy sheep: ‘There’s global warming, droughts, floods, the ice caps melting…’
Like most cartoonists, Tony was extraordinarily productive. A few years ago, he came for a week to our town on the Suffolk coast to be the artist in residence. Seaside cartoons flowed from him.
A little boy stands on a beach in floods of tears, surrounded by shingle. ‘He’s lost his favourite pebble,’ says his father.
After Tony’s week at the seaside was up, he gave me a cartoon he had drawn on an actual pebble. It shows a couple concentrating on their ice creams.
‘Make sure the seagulls don’t pinch your ice cream Joey… Joey?’ says the man. In the sky behind him, a seagull can be seen flying off with the hapless little boy.
Tony enjoyed the absurdity of incorporating animals into the world of humans. On a cloud in Heaven, a dog looks grumpy. ‘Well, I don’t call it Heaven when we’re not allowed to sniff each other’s bottoms.’
But he was also adept at producing more pointed social satire. Judging by the reaction on social media last week, a popular favourite was a cartoon of a customer in the office of a firm of solicitors called Bastard, Bastard, Bastard, Knight and Bastard.
‘Nothing personal, Mr Knight,’ says the customer. ‘But I was hoping to speak to one of the others.’
Tony once described his cartoons as variously ‘silly or sad’. A few years ago, he produced a very moving book of cartoons charting his father’s descent into dementia.
The finest were both silly and sad — not least, the last one he ever drew, when he realised he was likely to arrive late for the party.
It shows him stranded on Westminster Pier, waving at the Private Eye boat as it chugs off into the distance.
He sent it on his phone to his fellow cartoonist Nick Newman, and, not long afterwards, he died.