dubiously true stories and cartoons

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Last night was the preview of my first solo exhibition of cartoons. It was held in the rather smart Art Bar Café Open Mind in Carlisle, which is run by a very nice Polish chap called Sebastian. The exhibition (entitled NOW IT CAN BE TOLD!) was a collection of twenty-four new cartoons all based around significant historical events that have been slightly ‘altered’ and was supported by some of my earlier work. I've included some of the cartoons in this post, but if you want to see them all you can find them on my website www.stephen-mitchell.co.uk. 
What follows is the speech I gave. I hope you like it.

Exhibition Flyer

I’d like to thank everyone for coming here tonight. As the flyers for this event state this is my first solo art exhibition. I’ve never been called an artist before, unless you count the times when my friends in Saudi Arabia referred to me as one, although that didn’t really count as they generally prefixed it with the verb piss. It’s taken a long time for the art of cartooning to be recognised as an art form in its own right. Yorkshireman Glen Baxter, who has been a huge influence on me, has been exhibiting his cartoons all over the world for over thirty years, and more recently, Kiwi Dylan Horrocks has created a massive impact with his books Hicksville and Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. You may argue that cartooning is not really an art form but not everyone can do it, especially when you’re often working very quickly.

Title: Too Much On My Mind

Back in 1988 I was in the Royal Air Force stationed in Belize in Central America. When I applied for the post the Local Overseas Allowance (what we got on top of our usual salary) was £10 a day. Typical of the run of luck I was experiencing at the time, on the day I arrived in Belize the Local Overseas Allowance dropped down to zero. I had a family to support back in the UK and I couldn’t very well spend my wages on the drinking habit I intended to foster while I was away from them.  I had to think of a way of indulging in my deep love of alcohol without actually spending any money.

I achieved this by spending my nights in Bob’s Bar and drawing cartoons of the people there. Bob’s Bar was situated behind the Nissen hut where we lived and it was a bar only in the vaguest sense of the word. It was more like a concrete room that contained an unlimited supply of beer. It had windows without glass and a roof made from palm leaves that was home to an assortment of biting insects that could at the very least give you something that would empty your bowels every thirty seconds. My remit was that if I could draw a vague likeness of someone in two minutes or less that other people could recognise then that someone would buy me a drink.

Title: Big Sky

We generally started drinking at around six in the evening and by 10.30 I had begun to dribble down my shirt and my cartoons resembled the kind of scribblings that a serial killer might have etched onto his own skin with a protractor in his spare time between victims. To get extra cash I would spend time on a more detailed cartoon of someone (obviously, when we were both sober), picking up some of their unique qualities and focussing on the stupid things they had done, usually in a state of intoxication. I still have copies of all the drawings I did out there and I intend to use them should I ever decide to pursue a career as a blackmailer.

Title: Where Have All The Good Times Gone

Three years after returning from Belize my wife divorced me for being (and I think these are the words she used) a philandering twat. I moved into the Sergeants Mess and had very little money to support myself. I joined a group of guys at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire who were all divorced for also being philandering twats and we were collectively known as the Sad and Lonely Boys Blues Club of Lincoln. We were all aware that our respective marriages had failed because of our own stupidity, lack of respect for our previous partners and our inability to say no when something was offered to us on a plate. And so to remind ourselves where it all went wrong we chose as our club motto the words: Cock On, Brain Off. The reason I mention the Sad and Lonely Boys Blues Club of Lincoln is that it was one our members that got me back into drawing. He asked me to do a caricature of his sister and he paid me £50 for it. Fifty quid! That was like a King’s Ransom for me at the time. What it did, though was provide me with more business. From the proceeds of the drawings I did at the time I was able to raise enough money to buy Christmas presents for my kids and have a good time for myself – all without ever involving the taxman.

Title: Death of a Clown

Both in the RAF and as an MOD Civil Servant, I wrote and drew a number of comic strips for various in-house magazines. These usually started off well but somewhere along the line they invariably landed me in trouble. In the December issue of the RAF Brüggen Station Magazine I was given a full page to advertise a load of obviously bogus Christmas presents for children. One of them, which caused a flood of complaints and landed me with a lifetime ban from ever submitting anything ever again, was a doll I'd invented called Foul-Mouthed Fiona, who would emit a torrent of abusive language whenever a string on her back was pulled.

Title: Situation Vacant

At RAF Marham, my friend Phil Gibbons and I created a full-page monthly comic strip called They Came From Outer Space But Spoke Our Language Perfectly. One storyline was about the religion of the alternative world where our two alien characters hailed from and a jumped-up, Bible-bashing corporal reported me to the Padre and pushed for him to get the Station Commander to charge me with blasphemy.

In a comic strip about a day in the life of an RAF Unit that my friend Andy Bunkle and I drew over 24 hours for charity, one section was about RAF Police Dog Handlers. An RAF Police Dog Handler was known by everyone (apart from other RAF Police Dog Handlers) as A Brain on a Chain. In the strip two RAF Police Dog Handlers are walking their dogs around the perimeter of the Unit and they are talking about the soap operas and game shows they had watched on TV the night before, whilst the two dogs are talking to each other about existentialism, suggesting, of course that the two dogs were more intelligent than their handlers. The Station Commander politely told us that unless we wanted to run the risk of being set upon by a rabid German Shepherd in our sleep then we should remove that particular section of the strip before it was published and went on sale.

I was asked to cease my three year run of a strip called Pond Life, the title of which was a dig at the incompetence of the higher management where I worked (although they didn’t realise it at the time) because of a strip I had written lampooning the unavailability of a new and ineffective Stores Management System that had already wasted millions of pounds of tax payers money but was still being championed by the higher management (the rumour was that they were all receiving illicit back-handers from the company who were supposedly developing it). The reason the strip caused such a fuss was that it just happened to go into print on the very weekend the actual Stores Management System crashed and burned forever. Not long after that the cartoonist for the MOD-wide magazine Paper Clips retired and I was chosen to be his successor with a strip call The Office That Time Forgot, which was about dinosaurs in suits. I managed to get two of the strips published before the hierarchy pulled it once they realised that the dinosaurs in suits were themselves.

Title: Starstruck

I experienced no trouble, however when I was offered the job as resident cartoonist for the Peterborough United fanzine Posh Monthly, where I created the strip Suited & Booted, which was about the difficult and bickering relationship between the manager Barry Fry and trainer Wayne Turner after they had been kidnapped by aliens.

Given that I could have chosen any subject for an exhibition of cartoons, why then did I choose history? Well, it’s simple really – I like history. I don’t think a lot of kids today know enough about it or even value its importance or relevance to the society we live in now. I know that the historical events I’ve represented here have been slightly adjusted, but if even one of the cartoons makes someone go home and find out what really happened then, then I think I’ve done what I set out to do.

Title: All Day and All of the Night

Before I go, I’d like to say that I think that I’m not the person I used to be all those years ago when I was a fully paid up member of the Sad and Lonely Boys Blues Club of Lincoln.  The main thing that changed me and made me who I am today was meeting my lovely wife, Jackie Owen, nineteen years ago. It was her that encouraged me to begin writing the blog Travels With My Rodent and if I hadn’t written that a publisher wouldn’t have come across it and my novella Permanent Moments wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It was also her that encouraged me to exhibit my work and to move forward with my cartoons and comic strips.

So, I’d like to dedicate this exhibition of cartoons to Jackie, for making me a better person.

At least sometimes, anyway.

A Note on the Titles: I was asked to provide titles for the cartoons, even though the titles were actually on the cartoons already. I ummed and aahed about them for a while until I had a brainwave and came up with the titles you can now see attached to them. The more observant amongst you will already have noticed that all of the titles I gave to the cartoons are also song titles from the back catalogue of that greatest of all sixties bands - The Kinks.
Yeah, You Really Got Me!

Sunday, March 1, 2015


The TV series The Tudors that ran on the BBC from 2007-2010 was history for Sun readers. It was an extravaganza of tits and arses, full-frontal nudity and lots and lots of sex, that was so historically inaccurate it made even Mel Gibson’s Braveheart look like it was the product of formidable scholarship combined with years of painstaking research. It also kicked off a frenzy of Tudor related books, magazine articles, films and documentaries that flooded the market so much that you still can't turn around without seeing a Farthingale or a Doublet glaring back at you. Now, I like reading about history and watching historical documentaries, but when you’re overwhelmed with one period it eventually becomes tedious. I had a subscription to BBC History Magazine at the time and I became so depressed about the amount of articles that appeared in its pages relating to the Tudors that I was forced to write a letter to the editor. This is what I wrote:

Dear Sir,
I’ve been a subscriber to BBC History Magazine for some years now and it is usually a fascinating and entertaining periodical. Lately – over the last two years or so – there has been an awful amount of space taken up by articles about the Tudors and, as a result, I am now thoroughly bored with that entire dynasty. This month’s issue (September 2014) contains nine pages about them and, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s an advertisement pushing a 116 page Collector’s Edition, The Story of the Tudors. There is a wealth of international history you can chose from – particularly the Middle East, India and the United States and other periods of our own history – so why not find some historians who are not interested in the Tudors and utilise them instead. As much as I agree that the reign of the Tudors was an important part of our history and the development of our national identity, I am now sick and tired of discovering that yet another article about them has been featured in your magazine and I’m fairly sure that I’m not the only reader who feels this way. Please stop it or give your magazine a new title – something like Tudor Monthly would be appropriate.
I received the following reply a few days ago.

Dear Mr Mitchell,
Thank you for your message. I’m glad to see that in general you find the magazine interesting.
I’m sorry that you’re unhappy with the amount of Tudor content. It is a tricky balancing act for us because Tudors are hugely popular with our readership and I feel that we do have to serve that demand to some extent. On the other hand I appreciate that not everyone is as interested and so we do our best to balance each issue so that it has a range of content.
Regarding the collector’s edition, this is part of a series that we put out on various aspects of British and global history. It just so happened that this one was on the Tudors but none of the previous ones were and nor are any of those planned for the future. Similarly, there isn’t currently a great deal of Tudor content planned in for the next few editions of the regular magazine, so I hope you will persevere with us.
Best wishes
It was a nicely written reply that missed the irony in my letter and was so boring and lacking in humour that I immediately cancelled my subscription.

Too be honest, I’m more interested in the Second World War, although my wife doesn’t share that interest.

When I was watching a documentary about the Battle of Britain, she asked, “Why are you watching this?”

“Because I’m interested in it,” I replied.

“But, you know what happens in the end.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do. We won.”

Yesterday I found a handwritten letter from her on the bedside table. It read:
Dear Steve,
I’ve been married to you for some years now and you are sometimes a fascinating and entertaining person. Lately – over the last eighteen years or so – there has been an awful amount of films and documentaries about the Second World War on television and, as a result, I am now thoroughly bored with that entire period. This month you watched nine programmes about it and, as if that wasn’t enough, you read Antony Beevor’s D-Day and reread Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. There is a wealth of other genres you can choose from – particularly contemporary fiction, classic novels and books about other periods of history – so why not find some programmes or books that are not about the Second World War and watch or read them instead. As much as I agree that the Second World War was an important part of international history and the development of our modern world, I am now sick and tired of discovering that you are watching yet another programme about the war and I’m fairly sure that I’m not the only family member who feels this way. Please stop it or find something else to think about – something like a divorce would be appropriate.
Maybe she’s right. Maybe I have been watching and reading too much about the Second World War. Maybe I should take a break and watch something else.

What’s on tonight?

Hmm, Apocalypse Now.

That’s not about the Second World War.

And it’s the Redux version.