Julian Barnes

Genuflexions

The Collected and Recollected Marc

By

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In 1926 Max Beerbohm reflected that the world ‘is not likely to find caricature essential to its future happiness’. Certainly it remains an endangered graphic form. The threats come from within – from lazy second-raters who are happy to confect Harold Wilson out of a pipe and a Gannex mac – and from without. Currently the portrait photographer is our leading provider of the iconic image, and, it is loosely believed, of truth. But much portrait photography nowadays is either deeply collusive (yes, I’ll jump into a bath of milk for you/allow myself to be tied up/ strip off), or else full of the snapper’s stray impositions: thus the Kray Brothers may come out looking like brooding poets, the innocent poets like child molesters, and so on. The advantage of caricature is that there is little danger of collusion; there need be no face-to-face encounter or limit on the sitting-time; it is distant yet intimate, and has the seductive appearance of ephemerality. Yet our truest images of Edward VII, Kipling, Henry James or the Rossetti circle come from Beerbohm; and the images Mark Boxer, drawing as ‘Marc’, left of politicians, royals, artists, members of the TV intelligentsia, press magnates, glittering nonentities and cafe-society trash will last as long, since they have as much truth.

His caricatures are mainly head shots with an assisting torso. He wasn’t much interested in the lower half of the body, and used to lament that he couldn’t do hands: an improbably high percentage of his subjects are found warming their pockets. But he couldn’t do hands (Beerbohm couldn’t either) because he wasn’t interested in them, and he wasn’t interested in them because they aren’t, in frozen form, very revealing character indicators. The head and torso tell all. Marc was phenomenally observant of hair, ears, eyes, of the way the mouth breaks (loosely and to the right with John Mortimer, Jaggerishly with Stoppard, similarly with Healey) or, just as revealingly, doesn’t break. ‘I start drawing with the eyes,’ he once said, ‘and the mouth is a terrible problem because of its mobility, and then the shoulders and the way the head rests on the shoulders.’ So he delivers intact Douglas Hurd’s robotic stiffness, Norman Fowler’s weedy stab at assertiveness, Anthony Howard’s gossipy stoop. He pointed things out even to those who thought they knew his subjects pretty well already. When Mrs Clive James first saw Marc’s drawing of her husband, she protested, tenderly yet unavailingly, ‘But Clive, you haven’t got a thick neck.’ The Pentel does not lie.

His politicians are in the main superbly caught. This was one advantage of television, since there is a natural connection between viewing opportunities and the success of the drawing (this is why, say, his Amis père is much more acute than his Larkin). If a face of bland regularity, like that of Michael Heseltine, may defeat him, or at least not excite him very much, he triumphs with a squintily suspicious Heath, a Shaftesbury Avenue Macmillan, a sheep-eyed Biffen, barking Powell, and oh-just-look-at-me Owen. He captures the inexpressive facial acres of Leon Brittan, the oily prissiness of Baker, the smug awfulness of David Mellor. His Rhodes Boyson, drawn as a Victorian phrenological head, is an invention which will preserve the politician longer than he deserves. Marc drew Mrs Thatcher in her early milk-snatching days, expertly identifying that familiar brow-arch of pained disapproval; but it’s a historical pity – and a puzzle – that he doesn’t seem to have redrawn her in her days of rampant regality.

I was more a regular acquaintance than a close friend of Mark’s: we met journalistically and lunchingly. He was (as the contributing memorialists here attest) almost ridiculously handsome, dashing and witty; beautifully tailored, restless, diabolically successful with women; a sort of snob, a Labour voter who moved happily in the most un-Labour of circles; a left-handed draughtsman, right-handed batsman, left-arm bowler (and two-handed wicketkeeper). Yet behind, or alongside, the flair and elegance there was also a darker side. Beerbohm suggested that caricature begins as a protest by the overthin-skinned at the coarseness of the world, but that by some hitch the groans emerge instead as laughter. Whether or not this analysis applies, Boxer certainly had a low spell after his initial brilliancies at Cambridge and in Fleet Street. The failure of the magazine London Life, which he edited, left him ‘miserable for years’, he said; and there were a couple of suicide attempts. While enjoying the world with the fullest appetite, he did not despair at leaving it. Asked in 1972 what frightened him about his next twenty years, he replied, ‘Not death, I don’t think – um, I think repetition, being pointless, retirement.’ Martin Amis here testifies that Mark did not mind dying or being dead for himself, only for his wife and children; and that ‘when he was dying he became infinitely gentle’.

His death induced disbelief in the lunching group to which we both belonged, not least because Mark seemed to get younger and handsomer each year while the rest of us pulled muscles and felt the first stab of gout. In his mid-fifties he could have passed for thirty-five; perhaps the removal of his old age (and of retirement, pointlessness and repetition) was some elaborate cosmic joke. He was bubbling with youth, truth, gossip and fun. He had no grand ideas of himself, and didn’t see himself as a delineator of decades. He preferred revealing minutiae, such as, for instance, the fact that when Ted Heath moved out of his flat the next residents discovered underneath the carpet strategically placed electric pads so that in the evening the ex-PM could take off his shoes and keep his feet warm. Equally, Mark delighted in the peccadilloes and naiveties of the powerful. I can still recall his relish as he described the Sunday Times conference at which Harold Evans, then editor, declared that the Jeremy Thorpe/ Norman Scott letters they were review-fronting (‘Bunnies can and will go to France’) would completely exonerate the Liberal leader.

But if Mark had been just impressive and successful, we wouldn’t have loved him so much. He was also very attending, sweet-natured, hopelessly giggly, and full of stories against himself He couldn’t help putting his foot in it, and his sophistication was winningly flawed. ‘What exactly is French kissing?’ he once asked a table of lunchers who had between them been to bed with perhaps less than half the number of women Mark had. We explained that it was a process involving tongues and open mouths. ‘Oh,’ he remembered excitedly, ‘the first person to do that to me was…’ – and he named a cultural grandee (male) whose portrait appears in this book. He was also artistically modest: I never heard a vain reference to his own work, and he seemed genuinely surprised and pleased if you commented on one of his caricatures. I had always assumed that his mature style, with its precision, apparent facility and reduction of line, was the result of continuous, cumulative striving; but in fact he had abandoned his pen for some years. The name of Karl Miller appears nowhere in this volume, which is a pity, since it was Miller, as editor of the Listener, who encouraged Marc’s return to drawing. It was only then, he later said, that ‘things became enjoyable again’.

Mark could be sparkingly inventive about social rules, which he often seemed to invent on an ad hoc basis. If one of his fellow-lunchers had published a book that week and was buying champagne, he would slide into his seat with an authoritative murmur of ‘I never buy books in hardback.’ When he was first walking out with Anna Ford he swept past with her at a party with barely a flicker of acknowledgement. I later rebuked him for this discourtesy, and he replied magisterially, ‘But one doesn’t introduce at other people’s parties.’ I ploddingly pointed out that this must be some smart-set diktat of recent invention, since I vividly recalled how a few years earlier he had introduced me on neutral ground to my future wife. Mark fell into repentant, giggling collapse. He also had a rule of etiquette, again particular and invented, which stated that it was ungentlemanly to go to bed with a woman fewer than three times. This once led to a comical party-time disagreement with an ex-girlfriend who imagined that she had been in receipt of four warm embraces. ‘No I think you will find it was three,’ Mark was heard to protest in a tone of shrill pedantry, ‘I think you will find it was three.’

Like most cartoonists, Marc had his share of being mishandled and ripped off by Fleet Street. His caricatures would be reproduced without permission or fee, dim layout men would capriciously reverse his image, and not infrequently the original drawings would be stolen. Mark told me of seeing one of his caricatures on the wall of a politician’s house and asking his host where he got it. ‘Oh, Tony Howard gave it to me,’ the politician replied. ‘Would you mind signing it?’ Given this professional ambience, The Collected and Recollected Marc is a work of serious, careful homage, evidenced by the opaque white paper, large format, and the fact that the drawings are reproduced wherever possible in a page-filling 1:1 ratio to the original, or at least with minimal reduction. Oddly, this honourable intention somewhat misfires. Marc, after all, drew his caricatures in the expectation that they would be reduced, that the areas of black would get denser, the line sharper and clearer. His drawings therefore look best either in their original size on a wall, several feet away, or in smaller, intenser reproduction. Some of these caricatures previously illustrated three of Clive James’s mock-heroic poems of the late Seventies, and they often look happier there in a largish paperback format. So this is a book less for knee-work than for propping up at a distance, like an illustrated missal or contemporary rogues’ gallery. Turn a page each day and be glad that the saintly Karl Miller persuaded Marc to draw again.

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