Cartoonist Steve Bell may be in the great tradition of English caricaturists, but he still recalls with pride the rejection letter he received more than 30 years ago from the Beano. During a visit to the University of York, he spoke about his work, the continuing need for political satire, his fears for the future of newspapers and why the idea of becoming a teacher became his worst nightmare.
Cartoonist Steve Bell admits that one of the principal sources of inspiration for his work is his habit of shouting at the radio.
Or, to be more precise, shouting at the “verbiage of politics – the idiot stuff that comes out of the radio.”
The drawings tend to be quite ‘schooly’, there’s not a great deal of finished work in it because I’m thinking through the process
It is something he has always done since his early days as a political cartoonist with Time Out, and is now an integral part of the process that produces caricatures that rank as among the most withering anywhere.
He has produced these memorable images for the Guardian for the last 30 years, but only became a full-time cartoonist because he realised that, after less than 12 months in the classroom, teaching was not for him.
Slough-born Bell lived briefly on Teesside before doing an art degree at Leeds University and a teaching qualification at Exeter, later taking a job at a school in Birmingham.
“I wanted to do something useful so I thought I would be a teacher. In retrospect, what I should have realised about myself is that I’m not cut out to be a teacher. I’m good at working on my own but I’m lousy with a classroom of kids as I discovered to my increasing horror,” he says.
“The sheer pain of teaching caused me to rethink and do something I might actually have an affinity for. My girlfriend, Heather, who is now my wife, could see I was desperate and she said ‘why don’t you go for it?’”
Bell did some cartoons for children’s comics – it was around this time that he was rejected by the Beano – but he realised that with an abiding interest in politics, then political comics were the likeliest outlet for his talents.
“My big break was Time Out in London which in those days had a sort of Leftie news aspect to it which it doesn’t have any more. But you had to be fairly persistent. You just had to go around and peddle yourself. I’m not terribly good at that but I had the impetus of ‘anything but teaching’.”
In 1981, he sent a packet of his material to the Guardian and they took him on – three years earlier the same newspaper had rejected him concluding: ‘I can’t see us using your stuff in the foreseeable future’. But his Time Out work had raised his visibility, and they were, of course, tumultuous political times. Bell was just the man to reflect the seismic changes the Thatcher era was bringing to British politics
His working methods are simple. He scribbles ideas in a book, and each is carefully numbered and dated. The rest of process is rather more random.
“The drawings tend to be quite ‘schooly’, there’s not a great deal of finished work in it because I’m thinking through the process. All the time I’m trawling through the internet looking for references, looking for pictures, looking for anything that might start something off,” he says.
“I was never very good at solving puzzles but this is what I imagine puzzle-solving to be. You have a line of attack but you approach it through a process of controlled mind-wandering. Another good reason why I like working on my own is because I do talk to myself, sometimes very loudly. Using the verbiage of politics, the things people say, the idiot stuff that comes out of the radio. It’s part of the process of shouting back at the radio that my wife and I have always done.”
An avowed Leftie, Bell abhors what he sees as the Right wing bias of much of the media. “I usually contradict the general tenor of the news,” he says.
When he started drawing, Bell was unaware of the great tradition of British political caricaturists such as Hogarth, Gillray and Cruikshank. But he now acknowledges that he is part of that artistic lineage.
I’m optimistic about cartooning generally because there’s a need for it because politics has become so visual
“I look back at them and I take great comfort in seeing what they were doing 200 years ago. Gillray was doing some incredible stuff. He was very, very political. It’s astounding he got away with the stuff he did.”
He says that rather than the portraiture of George III, Charles James Fox or William Pitt, it is Gillray’s vivid caricatures of them we remember. “He made them dance to his tune.”
Looking forward, Bell is pessimistic about the future of newspapers with more and more titles closing, particularly in the USA. But he believes cartoonists laid off as a result, are adapting to new media. He believes there will always be a place for journalism and a place for the incisive political caricature.
“I’m optimistic about cartooning generally because there’s a need for it because politics has become so visual,” he says.
So what of his own future? Bell admits that he is hugely indulged by his employers at the Guardian. “I get a lot of leeway. They don’t tell me what to do. I just get on with it. I’m very lucky to be in that position. Whether or not that can go on forever I don’t know.”