A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I grew up reading Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds. In the beginning, in the late 1970s, she was a revelation to me, because, since my usual comic-book reading was Commando!, The X-Men, and 2000AD, I’d never quite realised before how clever and witty and political graphic art could be when combined with words. She was also the first woman illustrator I’d come across, and she drew comic strips about things that the other strips didn’t (does anyone out there remember Vera the Visible Lesbian? Another fine female comic strip …). She drew families, she drew posh people you could laugh at, she drew spotty teenagers and open-mouthed screeching toddlers, she drew kitchens and shops and bus queues. Characters and places like that never appeared in 2000AD unless they were being mown down by some futuristic clunking vigilante. Posy Simmonds drew the working and domestic lives of women, and since women rarely got a voice in the comic strips I was accustomed to reading, that was a nice change too.
Mrs Weber’s Diary was also all about a sector of society I didn’t know: the anxious English middle-classes, with second homes and posh jobs. My English cousins weren’t anything like these caricatures, so I learned about this kind of English from Posy Simmonds, before I marched down to London to work there. I loved, and read her, on and off, for twenty years, but it is only now, reading the immense compendium Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, that I realise how brilliantly she was recording social history.
It was also a bit of a shock to realise that my family had rather more in common with the Webers that I had thought. My father was a lecturer like George Weber, but not in earnest Liberal Studies. Like Wendy Weber, my mother was a stay at home mum (for a bit), and worked for the NHS, but not as a nurse. Like Belinda Weber, I was an obnoxious knowitall teenager, going out with boys my parents didn’t approve of and glowering a lot, though I was no Tory. Somehow, though I didn’t know it at the time, Mrs Weber’s Diary WAS my life.
Posy Simmonds is rightly famed for her gentle skewering of the middle classes of her day (who I think we’d now call the Elite, the Established Middle Class, and the Technical Middle Class). She clearly knew a lot about the struggles of polytechnic lecturers, of folk with small businesses, of students and teenagers, of mothers ground down by paternalistic attitudes and mothers-in-law from hell, of working women and divorcées struggling against social expectations, and of children with absolutely nothing (so they think) in common with their parents. She is a great social commentator on the modern English (not the British). The Webers are a long, long way from the Broons. One of her alter ego characters, Jocasta Wright, sardonic art student and interested critic of her father’s domestic hypocrisies, is always ready to prick the bubble of middle-class smugness. She takes it at its polite and mealy-mouthed word, and social havoc ensues. There is a lot of cosiness in Posy Simmonds’ world, but she never lets it stay cosy. She pricked consciences because it was so funny to see the anxious, guilty English middle classes writhe uncomfortably.
One of her favourite prickles was second homes. The smug upper-middle-class family with a second home is sure to suffer from cottage-related aggravation. It’s a metaphor for the colonial implantation of the middle-class into new and undiscovered areas. The Cornish village of Tresoddit stands for all remote communities replete with second homes who only come to life for three days at Christmas and in the summer holidays. Stanhope Wright uses his second home for his secret affairs that his wife really does not want to have to hear about. Visiting friends’ second home is a profoundly uncomfortable experience, when you suffer cramped conditions, eat awful food that you have to be polite about and are woken up too early by ill-conditioned children and bloody owls hooting all night.
Posy Simmonds had a particular genius for pinning down the moment by how her characters dressed. Her eye for contemporary fashions, especially of those she was taking down a few pegs, was unerring. I shrieked at the 1980s pages, with her women in angular asymmetrical black (art director types), or slimy advertising men wearing cinched-in baggy peg-tops and Miami Vice shades, and myopic, anxious businesswomen with huge shoulder pads. Contrariwise, she made sure that George and Wendy Weber wore the same style of dress for thirty years (turtlenecks, waistcoats and hippy dirndls). This was obviously a message that those who don’t bother with fashion are morally superior. Big-toothed Sloanes in high-necked piggy sweaters over turned-up collar shirts: how I loathed their predictable uniform of pearls and velvet hairbands, and how I fell about laughing at the merciless caricature of their speech, their intonation, their arrogance. Seedy, sexist businessmen: how much I enjoyed it when, in ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, secretary Penny imagines a world where women can leer at the nervous office clerk, make remarks about his lumpen body not so sotto voce, and patronise, patronise, patronise.
Posy got it right, every time. The change I was most struck by in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus was, not the absence of internet and mobile phones (can you imagine what wifi would have done for the amours of Stanhope Wright?), nor the unchanging cuts in higher education (she got it right in the last strip, when George’s poly has finally been turned into a university, to make more money), but the smoking. It is seriously astonishing to see how many characters smoked thirty years ago, where they smoked, and how often. That’s something contemporary fiction can’t show us so viscerally. Comic strip art really does record the changes in social history.
Posy Simmonds, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus (Jonathan Cape, 2012), 978-0224096836, £35.00.
Kate won her copy of Mrs Weber’s Omnibus in a competition run by her local independent bookshop: thank you, Sterling Books!
We'll be back on Sunday 12 April with the details of our latest investigation, on alternative publishing: how to do it, who does it, how it works, and what it's really like. Till then, we invite you to read books about eggs, chocolates, the return of life to a hopeful world, and the wonder of seasons changing.