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Dabbler Diary – Box-Spoon Billy

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‘Let’s all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born’, I suggested, and so we did, C and E and I, holding hands in a circle, to that one and Penny Lane and Baby, You’re a Rich Man. This is the sort of thing you can do on a Thursday morning when you’re self-employed. In the afternoon I went to the theatre, then after that I had a lot of drinks with an old friend who works for a fierce and bitter competitor of my ex-employer without having to worry about the awkwardness. We gossiped like Mapp and Lucia.

On my last day at the company my colleagues adorned my desk with helium balloons and I brought three home for the girls. One says ‘Sorry You’re Going’ on it and the other two say ‘Good luck’. Three weeks later the balloons are still afloat, conspiring in a corner of the ceiling.

C leapt to grab the string of Sorry You’re Leaving and we welcomed its bobbing head into our rotating circle. E did her ‘special dance’ where she holds your hands and shakes her curly mop of hair with disconcerting vigour exactly like Big Jeff. I thought about what it would look like if she and Big Jeff danced together (he’s about 6’5 including his afro and she’s 2’8 including hers) and I confess I chortled a fair bit.

***

‘Chortle chortle’ was the Carollian coinage much favoured by comics like the Beano to denote the mirth of schoolboys, it being a combination of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’ and thus the perfect expression of the schadenfreude felt by such as Roger the Dodger when he saw his enemy on the receiving end of a slipperwhacking from Dad.

As a boy I read the Beano, Dandy and Whizzer and Chips whenever they happened to come my way and unwrapped the Victor Annual on several consecutive Christmass mornings but my favourite comic by far was Roy of the Rovers – indeed, my first taste of publishing success came when I had a letter printed in the Hamish’s Hotshots page.

Roy of the Rovers mixed ‘serious’ strips (like Roy’s saga, or Goalkeeper) with overtly silly Beano-type strips like Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse.  However, I drew no distinction between the ‘funny’ ones and the ‘straight’ ones  – I just read them all in deadly seriousness. Indeed, to the best of my memory, whenever I read any comics it was in a spirit of earnest study of their unfolding events – I don’t think I ever really laughed as such.

But I was fascinated by the strange way that comics suspended the laws of time and motion. Time didn’t exist in a comic frame; for example, Roy of the Rovers employed  the device of using members of the crowd to provide lengthy expository remarks while the football action was taking place. So in the split second that Roy Race unleashes his famous Rocket shot and the ball is exactly halfway to the goal, a spectator in the stands would be speechbubbled saying “Roy’s gone for goal! He’s hit it hard, but will the keeper save it?”, and his companion would reply “It’s now or never, there’s only seconds left on the clock and if this goes in Melchester will win the cup, and that could be just the thing to rescue the club from financial ruin and also save Roy’s marriage!”

Later I discovered Viz and that really did make me laugh. Not so much for the rude bits – though they are funny – but for the Beano pastiches, which prove that it is possible to be funny satirising something that wasn’t supposed to be serious in the first place. One very, very silly example I can remember was Box-Spoon Billy which I have now found online and which, with the kind permission of its author Davey Jones, I reproduce in full here:


box spoon 1
box spoon 2box spoon 3box spoon 4

***

How long do the quality national newspapers have left? Doom has been predicted for a while yet they’re all still hanging on there. But what about the ‘quality’ part? Russell Brand’s piece in The Guardian in which he argues that the Chelsea fans on the Paris Metro were racist thugs because they have been alienated by all the capitalist money in football doesn’t require a fisking as it’s obvious that (1) it’s twaddle in the general  (there was far more racist thuggery before all the money gentrified the game); and (2) it’s twaddle in the particular (one of the ‘alienated’ thugs went to a £30k p.a. public school and works in finance).

The question is why such poor stuff should be published, and the answer, clearly, is that clicks are more important than quality for The Guardian. This same accusation (amongst many others) was levelled at The Telegraph by Peter Oborne in his thundering sign-off and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t happening. That should in theory leave us with The Times’ paywall model as the best safeguard for quality, but I still can’t bring myself to pay money to read news online, which I guess neatly illustrates the problem.

***

The play I went to see on the Thursday afternoon was Fanny Hill at the Bristol Old Vic, starring Caroline Quentin. The Old Vic, you may be aware, operates in a King Street building called the Theatre Royal which has been putting on shows since 1766 and is the oldest continually-operating theatre in the country. It underwent a major refurbishment a few years ago but, in keeping with Britain’s mania for random acts of heritage-safeguarding, they preserved some of the original 18th century seating.

So here’s my top tip for those considering going to see a play at the Old Vic: do not, under any circumstances, make the mistake that I did and give the Georgian benches in the Upper Circle a go. The Georgians may have been content to sit for three hours on a glorified plank but they were shorter, had much smaller buttocks and were considerably less spoiled than we New Elizabethans.

***

The girls’ mother objects when I sing ‘Though she was born a long, long time ago’ in a provoking manner and of course she wasn’t, but to our children the 1970s will be like the 1930s are to us. Yet The Beatles are emphatically not like Al Jolson. Do you realise that the side 2 running order of Magical Mystery Tour is: Hello, Goodbye; Strawberry Fields Forever; Penny Lane; Baby, You’re a Rich Man; All You Need is Love – and yet it’s not even really considered one of their best five albums?

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the miracle that was Lennon-McCartney – we tend take it too much for granted.

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

21 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Box-Spoon Billy

  1. February 23, 2015 at 08:49

    The Viz parody is surprisingly gentle. I was amused to read that Alan Clark was a big fan of the comic – I suppose it’s consistent with his contempt for ‘namby-pamby’ political correctness.

    I’m afraid that I couldn’t countenance Roy of the Rovers, as I loathed sport from an early age, but loved Whizzer and Chips. Were you a Whizz Kid or a Chipite? I can’t remember any of the characters from that comic, apart from Shiner and Billy.

    • Brit
      February 23, 2015 at 09:21

      Good question… In the great Whizz-kid-Chipite war I think I was a conscientious objector. The only other one I can remember was from that was Mustapha Million, which I thought was a very clever name.

  2. Worm
    February 23, 2015 at 10:44

    You are so spot on about never actually laughing at a comic as a child – I had a weekly Beano subscription and was a fully signed up member of the Dennis the Menace (and Gnasher) fan club, yet as you say, I can never recall ever actually laughing at anything contained therein. My true love(s) though: Victor and Commando, and anything that involved surprised German guards saying “Achtung!” or sadistic japanese soldiers dying on the end of bayonet saying “aieeeeee!”

  3. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    malty
    February 23, 2015 at 10:50

    Factual ephemera…Viz comic’s founder, Chris Donald, has recently put his rather tasty house on the market, in that part of rural Northumberland much favoured by those members of the inner M25 tribe heading north, hoping to reduce their overdraft and Nitrazepam consumption, reeling, as they are, from the cacophony of sound emanating from the camel driver’s Lamborghini’s in London’s Gasse and Straße.

    Remembering head ephemera…returning home from the job at a point in time somewhere around the early sixties I would fire up the wireless and listen to, I think, John Dunn. One fine evening he interviewed a group of cheeky scousers, the group was called, or sounded like it was called, The Beatties. Then I heard the music, some weeks later all was revealed, they were called the Beatles, Beatles, what a duff name for a group, I thought. Some time later, thinking them too commercial I swapped sides and joined the Stones. Fickle lot, we fans of the bands.
    Regarding the I think, pretty sure it was Dunn, however, there is no reference anywhere of him having his own programme at that time.

  4. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    February 23, 2015 at 15:13

    I wonder, Malty, if this was slightly before John Dunn’s time; could it, perhaps, have been Keith Fordyce or Alan Dell?

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      malty
      February 23, 2015 at 20:09

      Could be John, although all had distinctive voices and Dunns was so civilized, in those pre Caroline days.

  5. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    February 23, 2015 at 19:55

    There’s a slightly dull book called Understanding Comics by a cartoonist named Scott McLeod and I recall that he discusses the nature of time and the comics panel in some detail. But as I said, it’s rather dull so I can’t actually remember any of that detail.

    I’m interested in the survival of Viz because its original readership would have been familiar with The Beano, The Topper, Whizzer and Chips et al., and so understood what was being parodied. But now all of those kids’ comics are dead, and only The Beano remains, so most people under 30 will have little idea about the sources of Viz. On the other hand, perhaps like 2000AD, it is kept afloat by a diminishing audience in its late 30s and 40s.

    I KNOW NOT.

    Meanwhile, as luck would have it, I have been going through old boxes and found a copy of Buster Comic Library from 1985. The strips are:

    Ivor Lott & Tony Broke (pretty obvious what’s going on here)
    Chalky (a boy with some chalk)
    X-Ray Specs (at no point does he turn his gaze upon a lady)
    Buster’s Dream World (surrealistic fantasies of Buster, prompted by something he overhears while in an oneiric state)
    Buster’s Diary (the memoirs of Buster)
    Rent-a-Ghost Ltd (does not appear to have any connection to the 80s kids’ TV show)
    Faceache (a boy with the ability to transform his face into horrifying mutations)

    Of all of these, I only remember Faceache, which had a genuine grotesque quality about it…. indeed some of the caricatures bordered on the repulsive. But in a good way. I’d buy a page of original Faceache art if I had the ca$h and opportunity, put it that way. Googling about, I just discovered that the strip’s creator, Ken Reid, died of a stroke that came on while he was drawing a (perhaps particularly gruesome) page.

    • Brit
      February 23, 2015 at 21:16

      I recognise all of those. It occurs dimly that my sister took Buster for a few years (that’s right, she ‘took’ it, as you might ‘take’ The Times).

      • Gaw
        February 24, 2015 at 22:27

        I remember when my little sister replaced her Beano subscription with one for Just Seventeen. What a rite of passage.

  6. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    David
    February 24, 2015 at 17:56

    As I age, I find that coming up with new emotionally devastating ways of expressing how old I am has become one of my new hobbies. Most recently, it occurred to me that 2062 (a year that seems to me so far in the future that merely writing it down is a work of science fiction) is in fact closer to the present day than 1962, the year of my birth. For some reason, I find that entirely pedestrian observation (for those of us over 50) to simply drip triste.

  7. law@mhbref.com'
    Jonathan Law
    February 24, 2015 at 19:37

    I was absolutely fascinated by these publications when I was a boy — and no, I don\’t remember laughing very much either. I think it was something to do with the weird alternative universe they presented — and the way in which this strange, self-enclosed world operated according to its own iron laws and logic. This was, after all, a world in which teachers wore strange square hats and capes like Batman or Dracula, Dad smoked a pipe and wore a tie when he was mowing the lawn, and child beating was not only routine but regarded as the best joke under the sun. Children are natural anthropologists — they have to be, really, to make sense of the bizarre social forms around them, with their incomprehensible demands and prohibitions (why can\’t you eat potatoes with your fingers? why do you have to keep saying please and thank you?). I honestly think I approached Beano world in the spirit of Levi-Strauss faced with the gifting rituals of some pre-Inca civilization.

    And surely it\’s that sense of a fully worked-out anthropology that makes Box-spoon Billy so great — such a profound (yes!) comment on the strips it\’s modelled on; a whole society in which owning a boxed-up kitchen implement is the signifier of social status and no one thinks this remotely odd …

    • Brit
      February 25, 2015 at 17:23

      That’s spot on, JL. You’re right about the iron laws and logic – different characters had their gimmicks but virtually all the strips followed the exact narrative formula of Box-Spoon Billy.

  8. Gaw
    February 24, 2015 at 22:19

    I think I recall Whizzer & Chips launching in a blizzard of free gifts, sellotaped onto the cover. They worked on me (if in no other way – they were plasticky rubbish). Comic circulation war! Fancy. That’s a thing that won’t happen any more now we’re down to a Beano-poly.

    Some comfort to those who see comic reading as something that belongs to history: my 9-year-old takes the Beano and races to grab it as it drops through the letterbox. Comforting to see the iPad shoved aside.

    • Brit
      February 25, 2015 at 17:25

      That is comforting… Does he laugh when he reads, or is it the serious study of unfolding events? And what has replaced the child-beating in the final panel?

      • mail@danielkalder.com'
        February 26, 2015 at 09:43

        Free tat was the norm when it came to launching comics in ye olde days; at least for IPC publications. 2000AD issue 1 came with a free “space spinner,” as I recall. Whizzer and Chips meanwhile is interesting because of its weird internal factionalism. The editors had split the comic in two and were always encouraging readers to choose one side over the other— “Are you a Whizz kid, or are you a Chip-ite?” I’m not entirely sure what lay behind this strategy of encouraging the audience to denounce one half of the comic, instead of their competitors’ comics. I also can’t remember which side I came down on. Possibly neither, as I took The Beano and only read Whizzer & Chips on summer holidays.

  9. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 25, 2015 at 14:57

    Anyone else remember Johnny F*ckwit, The Unintelligent Cartoon Character?

    • Brit
      February 25, 2015 at 17:19

      I think he was actually Terry.

  10. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 26, 2015 at 10:38

    So it was! And with two Ts.

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