Why David Squires’ cartoons save us all from pomposity

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 13, 2018
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Satire, so they say, is dead. That Was The Week That Was is a grainy curio from a bygone age, Spitting Image feels like a surreal childhood dream, and The Day Today’s most affecting legacy is a shortcut to determining someone’s soundness should you overhear them recite one of Chris Morris’ brilliant one-liners.

Now, in an era of Brexit, Trump and crazy carnage we only have vein-popping outrage that descends on a topical topic from completely opposing sides, usually on social media. Everybody shouts so the subtleties of truth get lost in the decibels. Everybody is offended. Pomposity-pricking humour and god forbid anything that could be construed as being silly simply doesn’t get a look in.

The Thick Of It was arguably Britain’s last attempt to undermine and deride areas of life that desperately needs undermining and deriding and two years ago one of its lead writers, Ian Martin (who originally had one of the greatest job titles ever in being the programme’s ‘Swearing Consultant’), described to the Guardian the present climate as having a ‘creepy 1984 vibe’. Poking satirical fun in the political arena only brought ‘bumptious, puffed-up little dickheads demanding so-and-so is ‘sacked by the BBC’. Everyone patrols the boundaries of their own jokes and opinions now. And if they do go over the line, there’s a great mass of outrage starlings ready to swoop down and Hitchcock them’.

It was also two years ago when I chatted to the actor and impressionist Chris Barrie, whose career first took off voicing so many of the puppets for Spitting Image. He told me with genuine consternation that the show must return in some form; that the nation’s need for its subversive mix of absurdity and unmerciful piss-taking was greater than ever before. Given that Barrie’s time on the programme coincided with Thatcher’s unleashing of the state onto striking miners and the Poll Tax riots that is a deeply unsettling observation.

Alas satire, in what should be its finest hour, is dead. Or so they say.

Thank goodness for football then and thank goodness for the cartoonist David Squires, but before we celebrate his work, if you believe that the national game pales into insignificance compared to the Westminster village then you are of course entirely correct – but consider this: prominent political figures influenced the vote on the most important issue this country has faced in living memory by stone-cold lying on the sides of buses and got away with it while in America the ‘leader of the free world’ mocked a disabled journalist and has allegedly had a long-standing affair with a porn star yet continues to run amok. Whereas in football a recently appointed national team coach was stung into saying that he knew how to ‘get round’ third-party ownership rules and was promptly sacked. The recently appointed women’s team coach meanwhile had his Twitter back-catalogue combed through for anything that can be deemed misogynistic. He stayed but only after a significant wobble.

There is an accountability and high moral bar in football that used to be applied to our political leaders and this is where we get to my own personal pet theory: we swapped over. Disillusioned and unheard in the political sphere we turned to our next most meaningful aspect of life and found that here when we kicked up a fuss things were actually done about it. Controversies grew from tiny seeds and had real consequences. We had a voice.

If this is understandable there is also a considerable downside in that a game that is supposed to be entertaining – a distraction – has now become too damn serious. It’s been given the same gravitas as the running of our country with FA headquarters viewed as a parliament and Klopp, Mourinho and the rest scrutinised as party leaders. And with all this we have not only brought across our wholehearted absorption but a great deal of pomposity too.

It’s a pomposity that reignites each and every weekend around the latest talking points.

This is where David Squires’ weekly cartoon in the Guardian steps in and releases all of the hot air from the balloon before blowing it back up into the shape of a funny animal. The Swindon-born, Swindon-supporting draw-smith also regularly takes irreverent aim at the Australian A-League in the same pages and has put out a gloriously funny book called The Illustrated History of Football but here we’re concentrating solely on a series of ten boxes featuring illustrations and text that comes out every Tuesday. Due to its consistent genius it has managed to break through cult status to the mainstream. It’s an impact has been nothing less than substantial.

Guardian journalist Sachin Nakrani is an affirmed fan.

“It probably says a lot about me that my highlight of the week when it comes to football output is not an insightful tactical piece by Jonathan Wilson, or a razor-sharp column by Jonathan Liew, or a pitch-perfect match report by Danny Taylor, but rather the drawings of David Squires. Quite frankly I can’t get enough of them – would have one on the hour if Squires could draw that fast – and judging by the outpouring of comments on the Guardian’s website and on Twitter within seconds of his latest piece being published, I’m not the only one.”

He’s certainly not and judging by the widespread amusement that each cartoon heralds from previously scowling tribes feeling wronged from their weekend dramas Sachin is bang-on in saying that in this time of saturated, hyperbolic discourse around every detail of the game Squires’ cartoons help to keep us sane:

“Something that shines a light on the madness of football and, more importantly, makes light of football”.

According to the late, great Lenny Bruce, satire is tragedy plus time and in footballing circles it seems that only a couple of days need pass before we’re collectively ready to regard controversial events as funny foibles. At that precise moment along comes Squires with another perfectly pitched lampooning and encapsulates the sheer ridiculousness of us getting so worked up about them in the first place. In that regard he is our release valve. In truth he’s probably adding a couple of years to our life expectancy.

When looking at it evenly the huge popularity of Squires’ work is a perplexing contradiction in that he employs the most old-fashioned of means to convey his humour – a cartoon – on modern platforms. Sachin however believes it is an incongruity made irrelevant due to the high quality of the output.

“What makes Squires so good? First and foremost – he’s funny. The humour is tight, to the point and on the money, perfectly capturing the mood and the characters he is portraying. While others rage about how this club and that club is portrayed, how this manager and that manager is reported on, how’s there’s too much of this, not enough of that … agendas here, agendas there, Squires steps through the saloon doors and blows a massive raspberry at it all. Suddenly Gareth Barry is Travis Bickle, Antonio Conte is Kim Jon Un, Gigi Buffon is a sad 600-year-old who can remember the French Renaissance and, most brilliantly of all, Eddie Howe has a massive head. “

“It’s satire at its best – exaggerated, ridiculous, highly topical and hilarious. The cartoons themselves are also gorgeous – classic black and white sketches in which those depicted are instantly recognisable. All in all, Squires’ cartoons are an utter and refreshing joy.”

James Dart, sport editor of the Guardian digital, goes further in explaining why Squires’ cartoons connect to so many of us. “It’s his sense of humour, irreverence and warmth, all combined with a ridiculous eye for detail and that pop-culture back catalogue in his mind”.

The pop culture is exhilarating and everywhere, whether in the examples Sachin offers or Riyad Mahrez on transfer deadline day stuck in an airport like Tom Hanks in The Terminal; or a hotel-dwelling Jose Mourinho dismantling a Corby trouser press; or, perhaps most memorably, Sam Allardyce as the baby on the Nevermind album cover swimming towards a Greggs voucher. They blend seamlessly with topical events from the news that week and if you ‘get’ the references then great but if you don’t Squires trusts in our intelligence and the humour of the piece to ensure the jokes land regardless.

It is a process that begins on a Monday morning with an enormous cup of coffee to hand. The 43 year old, who relocated to Sydney, Australia in 2009, cobbles together his ideas from scraps of paper accumulated throughout the week and begins to draft a script that very rarely ends up how it began. Then, eschewing the cornucopia of digital assistance available to illustrators these days, he puts pen to paper the old-school way and draws, all aided by a liberal use of Tip-Ex. Twenty-four hours later the finished result sends social media into outright hysterics.

For me personally his crowning achievement to date is a box covering this season’s tempestuous derby that climaxed *cough* post-game in Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho being showered with milk from an unknown City assailant. The erotic image is relayed by a rather excited media figure well-known for favouring the once ‘Special One’ to the point of parody and the sight of this frankly lessened my life expectancy by a couple of years due to laughing up a lung.

It is surprising to learn therefore that this – admittedly near-the-knuckle – illustration prompted rare criticism from some quarters, disapproval that Squires met head-on by saying via YouTube –

“Some people asked if I was breaking some sort of journalistic code by making a joke about Duncan Castles but it should be remembered that I’m not a journalist and nor is Duncan”.

They say that political satire is dead. In football however it is thriving – more so enjoying its finest hour – and that is all down to the genius of one man with a pen deriding areas of life that desperately need deriding.

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