The Effluent Society

By Norman Thelwell (Magnum/Eyre Methuen)
ISBN: 0-417-01050-8

Norman Thelwell is still one of our most beloved cartoonists – even though he passed away in 2004. I was going to astound you with my encyclopedic knowledge here but frankly his work has always been its own best advocate, and if you need to know more about this brilliant creator you should crank up your search-engine of choice. I heartily recommend the official website as well as Steve Holland’s excellent Bear Alley resource.

Thelwell’s superbly gentle cartooning combined Bigfoot abstractions with a keen and accurate eye for background detail, not just on the riding and countryside themes that made him a household name, but on all the myriad subjects upon which he turned his canny eye. His compositions are an immaculate condensation of everything warm yet charged, resonant with being resolutely Post-War, Baby-Booming British without ever being parochial or provincial.

His work has international implications and scope, neatly achieving that by presenting us to the world for decades. There are 32 books of his work and every aficionado of humour – illustrated or otherwise – could do much worse than possess them all.

From 1950 when his gag-panel Chicko first began in the Eagle, and especially two years later with his first sale to Punch, he built a solid body of irresistible, seductive and always funny work. He appeared in innumerable magazines, comics and papers ranging from Men Only to Everybody’s Weekly. In 1957 his first collection of published cartoons Angels on Horseback was released and in 1961 he made the rare reverse trip by releasing a book of all-new cartoons that was subsequently serialised in the Sunday Express.

His dry, sly, cannily observed drawings were a huge success and other books followed to supplement his regular appearances in a variety of newspapers and magazines. Thus we have here his shrewd graphic ruminations on Tomorrow’s World: the then-budding Conservation Movement.

These strips, culled mostly from the venerable and equally-missed Punch, come from a time when Global Warming and Climate Change were unheard of and “Population Explosions” and “Pollution” were the media bugbears of choice – but for all that an era when many scientists were finally beginning to make themselves heard in a commercial and political arena that simply did not want to listen…

These cartoons range from the wonderfully silly to the painfully trenchant, created by a man who loved and valued the countryside, but Thelwell was also an observer who could spot cupidity and cant a mile off, so here no cows were sacred and all sides are similarly targeted…

Subdivided into Water, Water Everywhere, The Good Earth, A Breath of Fresh Air, Down in the Dumps, The Race for Space (that’s residences not rocket-ships), Animal Farm (food production), All Creatures Great and Small, Technical Hitch, The Grave New World and Let’s Protest, far too many of these gags are still devastatingly relevant today: which is as much a condemnation of Society’s truculent procrastination as the artist’s fantastic, funny foresight.

Clearly it’s not too late to stack down this manifesto of mirth, and perhaps somebody should be thinking about re-issuing this classy cracker…
© 1971 Norman Thelwell.