“Births, Deaths, Marriages and Smirk, but not necessarily in that order”, is how someone once told me they read The Shetland Times – probably apocryphal – then of course there are the back pages.
A cartoon is a form of expression that nails a snapshot of time. Even here on a few rocks in the north Atlantic, it can sum up a narrative in few words and lines.
The 27th November this year marked 40 years since the first Smirk cartoon was published in The Shetland Times. Thousands have followed.
One week I had up to eight cartoons, I can’t remember what happened though. Sometimes they were space fillers, not a waste of space as you might think, I liked to joke with editors – I think I’ve worked with seven so far.
“Are you Smirk?” I have been asked. There’s several ways to reply to this. One, “who is Smirk?”, glancing back with puzzled ignorance. Two, “who he him?”. Three, “should I know him?” or “no, no that’s my brother, I’m continually getting mistaken for him”.
Over the years being asked by strangers I’ve found it better to be aloof. After all I may have drawn something or someone in a far from flattering way to the interpretation of the questioner, who could “take umbrage”. The phrase “let me qualify my statement” has had to be often used in tricky situations.
How the name Smirk came about is lost to me back in the mists. As they say, perhaps that file is missing. Anyway, Lowrie Simpson was “Smeeg” so that one was out. It may have been a reaction to often carrying a grumpy continence, and often being told to “cheer up, it might never happen”.
It seemed better to project a happy disposition and try and take the pompous local worthies and their often-ridiculous actions down a peg or two for hopefully general amusement.
It’s quite an onerous task to condense 40 years of “skrittin’ da news”.
Remarkably I have come through it all fairly unscathed physically, but have taken some verbal attack, “noo an’ again”. The late Slim Jim Irvine assured me that “all publicity was good publicity”.
I held him to his word for many years. In one election his friend Bobby Tait also ran for election in another ward, the cartoon read: “Vote Slim and vote often, vote Tait your docker mate.”
Through the years I have come across basically two types of people who have been portrayed, those who can take a bit of fun and those who are fairly miffed. Former councillor Magnie Flaws, affectionately known as Major Flaws, was an avid collector of the originals. Sadly technology, in the form of photocopier (seems so long ago) put paid to this avenue.
At the other end of the scale, you got people who somehow saw themselves above satire, didn’t see the joke, and wanted the originals merely because they didn’t want anyone else to have them.
In the 1980s the council seemed to be littered with maverick characters just asking to be caricatured, among my favourites were “Slim” Jim Irvine from Lerwick and Henry Stewart from Whalsay who could be very “single minded” in their approach to council matters. How tame it seems today.
It was a time when councillors and officials were on numerous jollies, this one took the biscuit though. On this occasion, the two found themselves at a Euro-conference representing a peripheral region while we were left at home and subject to a local production of the musical South Pacific.
Two SIC chief executives wanted all their pictures at their departure. Job lots were available. It’s always been a tightrope to traverse, to poke fun but not to be offensive.
Speaking of vendettas I was informed and realised after regularly depicting Henry that he had been at loggerheads with my grandfather Magnus Shearer over the location of the Whalsay pier, a saga which still continues today.
During this period relations between the oil industry and the council were a constant source of news with the local council in a constant tussle with a multi-national.
It was a David and Goliath situation lending itself to much material for the pen. In this case, rates became a hot topic. BP was always keen to snap up originals but I always felt it was a formality rather than any genuine appreciation, but I guess that just goes with the territory.
The salmon industry had become a major player in the isles’ economy and we were reminded daily of this fact on “Radio Ian” with the sea temperature at Wadbister Voe. As this only fluctuates by three degrees all year round, the constant announcement and its purpose caused considerable annoyance in some quarters.
I do think cartooning is an artistic medium with universal appeal, rather than some of Shetland Arts’ presentations which can be interpreted as elitist.
The first cartoon followed years of serial doodling, and a certain “over active imagination”. At school I had been encouraged to take the practical route and been advised to study chemistry, rather than the other option art, by my guidance teacher, himself a chemistry teacher.
“There is no money in art,” he convinced me. Give him his due he was right about that. Eventually I ended up studying history and politics at Edinburgh University, “history is one god damn thing after another” and other stories. Despite obtaining a degree I felt I was better sorted by a more general experience of life.
This article is an excerpt of a full feature which appears in Friday’s (31st December) edition of The Shetland Times.