Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Flood of Ideas

Most weeks I walk into the Westmorland Gazette newsroom without a clue what the front page stories will be. I prefer to jump in without too much pre-knowledge. I've never liked spoilers.

This week was rather different. Cumbria was all over the national news. Here are the five sketches I presented the editor, together with the cartoon which made it onto the front page.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Off The Rails

I don’t agree with Top Gear about many things but I’m veering towards their point of view on public transport. Especially when it comes to UK train services.

It is less stressful, more relaxing and infinitely more satisfying to drive the length of England than it is to try and book a train ticket. It also takes fewer hours. Carlisle to London by car? About five hours. Booking the ticket online - about four days.

First you have to decide when you’re going. Roughly. With enough flexibility to be able to take advantage of cheaper fares if there is a full moon on the day of travel (outbound journey only).

Then you have to thread your way through a bewildering variety of available rail tickets: Advanced, first class, standard, super-saver, off-peak, first advanced, anytime day single, super-advanced off-peak return, advanced off-saver super-peak, advanced-saver-first-class-upgrade-single, standard-advanced-turn-up-and-grab-the-ticket-salesman-by-the-throat-and-shout-“For-god’s-sake-just-a-give-me-*****ing-ticket!”

Then there are the discounts. Did you know you can get cheaper tickets if you have the ticket sent to your mobile phone? You need a wap-enabled mobile for this. This recently led to the ludicrous situation where it was cheaper for me to buy a new phone, than it was for me to pay for a normal ticket poked over the counter.

The ticket is emailed to the screen of your mobile, arriving in a state that is virtually unreadable. On my last trip the conductor asked for our tickets and said: “Oh god, you’ve all got them on your mobiles. I’ve got a splitting headache so I’m not even going to look.”

The image quality is so bad you could probably counterfeit it in Photoshop. Not that I would ever condone such vile behaviour as it would cheat the scumbag rail companies of much deserved income.

To make things even more deliberately annoying, you have to be careful which online booking service you use. I’ve just been caught out by this (hence the need to rant blog about it).

I’m a public-spirited kind of guy, so for the benefit of fellow travellers in the north west of England, let me state this very clearly:

NEVER EVER EVER book via without checking the Virgin Trains site first.

Even if you’ve already checked Virgin, do it again. In the 30 seconds since you last looked, Earth may have aligned with Jupiter thereby releasing new offers. (I can see no logic to their availability so the causal link may well be astrological in origin.)

Unfortunately, this time I decided I had a life so forgot to double-check and paid £30 more than I needed. Of course, refunds are available on some tickets but - ha ha - not all and anyway there’s a £10 admin fee per ticket. Outbound and return are two tickets, even if you book as one return journey. Presumably this is because has television advertising to pay for.

And speaking of fees, when you buy a ticket from Trainline there is a booking fee (£1) and a credit card fee (£3.50) so, on balance, I think my earlier public-spirited statement can be amended to:

NEVER EVER book a train via Not ever.

Should you want to give me your comments on this issue, you’ll find me on the next train to London. I’ll be the one trying to steal £30 worth of sugar sachets from the buffet carriage.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

1300 Cartoons (and counting)

1984 was an interesting year. Spandau Ballet was the biggest band in the UK. Big Brother was still 16 years away. I had been freelance for six months and was surprised to find I could still afford to eat. And a small, single column cartoon appeared on the front page of The Westmorland Gazette, the UK's top regional weekly newspaper.

Okay, I exaggerate. Madonna was much bigger than the Kemp brothers. But the cartoon was a new departure and I'm mildly astonished to find it continuing to sit on the front page, twenty five years later.

It's sobering to reflect that the cartoon is now older than some of the Gazette's reporters. It’s attempts to appear hip and trendy manifest as an online colour version. There it can even be viewed on an iPhone. It has yet to Twitter, Digg or Spotify but it's been on TV and even inspired a theatre set.

Looking back, I can see that the drawing style has changed dramatically over the years. This is partly due to deadline. In the old days, I took a day to do the cartoon. Now I get three hours from seeing the story to finished artwork. This includes at least four preliminary sketches for the editor to choose - or, if he hates all of them, up to ten. Then the finished cartoon is scanned into my Powerbook, a grey wash added in Photoshop and the electronic file is sent to the sub-editors in Blackburn. All of which takes only twice as long than the old fashioned method.

The subject matter of some of the jokes haven’t changed much. For example, I've been 'doing' Sellafield for almost the entire career of the cartoon. Other recurring topics include Windermere power boats, low flying aircraft, Kendal's bewildering traffic system, second homes and the local hospital. When I began, the Gazette's editor had me campaigning to have the hospital built. Fast forward 25 years and the cartoon is campaigning to prevent it being closed.

I still have most of the 1300 original cartoons and 5200 preliminary sketches. Occasionally originals get sold or are given away to much-loved and highly valued friends - who promptly hang them in the loo. The rest are carefully filed away against the day when Tate Modern gives up on Brit Art installations and decides to have an exhibition of something more amusing (and, let's be frank, more baffling to anyone outside Cumbria).

[This originally appeared on but a recent redesign has lost track of my posts. I'll reprinting the less libellous ones here. In BBC terms, think of it as "a second chance to see ..."]