Irish Independent, 25 September 2001
Fifty quid or the whippet is catfood
by John S. Doyle
Flann O'Brien and his characters from 'At Swim-Two-Birds', painted by Brian O'Toole for a series of postcards depicting Irish writers
Where were you at two o'clock on September 11, 2001? I was in Rosie O'Grady's pub in Harold's Cross talking to Tom Mathews, the cartoonist. The lunch trade was tailing off; here and there a few savages for bacon and cabbage or something similar were mopping up their plates. We found a quiet spot at the bar and ordered a couple of pints, when suddenly the woman behind the bar turned on the television, loud. Ah now, we said, not the telly. Not some football match. And then the news came on.
We had been talking about a friend and colleague, Brian O'Toole, who had died - quickly, almost without warning - from cancer on the 1st of this month at the age of 54. We went on talking about him, in between the fearful bulletins from New York.
Brian, a Liverpool man, was one of a school of cartoonists and illustrators who attended In Dublin magazine under the sharp eye of Syd Bluett in the Seventies and Eighties. Brian appeared in 1980. His style of drawing, in black ink, heavily worked, with lots of crosshatching, was like a nightmare version of the Dandy or the Hotspur. But these were not cartoons; they were oblique commentaries on politics or literature, or the inside of his brain; their like had not been seen before, and it was world-class stuff. Brian was a man of the left when it was extremely unfashionable in England; the words "savage indignation" were for once appropriate.
The work that emerged was macabre, unsettling, and hysterically funny. For the bumper Christmas issue of 1980 he produced a kind of typical homely Victorian drawing - fireplace, overmantel, standard lamp, fender, but in a club chair by the fire there was a black cat, human size, relaxing, holding up a piece of something (A mouse?) on a cocktail stick. The cat's teeth are bared, in a grimace or a grin; there is a mad gleam in his eye. It was at the same time very funny and deeply frightening. "A happy Christmas to all our readers" was the message below.
Billy Drake, another member of the school - and no stranger to the macabre, as Sunday Tribune readers will know - was immediately struck by the uniqueness of Brian's work. He hadn't encountered anything like it before, he said. Much of his pen-and-ink work incorporated a dark humorous vision in a genuinely original style, unmannered and unfashionable perhaps but defined as 'critical graphics' more so than conventional cartoons" - critical graphics being a stand-alone style more common in continental magazines than in Ireland or Britain.
Occasionally Brian visited Dublin and stayed, sometimes for extended periods, with fellow pen-and-ink men. It was not just his strong Liverpool accent but also his arcane vocabulary that took a bit of getting used to. Tom Mathews remembers their first meeting, outside the In Dublin office. "I was standing at the Woollen Mills waiting to cross to the Halfpenny Bridge; think I took him up to Grogan's. I was understanding about one per cent of what he was saying. And by the time we were half way over there I was getting about 50 per cent of it, and by the time we were sitting down having a pint I was getting 90 per cent of it. It was often the key word you wouldn't get, even towards the very end. But the accent wasn't all that impenetrable. Initially it was a bit of a frightener, then you got very used to it."
Mathews stayed with him in Liverpool once, where he and his mother lived in a council house with a stone yard out the back and a corrugated roof over the yard. "Just as Magritte used to paint the houses that surrounded him, much of the background of Brian's world of surrealism is the road, his own road." Brian's mother found it difficult to relate to Mathews - "we didn't talk easily together." But one night after he and Brian came back from the local bar, she started telling him stories. "Brian went to bed, and she was telling me stories about him, but the one that stuck in my mind was she said: 'Oh he brings home very strange people, Brian, you know. He brought home this rock and roll band one night.'
"So I could find no more about this till the next day on the bus, and I charged him with it. He said: 'Aye, that would have been the Mothers of Invention.' Apparently, Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the group, took a great liking to Mrs. O'Toole. Mr Zappa was not there on this occasion, Brian confided in me. 'He wair aboove in the hotsel writsin' lyrics.'
"Liverpool is a city that likes surrealism' says Tom Mathews, "and it throws up citizens like John Lennon independently of people like Adrian Henri - who taught Brian at art college - and Brian himself, and Mal Dean the great surrealist illustrator. Ken Dodd, after all, is surrealism. George Melly is the champion of surrealism."
Brian was elegant in his handwriting and in his dress. The surrealist painter Rene Magritte again comes to mind. Magritte disguised himself as a civil servant in suit and bowler hat, and would walk out of his house each morning and stand with the other civil servants at the bus stop 'until the bus had gone, then he'd go back in and start work. "Brian was a dandy in the Baudelairean sense," says Mathews. "He would go nowhere unless he looked immaculate. I remember him spending an hour shining his shoes. He had also those things that you put in your shoes to preserve their shape, those wooden forms. A very old-world, very gallant sort of man. A hand-kisser when he met the ladies.
"He was a widely-read man. The range of reference is extraordinary - the curious byways of literature, political thought, philosophy, and of course an enormous knowledge of artistic and literary arcana. He loved the playwright Alfred Jarry: King Ubu was one of his household gods. He was a ferocious Joycean as well."
Brian's letters, densely calligraphed in Indian ink, were a treat and a challenge, full of enthusiasms and sardonic summaries. Referring to plans for Bachelors Walk, he wrote, 20 years ago, presciently but hopelessly: "It's as good a quayside as anything in Gdansk-Danzig or Newcastle upon Tyne, in its own way: and in the absence of the Luftwaffe, Bomber Harris's tactics, or Russian artillery, I don't see any good reason why it should be flattened."
Readers of Hot Press will be familiar with Brian O'Toole's later work, as will collectors of the 11 issues of The Yellow Press, a Dublin comic in the mid Nineties to which he contributed, amongst other things, a strip called 'Fifty quid or the whippet is catfood'. Some of his work can be found on website, www.sadiethepilot.com/kellie/special.htm.
Syd Bluett, who in latter years persuaded him to do a series of oil paintings of Irish writers for a brilliant suite of postcards, said last week: "Brian, though a Liverpool man, would have made a wonderful Dublin character. He loved walking around town. Heavy rain never bothered him and he had that majestic habit, which all true characters had, of stopping regularly at the edge of the footpath to 'survey'. And the crowds, gracefully, would mince their steps to go around him.
"He was frighteningly intelligent. I never knew what to say to him. He always had the perfect angle - irreverent and acute, yet polite - on art, politics, literature, trivia, music and life. A beautiful talker. A brilliant draughtsman and painter. A heavy smoker. And now he's gone."
*John S. Doyle was the founding editor of In Dublin
Read a tribute to Brian O'Toole by fellow artist and friend Peter Betts here.
Read the Shem 'n' Sam comic strips, written by Stephen Walsh and drawn by Brian O'Toole, here.
For purchasing details of Brian O'Toole's postcards depicting Irish writers, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US the set of cards are available from Irish Books and Media via their website, www.irishbook.com, or by calling toll-free 800 229 3505.
A panel from 'Shem 'n' Sam', an occasional comic strip by Brian O'Toole about Joyce and Beckett sharing a bedsit on the South Circular Road
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Article copyright © John S. Doyle 2001
"Shem & Sam" copyright © Stephen Walsh and Brian O' Toole
Flann O'Brien postcard © Bluett and Company Limited
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