He’s a GENIUS! Loving a Subversive. The Art and Times of John Glashan.

in Authors & Books/Spotlight

My love affair with John Glashan began before I knew John Glashan was John Glashan. I found his illustrations in the pages of Private Eye intriguing.

How could he draw in such a scrappy style and have so much depth, so much humour, so much wit, so much commentary? I believed what he said. It rang a chord with my father’s, and my humour.

When I realised who he was, later, and found out he was Scottish that explained things. We were not called Cowan for nothing.

The Scottish dourness in my blood came out in chortles and snorts as I laughed over the hypocrisy and pulling-apart of social hierarchy in the Glashan line. His combination of word and scribble, his use of mistakes, of the wandering of the pen to pull discrepancies and what I now would call decolonialisation and anti-imperialist narratives out of the air, these were so impressive I wondered if I could ever reach anything of his lofty heights. I have tried, he has been a big influence. I have failed. Still, perhaps I’ve done something. I certainly would not have done what I have done if it had not been for this love affair with his work.

I have my own small collection of Glashan books.of which the prize is the original edition of SPEAK UP YOU TINY FOOL. I turn the pages. There is a man taking his snake for a walk. The friend of snakes, there is affection between the owner and his animal. When he is addressed by a bearded stranger, ‘sneering heavily’ who accuses him of having ‘little else to do but lead a stupid snake about on a string’ he defends his friend. ‘That is no way to speak about NOKO.’ What joy it is when SUDDENLY, without warning, NOKO springs at the stranger. It is a simple story and loses all its mystique in retelling but the kickback to the foolish aristocrat is clear. The power the quiet people. The joy of seeing the pompous destroyed. While the Gothic backgrounds rise high, high into the sky the mighty are laid low.

Ah . . . there is something biblical in Glashan’s language, in Glashan’s scenes. The absurdity of human endeavour. On mass movements. He draws a huge wave and crowds of men all the same in a ship – on two ships – two emigrant ships that collide mid ocean. With all that space of water the men on their collected voyages crash! One is going from the Old World to the New, the other from the New to the Old . . . they cannot get on, even so. One master says to the other, can I purchase some dry cigarette papers. The other replies that he will not give him a compass bearing.

It is a man’s world. This is the 1960s, the 1970s. The women in Glashan’s work are mostly cariactures, more so than the men they are defined by their sexuality, by the clichés of their relationships. The nagging wife is particularly important. But he is interesting even here. He does a representation of the woman who excuses her partner for beating her up. With a black eye she claims that it is her fault that her husband beat her up, as she was talking too much. She was trying to apply the instructions of marriage guidance magazines that say a wife should keep her marriage interesting through conversation. Glashan is pointing the finger at these trite instructional magazines that attempt to tell people how they should live their lifes and the foolishness of following these manuals rather than listening to common sense.

Ah, John, this is so true nowadays. Look at all these manuals on mindfulness and more. Telling people strategies for dealing with difficult situations. Positive thinking. I’m sure you’d have cartoons about them. I wish I could draw them. But I realise, to my chagrin, I don’t have your insightful mind, I have my own view. But you have educated me.

Dreams and reality, the mundane trappings of modern reality versus ambition, see his picture of a man in tall measuring container. Read his test, scribbled down the side of the measuring beaker, telling us to look at this man. ‘At one time he used to dream pleasantly of something like this happening to him … but now that it has actually occurred he thinks differently. He is dismayed and alarmed at the way the alcohol is destroying the texture of his cheap leather shoes.’ Many of Glashan’s funny jokes seem to come from him drawing a little scene and then applying his wit and signature narrative after the drawing is finished. Like a photo caption competition.

Stories evolve with no words at all. There are classics, such as a fish in the goldfish bowl looking at fish in the ocean on the television set. His owner, another bearded man looks on with an eager expression, excited by observing the internal emtion of his pet. Yet another sketch about trans-species relationship. This is something I have taken on in my own art which re-occurs time and time again. Without asking for it, out it pops. Moments when people and animals feel together and show it in their gaze and their pose, no need for words, this is pre-language recognition pulled out in sketchy lines and scribble.

Later, I discovered his extended piece, GENIUS. Drawing in the rain, letting the rain explore his paper, Glashan sticks in his ambitious, overbrained, overhatted character on top of the trees and grass in this Romanic scenery. His surreal, Gothic backgrounds clash with petty minds and narratives of dole offices and meths-drinking.

When I watch it I walk through the gardens of enormity with the tiny figures trying to make an impact in a world that was always far to grand for the tiny human beings here for their fleeting moments. But that never stopped them trying to realise the awesome dreams of their ever-expanding minds.

When I am looking for myself, on a dreary dark day, I turn the pages of John Glashan’s cartoons and find myself there.