I have always been able to draw. From the mess of my earliest memories (and it's a big mess because I'm 84), I can still recall images of my first attempts at drawing cowboys I'd seen in comics and at the cinema.
I drew them on the paper lids on jam jars and people would gather round and say 'What a clever little boy!" It really irritated me. Still does today and as I grew older I began to appreciate the danger of uninformed flattery. Eventually it dawned on me that for most of us, once we are out of our comfort zone, according to the law of averages, we are talking rubbish half of the time anyway! In other words, accept praise and criticism with same reserve! I've had plenty of each.
Anyway, drawing cowboys was no great thing. In the 1940's of my youthful, pre-TV Liverpool, everyone could do something! A party piece on the upright piano, spoons, accordion or take the dog through the simple beg, pretend to be dead and roll over routine. Anything to save the family honour in those days! My mum kept a pub while my father was away with the Wavy Navy and later with the Royal Navy.
In the May Blitz in 1940 we would retire to the cellar with our cousins, the Hughes family, who shared the house with us. It was there we founded the 'Juanita Club'. Juanita was a cheap red wine which I discovered at the age of seven to have an excellent nose and delicious hints of strawberries and fish and chips. It saw us through the air raids and I was only scared once. Tom, head of the Hughes family was home during one raid enjoying a bit of peace from his auxiliary fireman's job when a sprinkle of incendiary bombs ended up on our roof, burning merrily. Up he went with his sandbag and tackled the flames. I realise now it took a bit of bottle and it got worse for him when the blast from an H.E bomb blew his ladder in the next street. That should have been the start of my cartooning career. The perfect perilous, dangerous, ludicrous situation which a cartoonist dreams of and has to be committed to paper immediately! No! When they got him down a couple of hours later my mother grabbed my ear and said " You, Billy, get to bed. School in the morning!
I should have said "No, mum! this is a major turning point in my young life. I must get my pencil and-" but my mum could handle drunken sailors three at a time so I put my career on hold till the end of the war and wait for the next one. Korea.
War was the perfect training ground for me. Endless images of action, shocks, explosions, movement, speed, wham, bang, boom! Sport has the same supply of images and tension. I think I am an easy going cove but when threatened with a sheet of spotless paper, wall or drawing board the ideas trapped in my head have to be rescued and nailed down before they disappear and go to someone else.
I went to art school for one night only and then only because I'd been told that the wildest girls in the north west could be found there. Not so in my case. That night it appeared that instead of objects of desire, the Springbok, Tongan and all Black front row had turned up. So much for art!
I signed up as a short term regular soldier with the Royal Engineers for three years, serving in Germany, Japan and Korea. It was mostly interesting for me but I didn’t wasn’t involved in anything hairy. It was not so for the poor people of the Land of the Morning Calm. Their suffering while someone used their country to play a war over was appalling and if you look at the area today – the problems are still continuing to the present day.
It was in Korea that I first came across a non-humorous person exercising censorship. In Pusan we had a base newspaper which carried a cartoon. I wasn't doing much drawing then and was just an ordinary reader.
This is the cartoon;
1st Soldier (new arrival carrying a towel and washbag ) Hey, mate, Where's the ablutions?
2nd Soldier, (a resident) Dunno, mate. I've only been here for 3 weeks!
It caused ructions. The CO though it disgusting and said no more cartoons! The only one to profit from the nonsense was yours truly who in anger started to draw again and blow me down, sold a drawing to Mainichi, an English language Japanese newspaper for £2. Which was not to be sniffed at in1954?
I thought its all plan sailing from now on. When I left the army I found a job in a Liverpool advertising agency where I learned the commercial side of art school, such as the use of expensive advertising space which had to accommodate a drawing of a greenhouse, its dimensions, it's cost and where to find the thing in a space not much bigger that you thumbnail.!
I started landing spots in national newspapers and being a story teller began to produce 2, 3 and 4 picture gags. Regular features are what most cartoonists are looking for and drawing on TV, which I found easy and enjoyable saw me bringing in a new dimension to my work. The only slightly disconcerting feature was that I was having an odd effect on the Street of Shame!
Nearly every publication in which I appeared shivered and rolled ever! They included the Daily Sketch, Sunday Dispatch, Reveille, Weekend, Sunday Chronicle, Travel World etc. I was going through Fleet Street like Typhoid Mary!
I did however have a much better effect on another lady. She was from Italy, a raven haired Neapolitan who was so vivacious that I was totally astonished when she agreed to marry me on our third meeting! We were wed in 1960 and in 57 years have rarely been more that 30 feet apart! The only mark in that half century is that we lost our son Nick to Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. Something that devastated us both beyond words,
We don't have a word in English for grown up children whereas the Italians do. Bambini= kids, figlo and figlia= adult male and female. Sylvia (56) and Rob (43) play a big part in our lives. Sylvia and her husband Fred manage my business affairs and they do their best to keep me in the 21st century while Rob removes tattoos and breeds fish and manages to stay awake while they at it. Nick’s kids are a wonderful reminder of what a great son he was and they are a testament to his brilliant parenting skills. Our granddaughter Scarlette is now a Marketing whiz in San Francisco and has a wonderful partner Dave, and grandson Jones just graduated from the University of Las Vegas. They, like our kids, make us so proud.
I still take childish delight in what I do. I will never stop drawing and I still can not stop myself from doing crazy things like illustrating horseboxes, ceramic pots and vases. And I am still working undertaking commissions for bespoke cartoons and the odd Private Eye gag. My characters range from Tripe magnates to the ferocious Folk Dancing Cloggies to Keg Buster who has been the champion of Real Ale for over 40 years. Think of it, Beer, Sport, Food and Family! What more do I need?