Underwear Was Important - Hazel Wood, Posy Simmonds - Slightly Foxed Issue 15

Underwear Was Important

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It was towards the end of the 1970s that I first met the Webers: George, senior lecturer in liberal studies at the local polytechnic, bespectacled, moustached and normally clad in a hairy pullover; his wife Wendy, mother of six, ex-nurse turned children’s author, dressed (as many of us were in those days) in ethnic beads and slightly tiredlooking Laura Ashley; and the Weber children, baby Benji, the twins Tamsin and Amanda, Sophie, Beverley and the oldest, Belinda, a sulky beauty then preparing to take her A-Levels. Oh, and I mustn’t forget Pussy, the Webers’ podgy and suspicious cat.

We tended to see them once a week, often in the Webers’ homely but by now somewhat shabby stripped-pine kitchen, over a glass of George’s homemade plonk and one of Wendy’s Elizabeth David cassoulets. I really got to know them quite well.

I got to know their friends too, especially Wendy’s two old chums Trish and Jo. Trish, one-time art gallery assistant, mother of baby Willy and stepmother of Jocasta (art student, living at home) was married to handsome Stanhope Wright, creative director of Beazeley & Buffin Advertising. We all disliked Stanhope, a real smoothie, who we knew was two-timing Trish with any piece of skirt that came along. Jo, a no-nonsense tracksuit-wearing sports coach, had also made an unfortunate marriage, to Edmund Heap, a whisky salesman for International Brewhouse Inc. (‘Pleased to meet you squire!’), and was now the mother of two unattractive teenagers, Jolyon and Julian (founder of The Snotty Throttlers pop group).

I liked and identified with Wendy – harassed, conscientious, a bit sharp, and weighed down by a terrible sense of guilt and social obligation. I understood her aggravations and her angsts – an outbreak of nits at school, unreasonable demands from the twins’ form teacher for instant robin costumes for the Christmas play, anxieties over the death of Kenneth the guinea pig or a visit from Great Aunt Winnie, envy of Pippa and Hamish down the road, who had a weekend cottage and children destined for private schools instead of Fletcher Montacute, the local comp (though of course neither of us would have admitted it). I shared Wendy’s disapproval of the way her daughter Belinda allowed her stubbly boyfriend Jasper to treat her (after all, what had we women’s libbers been fighting for?), and I was as appalled as she was when her publishers Walmer & Wilcox watered down her bravely realistic children’s book set on a housing estate and turned it into another soppy middle-class Janet-and-John scenario.

George was a dear too, though he did tend to go on rather in a liberal-studies post-modern kind of way about his so-far unpublished collection of critical essays, Weimar, Chicago and the Cultural Squashball. Like us, the Webers couldn’t afford what Wendy, with a sniff, called ‘expensive foreign holidays’ but sent postcards from Tresoddit, the little place they always went to

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It was towards the end of the 1970s that I first met the Webers: George, senior lecturer in liberal studies at the local polytechnic, bespectacled, moustached and normally clad in a hairy pullover; his wife Wendy, mother of six, ex-nurse turned children’s author, dressed (as many of us were in those days) in ethnic beads and slightly tiredlooking Laura Ashley; and the Weber children, baby Benji, the twins Tamsin and Amanda, Sophie, Beverley and the oldest, Belinda, a sulky beauty then preparing to take her A-Levels. Oh, and I mustn’t forget Pussy, the Webers’ podgy and suspicious cat.

We tended to see them once a week, often in the Webers’ homely but by now somewhat shabby stripped-pine kitchen, over a glass of George’s homemade plonk and one of Wendy’s Elizabeth David cassoulets. I really got to know them quite well.

I got to know their friends too, especially Wendy’s two old chums Trish and Jo. Trish, one-time art gallery assistant, mother of baby Willy and stepmother of Jocasta (art student, living at home) was married to handsome Stanhope Wright, creative director of Beazeley & Buffin Advertising. We all disliked Stanhope, a real smoothie, who we knew was two-timing Trish with any piece of skirt that came along. Jo, a no-nonsense tracksuit-wearing sports coach, had also made an unfortunate marriage, to Edmund Heap, a whisky salesman for International Brewhouse Inc. (‘Pleased to meet you squire!’), and was now the mother of two unattractive teenagers, Jolyon and Julian (founder of The Snotty Throttlers pop group).

I liked and identified with Wendy – harassed, conscientious, a bit sharp, and weighed down by a terrible sense of guilt and social obligation. I understood her aggravations and her angsts – an outbreak of nits at school, unreasonable demands from the twins’ form teacher for instant robin costumes for the Christmas play, anxieties over the death of Kenneth the guinea pig or a visit from Great Aunt Winnie, envy of Pippa and Hamish down the road, who had a weekend cottage and children destined for private schools instead of Fletcher Montacute, the local comp (though of course neither of us would have admitted it). I shared Wendy’s disapproval of the way her daughter Belinda allowed her stubbly boyfriend Jasper to treat her (after all, what had we women’s libbers been fighting for?), and I was as appalled as she was when her publishers Walmer & Wilcox watered down her bravely realistic children’s book set on a housing estate and turned it into another soppy middle-class Janet-and-John scenario.

George was a dear too, though he did tend to go on rather in a liberal-studies post-modern kind of way about his so-far unpublished collection of critical essays, Weimar, Chicago and the Cultural Squashball. Like us, the Webers couldn’t afford what Wendy, with a sniff, called ‘expensive foreign holidays’ but sent postcards from Tresoddit, the little place they always went to (before it was ruined, of course) in Cornwall. Altogether I felt we shared the same world.

Albeit, a virtual world – created by Posy Simmonds in her weekly cartoon strip in the Guardian. How sharply yet affectionately it captured the aspirations, snobberies and hypocrisies of us woolly urban liberals and how we all loved it. Somehow it validated us, helped us lighten up and laugh at ourselves. Of course we weren’t quite like these people, we told one another, but we certainly knew people like them.

In due course the Webers and their friends appeared in book form – Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979), True Love (1981), Pick of Posy (1982), Very Posy (1985), Pure Posy (1987) and Mustn’t Grumble (1993). In the 1980s Posy began producing children’s books too, in full colour, my favourite being Fred (1987), in which the owners of idle-seeming Fred the cat discover that their pet has lived a secret life as the Elvis of the feline world, when he dies and the local cats stage a spectacular wake in his honour.

In 1999 she came up with something even more ambitious – a graphic novel, Gemma Bovery, which ran for a hundred episodes in the Guardian and finally appeared between hard covers. Gemma is Flaubert’s heroine brought up to date – the bored, pretty second wife of ineffectual Charlie Bovery, who flees horrid Hackney (where the air, in Gemma’s own words, is ‘like breathing through an old sock’) for the idyll of expatriate life in Normandy. Predictably the idyll wears thin and the book charts Gemma’s ruin via her diary and through the eyes of Gemma’s neighbour, the intellectual baker Raymond Joubert. It gives Posy the chance to have great fun with the English dream of rural life in France (‘a place where Culture and Style go hand in hand, where the business of Living is taken seriously, where food isn’t full of chemicals. Where property is dirt cheap’) set against the reality of unfriendly French neighbours, a smelly septic tank, and winters spent in boring isolation amid hectares of mud.

After Gemma came Literary Life (2003), another collection of Posy’s weekly cartoons. For anyone who has ever lingered in bookshops, attended a book launch or a literary festival or had contact with the literary world, however peripheral, it is essential reading. Posy’s dialogue is as good as her draughtsmanship, and she has a talent for names (an area in which so many writers fall down) which is as good as that of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. What enchants and convinces in all her work is the brilliantly observed detail. If Posy draws a French coffee pot it is a completely authentic French coffee pot. The appearance of her characters – toddlers, sulky teenagers, pushy mothers, angst-ridden authors, pretentious publishing types – is always spot on. This kind of texture, she says, is the equivalent of verbal description in a novel.

Not long ago I heard Posy speak at Central St Martin’s College of Art, where she was once a student. In person she is slight, modest in manner and quietly spoken, with only the merest hint of the sharp irony she brings to her drawing and writing. Asked how she created her characters, she said that it was a bit like the casting couch. ‘I sketch all the time – but not in front of people, that’s too inhibiting. When I’m at home, working on a character, I think to myself, “I want this kind of nose and this kind of mouth”, and I go to my sketchbook. I knew Gemma Bovery had to have big kohl-fringed eyes, like Lady Di, who was very much in the news at the time. Gemma had two lovers, so underwear was important, because they had to dress and undress a lot. As soon as I’ve drawn a character I make them speak and give them a little outing.’

She told us she’d done some drawings of Gemma’s French lover, a minor aristocrat called Hervé, wearing a yellow cardigan, but when she showed them to a French friend ‘he made sick noises’. No Frenchman, he said, would ever wear such a garment. It was when she realized that Hervé had a lock of floppy hair over his forehead that she knew she’d got him. As for Raymond Joubert, the baker and narrator, ‘I saw him in a bar in Brittany. He was wearing those big shoes with gritty bottoms, and I thought “I know you”.’

That’s just how I feel when I encounter Posy’s own creations – the proprietor of Tresoddit’s health-food shop Kevin Penwallet, for instance, or the sullen novelist J. D. Crouch, author of Out of Flatley, or Sally Muspratt, George Weber’s colleague at the Poly, or . . . I could go on and on. It’s impossible to convey the wit and charm of Posy’s work in mere words. As the estate agents say, ‘Viewing is essential.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 15 © Hazel Wood 2007


About the contributor

Hazel Wood has moved on from making robin costumes and now hovers on the fringes of the Literary Life. She lives in North London and still runs into Wendy Weber and her chums.

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