Tony Husband talks to David Adamson about a career spent satirising British life using pencils and panels
“When I was a hippy I was beaten up by a gang of skinheads,” explained Tony Husband, sat in the bar of the The Edge Arts Centre in Chorlton, glass of white wine in hand.
“I'm not a violent person, so I started to draw them to get my own back, and I did some skinhead gags - two skinheads spraying a wall, and one says to the other, ‘How do you spell NF?’
“Ian Hislop took it for Private Eye and then wrote to me saying, ‘We love your skinhead jokes, do you want to do a strip and we'll call it The Yobs? Give it a shot and we’ll see how it goes.’ Anyway that was 38 years ago.”
I think with my cartoons people recognise themselves, because it's all about relationships
If there were ever proof the pencil is mightier than the bovver boot, then he is sat sipping Sauvignon Blanc while nearly four decades of much-loved work hangs on the walls of the room next door.
Tony Husband: 37 ½ Years in Private Eye was launched at the picturesque and peaceful Edge Arts Centre as part of the Chorlton Arts Festival, and while the festival itself has now ended, Tony’s cartoons will be displayed in the foyer of the Edge through til mid-August.
A weekly staple of Private Eye since 1985, Tony has illustrated the peculiar British mindset as successfully as any writer of fiction, and certainly using less words. Taking early inspiration from the Punch cartoons of Graham Laidler, known as Pont, Tony took that same keen eye that cut through the likes of the skinhead movement and cast it on the country more widely, finding a perfect home in Britain’s foremost satirical magazine.
“Pont’s my hero,” explained Tony. “He drew the British way of life better than anybody has ever drawn it. There's an award called The Pont Award for the people who draw the British way of life the best, and I won that in 2005 which I'm really proud of."
“I was told by a mate actually not to bother with Private Eye because apparently you needed to know people to get in, and that it was an Oxford-Cambridge type situation, so at first I didn't bother. Then I thought, ‘Sod it, I love the magazine’, so I sent ten ideas in and they came back with rejection slips.
“Then Patrick Gallagher rang me and said, ‘You didn't tell me you were in Private Eye? You’ve got two in.’ I didn't even realise they’d actually sent eight back, so I called them up and said ‘You’ve used two of my cartoons’, and the lady on the phone said ‘Is that okay? I hope you don't mind? Sorry, we're not very organised here’.
“It's been a great journey with them and we’ve had some fantastic times. We used to do a Christmas party in the office on Carlisle Street, which was very laid back and had a piano at one end. Richard Ingrams would get on the piano and Peter Cook and Willie Rushton would sing along and we’d all get pissed up and sing Christmas carols. It is a family and you feel you're part of something.”
A much-loved aspect of Tony’s work is its particular sense of humour, mining the quirks and small battles of the likes of married life, keeping pets and dealing with neighbours, but if there’s a style or approach to his work he doesn’t like to overthink on it, or even think on it at all.
“It just melts together,” he said. “This idea or this word or this feeling needs a look, and it's just encapsulating them together until they become one thing. I can just do it, and it's not something I think seriously about doing, I just seem to know how. I’ve got a lot of empathy for lots of things. I'll cry watching the news, especially when it’s something to do with children.
“I do have empathy and I understand mental health issues and I'm able to express it, which is maybe not a gift, but a sort of instinct. So it just happens. People say, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I've no idea, and I don't want to know either. Neil Young said ‘There's a huge lake of ideas up there, you just need to tap into it’.”
Something that unexpectedly came to influence Tony’s work was his father’s diagnosis of dementia, which led him to explore his feelings about the gradual loss of a loved one through the medium of pencils and panels, which eventually comprised Take Care, Son: The Story of my Dad and his Dementia.
“My dad developed dementia, so the family took care of him and he passed away in 2011,” he explained. “When you’re going through something like that you don't take it in, you just ride it. About two months later I was sat in the studio with a bottle of Rioja and some music on, and I just said out loud, ‘Dad, what was it like to have dementia and lose your memory?’, and I heard him say, ‘I had dementia and you’re asking me to remember? You silly sod’. So I was in this conversation with him and had about three pages of A4 paper on how it started and some of the early incidents and then at the end he said, ‘Can you imagine losing your memory of everything and everyone you've ever loved? Can anything be so cruel?’
“So I'd got these three pages, and I’ve been a member of the Groucho Club in London for 30 years - and lived - so I took them down because they're all in the media and they were been telling me they were fabulous and very moving. Stephen Fry’s a friend and is involved in mental health, so I asked if I could send them to him. He rang me and said, ‘Tony, I’m in tears, can I tweet these?’ He did and they were very well received, then a publisher emailed me and said ‘your drawings would make a lovely book’.
“I've just got another book out with a lady called Gina Awad, who's a dementia specialist. I illustrated her book of seven stories of seven carers of loved ones with dementia. We did that through lockdown, and that was incredibly moving and now I’m working on lots of other dementia projects and it's kind of ongoing.”
Few cartoonists have captured the British outlook and approach to the world quite like Tony, and while he has illustrated the changes in the country’s social life and beyond, he maintains that his work is about conveying in a simple way something that proves very complicated - how we connect with one another.
“I'm fascinated by relationships,” he said. “Not just between people but with animals, or the workplace, like the way bosses are with their workers. Then there’s the social aspect of something like pub talk. My cartoons are all about relationships. I don't sit down intently looking at people, but obviously I’m taking it in - the quirkiness of people and the dry British sense of humour, and they come out as these inner thoughts.
“People know themselves, and they see themselves in the strips - like the couple who say ‘We love our wine’ and they’re sat next to a huge barrel. People think, ‘That's me’, so there's all these points that connect with people and I think with my cartoons, people recognise themselves, because it's all about relationships.”
Tony Husband: 37 ½ Years in Private Eye is displayed at The Edge Arts Centre in Chorlton until 12 August
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!