My kingdom for a hat?

(28-Nov-08)

I don’t own a hat. I never have. Partly because the size and shape of my skull makes any sort of cranial accessory irredeemably silly and partly because I was brought up in a household where the general belief was that the sort of people who wore hats were the sort of people that needed to. Don’t ask me what that means; I’m still working on it. Suffice it to say that every time some form of headgear would find its way on to the old luscious tresses, spittle would fly, heart rates would rise, and my father would make sure the hat would be ripped from the aforesaid l.t. With almost Sophoclean irony, today I remain headbare whereas my father owns a dark green alpine homburg. With a feather. My only reason for not disowning him is that he never actually wears it.

In short, thanks to my monastic upbringing and the elephantine dimensions of my frontal lobe, I have no bowler to help me pass unobtrusively down the streets of the City, no boater to oversee my footloose frolics through the days of Spring, no top hat for the countless glamorous evenings I never get invited to, no beret or deerstalker, no fedora, ten-gallon or trilby. My knotted and combined locks remain vulnerable and open to the elements, as Nature doubtless intended.
Not owning a hat is, in my opinion, a relatively minor failing. Men without hats have gone on to achieve great things – albeit with slightly colder ears than their appropriately accoutred cousins. At this moment, however, I do wish I owned one. Nothing fancy: a tricorne or a panama, say; a coronet or a sombrero; or, to tread the slippery heights of multiculturalism, a Shtreimel, a fez, a busby, a Santa hat or  turban. If only I owned one of the above then I would, logically speaking, be in a position to remove it.
As it is, I doff all of my hypothetical hats. All of them – from my kepi to my keffiyeh, my newsboy cap and my mitre, my cardinal’s zucchetto, my Native American headdress, my mortarboard, my dunce cap and my tam o’shanter. To put an end to this circumlocutory nonsense and stop pointlessly flagellating about the shrubbery, may I just say that I bare my head with respect to the political cartoonist.
The political cartoonist inhabits the centre of what must be one of the most remarkable Venn diagram layouts found outside of an A level statistics module exam paper. No one else in any of the three professions he belongs to needs to work so hard on the fast sell. No artist needs to capture a moment in time so economically; no international analyst is expected to make his commentary fit in a blank space left over between a crossword and a fashion review, and no humourist needs to get a topical joke across in the fraction of a second reserved for the cartoonist. Granted, an image is worth a thousand words: but according to that exchange rate a single line drawn by David Low, Sidney Strube or Ranan Lurie is worth ten to a hundred of your Earth words. When was the last time you were able to draw a line that conveyed as much? When was the last time you were able to write a line that conveyed as much?
Certain moments that have occurred within my lifetime – certain attitudes, sentiments and atmospheres – will forever be represented in my mind by a political cartoon. Anyone unfortunate enough to have taken the tube with me over the past year and a half will have felt me pin their struggling arm to the side of the carriage, seen me gleam at them with my wild and bloodshot eyes and have experienced my helpful gesticulations as I attempted to recreate for them what has to be my favourite 21st Century cartoon thus far.
A rendering of a work of art in any other medium is always bound to be massively anticlimactic. And while I am sorely tempted to embark on a verbal description of page after page of my favourite political caricatures, I will limit myself to this one.
Morten Morland, drawing for The Times four days after the 7.7 bombings, depicted a Muslim man in religious dress, with a white tunic, a beige taqiyah cap and a long black beard nervously perched at one end of a row of seats in the Tube. At the other end of the carriage, passengers are huddled together for protection, shivering with fear, holding their newspapers up over their faces as makeshift shields. In the cavernous empty space between them are written the three words: Mind the Gap…
The build up to the First World War for me will always be summed up by Tenniel’s ‘Dropping the Pilot’ and Francis Caruthers Gould’s ‘The Holiday Season AD 1914”, with a skeleton king wrapped in a thin sheet, emerging from his coffin-shaped caravan to take a brisk swim in a river of blood. David Low is the Second World War in my eyes, and in the eyes of many who lived through it.
For sheer succinctness, power and humour, you can’t beat the political cartoon. When opening any newspaper that has a cartoonist on staff, examine their work. Those small monochrome or colour images are probably the densest sections of the paper, with the weightiest messages packed into the smallest volume. Simultaneously, however, they are also the lightest and most easily digestible.

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