Can this be right?

The digitisation of tens of thousands of political cartoons continues to dominate the routine work of the CARD project, but the 1950s seaside postcards continue to shape people’s perceptions of it. That is hardly surprising, as the DPP’s collection seems to have a life of its own. We are currently working with Thanet District Council and the Dreamland Trust on a postcard exhibition opening at the Pie Factory gallery in Margate on 22 July 2011, under the title “I do wish I could see my little Willy.” That exhibition will be preceded by a showing of “Carry On” films at the local Carlton Cinema, enabling the BCA to continue its historic mission of giving smut back to the people.

The title of the Margate exhibition comes from the caption of a classic seaside postcard – www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0438 – which was condemed in the Margate Magistrates’ Court (very close to the Pie Factory gallery) in January 1954, with the destruction order being confirmed on appeal three months later. But the peculiar thing is that in October 1953 the Margate Magistrates had considered and passed an almost identical card, captioned “I do wish I could see my little Willie” – www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0767 Why did they condemn one of these cards but not the other?

That question in fact goes a long way to explaining why the Director of Public Prosecutions created his archive. Not only could different benches of Magistrates deal differently with the same postcard design, but the same benches could be inconsistent in their decisions. When the DPP launched his index of prosecuted postcards in 1951, it was an attempt both to direct the national campaign, and to impose an element of uniformity at the local level.

But cataloguing the DPP’s archive doesn’t just reveal inconsistencies in the Magistrates’ decisions, it shows how strange was the police campaign which underpinned it. The DPP’s office recorded all of the postcard prosecutions, but did not receive file copies of all the offending postcards, and part of the CARD project involves locating and scanning the missing cards. We have had help with this from Ian Wallace, who owns the copyright to the Bamforth postcards – www.bamforthpostcards.co.uk; James Bissell-Thomas, who owns the Donald McGill copyright – www.donaldmcgill.info; from collectors of Donald McGill cards, including John Wilton and Bernard Crossley; and from the late Russell Ash.

Filling the gaps has revealed some rather strange things. For example, why did the Folkestone police seize D.Constance card No.1436 in 1953? This is a pub joke with the caption “ ‘Do you serve ladies in this bar?’ ‘No, you’ll have to bring your own.’” The Folkestone Magistrates quite rightly refused to declare it obscene, but why did the police think they might? In the same raid they also seized D.Constance No.856, showing a family of four sitting at home in gas masks, with the caption “We had Harricot [sic] beans for dinner to-day”. This fart joke was so innocent that even the Folkestone police thought twice, and decided not to present it in court.

Indeed, filling the gaps in the DPP’s collection has revealed some designs so innocuous that we have to ask ourselves, can this postcard be the right one? Are we adding the wrong card? For example, the DPP’s index cards record the prosecution of D.Constance design No.1772, drawn by Donald McGill, the doyen of seaside postcard artists. But this was an entirely innocent card involving a child and a puppy – www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0371C  It seems impossible that police on the Isle of Wight should have seized this card in 1953, but the identification is certain. McGill first drew this card over thirty years earlier, and it had never been out of print. McGill called it “a little goldmine”, and at the time No.1772 was seized in 1953 it was estimated that 2,000,000 copies had been sold, with McGill having to redraw it twice as the printing blocks wore out.

The Magistrates in Ryde refused to condemn this card when it was put before them in 1953 – the DPP’s card noting that “N[o] O[rder]” for destruction was made (www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0371B). But, once again, did the police really think that they might? It seems that they did, as the police could have changed their minds after seizing the card, and not put it up in evidence. We have identified the right design, and it was the police who made the mistake. It is another example of just how far opinions of what is offensive have changed in only sixty years.

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Getting started!

The CARD project is now well under way, and the first few thousand cartoons have been scanned, catalogued, and made available on the web. But even before the first images were available the project attracted a lot of media attention, and that publicity is probably a useful subject for the first project blog entry.

Even before the CARD project began the University press office put together a press release to help promote it. This mentioned the 14,500 political cartoons that we are digitising, but that came only in the fourth paragraph, as the emphasis was firmly placed on the 1,300 items we are also digitising from the Director of Public Prosecutions’ archive of prosecuted seaside postcards.

There is something about this collection of once-obscene cartoon postcards that seems to appeal to everyone, especially the media. The press release did quote me as saying that the DPP’s collection would be a valuable resource for “social and legal history…a vivid illustration of how our notion of obscenity has changed over time”. But by the time the final version was distributed this attempt at academic justification had been drowned out by the inevitable headline “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink…”

The media response was immediate. On the first day of the project I was interviewed six times before lunch, starting at 6.45am with Radio 5 Live, followed soon after by Radio Wales. I got to work in time to talk to Radio Gloucester and Radio Kent, and to do a recording for the local BBC TV news crew. The day’s publicity ended with a recorded interview for Radio Newcastle’s “Drive Time”, but by then I had been lined up for a live Sunday lunchtime spot with Radio Kent, and the story was being picked up by the local press.

There is nothing inherently wrong with all this media interest. It is fun to remind people how notions of obscenity have changed, and how a set of images that appeared morally degrading in the 1950s now seems tame and innocent. It is also fun to present ourselves as modern Robin Hoods, giving back to the people what was once taken from them in a co-ordinated series of police raids. These postcards were designed to amuse, and it is fine that people still find them amusing.

We also saw a huge increase in hits on the website, with 2,000 visitors on the first day of the project (in contrast to the usual 700-800) as people put “British Cartoon Archive” into search engines. But how far does all this publicity help an academic project?

I’ve had worse – after all, no journalist christened me “Dr Chuckle” this time, which did once happen in a local newspaper piece. But I did have the growing feeling that all this publicity was filling radio airtime, TV screens, and local newspaper columns more efficiently than it was furthering the aims of the project. Everything seemed designed to service the needs of the media, and the BBC was happy to demand additional free postcard images for its website, whilst the local paper requested free images for its supplement.

For our own part we kept the University happy, which is always important, and showed JISC that we are taking every opportunity to get our material out there. And maybe that’s all we could hope for by engaging with media designed to entertain as much as to inform. At least more people found out that we exist – as the local BBC TV anchor-man put it cheerfully to his colleague, “a British Cartoon Archive! Who knew?”

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