I am with the French that we cannot let nihilistic fanatics change our values by murder, and all reasonable people will try to put themselves in a mental area of empathy towards relatives and friends of the victims of the massacres in Paris, Pakistan and Nigeria, not to mention the atrocities in upstart and established states and indeed in the regimes of realpolitik allies. Yet there is a truth embedded in that chilling sentence in Jane Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra on hearing of the casualties in the Battle of Albuera: “How horrible it is to have so many killed - And what a blessing that one cares for none of them.” We cannot match the grief of those directly involved. They will be scarred for life. We would be unable to function were we able to mourn the victims with the same intensity. But I do feel a personal bereavement for one of the murdered cartoonists, even if it’s intellectual and aesthetic.
When in France I don’t regularly buy Charlie Hebdo. My favourite satirical weekly is Le Canard Enchaine, which I can also get in Edinburgh. I find the latter more stylish. Its team of cartoonists are all very distinctive. Kiro specialises in highly finished caricatures of national and international worthies; Wozniak is a modernist, highly decorative, owing something to Klee and Miro; Kerleroux has a wiry line, Pancho an angular crayoned one; Lefred-Thouron’s figures are disjointed, Pétillon’s blobby, Potus’s elegantly distorted; Cardon’s shows his characters mainly from the back. The paper is a poly-stylistic feast. In contrast, the Charlie style is in the main cruder. The prolific Jean Cabut seems to be the only cartoonist who worked for both journals.
The hefty tome that Le Canard Enchaine produced for its fiftieth anniversary in 2008 shows Cabu first appearing there in 1982 with a strip cartoon on Mitterand, then French president. With many cartoonists you get to know their main political figures without their being brilliant likenesses. But Cabu was a portraitist, not in the highly worked style of Kiro, but in line. This allowed him to bring to his work recognisable characters, who had suddenly burst on the scene. He also had his stock of types, a fat moustachioed prole, and an equally overweight female battle-axe, a big-jawed, thick -looking soldier. In later years Cabu produced a strip for the Canard featuring the Nouveaux Beaufs. He is credited with establishing the slang term beauf for a vulgar, unmannerly, misogynist oaf. The main character in the strip is ugly, unshaven, pony-tailed and invariably wearing dark glasses and cowboy boots.
Cabu’s appearance in the Canard coincides with my taking an interest in French politics, Thus my image of the sequence of French presidents is through his drawings: the short figure of Mitterand with his long upper lip doing his best to look thoughtful and dignified; Chirac with his great jaw, often wide open, in carpet slippers drinking cans of beer in front of the telly or deck-chaired on holiday with shorts and sandals worn with socks supported by suspenders, and finally trying to get a pledge that all the teaspoons are not to be counted as he makes way for a new inhabitant of the Elysée; Sarkozy, latterly portrayed as an imp with vestigial horns, nursed by his much taller partner but with his perpetual self confidence generally annoying all around him; and in recent times, the podgy Hollande with his women trouble and motorbike visits. Then there are memorable images of a host of less central characters, the mistresses, the supporting politicians, De Villepin, Dati, Juppé, Rafferin, MAM, Ségolène, DSK, the le Pens, Johny, Tapie. All these and many, many more, if I think about them I visualise in Cabu’s cartoon portraits.
In many edition of the Canard there were more drawings by Cabu than by anybody else. I don’t know if that was the case with Charlie Hebdo. But I do possess an Hors Serie, Charlie magazine by the murdered cartoonist called La methode à Cabu. It purports to be a How-to-Draw-Cartoons book. Of course it’s a spoof. You are shown how beginning with a lavatory type drawing of a cock and balls and adding some other simple shapes, including the silhouette of a polecat to represent hair, you can produce a likeness of Sarkozy’s prime minister Francoise Fillon. He claims he derives the lips of Martine Aubrey, the prominent socialist politician and daughter of Jacques Delors, from a copulating couple. The Prophet got off lightly.
This wonderful artist and gentle mocker is somebody I will sadly miss.