All My Own Work
ALEX ATKINSON lives in Surrey, has written several plays and three novels; his shorter work appears frequently in Punch and other periodicals.
by ALEX ATKINSON
THE fact that he works in a cutely ramshackle studio with one blonde dressed in eye shadow brewing his coffee on a spirit stove and another trying on two-piece bathing costumes behind a screen is not the only reason why I envy the man who makes a living out of joke drawings. There’s a much stronger reason.
I’m not going to deny that my light pieces of a thousand words approx. would probably split more sides if I turned them out while sprawled on a day bed being fed grapes by the little number who poses for that desert-island joke we keep on not bothering to read the caption of. Under those conditions my works might be less frequent than they are at present, but by God they’d reflect a depth of experience.
You’re not going to tell me that these cartoonists don’t have a high old time of it, whooping it up night after night with apprentice cover-girls in leopard-skin trousers. I often picture them as I sit glum in my lonely room pretending to be suave and humorous. They smirk over their drawing boards in gaudy attics alive with the murmur of guitars, acknowledging the praise of visiting sculptors as they dash off another fakir on his bed of nails or add a few more doe-eyed charmers to that harem joke. In the shadows someone sings a flamenco afire with love and the burning south, or whatever it is they sing. Candles burn in Chianti bottles, and bearded abstractionists dose the punch with absinthe. And here I am, with my fingers stained red and black from disentangling typewriter keys, and everything against me. Four walls and a table and a chair, and for all anyone cares I might just as well be prospecting for anthracite in the Belgian Congo. Do I hear the merry tramp of literary feet upon the stair? No, I don’t. The satirists are all at home, as gloomy as I am, each in his book-lined cell, and I don’t want to see them anyway — coming in here expecting me to read their stuff and tell them that Benchley had better move over. And if you think those women novelists with a corner in cozy seduction are any kind of fun at a party, you’d better take off those purple-tinted spectacles. They sit around with big teeth and wrinkled stockings and they talk about food, just like anybody else.
Of course, I can see now that I doomed myself right at the very beginning, thinking I was smart at school because I only made one spelling mistake in my essay on Pet Mice, when if I’d had any sense I’d have been down there in the Art Room, dreaming up ways to shade a pyramid or put a bit of highlight on a jug. From there it would have been a short step to three years’ intensive study in the cafés of the Left Bank, and at this very moment, instead of fumbling through a dusty thesaurus looking for words that keep falling off the tip of my tongue, I might be interviewing a couple of eager, succulent models, each vying with the other for the privilege of posing for my next sugardaddy cartoon.
But, as I say, this is not the prime cause of my envy and spite. Life, I should hope, holds more pleasures than are to be attained by uninhibited romping on a gamboge-spattered studio divan. In the final analysis I am a serious artist, and so what really interests me more than anything else in the world is money. Therefore the main thing that gets me about these cartoonists is that having taken ten minutes off from bohemian revelry to illustrate in a few deft strokes a gag they overheard at a vodka-and-Camembert party the night before, and having made it big enough to fill a whole page in a magazine, and having received twice as much for it as I would have got for beating my brains out for three solid days stringing together eight hundred words to fill the same space, and having frittered away the money in low saloons in the company of women in dirndl skirts who make torsos out of bits of wire, they then have the brazen effrontery to sit back complacently and wait for somebody to want to buy the original!
Now I’d be the last person on earth to deny a magazine reader the pleasure of writing out a fat check so that he can frame some trumpery illustrated jest and hang it in his living room. If I work my imagination very hard I can even understand how he’d get a great kick out of being able to say to his friends: “Yes, I know you saw it in the paper, but if you study this original carefully you’ll see all the places where he had to rub out — think of that!” But my point is this. I am in touch with quite a few people who scrape up some kind of living concocting those lumps of foolish prose which are spread on the pages of periodicals so that the cartoons will have something to bo attractively embedded in, and not one of them has any evidence of a reader, throughout the whole tangled course of recorded history, having offered so much as the price of a cup of weak tea for an original manuscript. That’s where the devilish injustice lies.
I myself (to name but one) must have at present, stored in some forgotten drawer or other, the rough drafts of upward of a hundred laughable essays which in their printed form have gladdened the hearts of men, and I find it hard to believe that there isn’t someone, somewhere, who wouldn’t mind having one framed on the wall of his study.
I’ll go further. To prove my point I here and now offer to the highest bidder the original pencil manuscript of the valuable work you are now engaged in reading. Feverishly scrawled on nine lined pages each measuring eight inches by five, it would make an attractive decorative panel guaranteed not to clash with anybody’s curtains. The savage crossings-out and the indecipherable insertions combine to give each page an interesting pattern — especially the first two, where I was still wondering what the hell to write about. As an added inducement, it happens that the reverse side of each page contains a stretch of dialogue from a heavy three-act drama I started to write last autumn during a spell of toothache.
Negotiable bonds will be accepted, but offers of food parcels, old clothes, or courses in journalism will be promptly returned. Some slight preference will naturally be given to any cartoonists who may apply, but apart from that the thing’s wide open. Moreover, I don’t want to hold a pistol to anybody’s head, but if this stunt doesn’t work I may seriously consider leaving the field of letters altogether, and laying in some India ink. I’m only warning you.