There can’t have been many families in the 60s, 70s or 80s that didn’t have a Giles annual somewhere in the bookcase. With their standard format, and yearly appearance just in time for the Christmas market, they were the grown-up equivalent of the comic book annuals that made up a staple part of the fail-safe Christmas present list. We had a couple of course – 1967 and 1969 if I remember rightly – but it was only after I’d left school and started haunting the secondhand bookshops of Holborn that I realised how detailed a window they opened on everyday life in Britain from the late 40s onwards. Inevitably, that meant starting a collection in earnest; fortunately in time to be able to pick up many of the early editions before the values started to climb steeply, as well as the later ones that could – and still can – be picked up for a song in secondhand and charity shops. But it was the recent chance find of a battered but affordable copy of the more elusive first edition, and so completion of a 60-year run, that sparked me to try to capture on paper what these quintessentially British items mean to me as a devotee of post-War social history.
Charting Carl Giles’ story is a little more complex than it ought to be, on the basis that a series of biographical collections authored by Peter Tory were compromised by a mutual dislike between him and his subject which, adding to Giles’ natural reticence about himself, made for an incomplete picture. Fortunately, there have since been some excellent analytical pieces, a couple of which are cited at the end of this article, which fill in the detail.
Born over a tobacconist shop in Islington in 1916 and largely self-taught, Carl Giles had his first public exposure in Reynolds News between 1937 and 1943, the latter part of which earned him a reputation as a sharp observer of the political and cultural scene during the hard early years of the Second World War. His loss from Reynolds to the Daily Express was lamented by their readers, but gave him not only the freedom as one of the Express’ prized acquisitions but also, as the paper’s official war cartoonists, the ability to travel to Europe to observe the war at first hand, despite pre-war injuries that had disbarred him from military service. The combination of exposure and talent secured his place amongst the country’s most popular newspaper cartoon artists, cemented by the publication of the first collection in 1946, selected by Giles himself in a tradition that would continue until is death in 1995, even though he stopped producing new cartoons in 1991.
But so much for the history of the art, what about the social history it represents? We’re lucky in that the bulk of the Giles oeuvre comprises annuals featuring a collection of that year’s best cartoons; hence each volume presents a cross-section of the political, social, sporting and cultural events of the year. One might have thought that the editions produced after Giles’ retirement and then death in 1995 would add little, but they not only contain some previously unpublished work, but also often offer thematic collections that show how a particular aspect of British society has changed over the decades. At the core of the cartoons are the world and national events that sparked them – and that alone was enough to whet my appetite to understand more about what lay behind them (in much the same way as the topical asides and references in the Hancock’s Half Hour radio shows did).
But it’s the background detail that makes Giles’ cartoons such an accurate record of their time. As one critic points out, at a time when many cartoonists were pursuing economy of line, and a point made with the minimum of illustration, Giles took advantage of his large single panel format to fill the frame with everyday minutiae. Clothes, hair, furniture, cars, buildings, signs, toys – everything’s there and deftly observed in Giles’ signature style (and often, of course, surrounding the ever present Giles family – at once unique and yet representative of every British household of the period). If you want to know what Teddy Boys looked like to someone who was there, you only need to look at Giles annuals of the 50s, and then repeat that for every youth cult onwards. Reading a Giles annual properly can be exhausting as the eye seeks out every little detail, but it’s worth making the effort even though the central visual ‘gag’ and caption are entertaining enough in their own right.
Collecting Giles annuals is not a hobby for the faint hearted. Even the facsimile versions of the first few 1940s annuals change hands at a respectable sum and a complete collection, along with the related publications, demands a good few feet of bookshelf space, but those copies from the 50s, 60s and 70s are well worth keeping an eye out for to give the genuine MidCentury enthusiast a unique perspective on the period we love.
There are several good websites dealing with Giles’ works, including the marvellous wraparound full colour covers – try this official one for starters.
In addition, I’d recommend the following which I found fascinating in filling in some of the background…
Maev Kennedy’s Guardian article to accompany a 2017 collection of Giles’ wartime cartoons and Simon Heneage’s obituary in The Independent: