The Lady Acetylene Lampe reclined at ease on the broad
window-seat, and gazed dreamily out over the sea which lay hot, sparkling,
and brilliantly blue on this August morning.
"My lady," said her faithful attendant, "whither are thy thoughts straying?" . . .
"Peace, wench!" the Lady Acetylene interrupted peevishly. "You disturb the - the parabola of my mind."
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Peggy of the Chalet School, Chambers, 1950, p7)
At the beginning of the 1980s, by which time the genre of girls' school stories was regarded as not only anachronistic but effectively dead, artists Dick Appleyard and Dave Robinson set up the Recycled Images postcard publishing company. This was quickly to become known in some British sub-cultures for publishing a series of heavily ironic postcards, combining illustrations from 1930s children's annuals, including many from girls' and boys' school stories, with new titles and speech bubbles. The captions dealt with subjects such as:
politics, class, drugs, sexual mores, sexism, mad cow disease, New Age travellers, changing gender roles and all manner of topics which are inevitably wholly inappropriate to the images themselves and the world from which they have been so rudely removed. This satire is directed against Tory government politicians and policies which victimise the poor and powerless in Britain, both in the eighties and today.
The perceived innocence and naivete of the world of the
original stories combined with the cynicism or surrealism of the captions
to create a dissonance which immediately became popular, and by 1996 more
than a hundred different cards had been published.
Like Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, Appleyard and Robinson were part of the "Dinham Road School" - they were originally teachers in Exeter, and some of them shared the same house in Dinham Road. As a group, these satirical graphic artists
are almost reactionary in their dislike of recent and current political and social events. They all grew up in the sixties and seventies, decades which were libertarian and forward-looking for many young people . . . Like many artists and writers of their generation they were shocked by the power of Thatcherism and its values, and the rapidity of total change that the Conservative government brought about in 1980's Britain. The "Age of Greed" was and still is one that produced vast incomes for the few and often quite visible poverty for many.
The "reactionary"" humour here, then, is
quite different to that in the St Trinian's films.
Appleyard and Robinson's inspiration came from the Situationists, whose work had been highly influential on the British punk movement of the late 1970s, and was already reflected in postcards published by Glen Baxter and by BIFF, a company co-founded by another member of the Dinham Road School, Chris Garratt. Situationism was an art movement which began in Italy in 1957, founded on the belief that:
contemporary art was a lifeless parody of the radicalism
of Dada and early surrealism, that politics was an exercise in betrayal
and compromise, and that life was at best survival. . . .
A key Situationist practice was the concept of "detournement" (diversion), which loosely means the deflection of ideas, objects and behaviour from their accepted normal use (such as putting a wildly inappropriate soundtrack to a piece of film).
In this case, Robinson was attracted by the textual possibilities
which the 1930s illustrations offered, while Appleyard was more interested
in the images themselves. Robinson - the "paste and scissors expert"
of the pair
- found the images which they were to "recycle" in Schoolboy
and Schoolgirl annuals and collections of short school stories of
the 1930s. As with many of the women who collect girls' school stories,
he discovered the books in jumble sales, car boot sales and secondhand
shops, building up a collection which by 1996 numbered around a hundred.
In a telephone interview in May 1996, Robinson explained that he had always
been intrigued by the crisp, clean drawing style of the 1930s images -
post-war, he claimed, the line deteriorated and became cruder and coarser.
He has a formalist interest in drawing, and was initially impressed by
the fact that the original artists were "trained in old-fashioned
ways and worked hard, with the result that they captured form and line
in the same style for years in a very confident way".
Unlike other male critics and parodists, Appleyard and
Robinson have not distinguished between girls' school stories and those
written for boys. Instead, they perceive all such stories as presenting
their readers "with a highly idealised picture of the lives and adventures
led by a few rich boys and girls at English public schools". This
critique is related to Robinson's preference for the images of the 1930s,
by which time when critics were congratulating girls' school story authors
for reflecting the "public school spirit"
which had originated in the boys' schools: class and colonial rather than
gender values are uppermost in them. Many of the illustrations used in
the Recycled Images cards therefore come from annuals and collections aimed
at boys, and cover a wider arena than school.
In many ways, Appleyard and Robinson treat girls' stories
more gently than the boys' stories. For example, the fourth card
to be published, taken from a girl's school story, shows a "study
tea", with two girls preparing tea while one girl is reading with
her eyes cast down. A speech bubble from one girl reads "OH FOR GODSSAKE
ANGELA, DON'T BE SUCH A SPOILSPORT", while the caption reads: "Angela
still thought it was sexist - HIRING A MALE STRIPPER FOR
THE END OF TERM DISCO". In contrast, the fifth card in the series,
with the illustration taken from a boy's story, is heavily political, showing
an Eton schoolboy punching and knocking out a more poorly dressed man,
whose newspaper - falling out of his pocket - is titled Militant
(the name of a breakaway socialist group within the Labour Party). The
schoolboy's speech bubble reads "TAKE THAT YOU DAMNED TROT",
while the caption reads: "MERRIDEW KNEW THAT WORDS ALONE WERE NOT
ENOUGH TO DEFEND THE PRIVATE SECTOR."
In the catalogue to "The Dinham Road School" exhibition, Appleyard and Robinson write that the stories from which the images are taken:
invariably depict foreigners as stupid or villainous, reinforce all kinds of horrendous racial and class stereotypes and have a very obviously right-wing political bias . . . It is the political and sexual innocence of the characters in these stories that now seems so extraordinary and odd to readers today. However, the very Victorian values of patriotism, colonialist expansionism and racist arrogance presented by these old books undoubtedly underwent a resurgence in eighties Britain with the Tory party's constant rejection of European values. That is perhaps one reason why Recycled Images postcards were quite popular with those British people who disliked these new/old Thatcherite values.
The appeal of this type of parody was to outlast Thatcherism, however, for it was in 1990, the year when Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, that a similar company was set up by Paul Nixon, Committed Cards. In a letter written in May 1996, he explained that:
It wasn't a new idea (Punch magazine had been running
a similarly themed weekly competition since the year dot) but I did think
I could publish good postcards which would compete favourably with those
already on the market.
The basic idea behind the cards was to manipulate the images to give an entirely new meaning to the illustration. The humour element lay in this aspect and also because many of the situations that have been recreated are entirely out of keeping with their time - outrageously so in some cases. Thus a schoolgirl who was depicted being chastised by an adult now reveals sado-masochistic tendencies and vampishly demands that it's her turn to inflict punishment. Other girls reveal a sexual awareness which stretches to strawberry flavoured condoms whilst still more complain about poor quality drugs. Reference in other cards is made, amongst other things, to transvestism and green issues.
In fact, the resemblance between the cards produced by
Recycled Images and Committed Cards is less than is at first apparent,
and this is probably related to the historical periods in which the companies
were launched. The humour in the cards produced by Recycled Images relies
primarily on political satire, while the postcards produced by Paul Nixon
reflect only alternative, "green" politics - the "single
issue" politics of the 1990s - and rely much more heavily on the joke
of the sexually aware schoolgirls which was a theme of the St Trinian's
The differences between the cards reflect the fact that
Committed Cards was launched at a time when awareness of HIV, Aids and
safe sex practices was at its height, whereas Recycled Images was launched
before awareness of Aids existed. Thus, while Appleyard and Robinson's
cards refer to the innocent voyeurism of male strippers, Nixon's refer
to sado-masochism, transvestism and condoms designed for oral sex, reflecting
a knowledge of the need to avoid infection, and of sexual practices such
as sado-masochism which have grown in popularity as part of safer sex practices.
In both cases, the schoolgirls come out on top, and in that sense they
owe more to Searle's cartoons
than to the film comedies.
Unlike the previous parodies, though, the humour in the cards is avowedly
non-sexist. While there are obvious similarities between the humour in
the cards and those of the previous male parodists, then, the target of
the humour is very different. But at the same time, the cards reinforce
the widespread belief that the stories themselves are only fit to be laughed
at, and in that sense the Situationist parodies are very little different
to the other parodies which have been produced by men.
However, the success of the postcards published by both
Recycled Images and Committed Cards demonstrates first the widespread familiarity
among members of some British sub-cultures in the 1980s and 1990s with
the genres of girls' school stories and boys' school and adventure stories,
and a similar awareness of the perceived political weaknesses in the genres
on which the humour rests. Awareness of, and indeed affection for, school
stories in the 1980s is not dependent on class and political background.
Second, it is noticeable that the cards are immensely popular among fans
of girls' school stories themselves, who seem to welcome the opportunity
to laugh at the elements in the books which are now considered to be politically
undesirable. I have obtained some of my own copies of the cards via personal
correspondence, and have seen many others displayed by fans. This seems
to show that an inability to recognise the real, as opposed to supposed,
political undesirability of girls' school stories is not among the reasons
for the genre's continuing popularity.
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