At the beginning of Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth-century allegorical masterpiece The Faerie Queene, a knight gets lost in a dark forest. He’s a knight errant, and he has erred – see, I told you it was allegorical – so it’s no coincidence that the fearsome monster lurking at the heart of the forest is called Error. Conjured into existence by the very act of erring, she’s a serpentine tangle of knots with a venomous sting in her tail, and before long she has our knight gripped fast in her snaky coils: ‘God help the man so wrapped in Error’s endless train’, observes the poet, just in case we haven’t quite got the point. But all is not lost! With his free hand, our hero grips Error’s throat and squeezes it tight, with spectacular results:
Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
A flood of poison horrible and black,
Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunk so vilely, that it forced him slack
His grasping hold, and from her turn him back:
Her vomit full of books and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack,
And creeping sought way in the weedy grass:
Her filthy parbreak all the place defiled has.
Spenser wrote his poem more than 400 years ago, but nothing has changed. Error is still a monster that spews out sightless toads and half-digested books, incomplete gobbets and abused fragments of knowledge that defile the ground with poison horrible. Error takes on many forms. Error is religious intolerance. Error is Ukip. And Error is, most assuredly, the Daily Mail.
Yes, yes, I know. Having a go at the Daily Mail is about as useful as rising to the bait of a common-or-garden Twitter troll. It’s exactly what they want. It’s how they feed. From its wearisomely ‘controversial’ columnists to its grisly sidebar of shame, the Mail’s website is one great concerted exercise in trolling. Like Spenser’s allegorical monster, it feeds and it feeds and it feeds, gorging itself on our clicks and our outrage, consuming everything that’s good and kind and honest, chewing up decency and spitting out filth. Best to avoid getting wrapped up in those scaly coils in the first place. But there are times when the monster’s throat needs to be grasped. Yesterday I inadvertently wandered into the dark forest and came across something which stank as vilely as any vomit that ever spewed from Error’s maw. It’s a cartoon by the Mail’s veteran contributor Mac, and here it is:
It’s difficult to know where to start, isn’t it? Perhaps we should begin by noting that, across its many pages and platforms, the Mail has made a fine contribution to the outpourings of love and affection which, quite rightly, have greeted the sad death of Cilla Black. I could have sworn that the same paper took a slightly different tack the last time a pop singer died in Spain of natural causes, but let’s not split hairs.
Instead, let’s take the death of a much-loved entertainer and forcibly insert it up the rectum of a serious ongoing humanitarian crisis in the most grotesque, inflammatory, ignorant and idiotic way imaginable.
It scarcely needs saying that the cartoon is quivering with xenophobia, from that nasty neologism ‘illegals’ to those jaw-dropping blackface caricatures among the overwhelmingly white crowd of patiently queuing non-‘illegals’, their faces no doubt thoughtfully shaded in by the cartoonist in the time-honoured tradition of ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ (which, as anyone who isn’t a fool knows, is merely the sound of racism clearing its throat). Just take a look at those black cartoon faces again. Jesus tap-dancing Christ. This is 2015, right? Not 1915?
Setting aside the suppurating racism, how does the cartoon actually function? Where’s the joke? Well, let’s have a look. We’re at at the pearly gates of heaven, and we’re at the back of a queue of the recently deceased. They are waiting patiently while, in the distance, some ‘illegals’ are trying to scale the celestial barricades. An apologetic angel, wearing a riot helmet and carrying a truncheon, is explaining the situation to Cilla (who actually looks more like Margaret Thatcher, but let that pass). The only way that the ‘joke’ can possibly function is if we accept that we’re not just being asked to have a general giggle at the expense of those horrid ‘illegals’ down on Earth – we’re actually being asked to laugh at the dead ones. The men, women and children who have died by drowning, by malnutrition, by asphyxiation. The ones that Katie Hopkins says she doesn’t care about. And we’re not just being invited to laugh at them; we’re being invited to judge them too, like a vengeful Old Testament God, because the cartoon also relies on the assumption that we all agree that the ‘illegals’ don’t belong in heaven with Cilla and her friends.
Perhaps, in his touching portrayal of this archangelic queue and its undeserving queue-jumpers, the cartoonist is offering us a weighty Biblical point. Are we not all migrants through this life? And verily, is it not easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and all that jazz? The unfortunate downside of this interpretation is the implication that Cilla might not get in – particularly when we consider the additional possibility that the cartoonist is subtly reminding us that Cilla was herself a migrant to Spain. Yes, surely that was intentional.
So who is this latter-day Goya, whose multi-faceted masterpieces unravel into eschatological meditations of such bottomless profundity? His real name is Stanley McMurtry. Born in 1936, he adopted the nom de plume ‘Mac’ while working for the Daily Sketch in 1969, and he has been drawing cartoons for the Daily Mail since it absorbed the Sketch in the early seventies. In 2003 he received an MBE for ‘services to the newspaper industry’.
Stanley McMurtry MBE has often said that he regards his work as apolitical. So, just to clarify, there’s nothing political about that Cilla cartoon, okay? Likewise, I’m sure we can all agree that this little beauty from 2010 is entirely non-political, and should in no way be construed as racist or homophobic or just plain frothingly mad:
And there’s definitely nothing iffy about this absolute charmer from 2011, swastika tattoo and all:
But when all’s said and done, it’s hard to beat the McMurtry cartoon which the Daily Mail published on 21 August 2001, in response to a story about the NHS recruiting doctors from overseas. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:
Unsurprisingly, the British Medical Association lodged a complaint about that one, and even extracted an apology of sorts from the newspaper’s editor – albeit an apology of the ‘I’m not a racist but…’ variety.
Yes, it goes without saying that we shouldn’t give the Daily Mail our clicks (you’ll never find a direct Mail link on this blog). And yes, of course they’re only cartoons. They can’t hurt us. But from time to time we, like Spenser’s knight, need to hold these excrescences up to the light and see them for what they really are.
She poured forth out of her hellish sink
Her fruitful cursed spawn of serpents small,
Deformed monsters, foul, and black as ink,
Which swarming all about his legs did crawl,
And him encumbered sore, but could not hurt at all.