BY LUKE COPPEN JOHN RYAN used to tell anyone who asked that he worked for The Catholic Herald because it kept him in gin.
I’m sure that over the more than 40 years he worked for us his modest weekly wages enabled him to save up for one or two bottles of Bombay Sapphire. But I suspect that he used that witty line to deflect those who wished to probe his personal piety.
John was modest about his faith, describing himself as a “not particularly virtuous Catholic”. But behind the thick wall of selfdeprecation stood a true Christian gentleman, the kind that Cardinal Newman described as “one who never inflicts pain”.
He had an unerring instinct for what would make readers laugh but not cause them offence. I remember phoning John each Tuesday to run through our news stories before he sat down to draw his weekly cartoon. If an item was too delicate he would pause and say with a chuckle: “I think we ought to leave that.”
But his deep respect for Catholic sensibilities did not neuter his art. On the contrary, he produced some of his most powerful work for the Herald. A great example is the cartoon he drew during the Gulf War (pictured right), which depicts the Cenotaph as a giant petrol pump.
While his cartoons were sharply pointed, they attacked universal human failings – greed, cowardice and corruption. No one felt personally targeted and everyone was able to laugh along.
One of John’s early mentors was Fr Sylvester, a monk at Ampleforth who encouraged him to learn the cartoonist’s art. John never forgot that it was the Church, in the person of Fr Sylvester, who urged him down the path that led to creative fulfilment, success and worldwide recognition.
What he offered in return was an extraordinary act of faithfulness that he repeated every week for more than 40 years. Nothing could distract him from the task of producing a weekly cartoon for Herald readers: neither an aneurism, nor the nasty hospital bug MRSA, nor memory problems, nor a cataract, prevented him from meeting the deadline.
While John would never have said so, I believe his work for the Herald was an expression of his deep love of the Church.
After all, as he often pointed out with a glint in his eye, he didn’t exactly do it for the money.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
OCTOBER 8 2004 MY FIRST contact with the newspaper came 40 years ago when my brother, a Dominican priest, introduced me to the then editor of The Catholic Herald, Desmond Fisher, writes John Ryan.
I was initially asked to provide drawings to accompany a column by Paul Jennings, a celebrated journalist who wrote the popular “Oddly Enough” column in the Observer. But it didn’t last long. I can’t remember why – either I didn’t like his ideas or he didn’t like my drawings.
In the beginning I used to come to the Catholic Herald offices and sit in on the weekly conferences. Later, I used to go out of my house in Notting Hill and pay for a taxi to take the cartoon to the office. After I moved to Rye my wife and I would ask friends who commuted to London to take it up on the train. Looking back, it was amazingly chancy, but I never failed to deliver the cartoon on time.
Nowadays I phone the editor on a Tuesday morning for ideas. After I have done the drawing, I take it to Neames, a rather grand arts supplier in the centre of Rye. They very kindly fax it to the Herald for me.
Has it been difficult to produce a cartoon every week for 40 years? Well, one gets into a habit of doing it, of waking up and getting to work on the drawing. Sometimes it was a challenge to do it because of my many other commitments, including my weekly cartoon strip in the Radio Times. In November 1998 I almost died after an aneurism of the aorta. I was in intensive care for months, but as soon as I was able to I began drawing again. By the time I left I think everyone in the hospital had a picture of Captain Pugwash.
Cardinal Grotti is a relatively recent character. He wasn’t based on anyone in particular. I have actually been to the Vatican and I didn’t see Cardinal Grotti there. He used to whizz around St Peter’s Square on a Vespa, but he is a little old for that kind of thing now.
After all these years, I still enjoy drawing. I take a pen everywhere I go, and if I get bored in a restaurant I begin to doodle on the napkin. The only downside is that my pen sometimes leaks in my pocket, but then I have never been a particularly tidy person.
JUNE 29 2001 “‘EVERY DAY, I say: ‘Good God! I’m 80.’” John Ryan is sitting in his attic studio in Rye, East Sussex, under the eye of a rather curious clock. Beneath its frozen hands and gaily painted face is an inscription that reads: Les heures sont faites pour l’homme et pas l’homme pour les heures (“Time is made for man, not man for time”), writes Luke Coppen.
The cartoonist, who turned 80 in March, has reached the age when time is a matter of quality not quantity. “I still feel quite young,” he says, before adding with typical self-deprecation: “I’ve probably got a mental age of about six years!” In his light-filled studio he is surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of a remarkable life. The walls are covered in photographs, drawings, rosaries, crucifixes, soft toys, pieces of nautical equipment. Every single item, says his wife, Priscilla, is significant. Every thing has sentimental value.
To test her assertion I point to a strange black leaden knob perched on a sill. That, Priscilla says, is a finial from Ampleforth College, York, where John studied before the war. “I used to enjoy climbing as a boy,” he offers, sheepishly, by way of explanation. The finial takes him back, in memory, to a mischievous and adventurous childhood. In March 1921 his mother Ruth was in Edinburgh awaiting the birth of her fourth child. She was half Scottish; her husband, Andrew (later, Sir Andrew), a diplomat, was Irish. Like his three elder brothers, John Gerald Christopher Ryan was brought up a Catholic.
When he was old enough John Ryan found himself at the gates of Ampleforth College. He was an unusual boy. For four years he had lived with his parents in French Morocco in the “little town of Rabat”. He could boast of attending lavish feasts thrown in his father’s honour by local Moorish big-wigs, where course upon course was laid before him. He could also tell stories about four-day voyages from Morocco to London – the same seas where Captain Pugwash would later sail.
It was at Ampleforth that his vocation as a cartoonist was decided. He remembers that one day he had committed some minor offence and was hauled up before the school monitors. “I could either have a beating or contribute a cartoon to the school magazine,” he recalls. Not surprisingly he chose the latter. He found that drawing not only saved his skin, it also delighted him. With fellow schoolboy Patrick O’Donovan (the future Observer journalist) he launched a “rather skittish magazine” called the Ampleforth News – a subversive rival to the sombre Ampleforth Journal. The News was a
sort of public school samizdat and John Ryan eagerly contributed wry caricatures of teachers and pupils. He was encouraged in his comic efforts by “a rather splendid monk”, Fr Sylvester, a former Fleet Street cartoonist who had left the profession when he converted to Catholicism. “A thorn in the flesh of many of his brethren”, Fr Sylvester was immensely kind to the young Ryan and gave him the confidence to dream about becoming a cartoonist.
In his last term at the college Ryan volunteered to join the Army. For nearly a year he taught at a prep school in Banbury waiting to be called up. When war broke out he was placed “for no very good reason” in the Lincolnshire Regiment and packed off to Burma to fight the “Japs”. Over the next four years his life was radically altered by the war.
“It was a disturbing time for my whole generation,” he says now, sadly. “I’m glad I did it because it all adds to one’s experience of life. But in the light of what has happened since, I think that I would be a conscientious objector if it all happened again.” The disturbing things he saw are recorded in three paintings that hang over the stairs at his home in Rye. Like Goya’s “Disasters of War” series they teem with corpses, guns, knives and shadows. When he returned to England in 1945, “an old man of 24”, he decided to put the war behind him by going to art school.
Priscilla Blomfield, granddaughter of the renowned classical architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, was sitting in art class one day when she and her young female colleagues received some intriguing news. “We were told that veterans from the war were coming to join us,” she remembers. “We were agog. These old, old men came in. John came in last and I thought: ‘He’s really rather good.’ He really looked like a mad poet. He was so thin, with such dark hair.” A few years later, in 1950, Priscilla became Mrs Ryan.
Upon leaving the Polytechnic, John Ryan found a job at Harrow School as an assistant to the art master, Maurice Percival. Percival, a fellow Catholic, was a brilliant and charismatic man.
“There was a strong Anglican ambience at the school,” John Ryan recalled, “and in a way he made the art school a place of Catholic propaganda. His philosophy was that nothing was accidental, that there was a principle, probably divine, behind everything.
“I also knew a man who was a very influential Catholic artist called David Jones. He lived in a boarding house with Maurice. I was very privileged to know him; if you were with him, you’d never fail to learn something new.”
It was in this environment that Ryan got his first opportunity as a professional cartoonist. He was given an introduction to the Rev Marcus Morris, an Anglican vicar from Southend, who was looking for contributors to a new boy’s magazine called The Eagle.
“I knew that it was going to be a strip cartoon and that it was going to have ‘high moral tone’,” Ryan recalls.
Priscilla then takes up the story: “John drew a very serious historical strip on bad King John. He brought it along to Rev Marcus Morris. He took one look at it and he roared with laughter. He said: ‘If you go back and draw something really funny, then I’ll put it in the magazine.’ John was very nonplussed because he did not realise it was funny.” John and Priscilla spent hours doodling in search of possible characters for the new magazine. One day a portly pirate appeared on a sketchpad. But the world was not yet ready for Captain Pugwash. Morris thought him too childish for The Eagle and instead commissioned a series starring Harris Tweed Extra Special Agent. This character had been invented by Priscilla, who describes him as her ideal man – “all chin and no brain, very easy to look after”.
Despite success with Harris Tweed, Ryan was drawn back again and again to Captain Pugwash. It seemed to him that the Captain wanted not merely the occasional cartoon strip, but a whole book to himself. And – blistering barnacles! – he set to work.
For those unfortunate enough to be born either too early or too late to know the good captain, a few biographical facts are necessary. Captain Horatio Pugwash was born and raised in a claustrophobic cathedral town. Never keen on the rough and tumble of a boy’s life, Horatio preferred the comfort of the nursery and nursery teas – sausages and mash coming a close second to his favourite, rolypoly pudding. His parents hoped that by naming Horatio after a famous admiral they might induce him to bravery on the high seas but the young Pugwash preferred a life of blissful ease. After running away from public school, he went to sea. During a spell as a midshipman on the HMS Gentleman he came across some misplaced supplies of excellent quality sausages. After eating a great deal of them – even he found 3,000 tons a little daunting – he struck a bargain with a French quartermaster, who was only too glad to pay handsomely for badly needed supplies.
Unaware that England was at war with the French – he never could grasp the complexities of foreign policy – he was disciplined by the Admiralty and sent packing to Portobello, the chief port of Montebuffo, on the Spanish Main. There, he picked up a second-hand boat and christened it the Black Pig. The only obstacle to a life of honest piracy was Cut-Throat Jake, a man made almost entirely of hair, with few social graces and limited conversation.
The first dozen publishers that John Ryan approached saw nothing amusing in Pugwash’s tale. The 13th, however, decided to take a risk on it, and Pugwash became a nationwide publishing sensation. Even now, decades later, John Ryan is at a loss to explain the public’s astonishing reaction. “The key to Captain Pugwash,” he says, “is cowardice versus greed, which I believe to be deeply motivating forces in humanity.” Perhaps, he adds, Pugwash is popular because these forces are universal and everyone can recognise them in themselves. The books have been translated into many languages, including German, Italian, Spanish, Danish and Japanese. However, he notes, “the French don’t find them funny at all”.
In 1964, when Pugwash was making his first sorties, John Ryan was introduced to Desmond Albrow, then editor of The Catholic Herald. He asked the artist to provide a weekly cartoon. So Ryan, who describes himself as a “not particularly virtuous Catholic” who “wouldn’t dream of missing Mass on a Sunday”, began what was to become an entertaining visual chronicle of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. No other Catholic cartoonist, it is safe to say, has depicted the period with such consistent wit and insight. To this day he continues to provide a weekly cartoon for The Catholic Herald. “I don’t know how it gets done in a way,” he says, “I wake up every Tuesday and think: ‘What am I going to draw today?’ ”
Not even serious illness has prevented him from producing the weekly cartoon. In November 1998 he had an aneurism of the aorta. While recovering he caught the virulent hospital bug MRSA and almost died. The illness upset his short-term memory; he now remembers appointments by writing them meticulously in his diary and keeping a sharp eye on the sleek grey Kando clock which sits on his desk, not far from the one with frozen hands. Beneath these two clocks he sits, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his distinguished life, knowing that the time he has left is made for him, and not he for time.