Low Laughter At High Tide

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Low laughter at high tide


by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey

There has always been comic potential in that popular weekend passion for bobbing about on the water, during which some of us have been known to do the strangest things. If nothing else, the idea of spending more time working on your boat than actually sailing in it is, let's face it, daft. Which is why I don’t own a boat, except for the miniature Titanic next to the plastic ducks in my bath, but am always willing to crew one.

Over the last century or so, nautical cartoons have buoyed up our spirits while poking fun at the silliness that is innate in 'sailing types'; most of whom have enjoyed a laugh or two, often at their own expense.

The late Carl Giles, one of Britain's greatest cartoonists, loved motoring, sailing and keeping the establishment on its toes. He did more than his share of sending up boating during the second half of the 20th century - even taking affectionate swipes at the yachting world's mecca, Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, just off the south coast of England.

One famous cartoon in the Sunday Express in July 1952 featured the Maybush Inn near Giles's home town, Ipswich, in Essex. It showed a waterside overflowing with boats and crumpled sails, and an ironic caption, "I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky..."

Boating humour turns up in the most unexpected places, with surprising results. Take Mickey Mouse's career, which was launched in 1924 in the animated short, Steamboat Willie.

Five years later, Popeye, the pipe-smoking sailor, made his first appearance in the comic strip, Thimble Theatre, sinking readers around the world in gales of laughter. The bow-legged, spinach-sponsored hero with the funny arms was quickly joined by several memorable characters including Bluto, the swaggering, cigar-chomping bully. And Sea Hag, an evil harpie of a skipper with magical powers - which reminds me of the first female captain I met during the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989 – but that’s another story.

Back in Britain, Punch magazine published hundreds of cartoons about life afloat during its first 150 or so years (1881-1992). Many were by the Pony Club's favourite cartoonist, Thelwell, including one of a husband and wife in an open boat in a gale, with him perched over a distress rocket, their infant bawling and the woman scowling and saying, "O for pity's sake let him light it!" Change the rocket for a cigar in Los Angeles, and it would now be an even better joke.

One of my favourite sailing cartoons appeared, innocuously, 30 years ago in the Daily Mirror, who recently removed the cigarette that used to be permanently stuck in the mouth of one of its favourite strip cartoon characters, Andy Capp. The butt-kissing, politically correct bastards!

Anyway, it (the cartoon) depicted a mermaid leaning over a recumbent sailor under a palm tree on a desert island, and the coxswain in the rescue boat heading towards it, yelling, "There she blows!" If you don’t understand the joke, ask a Sixties survivor to explain it to you.

These days, the gag would about a mermaid who is about to light a pipe. Whatever.

Cartoons have long encouraged healthy laughter at the expense of floating gin palaces, doing business in deep waters (pirates on the high seas of finance), castaways on desert islands (repeatedly), flotsam, memorable trips, the boating enthusiasts' notorious capacity for drink, seasickness, some people's total lack of interest in whatever happens on the bridge or at the helm, and air conditioned, centrally heated, plush-lined sea fever.

It all adds to the fun of sailing. And fun, as I have to keep reminding my anti-smoking critics, is for some of us, what life’s all about.

The day we cannot light up our favourite smoke on our own boat will be the day laughter dies.

So let’s have more cartoons about the anti-smoking born-again puritans, who should be dismissed as a joke, instead of being taken so bloody seriously by our placid, non-questioning, intolerant world.


Copyright James Leavey, 2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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