He distrusted Churchill, who in return disliked his work even when he was a powerful morale-booster during the Blitz. Perhaps his humane cynicism about high-flown rhetoric stung the war leader: Giles was in the Home Guard and saw domestic destruction close-up, and in drawing his unheroic soldiers followed the tradition of Bruce Bairnsfather in the first war, observing that squaddie humour still worked: “mud, cussing, lorries that won't go, shells that fall too near and boots that pinch too tight...” Who can forget the soldier looking up at an approaching missile and observing: “Oh look, here comes your Easter Egg.” Or the GI bride taken home with a baby, but horrified to find that her Wally lives not in a skyscraper but a hillbilly shack?
In 1944 he was a correspondent at Arnhem; he drew pictures of cells and gallows at Breendonck transit camp, and went into Belsen with the liberators. But here he flatly refused to draw, saying that photographs alone must tell the story that 50 years later was still to “haunt and horrify” him. Yet out of this grew the warmth and gaiety of Giles's postwar work. His Britons - stumpy, impudent, longsuffering, domestic, anti-authoritarian - cluster in the Giles Family, at whose head stands the baleful circular black figure of Grandma, a mouthpiece for every bracingly incorrect view: a fan of Lenin, hanger and flogger, hedonistic gambler and drinker, keen on violence. She smells of embrocation and mothballs yet is beadily on the ball.
She links the postwar tribe with its history: her mother “helped wash up at a Fete attended by Queen Victoria”. On a Christmas album we find her playing poker with an equally grumpy Santa in her nightie, while his presents go undelivered.
I was bewitched by the mysterious yet delightfully droll ramblings of Giles when I was growing up in the 70s and happened upon my grandparents' collections of the omnibus editions. Aside from Grandma Giles, who seemed rather terrifying, I liked his attention to detail in his backgrounds, where waggish short-trousered lads, babies in silly hats, rangy scavenging dogs and wary, one-eye-open cats capered and undermined any lingering pretence of seriousness.
There's an exhibit of Giles' work on at the Cartoon Museum in London until 15 February 2009.
- Source: The Times, 24 November 2008