Morpeth Cartoonist David Haldane Shares His Artistic Wisdom Over Lunch
The work of David Haldane, one of Britain’s most revered cartoonists, appears on the front page of The Times almost every day. But did you know that he lives right here in Morpeth?
As I drove up to St Mary’s Inn (the red-bricked former asylum, which is now a popular pub and B&B near Stannington) to meet David Haldane, it occurred to me that I had no idea what he looked like – although I have admired his cartoons in many different newspapers, he’s an elusive figure, with no website, let alone a Twitter account. Fortunately his publicist was on hand to introduce us.
It immediately struck me how warm, unassuming and genuinely funny he was. As we took our seats in the dining room surrounded by examples of his work which hung from the walls, and with beermats containing his cartoons strewn across the table, he seemed like any other punter, apart from of course he has an incredible talent.
Born and brought up in Blyth, David discovered his love for drawing cartoons at a young age. ‘I got scarlet fever when I was young,’ he tells me. ‘It was highly contagious and they burnt all my library books. Someone in our street was a merchant seaman and he used to go all over the world, and he got me a whole load of funny papers from America with Prince Valiant and Snoopy, and I read them avidly. My mam bought me these huge jotters and pens from Woolworths and I used to copy the cartoon characters because there was nothing else to do. I kept drawing and got a real taste for it.’
David, it seems, had a natural flair for cartoons, but his satirical humour got him into trouble at times. ‘A friend of mine Alan Ferguson (he now runs Fergusons Transport) and I started a comic book for Blyth hospital,’ he reminisces. ‘We invented characters, I drew them, and Alan and I wrote it, but they were so violent that it was banned from the wards after two issues. We were just 11, but I was doing cartoons about operations.’
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After getting his first cartoon published at the age of 16, David studied Graphic Design at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University), where they encouraged his talent for doing ‘humorous illustrations’ (‘they wouldn’t call them cartoons,’ he laughs), and then went off in search of the bright lights of London like many other talented artists.
‘I wanted to be an animator,’ he recalls. ‘I took my portfolio to Richard Williams’s studio, he was the guy who did the title sequences for the Pink Panther films. He said, “You’ll never be an animator, you’re too full of ideas”. Instead he suggested I go home, get a job, make some money and send cartoons to Punch and Private Eye. I hung around and tried to get a job, but that was the first recession in the mid-Seventies and I ran out of money, so I came back and got a job at the South Shields Gazette.’
Little did he know where that would lead. Despite been repeatedly told at college that he had to go to London to make a success of his career, David followed Richard Williams’s advise and starting sending work to the national magazines and newspapers from his home in the North East.
‘I used to go to Blyth library to see the Punch annuals,’ he says, ‘and it was always my goal to get into Punch. I lost confidence when the rejections were coming in, but then I sent a batch of eight cartoons and they took six of them. The Arts Editor rang and said, “Congratulations, we’re in for the long haul”. I got my first cartoon in Punch in 1979 and I worked for them until they closed in 1994.’
David soon find himself attending the infamous Punch lunches with the likes of Alan Coren, Richard Curtis and Norman Tebbit, sitting at the table where Mark Twain once sat. ‘I met all my heroes, all the people I’d seen in books in Blyth library,’ he beams. ‘It was a real breath of fresh air, everybody was really generous about each other’s work.’
Offers then came flying in and David produced cartoons for the Express, the Mail On Sunday, Piers Morgan’s column for the Mirror and Ian Hislop’s Private Eye before becoming a Pocket Cartoonist for The Times.
‘Pocket just means cartoons all over the paper that illustrate stories that come through as the day unfolds,’ he explains. ‘I do one for the business section, several for the news section and I usually do one for the front.’
It’s a demanding job. Sitting down between 3pm and 9pm (six days per week), David produces 25 to 30 cartoons to send to his Editor every day. ‘I call it “guerilla cartooning”, because you’re weaving around stories that haven’t been sent in yet, so you don’t know what the angle is going to be,’ he says. It involves regular communication with the Night Editor and others involved in getting the newspaper to print, which makes it all the more remarkable that David works exclusively from a converted bedroom in his home in Morpeth.
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‘We’re living in a global village now,’ he says. ‘Everybody says it but then they all live in London. It shouldn’t be that all of the talent circulates around London. I think living in the North East shows in my work because it gives me the opportunity to stand back a little bit. Newcastle is a fantastic city. There’s lots going on here and I think there is a cultural buzz around here – look at Ann Cleeves who lives in Whitley Bay. It’s not just pictures of the Tyne Bridge and local things either, people have international ideas. They’re exporting work all over the world from here and I think it’s important that carries on.’
I couldn’t agree more. So as I finish off my fish finger sandwich, pack up my notebook and head back to Living North HQ to get on with interviewing more talented people from the North East, David collects the day’s papers and sets off home to sketch out ideas for the morning news. What a remarkable man.