On the day the first collection of his work is published, The Journal’s Levity cartoonist Nick Whitmore tells Jane Hall why being funny isn’t always a laugh a minute.
NICK Whitmore is sat hunched over a steaming cup of coffee in The Journal staff canteen.
His expression is glum; the sort of look people wear as they await their turn for the dentist. They know they’ve got to go through with it, but don’t expect them to find the experience enjoyable. He has reluctantly been persuaded to do the thing he hates most: talk about himself. As he shifts uneasily in his chair, he makes one last bid to stave off the inevitable questions that are heading his way.
“Do we really need to do this?” Nick laments. “I’m really not very interesting and I don’t have a sense of humour. I’m just very grumpy and bad tempered.”
On his present form the latter two character traits are believable. But who is he trying to kid by claiming a humour bypass? All the evidence would point to this self-effacing, quietly spoken 56-year-old being a very funny man indeed.
Why? Because under his working name of Nicholas, he has been making Journal readers cry with laughter – and occasionally pain – since July 2006 with his daily dose of topical cartoon fun as featured in this paper’s Page 2 Levity spot.
It is absurd that a man who with a few strokes of his pen can highlight an issue better than any number of words and has proved himself adroit at finding humour in the unlikeliest situations, should claim in private to be such a sullen individual.
“Most cartoonists are,” he explains. “If cartoonists ever have the misfortune to get together, they aren’t funny, they’re just cross. The collective name for a group of cartoonists is a ‘grumble’.”
And what do they ‘grumble’ about? “Oh everything, from how difficult it is to get published to how little people get paid when they do get their work in print. The life of a cartoonist really isn’t a happy one,” he concludes. It’s funny how many people who earn their living making others laugh are of a melancholy disposition: Tony Hancock, Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry and Paul Merton are just some of the names that spring to mind. “Oh God, I’m not that depressed,” Nick exclaims. “If I had to use one word to sum myself up it would be cynical. I have a healthy dose of scepticism.”
It certainly hasn’t held him back in his chosen profession. Since seeing his first cartoon in print 17 years ago, Nicholas has enjoyed steady success with the likes of Private Eye, The Spectator, Reader’s Digest, and now, The Journal.
Private Eye has regularly used his drawings in its ‘best of’ anthologies over the years, and he has appeared in other cartoon collections. But surprisingly he has never been invited to publish his own cartoon book – until now. Levity 2007 is a year in the life of the North-East as seen through Nicholas’s eyes. Featuring 75 of his favourite cartoons covering everything from family life to crime, health, sport and the environment, he says he is “humbled and proud” to at last have his own compilation that can be perused at people’s leisure.
Having shown some uncharacteristic enthusiasm he quickly reverts to form. “Not that I expect anyone to buy it,” he says quickly. “I can see it now – piles of unsold books cluttering up The Journal office.”
His pessimism will be unfounded. His cartoons highlighting the general frailties and foibles of the human race wrapped up in the news agenda of the day, have won him a legion of fans over the past 16 months – letters, calls and emails from Journal readers thanking Nick for starting their day off with a smile, are a regular occurrence. But no gag has won more praise than his offering of October 20 this year – the day of the Rugby World Cup final that saw England lining up against South Africa. Expertly capturing the mood of the occasion, Levity depicted a church minister saying “Let us pray”, as his congregation took up the trademark Jonny Wilkinson kicking position.
“I got loads of positive feedback about that one,” Nick says with a shy smile. “Yeah, that was a nice feeling.” Levity 2007 is only a small sample of Nick’s six-day a week in-paper output. For every cartoon that makes it into The Journal, another two will have been rejected. That doesn’t mean they were bad, however. On the contrary. As Journal editor Brian Aitken says: “It’s a case of outstanding, excellent and very good. The choice of which to run with is never easy.”
Coming up with three cracking gags every day would be most people’s idea of employment Hell. Nick is surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing, though. If he feels stressed he’s not going to admit to it. As he says, being a cartoonist was his choice.
He can’t recall ever suffering from cartoonist’s block. One of the joys of creating topical gags for a newspaper, he maintains, is that the news is ever changing and ranges from the serious to the sublime and the ridiculous. More than enough scope for a man of Nick’s abilities.
But while he signs his work ‘Nicholas’, he insists his gags aren’t just about him; they are a team affair. “Quite a lot of the Levity gags owe their existence to colleagues at The Journal. They come up with ideas and suggestions. It harks back to a cartoon being a collective sense of humour; it only works if we all think it’s funny. That’s why a lot of people appreciated the Jonny Wilkinson gag.
“A joke is very simple. It is putting together two ideas. A really good joke is three ideas together. I once got a gag in The Spectator of a fat man being X-rayed and inside him was this thin person writing a novel. That is three ideas – inside every fat person is a thin person, and inside every person is a great novel waiting to be written.
“The best jokes don’t have any words, like one I did for The Journal of the Angel of the North as a wind turbine. My worst jokes usually have animals in them. If ever animals appear in my gags, it is a sign we are scraping the barrel.”
Life as a full-time cartoonist is Nick’s second career. Until recently he taught sculpture and drawing at Northumbria University, and penning gags was a sideline.
Born in Northampton, he studied at the town’s school of art and then in Winchester, where he gained a degree in sculpture. He then moved to London “where the streets are paved in gold”, and ended up working 50 hours a week in a bronze foundry turning out limited edition statues of the likes of Winston Churchill “and various ballet dancers and horses”.
In 1977, he arrived in Newcastle to run the foundry at what was Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria. He claims to have immediately fallen in love with Tyneside. “I arrived in thick mist and it felt as mysterious as Istanbul. I thought, ‘God, this is a great place’. Now I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” Home is in Heaton, Newcastle, which he shares with wife Pascale, a professional story-teller. They have no children. Nick still sculpts – but for pleasure. “I do them for myself. I work at home and have them cast in Edinburgh. It’s taken me 35 years to get half good at it, so I don’t want people to buy any. And my wife doesn’t like parting with them either.” In the meantime, he hopes to enjoy a long and fruitful association with The Journal, although he recognises cartoonists do go out of fashion. “When you start out, you have something really original to show because you’re fresh, and freshness is the important thing. After 10 or 15 years, you’re the same as others. You’re hacking away at the ‘jokeface’, trying to fashion a joke out of the seam of life.”
Thankfully, the jokeface still has some rich seams for Nick to mine.
Levity 2007 costs £4.99, available from Journal front reception, Groat Market, Newcastle, by calling (0191) 201-6001, or online at www.journallive.co.uk/giftideas
Also available from Fenwick, Newcastle; Waterstones in Durham; MetroCentre and Newcastle; and Borders, Team Valley Gateshead, and Silverlink, North Tyneside.