Thursday, 4 May 2017

In praise of Leo Baxendale! – David Thorpe

This month I want to celebrate the life of one of the greatest children's writers of the last century who tragically died towards the end of last month: Leo Baxendale.

Leo Baxendale in 1991
Leo Baxendale in 1991

There have already been plenty of obituaries commemorating this creator of The Bash Street Kids,  Minnie the Minx, The Three Bears and other well-loved strips from The Beano. I just want to add my little bit with some lesser-known anecdotes.

I knew him in the early 'nineties. He was in the midst of his legal battle with publishers DC Thompson over the rights to his characters.

Basically, he had no rights and they were making money hand-over-fist out of all the spin-offs from his characters, while he got nothing – it was all work-for-hire.

This was a time when other comics writers also tried to wrest from their publishers the rights to their own creations. For example, Alan Moore left DC Comics to set up his own publishing company Mad Love, as part of his determination to own what he produced.

Unfortunately for Leo, his wife (or mother, I can't remember which) was ill at the time and needed medical treatment so he was forced to settle out of court, but he did win recognition that he was the creator.

He struck me as a charming and erudite of men. Gentle, and with firm views about justice and fairness.

It was this conviction that lay behind his creations: a distrust of authority which he felt always tended to corruption, and so one must always be wary of it, ask questions, and hold it to account.

Although he did not create Dennis the Menace (that was Beano editor George Moonie), you can see from the picture above (which is taken from the back cover of The Encroachment), that, when younger, he may have looked a little like this anarchistic role model for children, with his shaggy mop-top.

It's really amazing that he managed to get away with so much what you think about it. In every single one of his strips it is adults and particularly figures of authority such as policemen and teachers who come off worst.

By contrast, the children, working class through and through, always win out and have a lot of fun in the process. Does that remind you of Roald Dahl's and Enid Blyton's protagonists? It should do – it's a winning formula for kids' writers.

The Encroachment (Part 1), which I have signed copy of, was published at around the time I knew him, and is a polemical tract which reads as a history of Great Britain from the point of view of property law.

Cover of The Encroachment
Cover of The Encroachment Part 1
Dedication inside my copy of The Encroachment
Dedication inside my copy.

While this sounds terribly dry and not at all what you would expect from a cartoonist, it basically documents how what was once common to all of us, such as land, air and water, has been progressively taken from us into private ownership.

He called the process of this happening 'encroachment'. In other words an encroachment upon our birthrights.

Leo believed it was a mistake for us to give away our innate democratic powers and our rights. It was something we did too willingly and easily, often without even realising it.

This message is even more pertinent today, when 'the encroachment' has reached well into the virtual and digital realm, than it was 25 years ago.

He was a communist, in the original sense of collective ownership – he stood in solidarity with the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution.

The other little-known book he published which I have a signed copy of, is the short lived strip that he did for the Guardian newspaper, We Love You Baby Basil! which encapsulate perfectly his sense of the ridiculous, love of the juvenile perspective and his affection for wordplay.

Cover of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection
Cover of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection
Dedication inside my copy of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection
Dedication inside my copy of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection

Leo was a very rare human being: creative, dedicated, passionate and committed to human rights. We will miss him.

David Thorpe's new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts. His books for teens – Hybrids and Stormteller – can be found and bought here

1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

Thank you for that.

DC Thomson publications featured in my Scottish childhood ....
The Dandy, Beano, Beezer and the Sunday Post newspaper.

And I still retain my reservations about teachers, and policemen.
Try getting something critical about police printed in your local newspaper.

Leo Baxendale sounds like someone with a good set of values.