The pea under the mattress
Fleet Street has been a magnet for journalists around the globe ever since the world’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was published in London on 11 March 1702. Amongst the foreign journalists who have come to Britain over the past 300 years have been a number of cartoonists and caricaturists, especially after the launch of the satirical magazine Punch in 1841.
Attupurathu Mathew Abraham (‘Abu’) arrived in London in 1953 for what he intended to be a three-month visit, and eventually stayed on for 16 years. He started his London career as the first-ever political cartoonist on the Observer, the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world, founded in 1791. He later worked for three years on the leftwing weekly Tribune; and from 1966 to 1969, he was also a daily ‘pocket’ (single-column) cartoonist for the Guardian, which described him as “the conscience of the Left and the pea under the princess’s mattress”.
Abu came to Britain at the suggestion of Fred Joss, the political cartoonist and caricaturist of the London evening paper, the Star. In 1953, after working for the Star for 20 years, Joss came to Delhi on a business trip and sought out the celebrated Indian cartoonist Shankar. He found him in the offices of Shankar’s Weekly, where Abu had himself been working for the previous two years. Shankar introduced Joss to Abu, who showed him some of his work. Joss was immediately struck by the quality of the drawings, and encouraged Abu to try his luck in London.
Abu thus set sail for Liverpool in July 1953. He arrived three weeks later and took a train to London where he stayed with a friend. Here, he soon began to contribute to a number of publications. His first cartoon for Punch was published almost exactly 55 years ago, on 4 November 1953. Realising that he could make a living in Britain, Abu decided to stay on. In 1956, Michael Foot, the future leader of the Labour Party but then the editor of Tribune, published two of his political cartoons. Within a week of their appearance, Abu was invited to become staff political cartoonist for the Observer, the first ever in its 165-year history.
The paper’s editor, David Astor, not only offered Abu a greatly increased salary and a much wider audience, but also the freedom to draw whatever he liked. The only change that Astor suggested was to his name. Up to this point, all of Abu’s cartoons had been signed with his surname, Abraham; but as West Asia was in turmoil at the time, with the Suez Crisis and other conflicts, a neutral pseudonym was sought. ‘Abu’ was a nickname he had picked up as a schoolboy and which Astor felt was “suitably mysterious”. As a result, this was the signature that appeared on his first Observer cartoon, published on 8 April 1956, a Sunday.
Kind, English humour
Abu worked hard at his new job. As he recalled in an interview in 1997, “My sense of humour was very close to the English one. After all, English had been my main language. I had read a tremendous lot. From the day I arrived in England, I didn’t waste time … I listened to all the radio programmes, including Woman’s Hour and Children’s Hour, just to educate myself … By the time that I got the job at the Observer I knew the country, its socio-political history and the idioms, very well.” He was also a great admirer of English humour. On the day of the publication of his first cartoon for the Observer, the paper’s ‘Table Talk’ column reported, “English cartoonists, he [Abu] thinks, are the best in the world. For political criticism, he thinks Vicky supreme; for wit, he prefers Osbert Lancaster; for artistry, Ronald Searle. Low? ‘All in all, still the greatest of them’.”
Abu’s cartoons were never unkind or vicious. And though he saw himself as a socialist, he felt there was more stupidity than wickedness in the world, and was never associated with any political party in Britain. As well as producing political cartoons, Abu travelled widely for the Observer, and published reportage drawings of his visits to Japan, Jordan, the US, Kenya, Cyprus, Australia and elsewhere. In 1961, he went to Israel, where he made court drawings during the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The following year he visited Cuba, where he met and drew Che Guevara, and even spent three hours in a nightclub as the guest of Fidel Castro (both of them signed the sketches that Abu made of them).
In September 1966, after ten years on the Observer, Abu moved to the Guardian, where he drew pocket cartoons, letters-page illustrations and caricatures, while also contributing a weekly political cartoon to Tribune. During this period he also edited Verdicts on Vietnam, an international collection of cartoons about the Vietnam War published in 1968, which included one of his own favourites from Tribune. This drawing showed a US Air Force jet dropping bombs on a small Vietnamese jungle settlement, with a caption that read: “I’m sure it’s a hostile village, captain – because we bombed it last week.”
Though happy in Britain – despite the increase in racial tension in the country towards the end of the 1960s – Abu began to feel nostalgic for India. As he said in an interview in the Hindustan Times weekly, “I never thought of taking up British nationality or spending my retirement years in England. He also wanted his young children to be brought up and educated in India. Thus, for him, “the racial situation was a personal factor, but not a decisive one.” So when, on a trip to Delhi in 1969, he received an offer for a job as the political cartoonist on the prestigious daily Indian Express, he decided to return to his home country. Before he left Britain, however, he completed work on a short animated film. Entitled No Arks, it was a political fable based on the biblical story of Noah. As well as supplying drawings, Abu wrote the script, which was read by Vanessa Redgrave. In 1970, it won a Special Award from the British Film Institute.
In the years following his return to India, Abu continued to visit Britain occasionally, particularly to see his old friend Michael Foot. In September 1997, on one of these visits, I was very pleased to meet Abu in person myself when, as Secretary of the British Cartoonists’ Association, I arranged for a group of British cartoonists to attend a talk he gave at the Nehru Centre in London. In India, Abu continued to work for the Indian Express until 1981, when he turned freelance. Eventually, in 1988, tiring of noisy, polluted Delhi and missing the “temple bells, festivals and the scent of jasmine”, he returned to his home state of Kerala. There, he continued to live and work until his death on the first of December 2002.
Adapted from a talk at the opening of an exhibition of cartoons by Abu Abraham as part of the Himal Southasian Cartoon Congress, Kathmandu, 14 November 2008.
Mark Bryant is a director of the London Press Club and a former secretary of the British Cartoonists' Association.