David Austin, who has died from cancer aged 70, provided The
Guardian with wry cameos for the last 18 years. In the recent years of
the broadsheet there were two, one on the front page and one on the
letters page. In the Berliner format, there was a single drawing on
page two. Throughout, David was one of the central pillars in what made
the paper important to its readers.
Born in Lavendon,
Buckinghamshire, David had no formal qualifications as an artist, but
began drawing as a pupil at Southend High School for boys, where he
would get into trouble for sketching the Latin master as a Roman
centurion, beating his schoolboy slaves.
His father sold a shoe
factory shortly before the Second World War, but his parents were not
wealthy. David read chemistry at Leicester University. It was during
his national service in the RAF that he realised that the world was not
actually run by efficient people. His attitude towards those in
authority was, it seemed, mutual, and the RAF concluded that he did not
take life seriously enough to be leadership material.
first job, as a chemical analyst working for Esso at their huge Fawley
oil refinery on Southampton Water, he also decided that corporate life
was not for him. He quit and trained as a teacher at Reading University
in 1966. Three years later he moved to London and worked first at the
John Milton Primary School, Battersea. He went on to the William
Tyndale School, Islington, which was then a hotbed of educational
Not a natural disciplinarian, David would hold
pupils’ – and teachers’ – attention with his storytelling sessions on
He was teaching at the school in 1974 when it
became paralysed by a series of strikes over its progressive teaching
methods. A public inquiry polarised opinions among parents and
teachers, eventually paving the way for more government intervention.
David was torn: he felt the children’s interests were not being put
first by the strikes, but disagreed with the authorities as well, so he
resigned. If he hadn’t, he later said, he would have been a poor
schoolteacher instead of a moderately well-off cartoonist.
started his comic-strip magazine, Duck Soup, with Tom Johnston and
Kipper Williams, but his big break came when someone took a sheaf of
his work into Private Eye, and he began the long-running strip “Hom
Sap”. Being scientifically literate, he also worked for the New
Scientist; being a member of the Labour party (he resigned long before
Blair came to power) he also drew for Labour Weekly. He joined Eddy
Shah’s Today as a fulltime cartoonist, and worked for The Mail on
Sunday and the Telegraph before joining The Guardian. He also worked on
The Spectator with cartoonist Michael Heath.
For 27 years he also
shared a studio with fellow cartoonists Kipper Williams and Nick Newman
in the West End, to which he walked each day from his home in Highbury.
enjoyed sharing ideas and jokes with others in his profession: the
collective noun for cartoonists was, he said, a groan or a grumble.
readers of his cartoons, it may not be unexpected that he made his
friends and family laugh with his sardonic outlook and scepticism about
authority, always leavened by good humour and wit. Janet, his third
wife, recalled a typical example: they were driving along one day when
they saw two men dressed up with flowers in their button holes, going
to a wedding. “They’ll be throwing confetti at 12 and punches by
three,” David remarked.
When no longer a teacher, he continued
his love of storytelling by sending illustrated stories, including
“Lula, the Elephant”, and “The Flying Bed Stories”, in instalments, to
He came into the main Guardian building in
Farringon Road, Clerkenwell, each afternoon at 4pm, read through the
letters to be published the next morning, began identifying his
possible themes, and went to the editorial conference at 5pm. Then he
scowled, stuck in his ear plugs – defiantly not an office-dweller, he
did not like noise – scrawled sketches across complete pages of his
notebook, and produced a set of nine little boxes containing drafts of
his ideas. The duty editor chose one, the letters editor another, and
David polished off the finished product.
By 6.30pm he was gone.
enjoyed his work. Even on holiday, he would take a notebook and sketch
people and places that caught his eye. When he was taken ill last
summer, he sent in a cartoon for the first Berliner Guardian before he
went into hospital for an operation. He interrupted his recuperation to
return to work, where he enjoyed the change from working in black and
white to colour, and he was at his desk the day before he went into
hospital for the final time, suffering from cancer of the stomach.
is survived by Janet; by Nick and Fan, the children of his first
marriage, to Rita; Annie, the daughter of his second marriage, to
Martha; and four grandchildren.
Nicola Jennings and Patrick Barkham.This obituary originally appeared in The Guardian