On being ale and arty
A pint with a comic artist convinces Alastair Gilmour that cartoonists and satirists are almost normal people.
They’ll call the pub ‘a convivial hostelry’; their friends are ‘fellow reprobates’. Beer is always ‘eminently quaffable’, served by a ‘comely wench’. They’ll raise their glasses as they chorus ‘tastebuds to the fore’ and recite comedy lines such as ‘this is an ex-parrot, it has ceased to be’ while they urge ‘have at you Roundhead knaves’ in mock English Civil War lingo.
They annoy, irritate and antagonise so we poke fun at them in return, yet their enthusiasm for cask ale, pubs, beer festivals and their single focus is something to be envied. With no shadow of doubt, we are familiar with every single one of the Real Ale Twats.
The Real Ale Twats is a strip cartoon in Viz comic, devised, drawn and nurtured by artist Davey Jones. But first, a foray into etymology. The word twat has ebbed and flowed since it was first written down in the 1600s. Like most four-letter offensive terms, by the 21st Century, it has developed an acceptance far beyond its original meaning as the rudest of rude. Like the c-word, it has tempered with usage and is broadcast on many a public platform and throughout the media.
“Twat is a great word, it sounds good,” says Davey Jones. “The cartoon is actually done with a degree of affection in it. In a way, you have to feel sorry for them, like when Simon Donald originated Sid the Sexist in Viz from a guy he met in a pub who thought he was irresistible to women, but in actual fact he had never even had a girlfriend.
Viz cartoonist Davey Jones, creator of the Real Ale Twats – among others – pictured at The Chillingham Arms, Heaton, Newcastle
“It’s laughing at people’s weaknesses. Sid was a loser; it was always his fault and his way with women was always doomed to failure.”
Simon Donald helped his brother Chris create Viz in their bedroom at his parents’ home (along with friend Jim Brownlow) in Newcastle in December 1979. From photocopied, stapled-together A4 sheets sold around Newcastle pubs as a bit of a laugh, it grew to selling more than a million copies, published ten times a year.
Its irreverent mix of foul-mouthed, childish cartoons and sharp satire has seen its creators – and those who followed – hauled over the coals by the United Nations, questioned by Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch and exhibited in the Tate Gallery. It is still a force to be reckoned with.
Davey Jones says: “I can’t remember where the title of the strip came from, but because it’s Viz basically and it’s about real old drinkers. I was drawing it with the others in the office at the time – when we all used to work together.”
The Viz management team expanded in 2000 (when Chris Donald stepped back from his editorship and brother Simon decided his future lay in stand-up and television) to include Jones, Simon Thorp, Graham Dury and Alex Collier and had a long-term office in central Newcastle before decamping to Tynemouth then separating into freelance contributors working from home.
“I haven’t even given the Real Ale Twats’ ringleader a name,” says Jones, “well I have, but I’m not going to reveal it. None of his companions actually says anything apart from the occasional grunt.
One of Davey Jones’ pet hates is when people form an orderly queue at the bar. It’s something that Wetherspoons’ customers tend to do.
All illustrations by kind permission of Viz Comic (© Viz Comic)
“It all comes from sitting on your own in a pub and observing what’s around you, seeing what games people are playing with each other. They’re stereotypes – it’s a cartoon after all and not meant to be serious.
“A bloke used to come into the pub with shoulder bags, so that’s why I’ve given them all shoulder bags. The sight of them turning round and hitting people is quite funny and slightly annoying.
“You always get the one in a group mouthing off and being opinionated – and they’re my chance to be opinionated.”
Davey Jones is originally from Hereford and freelanced for Viz for a few years before joining the staff in 1990 and settling in Newcastle in 1996.
“The Free Trade Inn was the first pub I was ever in in Newcastle,” he says (we are actually sitting in the pub sinking pints). “I’m glad to see it hasn’t changed at all.
“I told Chris Donald I was thinking of moving to a town again – I was living on Anglesey at the time – and he said if you do, I’ll give you a job. When I came up he brought me to the Free Trade. It’s a great traditional place to sit and look at the bridges over the Tyne, so you could say he bought me off in a decent pub. “But I had to adapt to the Geordie accent. My first taxi driver was broad Geordie and I thought ‘I’m never going to get by here’, but you get used to it. I also found a great mix of people in the Tap & Spile on Shields Road in Byker.
“I would go to the pub just to get used to the accents. They knocked it down to build a Morrisons. For a while after that you’d get these old fellas standing outside, saying, ‘My stool used to be there’.
The Shivering Whippet reference is to fellow Viz cartoonist Alex Collier’s dog, Jim. Like most whippets, his skin regularly ripples in shivers.
“I’ve worked from home since 2012. There were a lot of changes going on then. Eventually it was decided that there wasn’t any need for an office because we could work from home and also get freelancers in. I also do a lot of one-offs – celbs and politicians mainly.
“When we all worked in the office we’d do a lot of sitting around then go off on our own to do some work. If nobody felt like thinking about anything you just got on your drawing board or did some admin stuff. People used to come to the office and were always disappointed at how normal we all were.
“Funnily enough, we didn’t drink at all during the day. There’s a danger that what you think is funny when you’re having a drink is not so funny after all. I’ve got wise to it now; been caught out too many times.
“Buses and bus queues are great places for getting ideas. If you hear someone on the bus or in the street, you’ll think that’s a good thing for this or that character to say. Taking the dog for a walk in the park is a great time for thinking and working things out. The dog gets me out every day and loves the pub as well.”
Davey Jones’ other creation is Major Misunderstanding, a strip that works in the same way as the Real Ale Twats. “He’s a retired bigot and I give him things to say and do that really annoy me.
“I’ll take things out on the character that have happened to me to an extreme, like bank automated services when I want to speak to a cashier. Then you start laughing at yourself. I really enjoy drawing him as well, with his ex-military walk, all arms and legs.”
Jones is something of a traditionalist in his working methods, sketching in pencil before inking in with what he calls a ‘dippy’ pen when the norm these days is to draw digitally on a computer screen.
One of Davey Jones’ other creations is ‘retired bigot’ Major Misunderstanding. Here he confuses a flu jab with an item of religious clothing like a hijab which he naturally objects to.
“I quite like scratching away,” he says. “It means you can have it all written down and plan the work beforehand. I’ll draw a couple of days a week from a script then ink in the panels. Pencilling probably takes the longest time. I do a lot of rubbing out.
“I have a one-pint rule when I’m working but I like popping in to the Chillingham Arms which is fairly close to where I live, as is the Northumbrian Hussar. Then there’s the Cumberland Arms in Byker which I go to occasionally.
“I get up the coast with my mates on a Thursday night – North Shields, Tynemouth, Whitley Bay – my favourite there is The Rockcliffe Arms and I always have a pint in the Bell & Bucket in North Shields on music nights.”
On those travels, Davey Jones doesn’t reveal whether he has come across The Twats’ leader collaring a fellow customer with: “I see you have opted for the Goethe’s Original rather than their Thundering Bellend. A common rookie’s error if I may say so, young fellow.”
The response is normally too painful to relate.
Illustrations by Davey Jones with kind permission of Viz Comic (© Viz Comic).
Other regular Viz characters include The Fat Slags, Biffa Bacon, Sid the Sexist, Roger Mellie The Man on the Telly, Millie Tant, Mrs Brady Old Lady and Buster Gonad.