An Unholy Amalgam of Disparate Prints

Finland and Sweden recently applied for membership of NATO and Boris Johnson has signed security agreements for the UK to defend them from any threat from ‘21st century tyrant’ Vladimir Putin. Illustration: Steve Bell/The Guardian 13 May 2022.

28 May 2022

By Greg Denieffe

Greg Denieffe looks at an old print in a new light.

After Boris Johnson’s trip to Sweden earlier this month, his photo-op with Magdalena Andersson on board the rowboat Harpsundsekan was given the usual diplomatic publicity. You know that they wanted to convey the message that we were all in the same boat; all pulling together, but as pointed out by Tim Koch in his recent article Row Boat Diplomacy, one of the PR photographs became an instant meme.

It also gave political cartoonist Steve Bell the opportunity to remind people of Mr Johnson’s casual relationship with honouring his commitments, be they an international agreement with the European Union, an election manifesto promises not to increase tax, or to legislate to tackle sewage pollution.

Bell’s cartoon was the second ‘rowing’ cartoon in the month of May to have Mr Johnson at the oars. At the end of April, news that Thames Water had pumped raw sewage into rivers more than five-thousand times in 2021 prompted Seamus Jennings to reimagine a much older cartoon from 1858, the year of The Great Stink in London. In October 2021, a House of Lords proposal to a new Environment Bill that would have placed legal duties on water companies to reduce discharges was defeated in the Commons by Johnson’s Conservative majority. The figure for England (all water companies) for 2021 is a staggering 370,000 discharges.

It isn’t just sewage in the Thames that is causing The Great Stink of 2022. The XXX-rated magazine, the red tractor and the mobile telephone refer to one of the many sex scandals involving Conservative MPs of late. Illustration: Seamus Jennings/The Times 3 May 2022.
‘The “Silent Highway” – Man. “Your money or your Life!”’ Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up, during the Great Stink. The cartoon points the finger of blame at politicians who had refused to fund sewage and water purification treatments for the city of London. The Great Stink of London (July – August 1858) eventually led to led to one of the greatest advancements in urban planning with the construction of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system. Illustration: Punch, or The London Charivari 10 July 1858.

Some years ago, an American craft beer brewery used The Silent Highwayman (sic) as the name and label for a 6.4% purl beer which they described as ‘An Unholy Amalgam of Disparate Parts.’ Proving that we all steal from the best, I’ve borrowed that as the basis for the title of this piece. The fact that this product brings together: Rag Tag, Death, Beer, and Disparate Parts at a time of Brexit, Covid, Downing Street Parties, and Polarised Politicians is ‘purly’ coincidental.

Has anything changed in the last 164 years? In the same edition of Punch that gave us The “Silent Highway” – Man, a short poem – The Queen on the River – ends with the following lines:

Where will the constitution go / If sewage shall much longer flow / Thy banks, old Thames, between? / The Lords and Commons, by their breath, / Which both their houses poisoneth, / Thou sickened it almost to death, / And has not spared the Queen!

Plus ça change.

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