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.
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.