Cartoonist, comedy writer and poet Mike Barfield is poking fun at those ‘keep calm’ spin-offs, but he has a serious message too, reports CHARLES HUTCHINSON.
YOU can’t move for the overload of Keep Calm & Carry On spin-offs from the never-used wartime poster.
Cards, mugs, more cards, posters, tea towels, fridge magnets, yet more cards, this misappropriated symbol of a Britain that never came to pass has become as ubiquitous as Go Compare’s Welsh tenor Gio Compario.
And like Gio, “they’re just not funny”, says radio and television comedy writer, poet, performer, ukulele player, children’s author, trained biologist and veteran Private Eye cartoonist Mike Barfield.
The Helperby humorist has responded by keeping calm, carrying on and creating his own retro-styled information posters under the title of Take Heed!
“The original Keep Calm poster, which was found at the Station bookshop in Alnwick was wonderful, but all these 21st century spin-offs are not in themselves amusing. They don’t have a good joke among them.
“So what I’ve done is a find a way of combining my non-sequiturs and one-liners with my old love of engraving and out-of-copyright illustrations.”
From this week, around 30 small posters are on show at the Sky Gallery – the white-tiled corridor – at City Screen, York, where you may recall Mike exhibited a collection of his Apparently cartoon strips from Private Eye in October 2011.
“The posters have a nostalgic feel – reminiscent perhaps of the Keep Calm series – but with a thoroughly contemporary wit,” he says. “The posters are by turns funny, silly, surreal, and occasionally profound. However, the most important thing is that they make you laugh – but I never get too po-faced about what I’m doing because I’m making jokes and the joy of comedy writing is the risk.””
The mini-posters, a series of pieces of advice, warnings, send-ups, mickey-takes and visual jokes from Mike’s ministry of misinformation, combine his playful wit with his love of graphic design and fondness for found illustrations.
“They are each signed By Order, so they have a Ministry of Truth feel to them,” says Mike, whose work would surely have amused the 20th century Dadaist and Surrealist movement.
He has so created more than 100 posters. “I’m now hoping to get a book off this project,” he says, and you certainly could envisage the posters being converted into posters, cards, T-shirts, tea towels and calendars.
“But I’m more interested in making the joke rather than making a tea towel – and that’s the difference between being an artist and a businessman.”
Should a book emerge, it will be another affirmation of Mike’s resurgence after a traumatic 2012. “I’m emerging into the shallower water after the depths we’ve been through,” he says. “The past nine months of my life have been so incredibly difficult.”
Last July, Mike and his wife Jessica’s daughter, Alice, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, just a week or so after her 12th birthday.
“Since then she has had chemotherapy at Leeds General Infirmary, major surgery at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham to remove the tumour in her leg and insert a metal prosthetic implant, and many more months of gruelling chemotherapy,” he says.
“Her chemotherapy treatment finished in late March and she’s now back at home and concentrating on getting fit and well again.
“Her hair is growing back; it’s like velvet on a stag’s antlers. She’ll be fine. She’s got great spirit.
“But if any child has a persistent pain in a long limb, please go and see your GP because you lose nothing by finding out what it is.”
During this time Mike has “hardly been able to work”. “But I’ve been determined to keep up my Apparently cartoon strip in Private Eye,” he says. “Now my new children’s book, Swat!, and my exhibition represent a first hope of getting back to some sort of normality and finding new opportunities to rebuild my career.”
Mike hit 50 last August. “But the year has been so tied up with Alice, so my 50th birthday year has not been the greatest but it’s ending well because Alice is on the mend,” he says.
“At 50, men usually start worrying about losing their hair, getting ill and dying but it’s put into perspective when it’s your young daughter going through those things. That’s when you realise there are more important things to think about.”
Through it all, Mike has retained his love of entertaining others. How apt that house flies should be returning to our newly warmed windows in the week when a small independent publisher, Brambleby Books of Luton, has brought out Swat! A Fly's Guide To Staying Alive, his picture book for children.
“This week’s flies must be my sales task force,” he says. “Swat! is funny and informative – years ago I acquired a First in Botany and Zoology from King's College, London – and like all the best children's books, it was inspired by my own son's interest in carnivorous plants many years ago.
“As it’s full of jokes, and contains scene of fly death and destruction, as well poo, it will be a perfect book for boys!”
The Swat project could go further. “I’m hoping that Swat! will get me back into schools, libraries and theatres where I can offer a show based on the book,” says Mike.
“My wife keeps asking me, ‘What do you really want to do?’, but I want to do lots of different things. If there’s a space, I like to fill it.”
Mike Barfield’s Take Heed! exhibition runs at the Sky Gallery, on the first-floor corridor of City Screen, York, until May 15. Admission is free.
Did you know?
Art collector and London gallery owner Charles Saatchi acquired one of Mike Barfield’s cartoons as a present for wife Nigella Lawson. “Apparently it hangs in Nigella’s downstairs loo,” says Mike. “It feels quite funny to have had your cartoon work bought by Charles Saatchi and to know where it’s ended up!”