Wally Fawkes obituary

The career of the cartoonist and jazz clarinettist Wally “Trog” Fawkes, who has died aged 98, was an extraordinary one, a mixture of luck and perseverance. His cartoon strip Flook appeared in the Daily Mail and then the Mirror for more than half a century, while his political cartoons were a staple of the British media for just as long.

In 1948 Lord (Vere) Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, was much taken on a visit to the US by a children’s strip about a small boy and his magic uncle, and thought something similar might enhance his own paper. What was decided was that a small boy named Rufus has a dream in which he rescues from prehistoric times a furry creature being bullied by a nasty caveman. On awakening, Rufus finds the little animal has fallen through a timewarp into his own bed. Its name is Flook.

From the start, in 1949, the strip was drawn by Wally under his pen name, Trog, from troglodyte, taken from his wartime experiences underground with the Coal Commission. Douglas Mount was the first writer, followed by Sir Compton Mackenzie. (Wally sometimes expressed astonishment to think that he had the nerve to confront and correct this famous novelist, but I suspect he was not that appalled. When it came to Flook, if he felt it was going off track, he would have challenged Shakespeare.)

Flook’s fans escalated. He was quoted in the House of Commons, and Harold Macmillan admitted reading the strip before anything else. Later Humphrey Lyttelton took over as writer and sharpened up the satirical element. When Humph resigned in 1956, I was approached; I stayed for 15 years. “Money for jam,” I thought to begin with. I could not have been more wrong.

Wally may have appreciated my knowledge of contemporary mores, and my ear for accent and idiom, but if dissatisfied with my contribution he would reject it without a qualm. It was his baby; I only its hired nursemaid. The storyline and its rhythm were his main concern. I would watch his face during our weekly meetings in the art editor’s office. If he smiled – good. If his formidable eyebrows dropped – bad.

At first, Wally’s style was reminiscent of the Dandy or Beano. Rufus was dressed in the style of Just William. Flook had an unattractively long nose like a hosepipe. Later on, Rufus became quite trendy, with a proper haircut and checked trousers; Flook’s hooter became a much shorter organ. Their relationship altered, too. Flook grew wise, sophisticated, sometimes rather pompous or depressed. Rufus stayed the ingenuous pre-teen.

What was amazing, looking back, was Walt’s ability to create and develop a large cast of characters who could, as in a repertory company of old, play almost any role, according to the needs of the current plot. They could change radically, too. A certain Mr Muckybrass, at first a Lancashire industrialist, became a Labour prime minister, not in appearance, but in attitude and body language.

For those of us who were involved with the strip, the characters – a retired colonel and his formidable wife, a fashionable boutique owner, a chequebook journalist, a trendsetter who becomes a tycoon, and so on – seemed as real and recognisable as those of Dickens. Sometimes, too, Wally would include a figure well known in the jazz world or Fleet Street, but unidentifiable by the general public, as a private joke. He could be visually witty, too. Flook and Rufus pass the Royal Court during a production of Look Back in Anger where the queue of people waiting to get in are all glaring over their shoulders.

In the end, in 1984 Flook was poached by Robert Maxwell, because his children liked it. The readers of the Mirror did not share their enthusiasm. Eventually poor Flook was reduced to a two-frame joke on the back page of the Sunday edition, and soon after that, he died. Trog became instead what he had always yearned to be, a leading political cartoonist.

His true strength lay in his likenesses, which were not only intensely recognisable physically, but equally reflected their subject’s characters, especially when dodgy or hypocritical. An example chosen at random: chancellor Nigel Lawson, brush and paint tin in hand, has vandalised a poster that asked us to “Help the Aged” by adding, very messily, a huge “W” in front of Aged.

Wally had no political bias: all parties were open to his barbs, but real venom was directed at some, especially Ian Smith or any other advocate of racism. He changed newspapers often. As well as the Mail and Mirror, he drew for the Observer and the Sunday Telegraph. A keen opponent of political pressure, whether from the right or left, he never pulled his punches.

Wally was born in Vancouver, Canada, to Mabel (nee Ainsley) and Douglas Pearsall, a railway clerk. After that marriage ended, Mabel and her children left for Britain with Wally’s stepfather, Charles Fawkes, a printer, in 1931. Wally was educated at Sidcup Central school in south-east London, but left early to go to the local art school, where they thought highly of him and were disappointed when he left to take a number of unsuitable day jobs to help out his family. When the second world war began, he was set to work mapping coal seams.

He had, like many of his generation, fallen for the recorded jazz of the 1920s, and taught himself the clarinet. He soon showed a natural talent, and in 1946 became a founder member of the George Webb Dixielanders, one of the first British bands to play (rather than just listen to) the music of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and so on. At a certain point Humph turned up to sit in, and after his demob he, too, joined the band.

Wally’s clarinet and Humph’s trumpet were so superior that in 1948 they handed in their notice, and Humph, with Wally, formed his own band. Later, the addition of Keith Christie completed the best revivalist jazz frontline in the country. The Monday and Saturday sessions, eventually housed at 100 Oxford Street, later known as the 100 Club, were sacred occasions. Humph and Wally were our gods.

The Lyttelton band’s fame spread. Sidney Bechet, the New Orleans-born supremo of the soprano sax, got to hear Wally and declared that, not only was he the best clarinettist in Europe, but in the world. Wally could have taken off internationally.

He had, however, another option. While working for the Coal Commission he had submitted a drawing for a competition and won first prize. The judge was the political cartoonist Leslie Illingworth, who was so impressed by Wally’s talent that in 1945 he landed him the offer of a job drawing “column breakers” in his own paper, the Daily Mail.

Wally Fawkes performing a duet on his clarinet with a young harmonica player in 1951.
Wally Fawkes performing a duet on his clarinet with a young harmonica player in 1951. Photograph: Haywood Magee/Getty Images

Wally managed to persuade his bosses to hire Humph, then studying at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, to share his duties. Humph, for his part, told Wally that he could enrol part-time at Camberwell. He did so one day a week, and was taught illustration by John Minton, his second major influence. From Illingworth he had learned and absorbed many traditional techniques; from Minton, he gained a taste for neo-Romanticism and modernist composition.

The bright prospects of cartooning never affected Wally’s love of the clarinet, and he continued to play it even after he had chosen the ink bottle and the drawing board. When I took over from Humph on Flook it was one of those straws in the wind showing that all was not well between him and Wally.

Humph was then swimming steadily towards the jazz mainstream, adding saxophones, three at one time, and a more modern rhythm section. Wally, who never wavered in his musical preference, became more and more dissatisfied. Humph loved concert halls, too; Wally, a shy man, preferred pubs and jazz clubs where he could see the comparatively small audience. In the end he left the band, but sometimes Wally would rejoin Humph for some celebration of the early band.

Under those formidable eyebrows, behind his conservative glasses, Wally’s eyes twinkled when amused, glared when exposed to human folly or wickedness, and glazed over when hemmed in by bores. He was never a compulsive talker, but what he had to say was to the point, and usually barbed.

In 2005 his eyes began to fail him and, with his inflexible realism, he screwed back the top on the ink bottle. Happily, he continued to play the clarinet.

He married twice. The first marriage, in 1949, to Sandra Boyce-Carmichelle, ended in divorce in 1964; the following year he married Susan Clifford. She survives him, as do their daughter, Lucy, and son, Daniel; and two daughters, Johanna and Kate, and a son, Jamie, from his first marriage. Another daughter from this marriage, Sarah, died in infancy.

Wally (Walter Ernest) Fawkes, cartoonist and clarinettist, born 21 June 1924; died 1 March 2023

• This obituary has been updated since George Melly died in 2007