Best of Times… Worst of Times: an interview with Paul Atherton

Paul Atherton is a campaigning film-maker, playwright, artist and one-time cartoonist who has been homeless for over 12 years. His work is often inspired by visits to museums – his most famous work, The Ballet of Change, was inspired by a visit to Tate Britain.

In September 2020, Paul visited The Cartoon Museum and was inspired by the collections to use cartoon art for his next work, a collaboration with Private Eye and Spectator cartoonist Mike Stokoe called Best of Times… Worst of Times, serialized in Pavement magazine.

Best of Times… Worst of Times takes a look at the failure of Boris Johnson’s so-called ‘Everyone In’ initiative that aimed to house homeless people in hotels during the COVID-19 pandemic, from the perspective of someone caught up in it at ground level.

Paul kindly took time to chat to the museum blog to give an insight into his life, work, and inspirations.

What inspired you to use a comic strip to tell the story of Best of Times… Worst of Times?

The idea was born on a visit to The Cartoon Museum between lockdowns in September 2020. I’ve been a huge fan of the museum since I discovered it before its move from Bloomsbury. On my first ever visit to the old establishment with my son we bumped into a film hero of mine, the filmmaker Mike Leigh, who I suspect was doing exactly the same thing as I was doing on my recent visit to the new venue – searching for that elusive spark of creativity from the artistic work of others.

Was it always going to be a comic strip?

Actually no, the original idea was spawned by spotting the Charles Jameson Grant cartoon The Political Drama No. 60 ‘Effects Of The New Bastards Law’ (1834), which is in The Cartoon Museum’s main collection. I couldn’t get over the language and the imagery, and thought ‘how the hell has nothing changed in nearly 200 years?’.

The cartoon was talking about poverty, the government policy causing it, and a society that seemingly didn’t care one jot about it. Exactly as things are now. I wanted to originally write a compare and contrast story about the lack of differences between the 1800s and the present day and how so little had changed.

This idea then morphed into something more Hogarthian, a Rakes or Harlot’s progress if you would – a compare and contrast of what actually happened to me, against what should have happened to me, over a fictitious period of 24 hours when I was actually taken in from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 – a place that for the past two years I had called my bedroom – into hotel rooms under the initiative in April 2020.

When I had written down the idea, it just cried out for imagery.

Where did the collaboration with Mike Stokoe come from?

The story had been commissioned for The Pavement, a magazine explicitly designed for those experiencing homelessness that comes with survival tips, a list of places that you’ll need, personal stories and even cartoons.

My editor, Nicola Baird, had given the edition I was writing for the theme of ‘solutions journalism’, and loved my pitch. When we discussed the idea of turning it into a cartoon, she explained that Mike, like many other noted cartoonists, had dawn for the publication in the past and was offering to do more, so introduced us.

What was your experience of working in a new medium?

Everything about this was new for me, I’d never written a comic strip before. We had to do everything over zoom as we’d gone back into lockdown, which was also a new way of working for me, and I didn’t really understand the process – indeed I only had what I had gleaned from The Cartoon Museum exhibitions and watching Kevin Smith’s classic film, Chasing Amy!

Mike though was utterly brilliant, he understood things instinctively from the word go. You’ll notice in the strip that my trademark hat is always in the frame – at the time he had no understanding how important the hat was to me.

Most of the humour comes from the drawings and that’s all Mike too. I loved the idea of me sleeping in a bed for the first time in years, dreaming about me sleeping in a bed.

He tells me that it was the hardest thing he’d ever worked on, not least because of the number of words he had to fit into some of the frames, but he loved every minute – though you should ask for his side of the story before I shower him with too much praise!

Where did the title come from?

Keeping in the theme of being inspired by campaigning Londoners like William Hogarth, I obviously stole the opening lines from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities for my title. Dickens was of course well known for his campaigning work against the poor houses, which of course brings us back to that original Grant cartoon. It also perfectly elucidated the problem between the two narratives: the best of times showing how things should have been, but the worst of times showing the reality.

How important do you think museums are to sparking inspiration and creativity?

There isn’t a piece of artistic work I’ve produced that hasn’t directly or indirectly been inspired by a museum visit, and I think that’s true of all good creatives.

All artists search for inspiration, and that inspiration always inevitably comes from research in one form or another and that usually starts with a library or museum visit. Culture is the life-blood of Britain’s genius; to not nurture it is to give up on the idea of Britain entirely.

Right now, it feels like we need a revolution! Walking through the museum’s recently opened V for Vendetta: Behind the Mask and Natasha Natarajan’s FML Comics exhibitions highlights the dilemma perfectly. On the one side is the brash campaigning days of the 1980s and 1990s, and the birth of the iconic mask of revolution – on the other side is the personal fears of an insecure millennial struggling with the intricacies of a 21 st Century life.

Taking a wander around Steve Bell’s curation of the Museum’s main collection, Drawing Life, and you see the stiff upper lips of the long past; the bawdy builders of the 1970s; the rebellious cutting wit of the 1980s and 1990s; before entering the 2000s and finding a society trying to find itself.

Only museums give you that kind of insight.

Where can people see Best of Times… Worst of Times?

The first part of 10 frames was published in the May 2021 edition of The Pavement, a bi-monthly publication that is available free in London & Edinburgh through a variety of outlets, and the second and final part is due for publication in July 2021.

Both parts will be available on The Pavement, and Stokoe and I are also working on bringing it to the public on a much larger platform – so watch this space!

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