It sometimes happens that an exceptionally talented person dies rather young, leaving behind him friends, still in their prime, who happen to be good writers – witness the posthumous celebrations of Shelley and D.H. Lawrence. Mark Boxer was famous at Cambridge; he was even famous for the manner of his leaving it; and then, without serious intermission, he became and remained famous in London. And so, throughout his life, he was unwittingly acquiring eulogists.
The blurb of this book calls him ‘irresistible’, and the contents concur. They include a lavish visual celebration of Marc as cartoonist and caricaturist, and a collection of pieces by eloquent friends. They celebrate his skills as artist and as editor, and above all his charm. He edited, at various times, Vogue and Tatler, and the Sunday Times Colour Supplement, as well as supplying pocket cartoons for several dailies.
Karl Miller, who knew him well both at Cambridge and in London, describes Boxer in his autobiography as ‘both Figaro and the Count’, which may suggest not a blend of patrician wilfulness and backstairs cunning but internal strife between the two. Presumably you had to know him well to get an inkling of that. More obviously he was handsome, dandyish, an upper-class socialist. He liked cricket, bridge (with, among others, the ‘Machiavellian’ David Sylvester), chess (with Martin Amis, who felt humbly as if he always had, or anyway always ought to have, the black pieces). Women found him instantly attractive. And he rode a motor bike.
The illustrations here are more than adequate reminders of his dash and industry. On the whole, as one might expect, the samples of the late Sixties String-Along strips fare least well, the satire having fallen, as satire will, under the rule of time, become a shade dusty and arcane. In pocket cartoons he was bright but perhaps never quite the equal of the doyen of the genre, Osbert Lancaster.
Among the ‘portraits’ or caricatures, of which we are offered well over a hundred, there are many brilliant successes and few failures. The editor has forsworn annotation, but has instead chosen figures still not in too rapid recession from the public memory, though politicians do dim fast and there are lots of them here. Marc occasionally offers little emblematic hints on interpretation, a camera for Cecil Beaton, and, for Margaret Thatcher, a ‘No Milk Today’ tag hanging from her nipple. Bernard Levin, who alone appears twice in the book, is once parked under the bosom of Arianna Stassinopoulos. Marcia Falkender holds the PM, a ventriloquist’s dummy, on her knee. Tom Driberg is adjacent to a Gents. So far so good. But why is Germaine Greer represented as the Venus de Milo, and with a tear running down her cheek? I can only guess why Shirley Williams is carrying a copy of the News Chronicle, or why Jimmy Hill has an Arab headdress, or why Lord Home stands bat in hand before a broken wicket.
Craig Brown says that in his caricatures Boxer mixed ‘the base and the suave’, but there is not a lot of baseness here, not much of the Rowlandson; and such fluent drawing can hardly help flattering the sitter. What Brown calls Boxer’s ‘beauty of line and spikiness of insight’ gives interest even to the fairly uninteresting. In fact there is not a lot of spikiness, the line flows pleasingly around Noel Annan and caresses George Weidenfeld, though without forgetting to make his eyes wander and his mouth disappear. Huw Weldon holds his teacup in a very refined way, though his partly averted face is aggressively tense. Clive Jenkins is a smiling serpent, Muggeridge has an accusing face and defensive hands. Betjeman, looking amusingly miserable, is on his knees. Among the bull’s-eyes are Robin Day, Ian Paisley, David Owen, Douglas Hurd, Kenneth Baker, David Mellor, Alan Bennett. There are a few outers: Jonathan Miller, Stephen Spender, Alfred Brendel, Melvyn Bragg – but even in these he is good on the hair, which, according to Craig Brown, was what he always homed in on.
Rosemary Sayigh, Boxer’s sister, provides the most intimate of the recollections. In 1931, when Mark was born, the family, though still housing a nanny and pedigree dogs, was in decline. It remained mindful of its distinguished ancestors, one of whom was ‘governess to the last of the tsars’ and another the friend of ‘the Methodist preacher John Wellesley’ (I should like to have known who this man was, provided he wasn’t John Wesley). The father began an autobiography under the thoughtlessly chosen title Diary of a Nobody, and the mother was devotedly left-wing but firmly upper-class in speech and habits. During the war, however, she took in paying guests and kept goats. After the war there was no restoration of the family fortunes, and the marriage broke up. It seems that Boxer inherited little except swarthy good looks.
Good fortune, perhaps transmitted by some recessive gene, ensured that a susceptible Provost of King’s saw him playing the title role in his public school production of Saint Joan. Laughing off the boy’s incompetence at Latin – a subject then required of all who went to Cambridge – the Provost, on the spot, offered him a place in King’s. All this we learn from Sayigh’s affectionate, unsentimental and very well-written piece.
In his last term at Cambridge Boxer was sent down for publishing in Granta a poem by Anthony de Hoghton. It was held by the proctors to be intolerably rude to God. There was a legendary mock-funeral in King’s Parade. Richard Wollheim, who was at Oxford, approaches Boxer slowly by way of de Hoghton, the rich fat poet, maintaining, rather against the evidence adduced, that de Hoghton was interesting and talented. He is said to have got his poem into Granta behind Boxer’s back. When Wollheim finally gets on to Boxer himself he writes of him with appropriate elegance, offering, among other aperçus, the surprising but credible opinion that Boxer was afraid of being laughed at.
His talents as editor are variously celebrated: by Meriel McCoey (‘serious as well as mischievous ... often mysterious’, sometimes rather mean) and by David Sylvester. Vicki Woods, attending to his appearance, describes him as ‘clearly the most handsome man in the history of the world’; and Martin Amis testifies that he was ‘embarrassingly handsome’. George Melly, who did captions for Boxer’s pocket cartoons, represents him as lovable but sometimes ill-tempered. It is from time to time suggested, as by Wollheim, that he was not entirely secure, that he was not entirely happy, and perhaps not entirely well. What is unmissable is the affection and admiration in which he was held and the dismay all felt at his death; so this is in every way a proper and handsome memorial.