Europe

'My first encounter with anarchic Charlie Hebdo'

A person holding the front page of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Charlie Hebdo: Instinctively part of the French mix

I have a memory of the first time I read Charlie Hebdo.

It will have been sometime in the 1970s, and I was on a family camping holiday in the middle of France. How on earth it ended up in our possession I have no idea: my parents were certainly not the kind of people to read obscene political cartoons!

But I do remember what was in it.

There'd been some demos outside a nuclear plant that was being built and a protester had died in clashes with police. I have a clear recollection of the front page: the ultimate caricature of a brutish French riot-cop, a grinning bovine Uruk-Hai; and in his hand the blood-dripping head of a long-haired hippy.

A nerdy teenager at the time and distinctly damp behind the ears, I remember thinking: we don't get much of that back home!

But it was vaguely stirring. What audacity! The image was so grotesquely exaggerated that you know the message lay deeper.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cartoonist Jean "Cabu" Cabut was one of 12 people killed during the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices

They weren't just saying: we think the police are thugs. They were saying: we think the police are thugs; and to make our point, we are prepared to push to their limits any notion of taste, decency and accuracy. Why do we do it? Because we can. Because it's funny. Why not?

Conservative types were shocked by Charlie Hebdo, and they were supposed to be.

In those days the main target - apart from the police - was the Catholic Church. I've seen defecating popes, nuns in sex orgies; nuns in sex orgies defecating on popes.

Charlie Hebdo drew on an anti-clerical tradition in France that goes way back in time, and at some point the Church quite sensibly gave up complaining.

In my mind Charlie Hebdo merged with other childhood memories of France. Smelly loos at campsites; countryside that took your breath away; bosomy farmers' wives in patterned blue dresses; all that bucolic stuff and the chateaux - and then this blast of raw anarchy.

Instinctively I knew it was all part of the French mix.

'World has moved'

Quite possibly the artist who drew that totally over-the-top picture of the French riot-cop was the cartoonist Cabu.

That's another part of the mix - in France if you want to be taken seriously as an anarcho-agit-prop illustrator, get yourself a nom de plume. In the obituaries this week the cartoonists have all been designated by their nicknames - I don't think anyone cares what they are actually called.

Cabu was definitely around and drawing for Charlie Hebdo back in the 1970s. He'd been around for ever. In his 80s he still dressed like he did half a century ago, and his mop of young hair over a humorous old man's face made him look like a cross between Ronnie Corbett and Elton John.

Anyway, Cabu's dead now. He was murdered. I'll say that again - he was murdered. He was murdered for drawing pictures.

Could Cabu possibly have imagined in his wildest nightmares, when he set out on his career taking on the establishment 60 years ago, that his last seconds on this earth would be that sudden noise at the door of the editorial meeting room; the incomprehension; the shouts; the shots.

And then they say "Which one's Cabu?" and the Islamist's Kalashnikov is pointing at your own head.

That's how far the world has moved. Back when Cabu started, it was police and the Pope. Now we have other things to worry about.

Mockery, not persecution

And if there is one thing that everyone in the West frets about, it's Islam; it's Islamism; it's our countries' relationship with Islam; and it's our fear of what the future holds in a world where Islam - once our neighbour, once our enemy - is now part of us.

Cabu and the others knew this, and their reaction was to say: well if you're part of us, then think like us, be like us. Understand that there is a difference between mockery and persecution; that words and pictures are only just that; and that part of the deal is that we rise above offence - yes, even when its towards our religion.

Cabu would have been gratified by the outpouring of support on the streets of France these last dreadful few days.

But he would probably also have said: where were you all when we needed you? He and the others stuck their necks out for freedom. No-one else did.

I miss the world of the anarchic 70s when the worst that could happen when you showed a copulating Christ figure was a letter in Le Figaro from "outraged" from Aix-les-Bains. Now you die.

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