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Sink or Swim: Catholicism in Sixties Britain through John Ryan’s cartoons, by Alana Harris and Isabel Ryan

15 January 2021

Glyn Paflin reviews a selection of work that appeared in the Catholic Herald over 43 years

THE Second Vatican Council had its maximalists and minimalists, but also its cartoonists. Perhaps the best, who invented a Cardinal Grotti to adorn the Council’s deliberations, is the subject of a new selection of his weekly offerings to the Catholic Herald over 43 years from 1964.

While Sink or Swim: Catholicism in Sixties Britain through John Ryan’s cartoons (Sacristy Press, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-78959-138-5), with a foreword by Bruce Kent, is a labour of love for Ryan’s daughter, Isabel Ryan, who curates her father’s legacy, it is also a whistlestop tour by the historian Dr Alana Harris of issues facing the post-conciliar Roman Catholic Church in its distinctive character in these islands. Reversed-out numbers make an admirably clear link from the cartoons to the explanation of their context: the liturgical revolution, the permissive society, Humanae Vitae, secularisation, ecumenism, and so on.

John Ryan’s wife and animation assistant, Priscilla, who survived him by more than a decade until last year, was a staunch Anglican — they met when both at art school — but, although he also drew for the Revd Marcus Morris’s comics, his cartoons only occa­sionally strayed into Church of England territory (in the 1960s, Cranmer’s ghost offers his help to a committee of liturgical translators, but in 1980, in heaven, two angels observe that the Alternative Service Book has meant a cut in the Reformer’s “spiritual royalties”).

© the estate of john ryan“The return to Rome which the coins ensure is of course purely geographical”: a cartoon from Sink or Swim

It was only in the Church Times newsroom that I first appreciated that there was this other side to the creator of children’s TV’s popular Captain Pugwash, Sir Prancelot, and Mary, Mungo and Midge — the last a Watch with Mother staple that, no doubt, will never again be seen on the BBC, owing to the little golly in the armchair, and because Mary often stays in while the “boys” (a dog and a mouse) go out for adventures.

This paperback, which also includes timelines and photos, is a delightful and instructive guide to the rollercoaster events and intellectual dilemmas as they were per­ceived by a layman whose medium of expression allowed him to be wry, nuanced, and ambivalent. It may have been a way of coping with change that he regretted: he drew himself, in tie and V-neck sweater, fending off projectiles while locked in the stocks.

Glyn Paflin is the deputy editor of the Church Times.


Sink or Swim: Catholicism in Sixties Britain through John Ryan’s cartoons
Sacristy Press £12.99
Alana Harris and Isabel Ryan
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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